Dave Allen salvages the soul of old stuff
By Gretchen Giles
Dave Allen describes himself somewhat poetically as a "finder of objects." But most of the objects he finds are far too large to hide in plain sight. At his Artefact Design & Salvage yard adjacent to the Cornerstone Gardens in Sonoma, the clockworks that used to grace the outside of an East Coast factory dangle massively from the ceiling. A piece of old redwood that literally encompasses half of the giant is slabbed out on cement rollers, forming a table worthy of seating a rustic royal court. A movable wall fashioned from possibly a hundred blue-painted schoolhouse chairs lashed together with wire stands floor to rafter. Outside, the entire iron-wrought front porch from an antebellum mansion has been regrouped into a gazebo, and a ton-heavy commemorative stone from the outer walls of Philadelphia's former city hall has been rolled onto its ridiculously large side.
Allen is more than merely a finder of objects; he is an obsessive scourer of objects, a hunter-gatherer of them, a truck-renting, maniacal object hound who once found himself as the reluctant owner of the largest collection of antique wrought iron in the United States. Once he realized that he--nice guy Dave Allen, a mere finder of objects--single-handedly controlled the price curve on this particular passion, he pushed much of it back into the market. Such privilege wasn't his to bear.
A dotcom refugee from Silicon Valley, Allen dumped his day job some nine years ago, before both the boom and the bust. He already spent his holidays flying back to the East Coast, renting a truck and picking up architectural salvage on the drive back, mostly just for fun. Stopping at a local Kinko's, Allen would print up a clever, usually darkly sardonic, postcard announcing a sale in his front yard, post hundreds of them to regular buyers on his list, and then race the date on the postcards home. "Floating," he admits with a laugh, "checks all the way back." His yard sales were so successful that Allen finally took the leap to being the host of a year-round sale, first at a renovated warehouse in the South Bay before moving over a year ago to the Cornerstone property.
Cheerful, with a sly political bent and a true love of the objects he so assiduously finds, Allen winces only at being termed an antique dealer. "I don't know anything about antiques," he says, seated under an olive tree, picking at a salad in the Cornerstone's outdoor court. "I only know about building materials and art. What appeals to me is weathered surfaces and craftsmanship, the building end of things."
A mix of botanical rarities, European art and design books, newly crafted artisanal objects and what some like to call "rusty shit," Allen's Artefact & Design yard doesn't necessarily deal in antiques; in fact, his interest is older than merely the antique. Antiquity itself is far more fascinating.
Explaining that salvage is one of mankind's oldest endeavors--after all, why should new tiles be made when a pillaged village provides lots of perfectly good ones?--Allen makes presentations on the history of salvage to architects and builders who are interested in knowing more about the reuse side of beauty. Curiously, he's found architects to be the least receptive. But, Allen notes, "builders love the stuff. Perhaps they appreciate it more for the craftsmanship. And it's tough to work [salvaged building materials] into new structures. It's usually at the behest of the clients."
He's also traced salvage's role in the loss of certain skills. With those lovely tile roofs, for example, that pillagers--namely the Romans--helped themselves to, the entire art of tile roofing was lost and had to be relearned generations later. While certainly providing ease for the incoming army, salvage in fact set humankind back.
With America's cities being torn down and rebuilt all across the Eastern seaboard, Allen restricts himself to that side of the Mississippi, where stuff is slightly closer to antiquity than in the shiny brightness of California, where one's school lunch box is found sitting on antique store shelves for $60. A Flintstones original, don't ya know. "I could never keep the place stocked based on what's available here," Allen says with a shrug, looking around his warehouse store. "I like to go to the cities where lots of stuff comes down."
Later, asked to describe his devotion, Allen thinks for a minute. "I like real things," he says slowly. "They make it peaceful. I like the soul of old stuff."
Artefact Design & Salvage, 23562 Hwy. 121, Sonoma. 707.933.0660.
For reasons we're sure deserve a separate article, the East Bay boasts a preponderance of architectural salvage yards, making the Richmond Bridge a North Bay salvage freak's best buddy. Here is a short list of that which is roughly within an hour's drive.
Berkeley Architectural Salvage: Specializing in doors, windows, hardware, moldings, columns, gingerbread, corbels, lighting, plumbing, marble and granite. 1167 65th St., Berkeley. 510.655.2270.
Beyond Waste: "Deconstructs" buildings slated for the wrecking ball, enabling them to take away flooring, windows, mantels and other architectural items that might have merely been smashed by bulldozers. 607 W. Sierra, Cotati. 707.792.2555.
East Bay Depot for Creative Reuse: A nonprofit that redistributes materials to the community at a low cost. Specializing in art materials, books, small furniture, frames and garden artifacts. 6713 San Pablo Ave., Oakland. 510.547.6470.
Ohmega Salvage: Famous for its higher-end architectural salvage, specializing in stained glass, pedestal sinks, claw-foot tubs, lighting fixtures, mantels, wrought iron, marble and Victorian hardware. 2407 San Pablo Ave., Berkeley. 510.843.3636.
Recycletown: Our own paradise at the dump doesn't necessarily specialize in anything other than making the world a better place, but Recycletown is an excellent place to graze weekly in search of architectural deals and treasures. 500 Meacham Road, Petaluma. 707.795.3660.
Urban Ore: Featuring a general store with off-the-beaten second-hand household items, Urban Ore is also a goldmine of old-growth lumber and salvaged stone, glass and lighting. 1333 Sixth St., Berkeley. 510.559.4455.
From the July 27-August 2, 2005 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.
© 2005 Metro Publishing Inc.