How Architectural Salvage Yards Work
Steve Drobinsky helps West Coast homeowners hunt for unusual old house and building parts at his architectural salvage yard.
This Old House TV: San Francisco house project
In a house that used to be a church, with big bones and funky spaces, standard-issue sinks just wouldn't cut it. So homeowner Mark Dvorak headed to Ohmega Salvage to sort through pieces of San Francisco's architectural history and find some sinks with style.
Ohmega stocks old house and building parts—the more unusual the better—at a 15,000-square-foot yard in Berkeley, California, just across the bay from San Francisco, where owner Steve Drobinsky finds most of his wares. Drobinsky keeps in close touch with local contractors, who let him know when good materials will be taken out of old buildings and available for
"This week, one of the oldest mansions in San Francisco was being remodeled and they were removing marble sinks, cast-iron fire screens with stags and forests, a hand-carved walnut mantel—one leaf over two feet long, all hand carved! I mean, what could you get that could be better than that?"
On any given day you could search and find clawfoot tubs, built-in tubs and corner tubs; stained-glass, transom, double-hung, casement and French windows; interior and exterior doors, dating from 1880 to 1940; mantels in marble, wood, slate, cast iron, cast concrete, and limestone; porcelain and cast-iron pedestal sinks; wrought-iron and cast-iron gates, fences, arbors, trellises, tables and chairs; vintage lighting and plumbing fixtures; and lots and lots of hardware.
"Vintage" is a relative term, but Drobinsky draws the line at 1940. "There's not much that has a design style after the 1940s," he says. "We're busy this year. I think more people are developing an appreciation for craftsmanship and the aesthetic integrity of old objects. We got a bathtub from a San Francisco apartment and the man who came and bought it lived, literally, around the block from the building where it was salvaged."
Drobinsky has also begun traveling to France, developing relationships with salvage yards over there. "They have the same urban renewal phenomenon there—the wholesale tearing down of old buildings," he says. "We bring back doors, lights, fixtures, iron work, grills, fountains."
On his shopping trip, Mark Dvorak spied two 200-pound solid porcelain janitorial sinks for the master bathroom, a curvy Art Deco number for the upstairs guest bathroom and a Victorian sink perfect for the downstairs powder room. Soon he'd found marble wainscoting from the old Chevron Building and a turn-of-the-century cast-iron tub to complete his shopping list. Then it was on to the register.
"Pricing is part art and part science, based on how common an object is and how difficult it was to acquire," says Drobinsky. "Should a common old object be more or less valuable than a new one? They're common items, but also beautiful and they take time to find. But these are not high-priced antiques."
Price aside, there's an intangible element that defies quantification. "A guy phoned me looking for old ribbed glass," Drobinsky remembers. "When I asked him if he'd tried looking for new glass, he said, 'Something about old is nicer.' And I think that's true. There's a certain patina, a certain history to older objects that you can't get at your local hardware store."