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Building a Future With Pieces From the Past  
by Bob Brooke


Behind the windows of an old storefront along North George Street in York, Pennsylvania, lie treasures of the past. No, it’s not just any ordinary antique shop. It’s a shop jammed with pieces of old buildings, some small, some large, all interesting. Sure, there are architectural antique shops, but this one is different. The Architectural Warehouse not only sells unique pieces from the interiors and exteriors of old buildings, it sells them so other old buildings can live to see another day.

Operated by Historic York, Inc. (HYI), as a fundraiser, it helps save items that might otherwise be lost to landfills, while helping to preserve York’s architectural heritage. Since 1975, this private non-profit organization has assisted in the rehabilitation of over 75 buildings, either by purchasing them, restoring and reselling them, or by providing a small grant in exchange for an easement that ensures that a particular building will be preserved.

According to Melinda G. Higgins, HYI’s executive director, the organization began by saving The Billmeyer House, an Italianate structure, from demolition. "A group of citizens formed and raised $250,000 to buy and restore the building," said Higgins. "In the end, the owner decided to keep the building and reuse it and HYI turned its attentions to other buildings."

With an annual budget of $450,000, finding funds is a full-time job for Higgins and her staff of seven. Besides sales from the Architectural Warehouse, HYI receives funds from consulting services, donations, and special events.

But just like all good things, the Architectural Warehouse got its start as a grassroots movement. "A number of our board members kept noticing the loss of architectural items to the burn pile or trash, so we began to collect these items and store them in friends’ barns," Higgins said. "When too many things had accumulated, we began to list items for sale in our newsletter."

Higgins sadly recalls that during a series of arson fires in area barns in the 1980s, HYI lost a great number of items in two of the barns. In 1985, HYI opened the Architectural Warehouse in its first location in a warehouse behind an area art gallery. Staffed on Saturdays by volunteers and during the week by gallery staff, it outgrew the space in six months and by the spring of 1987, HYI moved it to its present location in downtown York. "We had the first floor for $1/year," added Higgins." Of course, we had no heat, no plumbing and very little electricity and the roof leaked. But we slowly began fixing the place up and eventually bought it and rehabbed it into our warehouse with offices above."

HYI has lead the battle for historic preservation movement in York County. It was the first to open a salvage warehouse and produce a resource directory of contractors and architects that specialize in older buildings. Higgins said that before HYI opened its warehouse, she visited similar businesses in New York and Vermont.

Besides raising money for HYI operating expenses, the Architectural Warehouse seeks to provide a place to recycle architectural building pieces to assist the owners of historic houses in finding unique and hard to replace items for their projects. Higgins noted that many people building new homes, incorporate these items into their design.

The Architectural Warehouse acquires its inventory through consignments, donations, and the HYI’s own salvage efforts. A loyal group of customers can find anything from old interior and exterior doors, shutters, windows, mantels of all sizes, hardware of all kinds, advertising signs, even theater seats. Plus, the place is packed to the rafters with pediments, doors, transoms, grates, chandeliers, and stained glass windows. These items provide an alternative to costly reproductions. A unique item is the horse yoke hanging over the mirror in the restroom.

One of the most popular items is individual letters from a theater marquee. "Everyone has something they want to spell out," said Higgins. And then there are all the furnishings of a 1950s beauty salon. If it’s in or part of an old building somewhere in York, HYI eventually gets it.

The shop’s customers include decorators, preservationists, architects, renovators and even filmmakers from Hollywood. The most recent movie to use items from the Architectural Warehouse was Disney’s "Tuck Everlasting," filmed in Maryland. According to Higgins, the producers were searching for items to recreate a c.1900 farm house and used quite a number of HYI’s pieces.

Unfortunately, the Architectural Warehouse is almost out of space. Higgins said that it can function in its present location for a while as long as HYI is able to rent an extra warehouse for overflow items. "Business is growing, and we’re happy that we can continue to provide a place to recycle architectural items and provide income that can be used to continued our advocacy and educational programs," said Higgins.

HYI has listed more than 30 buildings on the National Register of Historic Places and 15 districts (about 20,000 buildings total) on the National Register of Historic Places. Higgins noted that it has also inventoried 45,000 historic buildings in York County, Pennsylvania. In addition, her staff assists developers with using the Historic Preservation Investment Tax Credit representing several million dollars in re-investment.

For more information, contact HYI at 717-843-0320. Or stop in 224 North George Street, York, Pa.. Shop hours are from 9 A.M. to 5 P.M., Mondays through Fridays, and 10 A.M. to 4 P.M. on Saturdays.

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