The Salvage Barn: Recycling Building Materials

Salvage BarnVolunteers from Friends of Historic Preservation retrieve usable floorboards for resale at the Salvage Barn.

Walking down the abandoned, cold hallway of the University of Iowa’s former Law Commons/Iowa Law Center, it’s hard not to peek through an empty doorway and imagine a stoic professor hunched over a mound of papers. Inside the vast, gutted commons room and dining area, you might even listen for the roar of the students who lived there in 1935.

Soon, the building will be gone forever. It is scheduled for demolition this spring to clear way for a new building for the UI College of Public Health.

When a historic building like this cannot be saved, a volunteer-based nonprofit organization called Friends of Historic Preservation works to gain permission to salvage it before demolition. Power tools in hand, volunteers scoured the old law building that day for materials that could be sold for reuse. These items were displayed for public purchase at a warehouse the organization runs called the Salvage Barn, which also accepts public donations. The organization supports any kind of adaptive reuse, but its efforts are consolidated around a central goal to promote historic restoration of houses and buildings.

“We don’t want to see older buildings come down,” says executive director Helen Burford. “But when they do, we can save materials so people can use them to repair older homes properly.”

Intertwined with the organization’s drive for historic preservation is a concern for the environment. “It attracts like-minded people who are really serious about finding ways to protect the environment and recycle,” she says.

Reducing Landfill Waste

The Salvage Barn and its customers keep reusable materials in circulation and out of the landfill. Ironically, the barn is located on the grounds of the Iowa City Landfill and Recycling Center.

With the barn situated near the landfill’s weigh area, scale clerks can easily redirect people with building waste to the Salvage Barn. “It reduces landfill fees for the person bringing it in and also reduces the volume of waste we deal with at the landfill,” says Dave Elias, the city’s landfill superintendent.

Waste from building construction and demolition often makes up 15 to 25 percent of loads, Elias said. What is garbage to one person could become someone else’s treasure. “We’re trying to make available to someone else something that isn’t actually used up,” he says.

The Salvage Barn is planning a move to the East Side Recycling Center in Iowa City, where it will gain space and visibility, members said.

Items Essential & Extraordinary

The barn is brimming with reusable materials, which range from aesthetic treats like ornate light fixtures and claw-footed bathtubs to essentials like wood, windows, flooring, and doors. “We never know what we’re getting,” says Paul Kinney, manager of the barn. “Our inventory is random and it’s constantly changing.”

The barn’s decorations match its eclectic inventory. Old artifacts, including a “GAS” sign, an American flag, and a sewing machine, adorn its walls. Come Saturday mornings, the barn’s raised garage door welcomes customers and donors.

Inside on a sunny February morning, a small radio streams piano music as Luke Prottsman, 30, peruses the barn for a banister to match a house built in the 1940s. “We can reuse materials that are vintage and from the same period,” he says. “Sometimes it takes a few trips to find what you need.”

In pursuit of one item, customers often find another that catches their eye. Mark Kennedy of Kennedy Construction is a frequent customer. Kennedy guides his Salvage Barn hunts by his clients’ demands.

Many clients are invested in using recycled materials in the construction of a new shop or home, Kennedy says. Not only do historic materials help achieve an antique look in a newer building, but customers are often interested in preserving resources. “Their heart’s in it more for the recycling and saving the planet,” he says.

The “New” Motley Cow Café

A recent “green” client of Kennedy’s was David Weiseneck, owner of the Motley Cow Cafe. The cafe moved into a new building this year, but from the inside, it’d be hard to tell. That’s because recycled materials were used for almost every part of the restaurant’s interior. “When you go into his store, even though it’s a brand new restaurant, it looks like it’s been there for 40 years,” Kennedy says.

The interior is a hodgepodge of salvaged items adapted to fit the restaurant. Look closely to find an old church pew, three 1870s pool tables, four jailhouse doors from India, and several oak panels from the University of Iowa’s Schaeffer Hall. The pew is used in the waiting area. The deconstructed pool tables make up the bar, and the jail doors are located on the wall behind the shelves of spirits. The panels were transformed into a waiters’ station. Those are just a few salvaged items that ended up in the restaurant.

Kennedy and his team fished through doors and plenty of trash bins of lumber at the Salvage Barn to find the perfect older wood. “The antique wood has a lot richer grain and it’s just so much prettier and has so much more character in it,” he says. “I like to see a door that’s been there for a hundred years and has been used and has had human hands on it rather than a sterile, veneered door coming out of Menards.”

Reusing Vintage Oak &Walnut

Many people prefer the look and composition of older lumber. In the 1900s, Iowans used trees they had access to, like oak and walnut. Now, such woods are expensive to buy and less likely to be used for structural components of a house like framing, says Paul Pauke, of the Iowa Department of Natural Resources. Through the Salvage Barn, the Friends of Historic Preservation work to keep this wood in use.

“One of the neat things about recycling is you’re not just throwing that lumber into the landfill,” Pauke says. Wood made up 26 percent of all materials dumped into Iowa landfills in fiscal year 2001. Although wood is a renewable resource, it does little good sitting in the landfill. “The way we do landfills, we cover them and basically seal off any air from getting there and they don’t decay,” Pauke says.

James Bacon, 54, thinks it’s a shame for older wood to go to waste. It looks much better in his circa 1850s farmhouse, located just a couple miles south of Solon, Iowa. A former member of the Friends of Historic Preservation, Bacon saved the house when he bought it in 1986.

“It’s terrible whenever they tear down an old house,” Bacon says “It’s just fabulous when the wood is still good—there are no knots, no splits, no going and getting a warped two by four.”

Bacon was able to preserve most of the house’s original woodwork. Any additional woodwork in the house was salvaged, along with the house’s siding and flooring. The house is filled with antique furniture. Bacon, who learned plumbing and electrical skills during summer jobs as a student at the UI, started restoring the house about five years ago.“It’s a lot more work than I thought it would be,” he says.

Although the house has belonged to so many before him, it is truly his own. That kind of historic preservation is at the heart of the Salvage Barn and the organization that runs it.

Historic Preservation

The Friends of Historic Preservation developed from a 1970s movement to save the second oldest building in Iowa City from demolition. Old Brick, which had housed the North Presbyterian Church since the 1860s, was purchased by a group of community members who valued its historic significance. The group eventually sold the building to its current owner, the Old Brick Lutheran Corporation, and shifted its focus to historic preservation in the larger community.

“In a lot of ways, our historical structures are the everyday connections people have with history,” says Mike Haverkamp, a Friends of Historic Preservation member who just finished his term as president. “It’s hard to understand our past without knowing how the community was, and one way to know how community was is to look at the structures left behind.”

The organization works in sync with the goals of the Iowa City Historic Preservation Commission. Tim Weitzel, chairperson of the commission, said it hopes to help recruit more volunteers for the organization and heighten awareness through historic preservation education.
Weitzel said he would much rather maintain vibrant, diverse neighborhoods with houses of varying age than construct new ones.“To me it’s blah, it’s big suburbs,” Weitzel says. “Nobody interacts. You can’t talk over the fence. It’s all walled in.”

The Salvage Barn allows parts of one fallen historic building to be used to help restore another. In the process, the materials and the energy that went into producing those materials are conserved. And that knowledge alone helps its members sleep a little sounder.

“I’ve lived in old houses but this goes way beyond living in old houses,” says Haverkamp. “As somebody who sees the amount of things we as a society throw  away, I feel I can do my one little bit, and if I can help preserve history in the process, all the better.”

The Salvage Barn is located at the Iowa City Landfill and Recycling Center, 3900 Hebl Ave. Open 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturdays, or by appointment, April to October. For information, email salvagebarn@ic-fhp. org, or call (319) 351-1875 or (800) 541-8656.