Noble Salvage

Spread across four floors and 20,000 square feet, Portland Architectural Salvage has everything you didn’t know you wanted.

By Brian Kevin
Photographed by Ted Axelrod

On the issue of reality television shows, Portland resale maven Alice Dunn is unambiguous: She will not be doing any, thank you. She’s already spread far too thin for that kind of crazy. Not that she hasn’t been approached by a few big-name cable networks. In a television landscape dominated by vintage/antiques treasure-hunter shows like American Pickers, Pawn Stars, and Salvage Dawgs, the straight-shooting proprietress of Portland Architectural Salvage would undoubtedly kill it.

“But what?” she asks. “Are we going to have a film crew following us around for two weeks? Are people going to rush this place?”

She gestures around at her four-story, twenty-thousand-square-foot showroom, elegantly cluttered with period furniture, brassy fixtures, and other exquisite bric-a-brac that Dunn has mostly rescued from the wrecking ball or the junkyard. In the half hour since I showed up, she’s already been called away to investigate a trailer full of mid-century kitchen components that’s materialized outside her back door, and she has politely resisted the urge to peek at her iPhone, where the forty or so emails she’ll receive today from potential sellers are beginning to pile up. Just moments ago, Dunn was shaking her head sadly at the thought of a ten-thousand-square-foot warehouse she keeps in Hollis, which she hasn’t had time to visit for the last several months.

“No way, man,” she sighs, leaning up against a gilded, French-style display case. “We’re busy enough as it is.”

Industrious and unreserved, the fifty-two-year-old Dunn gives off an impression that she hasn’t really stopped moving since 1994, the year she started surfing transfer stations and buying demolition rights to collapsing structures around southern Maine. She had just moved to Portland from San Francisco, where she once bought and repaired classic motorcycles and briefly worked on a home renovation crew. In Portland, she lucked into a good deal on a few tired residential properties on Munjoy Hill, and her restoration efforts sent her scavenging among the rural ruins of homes and barns for vintage doors, beams, flooring, and other timeworn building materials. Before long, her plunder began to outstrip her needs.

So Dunn dipped a toe in the retail waters with a booth at a trade show, then dove in with her first storefront in 1996. In a no-frills, 365-square-foot space on Munjoy Hill, she gave herself a crash course in inventory, staging, and customer service — all the while managing the purchase and deconstruction of various dilapidated properties around the state.

“I was flying by the seat of my pants,” Dunn remembers. “I had no heat in that space. I hooked up a frickin’ woodstove and stuck a pipe through the back of it. But I started to realize how valuable antique building materials were. . . . Stuff was built with such quality then. You were able to get a sense of how much work went into these structures.”

Today, Portland Architectural Salvage has outgrown both its Munjoy digs and an intermediate space on Congress Street, filling up a boxy former coffin factory in Bayside, plus an additional ten-thousand-square-foot warehouse across the street. Dunn keeps a full-time staff of four (one of whom deals exclusively with tens of thousands of board-feet of reclaimed wood) and outsources demolition work to contract crews. Over the years, her company’s focus has extended well beyond building materials, making room for furniture, hardware, and all variety of unclassifiable — if mostly tasteful — domestic tchotchkes.

As Dunn points out, the reclaimed/repurposed aesthetic has seen its hipness quotient skyrocket in the last decade. And indeed, a stroll through her cavernous showroom feels like a treasure hunt among the racks of a retro-chic thrift shop — but for people who’ve graduated from creased denim and vinyl to credenzas and cabinetry. Among the curiosities that catch my eye are a pair of gleaming-chrome Gottlieb pinball machines, a Gilded Age Louis Vuitton cabin trunk, and a modern-looking metal side table with a cool corrugated top (“Industrial is so hot right now,” says Dunn, catching my admiring glance). Here and there are objects that seem planted only to support the adage about “one man’s trash . . . ”: a tiny chair made out of snowshoes, a jangling trove of weathered hinges, the obligatory portraits of creepy-eyed children.

Like the physics of Einstein, the salvage and resale game is wholly built around fundamental equations of space and time. Given enough time and the precious square footage, even the most seemingly peculiar item will someday find its enthusiastic buyer. The question is when to cut one’s losses and part with, say, a space-greedy claw-foot bathtub for less than it might be worth. Some of Dunn’s finds never even make it to the floor, since she knows her long-time buyers well enough to pluck certain treasures specific to their tastes. (For example, she recently nabbed a pair of gothically adorned French doors from an old church with local house-flipper and interior designer Tyler Karu in mind.) Catalog stagers and movie set-designers are among her most loyal clients, and visitors to the showroom run a vast socioeconomic gamut, from hard-luck scrappers looking to sell doorknobs to modestly budgeted South Portland newlyweds to jet-setting Manhattanites who fly up for dinner and, oh, a few grand worth of antiquing. Dunn doesn’t like to drop names, but past celebrity clients have included a certain slow-handed English guitarist and a beloved, Brooklyn-born singer and actress who we’ll simply call Barbra S.

If the sheer volume of artifacts around the showroom puts you in mind of more voyeuristic reality programming — for example, A&E’s Hoarders, about compulsive collectors living among their own trash — rest assured that at the heart of Portland Architectural Salvage is a discriminating eye and a passion for preservation.

“We see immediately what’s junk and what’s really good,” says Dunn. “We have to go through the crap to get at anything we think we can sell.”

Then she lays her hand lovingly on a natural-oak mantel I might have looked right past.

“Here’s something that was carved two hundred years ago, that at one point was all put together by hand.” Her finger traces the graceful curve of the detail work.

“It’s history,” she says, “and sadly, it’s being thrown away.”