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Homes: Front porch

Saving a little of the past

By ELIZABETH BETTENDORF
© St. Petersburg Times
published March 14, 2003

Bill Fields and Richard Chad collect stories.

Behind every antique door, window, column and fireplace mantel they salvage from an old building, a tale awaits.

Just the bones of a narrative, really, ordinary facts of daily life gathered when a building is abandoned and one generation slips into the next.

Imagine walking through your front door and knowing a doctor from Gainesville turned the same knob for decades.

Or that the heart pine floors in your kitchen were salvaged from an old school in Tampa. Or that the mossy birdbath on your patio is 75 years old and from a house in Ybor City.

Fields and Chad run their business, Historic Building Products Inc., out of a former 1920s gas station at Columbus Drive and 15th Street.

When a building is about to be demolished, they go in and salvage the architectural details. Often, it's the stuff no one else thought was important. But taken out of context, the objects -- a set of walnut church doors, a hunk of cornice from an old bank, a square of slate chalkboard -- add history and character to a new home.

An attic fan cover becomes the base for a coffee table. A cast-concrete bank cornice becomes an object of sculptural beauty. A wrought-iron window guard from an 1880s brownstone becomes a ceiling grid for hanging pots and pans.

For Fields, the stories are sometimes imagined, but just as interesting.

"You know some kid ran a stick across that window grid every day for a century," he says. So much in the modern world is "new and plastic," he says. Old things give people something he can't quite explain. He tries to put a word to it.

"Warmth," he says.

He wants the old gas station to invite a lost afternoon. The curious browse amid the brass and nickel skeleton locks, crystal door knobs, chipped columns, rusted iron gates embellished with curlicues, stacks of windows and doors, including one with the bell engraved with the name of a long-ago occupant.

A vintage 1920s enamel heater, Chad explains, once warmed the congregation of the Tyler Temple in Tampa.

"I always make it a point to keep the stories and the pictures with a piece," he says.

Sometimes photos are serendipitous finds left behind by former owners. In one house about to be razed, Chad discovered a fuzzy black-and-white picture of a young girl holding a doll. Photos are arranged on shelves with other bits and pieces from lost households: old soda bottles, a china teapot, a manual typewriter.

Chad encourages rooting around: "We don't want anything to be too organized."

They sell to contractors, architects and designers, but also to a lot of "do-it-yourselfers" he explains, people who want to invite the past into the present.

Chad travels all over the nation to buildings slated for demolition: An old medical school, a hospital, a barn, a handsome Dutch Colonial revival house. From a magnificent cathedral in the upper Midwest, Chad will soon salvage gold leaf angels painted in the domed ceiling. He will also take stained glass windows and a choir balcony.

Someone's corporate headquarters will stand in the church's place.

Demolition is sad, he says, but he stopped fighting it a long time ago.

Now he just saves what he can.

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