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August 18, 2011, 10:48 AM

Artefacts celebrates 25 years in salvage

By Thornton Kay

Chris and Scott [photo Artefacts

Ontario, Canada - Despite broken bones, sliding off roof tops, falling through floors, splinters, brick dust and flea infestations, Chris Blott and Scott Little of Artefacts in St Jacobs seem to be in one piece, sane and celebrating twenty-five years in the business of salvaging architectural antiques.

"For the most part what we carry is a luxury item," Chris Blott told Chuck Howitt of The Record. "During the recession of the early 1990s, the sale of practical items plunged and the company survived by selling small decorative pieces, and cleaning and restoring items on spec and building a showroom to display them. During the recent downturn, Artefacts relied on custom work, such as making a kitchen island out of 1830 pine wainscotting, to get through the tough times. In the early days, without a network of pickers, dealers and demolition contractors across Ontario and beyond, valuable items fell to the wrecking ball or the owner's lack of interest in saving anything. 10 to 15 years ago, architectural antiques suddenly became trendy and antique shops began selling front doors and newel posts. That trend has since abated, leaving a core group of about half a dozen businesses such as Artefacts across Ontario."

"There have been a lot of peaks and valleys," said Scott Little. "We've never found that cash cow to keep us on the peaks, but over the past 25 years it has always worked out. This is the first year we have actually turned down work."

Little launched Artefacts almost by accident. The Toronto native and architectural studies grad had moved to Kitchener with his wife and was staying at home to care for their newborn child. He was looking for parts to renovate his home when he saw some houses being demolished on Courtland Avenue between Queen and David streets to make way for an apartment building. He approached the wrecker about salvaging some pieces and was told to take a hike.

Seeing a potential market and flush with cash from renovating and selling their first home, Little launched Artefacts in a rented building behind Benjamin's Restaurant in St. Jacobs.

A former museum worker, Blott came aboard about three years later. The 47-year-old grew up in Kitchener, but spent summer vacations at an old 1840s house on Lake Erie. His parents eventually renovated the house, but Blott preferred it the old way.

"I loved the cracks in the plaster and the rolling floors."

Together, the pair have tramped through close to 2,000 buildings of 1820 to 1920 vintage across southern Ontario and as far away as Philadelphia, New York City and Quebec.

They've walked through crack houses, grow-ops, houses full of cats, houses damaged in movie sets, flea-infested dwellings and falling-down structures.

"Chris holds the record for falling through floors," says Little, adding that he once broke a foot when a front entrance fell on him. Some people have this very romantic notion about salvaging. It's actually pretty filthy and arduous."

But there is also plenty of excitement. They'll get a call from a demolition contractor to come to a house on as little as a day's notice. For Blott, the drive to the demolition gets his adrenalin pumping.

In one case, they drove to a demolition in Shakespeare and were initially disappointed to find a dilapidated 1970s bungalow. But inside were early diamond panel doors from the 1840s that the house had been built around.

Little and Blott are the only two full-time employees, aided by a few part-time workers. They do much of the repairing, welding and painting themselves, but call in expertise when they need it.

"We have a tight circle of craftspeople," says Little, who worked on Heritage Canada's Main Street revitalization program in the 1980s.

The shop and warehouse, which Little and Blott purchased and moved to in 2004, is jammed full of old doors, fireplace mantels, shutters, stained glass and buckets of old doorknobs.

A common misconception is that they get their artifacts for free. In most cases, they pay the owner of the building or the demolition contractor.

One of the keys to their success is knowing the origins of each artifact.

"We know where it comes from, we know our periods and dates," says Little. "If somebody comes in with an 1840 home, we're going to have an idea of what the doors would be like, the trim, the hardware."

In the beginning, the virtual demolition of nine houses, first fodder for the bulldozer, then waste at a dump, lead directly to the formation, in 1986, of Artefacts Architectural Antiques. Since then, Artefacts has become an indispensable resource for people interested in restoring, renovating and just plain fixing up their buildings. As interest in architectural history has grown, so has Artefacts' desire to renovate Canada's built heritage. A sub-conscious need for tangible remnants of the past, apart from nostalgia, also fuels Artefacts' drive to salvage and rebuild using antique architectural pieces.

Their clientele has changed, broadening the scope of what can be done with fragments, and Artefacts has expanded the selection of stock entering the shop. Thus, traditional items such as doors, complete front entrances, fireplace mantels, stair components, cast iron floor grates and door hardware of brass and iron have been augmented by new and antique decorative columns, cornice brackets, ornate fireplace tiles, tin ceiling, iron fencing, carved stonework, terra cotta and ornamental cast and wrought iron gates and window grills, some from as far as Argentina, and tables recrafted from original elements and salvaged wood.

After 18 years in downtown St Jacobs, Artefacts moved to a 9000 square feet showroom.

Projects have included an island kitchen constructed of 1830 pine wainscoting from Grafton, Ontario, an entertainment unit built around a pair of shutters (1835) from Pennsylvania, and a headboard shaped using a wrought iron grill from a basement window in Baltimore, Md (c1865). On a grander scale, Artefacts supplied the details for the CP Hotel restaurant in Whistler, BC.

Artefacts Salvage and Design

The Record: Salvage firm finds diamonds in the rubble by Chuck Howitt

Story Type:  Feature

ID: 61240

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