John Harris says architectural salvage is not what it once was. Here he discusses how it has changed, while opposite we review his latest book on the subject
As I had started professional life in an antique shop in 1954, I stood on the other side of the fence to the historians. Apart from precious few of the latter, no one bothered to protest the sheer volume of the salvage trade, or to document it. And if, in 1955, one country house was being demolished every two-and-a-half days, what could have been done? I often speculated that if 1,500 country houses have been demolished, where on earth did 1,500 staircases, 10,000 chimney pieces or 2,000 rooms go? The salvage trade was built on this. In general, the trade was neither particularly interested in its archives nor, indeed, in provenance.
I first thought about writing a book on architectural salvages in 1960, when I toured museums in the US and wondered about the whys and wherefores of their many English period rooms. My second attempt followed the Destruction of the Country House exhibition at the Victoria & Albert Museum in 1974, when it dawned on me that the loss of country houses in the 20 years following 1919 and the first world war coincided with the fashion for installing English historical rooms in American museums — direct cause and effect.
Not only was there no comprehensive study of the art trade, nothing had been written on the antiques trade, specifically architectural salvages. In those days T Crowther & Son of Sion Lodge at Isleworth, west London, was a household name. Sion Lodge was a wonderland of salvages.
Architectural salvages included all carved or ornamental woodwork and stonework, marble finishings, doors, lead from roofs and piping, thousands of metres of timber flooring, old beams, and even complete timber roofs, chimney pieces, wrought ironwork, and of course, garden ornaments.
Wooden-panelled rooms were easy to extract, but not plaster-decorated ones. Even as late as the 1980s, all this variety could be found in a salvage yard such as Crowther’s. But no longer, for listed building legislation has put a stop both to demolition and extraction. I have thought about this in recent years when visiting architectural salvage dealers or yards — rarely do we find a medieval window or a fine Georgian chimney piece. More likely we find sinks and basins, Victorian or Edwardian woodwork, and certainly old-fashioned cast-iron baths. In one yard I found shelves of taps of various sorts. The salvage yard today seems to be a very different place from the yards of my memory in the 1960s.
The salvage yard today seems a different place from the yards of my memory
In my book, Moving Rooms: The Trade in Architectural Salvages, the latest recoverable salvage was Alan Irvine’s Heinz Gallery in 2005. It nearly ended up in a skip, but it is now the proud possession of the Irish Architectural Archive in Merrion Square, Dublin, and never looked better. In any case, it was designed to be removed, so it was not so different from removing Jacobean panelling from a room. The Heinz removal aroused my thoughts about modern salvage, and whether there was a continuum to what I wrote about in Moving Rooms.
Maybe the onset of prefabrication is a watershed in our story of architectural salvage. Once assembled, a Span home could, I assume, be taken apart and assembled somewhere else, but surely individual parts have little value? There must be exceptions such as Crittall windows of thirties vintage, and I am told that Charles Brooking, the “collector king” of architectural salvage, lusts for them. I am sure hugely expensive, hi-tech kitchens and bathrooms have value as salvage, but surely only as entities?
When the Coal Exchange was demolished, I believe the salvages were not reused. The demolition by explosives of London’s high-rise sixties flats means nothing was considered worth salvaging, or did they remove the hundreds of standard sinks and baths?
Think of the average council flat. What fixtures are worth salvaging? Even when a traditional Georgian-style office block is demolished, the ball and chain spares nothing, except perhaps the rich, veneered panelling from the chairman’s meeting room.
If we imagine the day the Gherkin might be made redundant and demolished, I doubt there would be much for the salvage boys. I would guess that if Lloyd’s was demolished, Robert Adam’s dining room from Bowood House, Wiltshire, would be the only salvage. In the salvage yard of the future will we find lifts, engineering units, electrical components and even escalators?
John Harris is curator emeritus of the RIBA’s drawings collection.