By Janet K. Keeler
Nearly every visit to Sarasota Architectural Salvage starts the same way. Patrons walk up five wooden steps into the cavernous warehouse of whimsy, and their heads immediately tilt back. Eyes scan top to bottom; side to side.
“Wow,” visitor after visitor whispers at first look. They are momentarily stunned with the breadth of vintage and repurposed architectural accents. The ceiling drips with chandeliers, from elaborate iron candelabras to faux lanterns that look like they might have lit a feast for the Knights of the Round Table.
Once eyes and sensibilities adjust, newbies dive in. They walk among rows of old doors and pass walls of hanging chair backs. There are wooden window frames that in a previous life might have opened onto the Gulf of Mexico. And dozens of wooden rolling pins promise perfect pies. An entire room of antique tools screams experience. Flocks of metal flamingos lounge in the outdoor section.
Need a three-foot, fire-engine-red metal “E” or any of the other 26 letters in the alphabet? Pick one up here. How about a wooden pitchfork that was last used to throw hay at a Florida farm? Or maybe a glass doorknob to put the finishing touches on your Craftsman cottage? SAS, as the locals call it, has them all and much, much more.
Serious house rehabbers, weekend DIY warriors, upscale decorators and curious browsers have found salvageable nirvana at SAS since the early 2000s. And now, just a few doors down, the new-kid-on-the-block Circus City Architectural Salvage is helping turn the area north of the city’s vibrant and historic Rosemary District, full of cafes and boutiques, into the Salvage District.
This short stretch of Central Avenue is increasingly becoming a must-stop destination for the home improvement crowd. Even if you aren’t on the hunt for chemistry beakers or vintage wooden spools, it’s fun to see what others are carting away. A woman cradling a waist-to-knee mannequin said she was planning on painting it and turning the androgynous figure into a planter.
Couples headed to the altar have used the salvage stores as the backdrop for engagement photos, and they even find pieces to rent for their receptions.
SAS, Jesse White’s 10,000-square-foot warehouse of old dining room sets and Indonesian teak furniture, has spawned a 5,000-square-foot custom shop nearby, where customers can get furniture made to order. That furniture, including trendy sliding indoor barn doors, is fabricated from material rescued from homes torn down to make way for modern buildings.
White is also a supporter of cottage industries, which is how he ended up selling Indonesian painted teak furniture perfect for a screened-in Florida room. The colorful pieces started life as boats. He also stocks Wood-n-Nickel dining tables made in Alabama from solid wood. Embedded into a corner of the tables is an Indian Head nickel.
Repurposing and reusing was on White’s mind when he opened the architectural salvage business in 2003. “I hate to see architectural elements go to the landfill,” he said. SAS has grown in reputation since, and home designers often search SAS for something rustic to mix with a contemporary design. Old doors are being used as room dividers, he said, and vintage lighting fixtures marry old styles with new materials. There’s an Egyptian door that he just knows someone is hunting for. It will find a home. Everything does.
Even visitors who come in rented cars with only suitcases to haul home their booty can find a must-have that’s packable.
If they don’t see what they like at SAS, they head down the block to Circus City Architectural Salvage where owners T.J. Broom and Greg Pemberton pay homage to Sarasota’s three-ring history. Vintage circus photos and banners are displayed throughout.
Though there is some crossover -- colorful outdoor metal figures and those lightless neon letters can be found at both shops – Circus City has a decidedly different vibe.
It looks more like a design shop than a salvage outlet. The building was a lumber and hardware store in the 1950s then transformed into an automotive store and eventually an ironworks facility before it became a home to portholes, metal advertising signs and oodles of matchbooks from restaurants and other long-gone businesses. A box of black-and-white contact sheets showcases the work of a photographer named Martin Clemens who worked mostly in the Bahamas. A crafty artist would be positively giddy over the wee prints of bathing beauties and fishermen showing off their catch.
You’re likely to find something at Circus City that you didn’t even know you needed. Like maybe an iron hook for the bathroom that resembles a seahorse or mermaid. Now, that tucks nicely into a carry-on. Or maybe a Vespa kid’s rocker that’s not old but sure to make a lucky child go “vroom-vroom.”
Broom said he’s fascinated with what he and his partner find when they are “picking” at estate sales or make house calls. “Every time you buy something, you are taking a gamble,” he said. He’s been lucky so far. Trucks pull up several times a day with “gems” someone wants to unload. Sometimes Circus City bites, and other times, no dice. Recently, a hawker got the thumbs up on a 1940s Westinghouse tabletop radio. It’s such a cool-looking piece that Broom was confident it would find a home. Upon closer inspection, he found a small metal contraption in a (secret?) drawer. It was left behind by a previous owner and looked to be a pencil sharpener. A treasure within a treasure.
Besides circus memorabilia, reproductions, old movie projectors and typewriters, and original home bars made from the fronts of buses, Circus has bins of record albums. Vintage vinyl is a hot collectible, Broom said, and the jackets are often used as wall art, reminding buyers of that special high school prom date. Don’t even ask about buying the Herb Alpert album hanging in the bathroom. Whipped Cream & Other Delights, probably better known by the photograph of the woman on the front covered in whipped cream, is not for sale.
Finish off a day scouring the salvage shops with an early dinner at Owen’s Fish Camp in the Burns Court section of Sarasota. The restaurant opens at 4 p.m. daily and those who arrive much after that will wait for a table.
In a comfy-cozy cottage, diners feast on local fish prepared with contemporary flair. There’s a strong Southern accent running through the dishes. The fried soft shell crab BLT is slathered with basil mayonnaise. Shrimp and grits is amped up with smoked sausage. Start it all off with a jar of boiled hot roadside peanuts or a hot cheesy, crab dip served with Ritz crackers.
The beauty of Owen’s Fish Camp, besides the local history and food, is that the Central Avenue salvage shops have provided some of the décor. You will swear you’ve seen that lighting fixture or weathered door somewhere before.
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