Emily, Preservation Scholar

Every time I introduce a new interview on Salvaged Grace I tell you how excited I am to share it with you. Well, today I’m especially excited. Emily is in the Columbia Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Presentation program studying Historic Preservation. She spends her days researching, exploring and uncovering the past of historic buildings – which leads to the conservation and preservation of the buildings, and sometimes even the revitalization of communities. So basically, Emily is like a superhero to me. I think you’ll really enjoy and be inspired by her perspective.    

Where did your interest in preservation start? Can you remember what prompted your first interest in the subject?
My interest in preservation was entirely accidentally, although in hindsight it seems inevitable that I would end up here. I have always had a love for history. My dad used to take my sister and I on tours of historic sites. Instead of traditional bedtime stories, we would hear my dad narrate to us the history of the Revolutionary War. Aaron Burr’s name was blacklisted in our household (my dad has an extreme fondness for Alexander Hamilton).

I stumbled upon historic preservation as a field of study when I had my post-college panic, what am I going to do with my life? I ended up applying to an internship that I was turned down for because I wasn’t in an historic preservation graduate program. I had a vague idea of what historic preservation was, but I didn’t realize that this was something that people could enter into as a professional career.

It oddly enough was not until I visited Gettysburg for the first time that I really understood that being a historic preservationist would be the culmination of pretty much all my interests of architecture, history, political science, and chemistry. Our guide talked about how Gettysburg was restored to look exactly as it would have when the battle took place. Suddenly it hit me that I wanted to be that person reading the Civil War journals and letters and reconstructing what Gettysburg must have looked like on those three days in July, 1863. As I understood it then, I saw preservation as the practical side of history, a career where I could get out in the field and really experiencing what I studies in books. I shopped around for some graduate programs that same year and ultimately ended up at Columbia.

What was your background leading up to your graduate study? How did you prepare yourself? What was the application process?
What I love most about the field of preservation is that it really celebrates diversity in that those who work in the field draw about knowledge from all different backgrounds and fields of study. I have an undergraduate degree in history and political science, but a lot of my classmates did their undergraduate degree in architecture, art history, chemistry, engineering, and biology. Because we all enter into the program at different places and with different backgrounds, we enrich each other’s study by each providing a unique perspective on our work.

I prepared myself by doing a lot of research into preservation work and graduate programs. I also had to take the GREs, which was very painful since I really hate standardized tests. The actual application process was pretty grueling, only because writing your personal statement seems like the hardest thing in the world at the time. Luckily, I had a poet friend who gave me some really excellent advice which was the school you’re applying to wants to know what you can add to their program, what do you bring to the table, why are you indispensable. It entirely changed the way I approached the process.

What’s your coursework like? What kinds of projects do you work on? What’s the structure of your study?
Our coursework is all over the place because as preservationists we need to be knowledgable about a lot of different topics. In our first year we take Preservation Theory, Systems, Structures, and Materials, Preservation Planning, Conservation Science, and American Architectural History.

We put our classroom knowledge to work in two semesters of Studio. Because I’m at Columbia, we have a study area somewhere in New York City and do comprehensive research on the history, buildings, and infrastructure of that area. Last semester we were in the East 30s. This semester, my Studio class is doing a project on Port Richmond, Staten Island. We have fully studied the history of Port Richmond and Staten Island and are narrating this history through the built fabric of the town’s commercial corridor. We have looked at over 200 buildings. This involves a lot of trips to the Staten Island Department of Buildings. It also means that I am an expert in the transportation history of Staten Island. We’ve met with City Planning and various other city organizations to see how our preservation plan can help revitalize a depressed and overlooked area on the island.

What kind of job are you interested in/preparing for? What kinds of jobs are available in the preservation space?
I actually am not sure where I would like to end up. I am interested in working in architectural history, site interpretation, or architectural conservation. There are so many different jobs out there working for a municipal government, national park service, nonprofit, conservation, urban planning, advocacy, or even in an architectural firm. I am having trouble even naming a fraction of what you can do with your degree. But if you have an interest in architecture, history, urban planning, or material science, there is definitely a job in the field that would suit your interests.
What’s your favorite aspect of preservation studies? 
My favorite aspect of preservation studies is…can I say everything? I absolutely love it. Even though I’m annoyed sometimes that I have to take the ferry to Staten Island again or that I have to spend an evening reading trade catalogues on early 20th century wall insulation, I absolutely love everything about what I am studying and the work that I’m doing. I have learned a lot about architecture, chemistry, and history. I’ve learned about 19th century brick making and the history of white paint. I’ve learned about Jane Jacobs and Robert Moses. I’ve learned about the construction of the Interstate Highway System and the story of Lincoln’s birth cabin. I feel so at home in the work that I am doing. I really feel like I have found my calling. I am so at peace with being about to do work that interests me and is something that I want to be able to do for the rest of my life.

What’s the least glamourous or most difficult aspect of preservation studies? 
The least glamourous thing about preservation studies is definitely the reading. Sometimes you look at your class syllabus and you say to yourself, do I really have to read this 50 page paper on the history of concrete? But you do have to read it, and in the end, I’m always glad that I did.

I also had a ton of trouble learning AutoCAD, which is an architectural design program that allows you to make architectural drawings when you have very little drawing skills. I have very little drawing skills, and I had a tough time being able to turn what I was seeing into a two dimensional figure. It took be about a month to do this drawing of a mausoleum that stands in Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx. Other classmates who were architects needed a few days to complete the project.

Why do you believe preservation is important? How or in what ways have you seen or learned about it improving communities/life?
Throughout my first year of graduate school, I’ve reworked my answer to this question thousands of times, and I am still not entirely satisfied with the answer. All I can really say is that most preservationists spend their lives assessing the work that they do. We want to ensure that the work we’re doing benefits the communities and enriches the lives of people who experience it.

An example of preservation working to improve communities is for our studio project on Port Richmond, Staten Island, we are looking out how preservation can be used to promote community revitalization. The revitalization of Hudson Valley is a great example of how this can be done. With the loss of industry and the decrease in importance of waterway transportation, the Hudson Valley has seen the abandonment of its once thriving cities. Cities like Poughkeepsie worked to revitalize their downtown that was left mostly deserted and in disrepair. Historic preservationist and community groups working in the area did a lot to restore these historic buildings and draw in commercial businesses. The city’s started to see a revived downtown area that supports the local community who live there.

You can check out the Preservation League of New York for more information on what preservation groups are doing in the state to help revitalize local communities.
Finally, have you found anything through your studies that was especially exciting or awesome? 
For my Conservation Science class, we visited the Met’s conservation lab. It’s deep in the dungeons of the museum, and when we walked through the door, I walked past an entire room filled with ancient Egyptian sculpture just sitting out on tables, waiting for restoration, and ultimately will be displayed in the Met’s collection. It sounds less exciting now that I’m writing it down, but believe me, it was cool.

Thanks so much Emily! 

Images via Emily and Columbia


When repurposing and reclaiming is done right… well, it’s probably done by Clarke Titus, the owner of Rough.South.Home. His work may be made with reclaimed wood or salvaged metal, but it feels all new. Completely fresh and modern. Even sophisticated, which is definitely not something you’d necessarily expect in working with salvaged material. I suppose there is something to Clarke’s claim that “everything that is worth doing, is worth overdoing.” Apparently, “overdoing” means absolute perfection. 

How did Rough South Home get started? Why did you specifically decide to work with salvaged and reclaimed materials?

From 2006 to 2011, I built, renovated, and maintained retail stores for a major multi-national company. I did their SouthEast stores. I learned so much. Not just about work, but about living and working crazy third shift hours in some of the major Southern cities. We (my wife and I) have traveled a bunch and lived all over, but this job forced me to see things and places and strangeness I never would have experienced on my own. Like most things, it was fun until it wasn’t fun anymore.

When work with them slowed down I got a chance to finally focus on my own house, a small 1925 bungalow in Atlanta. The first big task was to re-do the kitchen. My wife and I just wanted to re-work the low ceiling, but we ended up gutting and re-doing everything. It was great to have a totally blank slate to do whatever we wanted. We took everything out and went from there. People saw what I did and encouraged me to keep doing it. So last fall I started RSH, and it has been the best thing I have ever done for myself. I love it. I am unemployable anyway.

I started making pallet furniture for my own backyard about 5 or 6 years ago. We have a massive water oak in our backyard and limbs would drop and just smash any outdoor furniture we bought. I got tired of wasting money on replacements so I built a coffee table and 2 chairs out of pallets. Now when a limb drops on them it just bounces off.

I love the stories that come with reclaimed and salvaged material, the history behind each piece. I understand what I’m doing is hugely popular right now, and that is amazing. I just want people to be a little more wary of buzzwords and terminology that get thrown around. I think upcycled and reclaimed are becoming just tag words now. Can you reclaim something from Homedepot? Can you upcycle a bagel into a pendant light? They have no meaning. I love edison bulbs, too, but let’s be realistic; they aren’t even close to the only option.

To be honest, i chose to use salvaged and reclaimed materials because its what I had available. It was on-hand and cheap. Ingenuity was just code for poverty. Now if I choose to use salvaged it is because the material allows me to create a narrative with the piece. And I love the hunt. But I also love all kinds of lumber. Wood is persuadable. A good lumberyard is just as much fun to dig through as a good scrap yard.

I won’t take any holier than thou environmental stance, but the fact of the matter is that there is a tremendous amount of waste out there. If I can turn that waste into something beautiful then I feel like I’ve succeeded. I’m a huge fan of second chances.

What is an average day like at Rough South Home? Whats your process?

I wake up and head straight to my backyard. I start all of the furniture out back. The whole backyard is a workshop for me. No drawings, I just get out there and mess around until I like what it is front of me. If it’s raining or too cold, I’ll head inside to work on lighting. I try to make the rounds and hunt for materials at least once a month. I love Nashville and Charleston for road trips, but I’ll go anywhere. I need to have a bunch of different things on hand; I get into phases. I’m coming out of a table phase, thankfully, because I’m running out of room in my house. But when I get sick of looking at old railway wood, which is rare, I can do some concrete pieces, or work on regular lumber, or do some lighting. There is always something for me to do. It is kind of common knowledge with my friends that I don’t know when to stop, and that’s true, but to me everything worth doing is worth overdoing. I’ll be the first to admit it; i’m obsessed with what I make and it’s hard for me to stop until the piece is finished and it’s where I want it to be. I have to love it.

Of all the pieces you’ve made, which is your favorite and why? 

My favorite piece of all time: right now, no doubt is a dining table i made with wormy white oak and rusty pipe. I got this incredible wormy white oak from a local forest free lumber yard, pretty and rare stuff. I joined up the table top, cut the apron, shaped the legs, and i knew from the beginning that i wanted to do something different. I had lengths of rusty pipe from some old streetlights i had found at a local scrap yard so i decided to imbed them into the legs, under the apron to make a second apron, but also strengthening the whole thing. It was so exacting, and i remember being in the backyard as all the pieces came together. My neighbor, who is an amazing stonemason and a big support system for me, came over and helped me flip it over. When that thing was flipped over I was absolutely stunned. To me, it’s perfect. I’ve never seen anything like it.

My “dirty cars” Georgia railway series table is a close second, just because every ounce of wood in or on that table came from the original boxcar. The legs are huge posts that were bolted into the boxcar. The planks were nailed to them. You can see where the bolts lived.

Where do you live or work in Atlanta? 

I live and work in Kirkwood. Its an old neighborhood halfway between downtown Atlanta and downtown Decatur. I have a shop on the way that’s a few blocks from my house. It’s a great spot.

Do you have any heirloom pieces in your home? 

We have a thing for antique rugs. My wife’s mother and grandparents have given us many of them; we have at least one in each room. They are amazing. Really tie the rooms together.

See more of Clarke’s work in his Etsy shop. (Man, I wish I had space for that floating entry table!) Thanks so much Clarke!

Images via Rough.South.Home.


Interview with I Like Mike’s Mid Century Modern

Boy, do I have a treat for ya’ll – a super, delux interview with Mike of I Like Mike’s Mid Century Modern. I’ve written about Mike’s work before, and he so graciously agreed to answer my marathon of questions. Mike’s work is absolutely exquisite and his passion for midcentury modern design is infectious! Read all the way to the end, I promise it’s worth it. 

Welcome, Mike! How did you get into this business of refurbishing and selling furniture?

I started working with wood and making furniture when I was in high school. We had an amazing shop program and I took advantage of it to the fullest extent. The shop teacher really appreciated that I wanted to make stuff and wasn’t just there to sneak out back and smoke, so he spent a lot of time mentoring me – I learned so much in my four years there. When most kids who took shop were just going through the motions, I was busy learning to make furniture.

I also have woodworking and carpentry in my blood going back to my great grandfathers on both sides, both of which built their own homes from the ground up, including all of the finish carpentry. My grandfather as well was an accomplished wood and metal worker and we used to spend a lot of time tinkering and building together. He taught me so much about constructing and deconstructing. I actually still use some of the tools that belonged to him, which were given to him by his father. And my father was very handy with mechanics as well – in fact there was very little he couldn’t fix himself. I’m sure I picked up tons of common sense from watching and helping him through the years.

I got into this business because we bought a brownstone in Bed Stuy Brooklyn seven years ago and all of my latent building talents (latent because I spent my first ten years in New York in show biz concentrating on being a comedian, but that’s a different interview) were again called upon and quite necessary to make this real estate venture fly. No kitchens, no bathrooms, top dollar, and we were thrilled to get in. Needles to say, this was before the housing bubble burst. Anyway, we have a full basement so the first thing I did was to set up my dream wood shop and once the major projects were finished on the house, I once again started repairing and restoring antique furniture. 

What’s it like to be a shop owner?

I’m quite surprised by the fact that I really enjoy it. We’re by appointment only, so it’s not like I sit here all day long every day waiting for customers to drop in. So there’s no ‘mundane’ aspect to our formula. Most of my days are spent working on multiple projects, all in different stages of progress. I derive so much satisfaction from the restoration process that it never seems like work to me.

It’s also important (and I’m very happy to) acknowledge the help and support of Leecia, my partner in life as well as a full partner in the business. In an amazing stroke of luck, a few years ago she was laid off right when I needed her expertise to help make this business graduate from being a hobby to a full-time pursuit. In her prior life, she helped develop a whole new wing of a major organization and now she’s bringing her wealth of experience to our endeavor. I couldn’t be happier that she’s on the case. Or is it my case. Okay, I’m sure I need the extra push once in a while. Anyway she’s now in charge of most of the front end, including marketing, internet development, copy writing, product listing, website maintenance and development and much more. Tons of responsibility and I’m thrilled to pawn it all off on her.

My 5-year-old daughter Stella is such a joy to have in the shop too. Whenever we have open browsing hours, she loves to greet the customers with a tray of refreshments.

The bottom line is that I’m absolutely thrilled and incredibly lucky to have a studio and shop in my home. One flight of steps is just about the best commute a guy could ever ask for!

What it is about mid century modern furniture that interests you?

The optimism. The experimental nature of the time. The shedding of centuries-old expectations regarding the use and purpose of furniture and objects in the Home. There were many new materials and building techniques coming into play and designers, architects and craftsmen were scrambling to utilize them in every way possible. Again, some designs worked, some didn’t. But that’s half the fun – not knowing for sure how it would all pan out.

How would you describe mid century style to someone who’s not familiar?

SHORT ANSWER: Looks great, more practical, less frills.

LONGER ANSWER: Function dictating form. Clean, colorful, sharp and floating – an effect achieved mainly by putting thin legs on large objects thus lifting them from the floor and allowing SPACE underneath, which results in that object literally taking up less PSYCHIC space in the mind of the occupant. Very man-made – in other words a celebration of human engineering, i.e., to achieve the aforementioned ‘floating’ effect, man had to outsmart the physics that dictated the furniture designs from the prior millennium or two.

What’s the most dramatic piece you revived?

I’d imagine that your home is super cool. Is your personal style also mid century modern? If not, how would you describe how your home is decorated? 

We do have many MCM pieces incorporated into our own décor – I mean it’s tough when you live over the shop not to borrow once in a while. Okay, steal. The clean aesthetic actually coexists quite nicely with the older design (C. 1896) of the brownstone. They seem to compliment each other and bring out their respective strengths. How’s that for a general answer?

Tell me about a piece in your home that is an heirloom, whether it was passed down to you or its something that you’d want to continue along your family line.

I do have a table that belonged to my great grandmother, which my mother refinished some years ago. I’m sure we’ll always find a way to keep that in play. And as I mentioned, all of my earlier pieces are in my mother’s home and it would be nice to think that they won’t someday end up in the Sarasota Salvation army. Hopefully my daughter will have some of my work when she’s old enough to realize that it’s not great for the finish to drag a fork over it numerous times, then write on it with a permanent marker that she’s not even allowed to have, which she found in my desk drawer that she’s not allowed to open, but we somehow always allow her to anyway. We are definitely not MCM-era parents. She is seen and heard.

Who’s your favorite mid century designer or manufacturer?

I do like Paul McCobb’s work – he was practically a rock star for most of the fifties and sixties. He also liked the angles. Definitely George Nelson and Harvey Probber pieces have made up a large part of my restoration projects as well.

It was quite a nice exchange where he wrote of, as a child, helping his father with the design of that same chair in his home studio. I was touched that he shared those moments with me as it was obvious that his father was very dear to him. 

Many think of Mad Men when they think of mid century modern (at least I do), are there any other current pop references that nail the look well? 

There are a few other shows – Pan Am being the most relevant to the period – that capture the overall MCM aesthetic. I have to say that since becoming involved in the designs of this era, I’ve become hyper aware and see bits and pieces reminiscent of the time in many movies and TV shows which went unnoticed to me when I’d seen these shows earlier in my life. It’s interesting to now be able to specifically identify the designer of a table in the background of a scene in a movie from the sixties. An example would be great here, but unfortunately I can’t think of one at the moment. But I swear it happens…

What are your favorite spots in the neighborhood where your store is located?

My neighborhood has its own unique historic character and it’s actually becoming a destination for artists the way Soho once was and then more recently Williamsburg. As those places become co-opted by wealth, the innovators and risk-takers venture further out and now it happens to be here where they are landing. As such, there are more and more 30-somethings on skateboards. And these ‘boarders’ need their places to go so there have been some great new businesses that have opened in the last few years. They are, in order of proximity to us,

We just can’t figure out their resistance to opening an establishment where people come to spend two dollars and then subsequently sit there for eight hours using your cream, sugar, napkins, electricity, bandwidth and bathroom. Guess these guys don’t know a good investment when it’s staring them in the face.

And I want to give a shout-out to Josie at The Little Red Boutique, on Lewis, because she’s got a great buyer’s eye and had the entrepreneurial spunk to open such a chic place in this neighborhood years ago. It’s a great thing to be able to walk a few short blocks with my 5-year-old to buy a gift for her mom.

What are your 4 favorite products in the store right now?

The truth is that I love pretty much everything in the shop – that’s why it’s all here. I consider this more of a collection than just plain old inventory. But I don’t mind highlighting a piece or two…

Custom Media Center

Lamps, Clock

Parsons Desk

I also have to mention two of the latest pieces that designed and custom built for private clients. The first  was an eleven foot long, three piece sectional sofa in the floating Danish style. It was a real challenge to make this thing sturdy and I will never underestimate the shear power of strategically placed steel. 

WOW. I hope you guys enjoyed Mike’s Interview as much as I did. Thanks so much, Mike!

Images via I Like Mike’s MidCentury Modern

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