Standing among the incinerated ruins of his salvage business in the late 1970s, Reynold Lowe had a choice to make.
Lowe, an artist, could close the Washtenaw County business he had started in the early 1970s, saving old doors, hardware and fixtures from homes and selling them so they wouldn’t wind up in a landfill. Or he could rebuild on another site.
Looking at the smoldering remains, burned after a business next door caught fire, Lowe made a decision. “I said, ‘I think I want to keep doing this.’ ”
His customers are grateful he did. Lowe’s business, Materials Unlimited, which relocated to a former car dealership and Moose Lodge on West Michigan Avenue in Ypsilanti, is a go-to destination for homeowners all over Southeastern Michigan looking for just the right lighting, doors or antique hardware in a range of architectural styles.
And it doesn’t just draw customers renovating older homes. Owners of newer houses looking to add character to their homes also are drawn to the 16,000-square-foot showroom.
People “want things that are handmade with some history attached to it,” says Lowe, whose business just celebrated 40 years with an event last weekend.
Salvage businesses are similar to antique stores, except with more nuts and bolts — literally. There are several across Southeast Michigan, including Architectural Salvage Warehouse of Detroit, a nonprofit that sells hardwood flooring, appliances, millwork, even furnace parts.
At Materials Unlimited, you can buy everything from stained and beveled glass to window sashes and pulls.
And thanks to the Internet, customers come from all over the country and world, though their primary market is Southeast Michigan, followed by Chicago. Lowe and his team once mailed a 12-piece dining set to the United Arab Emirates.
He never planned to get into the salvage business. Lowe, who studied sculpture and photography at the University of Michigan, was renovating an Italianate style house in Ann Arbor when a controversy erupted over another Italianate-style building in the area that was going to be torn down.
By a quirk of fate, Lowe contacted the demolition contractor hired to take the building down. “I told him I wanted to get some materials,” he says.
“I started and one day into the project, he (the contractor) suggested a salvage sale,” he says. “I did that for about three days, and there was a lot of interest in the building. ... It was a lot of fun.”
So much fun that soon a business was born. Today, a trip to Materials Unlimited is as much a history lesson as a shopping trip. The first floor carries everything from Victorian and French art deco light fixtures to antique furniture and stained glass. On the second level, display cases are filled with antique hardware, and leaded glass windows with distinctly regional patterns from Detroit, Buffalo and Chicago hang from the ceiling. On the lower level, stacks of Miracle doors and Wonder doors (very common in older houses built in the 1920s and 1930s in Birmingham and Royal Oak) are clustered together.
Lowe’s team — all well-versed in different architectural styles, many have advanced degrees in historic preservation — are educators and salespeople.
General manager Scotty James says each fixture goes through an extensive cleaning and rewiring process.
“You’re basically buying a brand new light fixture except it is 100 years old,” James says.
Much of their lighting is what’s classified as Colonial Revival, which is a broad term, James says.
“In the late teens and ’20s when there was a lot of house construction, it wasn’t like architects designed everything,” James says. “Most of your catalog houses you could pick out a house style and then Sears offered packages of lighting, hardware and door patterns. People liked what they liked; they didn’t necessarily pick things that go together.”
Materials Unlimited also offers restoration and custom services. During my recent visit, architectural historian and restoration specialist William Danforth was restoring a vintage farm cart from Europe for a prominent local family.
“We’ve become such a throwaway society, but everything has a story,” Danforth says.
If Materials Unlimited is a polished, neatly kept salvage store, Architectural Salvage Warehouse is its grittier cousin.
Stacks of vinyl windows flanked both sides of its entrance during a recent visit. Upstairs, doors filled an entire floor while kitchen and bathroom appliances filled a warehouse next door. Outside, a blue tarp covered rows of recently sold pews taken from a Bloomfield Hills church.
Field supervisor Renard Culp says their inventory all comes from donations — donations are a tax write-off — and it comes mostly from the suburbs. Prices are often negotiable, and their biggest seller is hardwood flooring. Customers “come from everywhere, all over Michigan,” Culp says.
At Toledo Architectural Artifacts, vintage toilets and plumbing fixtures are hot sellers, says owner Bob Cairl, a former advertising art director who opened the business with his wife, Jane, 20 years ago.
Cairl says he has roughly 80 bathtubs and even more toilets in a range of colors, such as sea foam green, pale jade and pink.
Cairl says business has changed over the last two decades. Most sales were done at their 30,000-square-foot store and at antique shows. Now, Internet sales account for 70 percent of their business.
For Lowe, the most fun part of the business is working with “customers and helping them to find ways to use these items. You’re saving them (these pieces) and you get to see the satisfaction on someone’s face.”
2 W. Michigan, Ypsilanti
(734) 483-6980; materialsunlimited.com
Hours: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday, noon-5 p.m. Sunday
Architectural Salvage Warehouse of Detroit
4885 15th, Detroit
(313) 896-8333; aswdetroit.org
Hours: 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday
Detroit Antiques Mall
828 W. Fisher Freeway, Detroit
Hours: 11 a.m.-5 p.m Tuesday-Saturday
Toledo Architectural Artifacts
20 S. Ontario, Toledo
(888) 243-6915; coolstuffiscoolstuff.com
Hours: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday