The haut-est home trend on the Main Line is actually really old
Last fall, when the news hit that there’d be a pre-bulldozing sale at the historic 19th-century Dunminning mansion in Newtown Square, architectural salvagers from all over scrambled to get there first. While they were surely unhappy about the historic house being razed for a sterile street of modern mini-mansions, they showed up for another reason: to get their hands on what Bob Beaty, owner of Philadelphia-based salvage company Provenance, refers to as the “mother lode” of goods: stuff like quarter-sawn oak paneling, basket-weave vent grates and walnut pocket doors — items these salvage pros painstakingly remove from old buildings, clean up and resell.
Ironically, these coveted items might end up in exactly the type of suburban construction that the mansion was torn down to make way for. Because in these days of mass-produced mega-manses, designing with timeworn finds could be the only thing to give a home exclusivity. It’s no longer enough to keep up with the Joneses; you now have to snag something that’s impossible for them to buy. Says Glen Mills landscape contractor Robert Nonemaker, who recently built a Main Line pool deck using white Danby marble saved from Independence Mall, “We give these newer houses a sense of history. And people love that old-money feel.”
Thanks to pros like Beaty, that feeling is for sale — stained-glass windows from a late-19th-century Presbyterian church in South Philly and Carrera marble from North Broad’s Divine Lorraine Hotel are just a few of his notable recoveries. An enormous fireplace from the Dunminning estate was snatched by one of Beaty’s clients — a salvage junkie from Wynnewood — even though he doesn’t yet have a house large enough to fit it. So while he shops for the ideal abode, he’s storing a few hundred thousand dollars in reclaimed goods, along with that 1,000-piece stone fireplace, which took a week to disassemble. The owner estimates that by the time it’s installed in the great room of his dreams, it will have cost him between $75k and $100k. “It’s not the cheapest hobby,” he admits, “but it’s about the uniqueness, and saving something that would be lost.”
Now, about that price: It’s actually a bargain, because custom replication of such a fireplace would cost even more. Plus, by rescuing these materials from a landfill, savvy owners get eco-friendly bragging rights.
Nonemaker filled 12 tractor-trailers with limestone from Beaty’s South Philly church salvage without a commitment from a buyer. He dreams of building an old-world folly for the right client, and is shopping this concept: church ruins set on your manse’s property, perhaps with a pool in the center. “Just imagine,” he says. “A cocktail party, with people drinking wine inside the ruins of an old church. The reflections of the arches in the water would be amazing. You’d have something that’s one-of-a-kind.” Of course, one-of-a-kind doesn’t come cheap in the world of architectural salvage: Nonemaker estimates this dream project would start somewhere between $250k and $300k. Old money, indeed.