A jumble of the architectural history of this swath of the Eastern Seaboard is piled into a few beat-up warehouses in an industrial wasteland behind the Baltimore Ravens’ stadium: leaded-glass windows; claw-footed bathtubs; barn doors; benches from duckpin bowling alleys; cabinetry from an old convent; and the likeness, painted on a 400-pound cast-iron medallion, of William Donald Schaefer, from when he was mayor of Baltimore.
These relics and thousands more, from glass doorknobs to ornate fireplace mantelpieces, have been harvested by Second Chance Inc., a venture that strips, stores and sells to the public just about anything from old buildings that have been slated for demolition. In the process, the operation runs a training program to teach a cadre of local workers the complexities of piece-by-piece preservation of the past.
The company is the brainchild of Mark Foster, 46, himself the owner of a 19th-century house in Baltimore’s historic Roland Park neighborhood. Like many Baltimoreans, Foster has spent a lot of time fixing up his home and searching, often unsuccessfully, for materials true to its style and era.
About four years ago, the former restaurateur decided he needed more job flexibility as well as a new challenge. The restoration work he was doing beguiled him, and he knew from personal experience there was a need among other owners of old houses for architectural salvage.
“Within the past 100 years, there was a degree of quality and simplicity and craftsmanship that went into manufacturing that isn’t happening today,” says Foster, a big, back-slapping guy with a mustache. “Those things have value, and we hate to see them disappear. Our philosophy is there really isn’t any reason to have those things be wasted, because there’s obviously an interest from today’s population in seeing those things used.”
Working with Foster is Durrell Majette, 50, one of five men who recently completed a 16-week Second Chance training program. “As I ride down the streets now, I find myself looking at doors, the way the windows are built, the frames, stuff I used to never even notice,” he says.
Majette spent about 20 years working as a mechanic for London Fog Industries Inc. before getting laid off earlier this year. A program offered through an unemployment office in Baltimore led him to Second Chance, where he spends his days learning how to walk through old buildings and figure out what’s worth saving, and how to remove the material while keeping it intact.
“I have a new direction in life,” says Majette, standing beside an array of rescued claw-footed bathtubs, tape measure in hand. “I feel like I’m part of something.”
Grants from the France-Merrick Foundation, the Lockhart Vaughan Foundation, the Abell Foundation and the William Baker Foundation, as well as from the city of Baltimore, support the job-training program, which assists in paying workers as they learn.
Now that he’s finished with the training program, Majette works full-time for Second Chance and, with the help of the organization, can pursue a specialty such as plumbing or electrical work. Most graduates of the program can earn between $12 and $20 an hour.
By the end of the year, Foster anticipates that Second Chance will have between 20 and 25 full-time employees. The salvage and selling part of the business pays for itself, he said; the grants pay for the training program.
“There’s more than enough work out there to do,” says Foster. “Our challenge is not to find growth, but to control and manage it.”
The gleanings of the Second Chance team are crammed into a few warehouses, where homeowners in search of an old closet door or a length of copper gutter spend hours roaming the aisles.
“There are beautiful things here, but you have to have a vision,” says Lynne Bonner, who was meandering through relic-lined hallways and rooms on a recent rainy Saturday. “Many people think it’s just junk, but these are the pieces that make a home interesting and make you love where you live.”
Bonner, who makes and sells one-of-a-kind lamps, admired a pile of cobalt and emerald glass squares the size of linoleum tiles and about 2 inches thick; perfect, she said, for the base of a lamp.
On a recent weekend visit, Towson homeowners Adam and Wendy Lippe bought crown molding to make shadow boxes for a wall in their house.
“I’ve been looking for a place like this for four or five years,” says Adam, a Baltimore County state’s attorney. “There’s so much history in Baltimore that ends up in the dump.”
Todd Brinkman was found searching for cornices for his historic house in Federal Hill. “We have a house that is over 100 years old,” he says. “We have to replace the cornices, and nobody does cornice work.
“Everything is at least 100 years old around this neighborhood,” he adds. “If you need something, this is the place to come.”
Second Chance is growing rapidly, Foster said, and the expansion is yoked to the region’s growth. As people continue to flood the Baltimore and Washington area, old houses get torn down to make way for new subdivisions. Within the cities, and particularly in Washington and its close-in suburbs, people are increasingly buying homes in established neighborhoods, tearing them down and erecting large new homes in their place. If the old structures are donated to Second Chance for architectural salvage, the developers or property owners can receive tax breaks.
The organization is getting calls from officials in such cities as Detroit, Philadelphia and Washington, Foster said, asking him how to get a similar business started in their cities.
By sheer coincidence, Meg Fairfax Fielding, a Second Chance board member, recovered precious details from her family home in Roland Park because of her involvement with the group. While in the main warehouse one day, she saw a note about a load of stuff to be picked up at an address in the city. “Mark,” she told Foster, “that’s the house I grew up in.”
Her family had sold the house after living there for more than 30 years, and the new owners were gutting it, carting out a kitchen door with a glass window and a sliding wooden panel, cast-iron radiators and a huge beveled mirror with a carved frame from above the fireplace in her parents’ bedroom. This and more would have ended up in a landfill if not for Second Chance, she says.
Fairfax Fielding, who lives in a narrow rowhouse, says she hasn’t room for much recovered architecture, but she did turn a salvaged picket fence found at Second Chance into a headboard for her bed.
Tracey Clark spent eight years in Washington finding and selling architectural antiques. Much of her work revolved around cajoling developers to let her pluck material of historic value from old houses scheduled to be demolished. Six months ago, she moved to Baltimore and started working with Second Chance.
“I started out wanting to be an archaeologist, and a lot of people call our business urban archaeology, because in a lot of ways it is,” says Clark. “You go into old buildings and you’re a detective. What’s old, what’s of value, and what do the pieces tell you about the history of the building?”
On a pleasant weekday afternoon, she walks around one of the warehouses pointing out various pieces and reciting with great enthusiasm their historic lineages.
“I love this stuff,” she says, standing beside a long row of upright wooden doors stacked like dominoes. “It makes me sad when people throw it away and don’t understand it.”
Second Chance Inc., 1645 Warner St., 410-385-1101, http://www.secondchanceinc.org