Home & Garden Columns

About the House: Using the Building Lessons from the Past

Friday April 21, 2006

My wife and I spent the night in Sacramento last night. Nice town, Sacramento, if a bit kitschy in parts. I guess that’s what you get with tourist towns. Some nice stuff. Some kitsch. The older part has some very beautiful older homes from the early part of the 20th century and more than a few buildings from the 19th century. One of the things that my wife, Este, and I share is a great love of old things, houses, cars, paintings, you name it. It’s part of why we live here. 





Coming back from the capital, we were saddened (and occasionally appalled) by the influx of modern buildings. Modern isn’t really the right term though because it just doesn’t say enough about what we’re seeing.  

Most of what we see, outside of our little town, is just so economically oriented that anything akin to art, solidity or permanence is utterly missing. So many buildings today seem as though they are designed to be temporary structures. How can these enclosures be intended to be a legacy to a future generations.  

Even if they do manage to stand the test of time (which is not very likely given the methods involved in the manufacture of so much of what’s out there), what do they say about who we are and what we believe? It’s really very sad. I’m not so sure that those who put up buildings a hundred years ago were all that saintly but I don’t believe that they could conceive of the notion of building a municipal building or a permanent residence that didn’t convey the music and poetry of the time. 

Today we are astounded at the lovely oaken floors that adorn nearly every local house from 1900-1950, many of which feature extravagant knotted borders but these were considered base-line, ordinary choices. The notion of using anything less for a “home” was unacceptable. Today, a plywood floor with a neutral toned polyester carpet is considered adequate. Flat sheetrock walls with nary a trim are the standard fare.  

Why is this? Who are we now that beauty is so much less the imperative? When did square footage become the overriding design criterion? 

After the big fire, it was hard not to notice that so many of the replacement homes were driven this way. Each home was twice the size of the preceding one, sometimes more. The architecture was often nondescript. 

I can recall getting lost in a house during an inspection and thinking, there’s no pattern to the layout, just rooms and rooms and more rooms. 

No hub, no center, no defining feature to any particular part, like an animal all made out of necks, no head, no tail, no belly. On the other hand, maybe I just lack a sense of direction. 

Coming out of the hinterlands of strip-mall and mega-residential conglomerations, we rolled our 20 year old Volvo back into Berkeley. Safe. No bullet holes and only a little depressed for the trial of aesthetic catharsis. 

As we cruised up into North Berkeley, we passed the usual hundreds of old houses and agreed that this was a very beautiful and special place. These old houses and commercial buildings enhance our lives in a very practical and daily way. They really do. 

As we begin to build anew, or to remodel, we have the opportunity to recreate some of what has been done before. To study and to emulate the successes of the past. This does not necessarily mean copying but can mean drawing the essence and instilling elements from these successes.  

An easy way for any one of us to do this is to literally use a piece of something beautiful left over from a time when great expenses were not spared in the making of doorknobs and baseboards. 

Our local salvage shops are filled with these treasures. Sometimes it seems to me that these places are museums with free admissions for viewing great artworks of industrial design. And for a few dollars you can own a piece for yourself. 

The next time you’re considering a small remodeling on your older home, think about first taking a trip to the salvage yard and selecting a few old treasures with which to construct your new space. 

A bath remodel is a great project in which to include some of these grand finds but some complications will be attendant. Good plumbers, in particular, will be needed for this adventure. 

For a simple enhancement, just pick out some old brass hooks to hang towels on. Many salvage yards have wild, extravagant brass hooks that can hang on a door or a wall. 

Think about an old sink, if you don’t mind a chip or a small crack and have it outfitted with either old or new hardware. There are also reproduction sinks of old styles as well as antique style faucets or the whole 9 yard works available for a clawfoot tub including tub faucets, shower faucets, soap dishes, hoops and gigantic shower heads in porcelain and brass. 

For the very adventurous, there are loads of clawfoot tubs out there, many still fitted with drains, waste-overflow piping and other bells and whistles. It’s not necessary to do all the plumbing in old parts. A few visible, touchable parts can be enough. Maybe just an old door with a mortise lock is enough to take you back. Or how about a leaded or stained glass window? Surprisingly, many are sitting out there in the salvage yards. 

These things are out there waiting to be taken home and loved and to give us all a little reminder of a time when art was everywhere and the thought of a hinge without a little filigree was just, well, unthinkable. 

Here’s a list of a few local “museums” of construction. Some feature more “cleaned-up” parts and some, being a little cheaper, feature piles of parts just as they came in. Some also feature reproductions.  


• Urban Ore 900 Murray St. (near 7th & Ashby) Berkeley, 841-7283. 

• The Sink Factory, 2140 San Pablo Ave., Berkeley, 540-8193. 

• Ohmega Salvage, 2407 San Pablo Ave., Berkeley. 

• Omega Too (lighting) is across the street, 204-0767 www.ohmegasalvage.com. 

• Ruiz Lighting, 2333 Clement St., Alameda, 769-6082. 

A nice list of other yards and stores can be found on Ohmega’s website under Links. 


We sadly lost Berkeley Architectural Salvage this year, the MOMA of salvage yards. I guess if we don’t use ‘em, we’ll lose ‘em. A fond good-bye and thanks to Alan Goodman who ran BAS all those years.  


Got a question about home repairs and inspections? Send them to Matt Cantor, in care of East Bay Real Estate, at realestate@berkeleydailyplanet.com. 

Matt Cantor owns Cantor Inspections and lives in Berkeley. His column runs weekly. 

Copyright 2005 Matt Cantor›