Seven Arts (Magazine) Feature article January 1997, by Marianna Poutasse. Photograph by Steve Coan
What Goes Around...
Sitting in Center City's chic Circa restaurant, you'd swear the long, oh-s0-elegant bar came out of a late-19th-century Chicago saloon. But its history is a little more complicated. It's actually an amalgam of antique elements - including foyer panels and closet crowns from various abandoned houses in North Philadelphia - mixed and matched with reproduction plaster capitals and carved fluted pilasters. The man who designed the bar, located the various antique pieces and pulled them together into a flawless, cohesive whole was architectural salvage expert John Dorety. "That's the point!" Dorety exclaims emphatically when people marvel over how authentic it looks. "The most important thing with all of my work is that the end product looks like it was always there."
Like most other architectural salvage dealers, Dorety sells pieces directly to his clients - apartment-dwellers, new homeowners, designers - but what distinguishes him in his field are his custom-designed new pieces that incorporate antique originals. In addition to tackling such major projects as the Circa bar, he's created bookcases fitted with egg-and-dart moldings, end tables inset with colorfully glazed and patterned tiles and kitchen islands constructed of carved panels taken from the vestibules of 19th-century rowhouses.
For the last 12 years, John Dorety has been salvaging architectural remnants from Philadelphia's abandoned rowhouses, office buildings, banks, schools and churches. In his cavernous three-story South Street store, formerly a billiard hall, old mantels, doors, ironwork, stained glass, moldings, tiles and other architectural relics vie for floor space. "The most important value of these things is their design." Dorety explains, surveying his vast inventory. "Wonderful hardwoods were used to make them and outstanding immigrant carvers embellished them. It simply doesn't make sense to throw them away." Dorety has tapped into the fast-growing market for architectural antiques - offering original pieces while giant retailers like Pottery Barn and Crate & Barrel are mass-marketing similar vintage and distressed looks.
Dorety's career got its start in the early 1980s when he was working as a contractor renovating old houses. At that time it was not uncommon for old-house owners to favor removing worn, original handcarved ornaments, fixtures and architecutral fragments in order to make room for new work. A native of antiques-ridden Bucks County and an avid flea marketer himself, Dorety realized that many of the architectural elements he was taking out of the houses might appeal to fellow bargain hunters at the weekly Lambertville flea market. Soon he had set up his own booth and was doing a brisk business, selling everything from heavy oak doors inset with etched-glass panels to old porcelain claw-footed tubs, decorative bricks and porch columns. Dorety also dabbled in furniture - chairs, cabinets and tables from the 1830s to the 1930s. By 1985, he had enough inventory to open a small store at 11th and South Streets. Next came a 10,000-square-foot space on South 9th Street, and most recently, a three-story, 20,000-square-foot gallery around the corner on South.
Many of Dorety's clients are new homeowners who want to add some age and character to a brand-new house. They might buy an old mantel from the shop and commission Dorety to design a bookcase to match. They are often surprised to discover that it is less expensive to use these old materials rather than to buy something new. "I can sell a 100-year-old, hand-carved mantel in quarter-sawn white oak for half of what it would cost to make it today," Dorety explains, "and yet it has intrinsic value that makes it even more valuable."
Although Dorety gets a few items from estate sales and auctions, most of the pieces in his shop are from demolition sites. The salvage process begins when a demolition operator has won a bid to renovate or take down a building. He contacts Dorety, who does a survey of the property to identify salable items - mantels, stained glass and tiles are especially hot right now - negotiates a price and arranges for a time to come back with his helpers to dismantle everything. Although it's sad that the city is losing so many beautiful old buildings, Dorety feels strongly that he is doing his part to help recycle what is left behind: "The city is just loaded with good, beautifully hand-carved elements - in every rowhouse there are three mantels, three built-in closets, fantastic lighting and plumbing fixtures worth saving."
Such architectural treasures do not come to Dorety easily, though. When he won the rights to dismantle half of the 23rd floor of the historic Packard Building at 15th and Chestnut Streets, he worked from 6 p.m. to midnight over a two-week period, removing several hundred feet of Tudor oak paneling, 30 stained-glass doors and 60 bookcases, as well as lighting and brass hardware. In order to remove 30 14-foot-tall William Reith stained-glass windows from Saint John Nepomucene church that stood at 9th and Wharton Streets, Dorety sandwiched them between insulation and plywood and coaxed them down one side of the church using block-and-tackle rigging.
After the pieces have been dismantled from a site, Dorety enlists the help of local architect John Toates, who takes careful measured drawings of design elements that can be used in future projects. Toates categorizes the elements according to type and carefully draws each one on a computer. Many are also cast into rubber molds, from which they can easily be replicated in plaster. When a client places an order, Dorety peruses his ornament database and consults his inventory of antiques and molds - mixing, matching and ultimately piecing together a completely new design that incorporates both antique pieces and reproduction plaster or hand-carved elements.
"The beauty of this process is that I can preserve not only the original pieces but the design that went into them." remarks Dorety. "Good design is always going to be beautiful."