Alice in Wonderland
For over 25 years, Alice Dunn of Portland Architectural Salvage has seen potential in pieces from every era, helping to preserve history and lighten landfills
Alice Dunn knows how to pick ’em. Just before 10 a.m., customers are milling around the unassuming, three-story brick and clapboard building that houses Dunn’s business, Portland Architectural Salvage. It’s in Bayside, a warehouse-y but gentrifying part of town. They’re waiting, coffee in hand, for the general manager, Scott Caldwell, to open the store’s tall salvaged doors. What they’ll find inside is anyone’s guess. One thing’s for sure: the pieces will be patinaed and unique.
The morning of my visit I spot a rusty brachiosaurus (or maybe it is a brontosaurus), an arcade game wheel, a Murano glass chandelier fit for a fairy tale, a gilded rococo mirror that would have made Marie Antoinette blush, a 40-drawer oak flat file, enough soap holders to outfit every shower stall in the state, and a well-worn rack of robin’s-egg blue glass mason jars that, had I been planning a rustic wedding, I would have wheeled right out the door.
Dunn didn’t always preside over 20,000 square feet. Before she purchased this former mattress factory building in 2005, Portland Architectural Salvage occupied three significantly smaller locations. Before that, Dunn rented a warehouse to store finds that she had plucked from nearby transfer stations. “The old guys running them would put the good stuff aside for me,” she says. “I started to hoard, eventually I got a ware-house, and it took off.”
The first time Dunn visited a transfer station around 25 years ago, she was astounded. While she had scoured a salvage shop in Boston during her very first renovation—four rundown apartment buildings purchased from an elderly pair of Italian sisters—by her second project she was savvier. “Wooden doors were expensive—$150 each—and dumps were burning them,” she recalls. She quickly discovered that everything was fair game. She says, “I’d say, ‘What do you mean all this stuff is free?’ and they’d say, ‘You’re helping us, take it.’ And I’d say, ‘What about the hardware? And the bathtubs? And they’re like, ‘Take it!’” Things have changed a bit since then, and Dunn says she hasn’t visited those locations in 22 years.
Dunn is careful to stock items at every price point. “There’s recycling, and there’s fancy stuff for fancy clients,” she says. “We want everyone to feel comfortable.” The first floor is the most polished, with designer lighting, industrial tables, and antique cabinets. The second floor has bathroom sinks and tubs, as well as architectural columns and Victorian lighting. The top floor includes wood beams and slabs, outdoor furniture and garden-related goods, and mantels and fireplace accoutrements. The bulk of the house parts—doors, windows, stairs, shutters, and such—are in the basement.
Portland-based interior designer Tyler Karu is a longtime client. She says, “I’ve taken corbels and columns with carved details that were on exteriors she’s salvaged and found ways to use them indoors on kitchen islands or to differentiate openings between rooms.” She’s also mined Dunn’s inventory for architecturally appropriate storage pieces, which she builds into old homes to look original. “Alice’s pieces have just the right amount of patina,” she says.
When I ask what sells, both Dunn and Caldwell are quick to answer: “Stained glass windows.” Caldwell points to two personal favorites: a church window with an angel and an apothecary window that came from the family who founded a well-known drugstore. Other hot items? Chicken wire glass doors, industrial-style elevator doors, slate sinks, period plumbing fixtures, and hardware, a niche that Caldwell has expanded over the years. What doesn’t sell? Brown furniture. “Every day people ask us to take their parents’ bedroom sets,” Dunn says. “We tell them to put them on Craigslist or donate them.”
These days, Dunn is evaluating more than just salvaged house parts and old furniture. She’s looking at her life. “I’m thinking about transitioning out of this,” she says. “I’m going to be 60, and physically, I just can’t do it anymore.” She even fantasizes about buying a farm.
In the meantime, Dunn is renovating an 1870s Victorian in Portland’s West End, which she says will be her forever home. It will be simpler than her past homes, with a minimalist kitchen and bathrooms. She vows to never again step into a clawfoot tub. “Less is more for me right now, but it’s a bit of a conflict, since that’s not who I am,” she says. Then she tells me a story about a bicoastal designer with a light and airy aesthetic, whose house makes her want to weep. “She only has objects she wants to live with for the rest of her life,” she says. “I want that.”
Preserving the Past
Alice Dunn and Scott Caldwell offer tips on buying and keeping aged treasures.
- If you hope to incorporate salvaged windows or doors into a project, ﬁnd ones you love ﬁrst, then build around them. It’s much easier than trying to retroﬁt. Plus, Caldwell points out, “Cutting a piece changes the scale, which changes the look.”
- Don’t paint antique hardware. Take the extra time to remove it before painting. “It’s horrible to see old bronze hinges with so many layers of paint that you can’t see its beautiful detailing anymore,” Caldwell laments.
- Leave some patina. Don’t overclean brass and copper; it can destroy its value. Not everyone wants brightly polished metal.
- It’s okay to negotiate at a place like the Brimﬁeld Antique Show, but don’t be disrespectful by offering half the asking price. Dunn advises saying something along the lines of, “I really like this and want to give it to my mom. Can you do any better?” If they really want to sell, they’ll bring down the price.