About twenty years ago, Judy Johnson—former manager of Charlottesville’s City Market—bought a home in Charlottesville’s Woolen Mills neighborhood. Built in 1900, the home was on a generous lot. Johnson, now owner of Renaissance Woman Flowers & Gardens, is a professional florist and garden designer and one of the attractions was the land itself. It was a double lot with an orchard on one side.
“I’d always envisioned creating and building a house,” she says, crediting her childhood when family members were involved in homebuilding. Her great-grandfather was a carpenter and her Uncle Spike was constantly working on houses. “He would bring things home from houses being renovated and they would re-appear in the house he was developing.”
Johnson took a course on home-building course at CATEC [Charlottesville-Albemarle Technical Education Center] more than twenty years ago. She used that knowledge to build an addition for a bedroom and second bathroom on the existing house and dreamed of building herself a cottage for her later years on the “B” part of the lot.
Finally the right moment arrived. “I knew I wanted a house that would fit in my neighborhood,” Johnson says. “I chose the ‘Winona’ because there are a number of them in Charlottesville. Once you know the style of those Sears houses, it’s very easy to notice them.”
The “Winona” was one of the more than 100,000 Sears mail-order houses that essentially came complete in a box on a train. The “Winona” was one of the most popular. Houses By Mail, a publication of the national Trust for Historic Preservation, shows the “Winona” originally sold in 1916 for $744 and was shipped until 1940 with the price rising to almost $2000. Johnson’s new cottage, however, didn’t arrive ready-to-build.
One of the best parts about Johnson’s building of her cottage, is that she found many things to reuse and recycle, lending it a mellow, not-harshly-new or mass-produced ambiance. Doing this also prevented quality items from ending up in a landfill and was a great way to economize.
“I call it ‘Renaissance Cottage’ which relates to rebirth,” she says. “Not just the Sears house and fulfilling my dream of creating it, but also rebirthing many of the things in it.” For example, she collected used interior doors and cabinetry from various sources while the “built-in” shelving in the upstairs is a former entertainment center, bought for $25, turned on its side and painted to match the walls.
“It’s a wonderful house,” declares current tenant Kem Spaulding. “It’s light. I tell people I have a brand-new old cottage.” Renaissance Cottage has two downstairs bedrooms. A room upstairs isn’t technically a bedroom because there is no closet, but it works as either an office or a spare bedroom. In fact, Johnson points out, the original Sears houses did not have bedroom closets.
“I love all the woodwork and the beautifully framed windows,” Spaulding continues. “The kitchen has an old-style porcelain drain board and sink. I’m sure the kitchen cabinets were recycled, but they are all perfect and the bathroom has an old pedestal sink and a claw-foot tub. It’s just all in keeping with the look.”
Where to Look for Used Items
Finding the right things takes time. In fact, Johnson spent months trolling for the things she needed. “You can’t just walk into a place and expect to find exactly what you want in one day,” she points out. In Richmond, she often browsed both S. B. Cox Demolition and Caravati’s Architectural Salvage, which has a diverse collection of items—including the cottage’s sink and bathtub.
She was also a regular at the Habitat ReStore at 1221 Harris Street in Charlottesville and when she was out of town she’d stop by similar stores in Richmond, Staunton or Lynchburg. Habitat ReStores are retail outlets selling quality used and surplus building materials ranging from new flooring to old doors and odd lots of tile or paint and tools. They also offer home furnishings such as furniture, rugs, appliances and plumbing fixtures as well as other items which are sold at a fraction of usual retail prices.
Materials are usually donated from building supply stores, contractors, demolition crews and individuals who wish to support their local Habitat. Proceeds help local affiliates fund the construction of Habitat houses within the community.
While stores have some paid employees, Habitat volunteers help to keep costs low. In addition to raising funds, ReStores protect the environment by re-channeling usable materials into additional life. For information on Habitat ReStore locations and hours in Virginia, visit www.habitatvirginia.org.
Charlottesville’s Habitat store is the perfect example of a place to find a wide variety of both new and used items. There is an always-available stock inventory including new and used windows and doors, tile, flooring, lock sets, furniture, cabinetry, lamps, paint and much more.
Then there is the one-of-a-kind inventory which changes constantly depending on donations. Recent one-of-a-kind items included an inside dog gate, a metal bunk bed frame, new lighting fixtures, name-brand all-wood kitchen cabinets in several styles and sizes and new furniture. Other stock includes a variety of previously used plumbing fixtures (but sinks don’t fade or shrink, after all) in various styles and colors, desks, shelving, appliances, ceiling fans, drawer pulls—the list goes on and on.
The local website at www.cvillehabitat.org lists inventory and weekly specials. Recent specials included 20 percent off all dishwashers, mantels and new paint accessories. Users may also sign up to receive weekly e-mailed news of special sales and inventory changes.
In Charlottesville, Circa at 1700 Allied Street and Possessions Recycled just across the way at 1713 Allied Street are just down the road from the Habitat Store and are eminently browse-able. The Salvation Army Store at 604 Cherry Avenue is also a place to visit. In fact, this is where Johnson forked over the $25 for the entertainment center now “built-in” at her cottage.
Yard sales, moving sales and estate sales also provide good hunting grounds. Even curbsides yield possibilities. “I found an old ‘New Home’ brand, very early treadle sewing machine on the street near a place where I garden,” she confides. “It’s now a little table in the bathroom waiting to be refinished.”
How to Use “Used Stuff”
Recycling old pieces was of special interest to Johnson. For instance, she pounced on an interesting old door with glass panes, designating it for a bathroom door and replacing the glass with mirrors on both sides.
“It takes time and energy to re-use things,” Johnson cautions. She found a wonderful sturdy front door, but its glass didn’t match the lines of the house and her made-to-order windows. “I found a Norwegian carpenter in Lynchburg who reworked the door and also replicated the woodwork of the 1920s in the cottage,” she says. “The door was not expensive, but then there was the work involved.”
Older architectural features lend real personality to a home and often homeowners can use some elbow grease to strip paint, sand and refinish. Others may prefer to utilize the item in its “distressed” state. Take an old mantel, for instance. It can serve as a mantel, of course, but also as a window frame, shelving or, with interesting added hooks, a coat rack.
Old windows may not be as efficient as modern double-paned windows, but when installed in an inside wall, they can serve as a pass-through from kitchen to dining room or bring light into dark interior rooms. In a bathroom, an interesting old window can frame a mirror. In the bedroom, a large window can serve as a headboard with wooden panels replacing panes of glass. Windows can also be used for tabletops, to create a cold frame or even a mini-greenhouse.
Old doors are frequently made of fine wood—often unavailable today except in high-priced custom work—which can be refinished to use as countertops, vanities, tables, desks, headboards or even as doors. They also can become room dividers —either as a solid wall or as a visual separation. Several old doors can be hinged together as a moveable screen. They can be suspended horizontally as a room divider or fastened horizontally against a wall to provide architectural interest. When shopping, be aware that old doors often are not the standard sizes of today’s typical hollow-cores.
The classic re-purposing is probably those first-apartment brick-and-board bookshelves. Or the table made with the old sewing machine legs.
“I had two wonderful antique stained-glass windows with no place to put them,” says Charlottesville resident Dell Erwin. Eventually she and her husband suspended one from the ceiling to provide a visual divide between the open-style living room and kitchen. The other became a door for a custom-built cabinet with an interior cabinet light bringing the old window to glowing life.
And it’s not just homes that are candidates for re-purposed items. Spaulding, the tenant in the cottage, opened Java Dragon, her Charlottesville coffee house, last June. “I got all my equipment on Craig’s List or eBay,” she says.
Habitat, she notes, was the source of “door knobs, sinks, shutters and a lot of paint.” She had her eye on one sink’s faucet, so she removed it, then re-donated the sink back to Habitat. She cut the shutters in half to serve as café doors to the kitchen area. And she painted just about everything in sight.
“The place is all about comfort and I didn’t want some mass-produced furnishings,” she adds. So she headed to Circa where she furnished her place in one day with tables, chairs and couches. “It’s all very stylish and unique.“
A Tie to the Past
“There’s something about the care with which these things were made,” homebuilder Johnson says about the things she has re-employed in her Renaissance Cottage. “There’s the coziness of sharing something that other people used. I wonder about the people who washed dishes in this sink and looked out these windows. Things weren’t done cheaply then and I’m still valuing the craftsmanship which reflects the tradition of real workmanship.”
Frequent contributor Marilyn Pribus and her husband once combined a piece of driftwood (complete with barnacles) with four no-hands door handles from a demolished hospital in Monterey, California, to create a handsome wall-hung coat rack.