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Preserving history, onehouse--or door--at a time

Preserving history, onehouse--or door--at a time

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BY RICHARD AMRHINE

If he had his way, Craig Jacobs would transport the "architectural antiquities" he salvages directly to where they'll be reused.

"It's best if you only have to handle it one time," he said. "It's more efficient."

But looking at the array of items that fills the three huge, old turkey barns he rents in southern Orange County, it doesn't always work out that way.

Jacobs has run the business called Salvagewrights Ltd. for the past seven years or so and has five guys working for him. He divides his time between collecting and reselling parts from old houses, and dismantling historic struc-tures that he'll reassemble piece by piece at a new site.

"My goal is to keep houses together as much as possible," he said. There is always a market for salvaged parts that people will use in restoration projects to keep a structure as authentic to its time period as they can.

Jacobs also lives in the era he works, sort of. He and his wife have raised five daughters in a Madison County log cabin that he has called "two steps above camping." Computer? Yes. TV? No.

He has a special affinity for pre-Civil War structures that use post-and-beam or mortise-and-tenon construction. One of his barns holds piles of numbered lumber that are actually cabins, barns or houses waiting for a new site for reconstruction. Boards are often numbered in yellow, red or blue to denote the first, second or third story, respectively.

"That way we'll know where it goes when it comes off the truck," he said, which is important when there are multiple tractor-trailer loads of parts.

Some of the wood is identifiable at a glance, like the monster, hand-hewn, 12 by 12-inch posts that are 30 to 40 feet long. They are from trees harvested a couple of centuries ago, give or take, and you won't find them at the local lumber yard, he said.

Jacobs has gained a reputation that has taken him as far west as Indiana, as far south as Georgia and as far north as upstate New York to claim structures that might otherwise be lost to rot or a bulldozer.

A few years ago he worked with local builder Dan Spear to disassemble and move a huge plantation house from North Carolina to Spear's Spotsylvania homestead, where it was reassembled and restored. Spear said at the time he was amazed how even scratches in floorboards would match up as the house was put back together.

From that project, Jacobs had saved the leftover laths, the thin strips of wood that form the foundation for plaster walls. So when Montpelier officials called to ask if he had laths suitable for their restoration project, he had them close at hand.

"With all this talk about going green--what's greener than moving a house and reusing everything," said Jacobs.

AND THE KITCHEN SINK

And speaking of everything, Jacobs has got everything--including the kitchen sink. Dozens of them, actually. And just as many claw-foot tubs. And ornate old toilets that look like they'd make powder-room visits pretty special.

Need to replace windows or doors for a restoration project? There are hundreds of them here, in all shapes and sizes and styles, whether you're trying to match an 1815 plantation house, or a 1930s bungalow.

Looking for the perfect size or style of fireplace mantel? He's got a hundred of them. Porch railings? You bet.

Many old pieces are identified with religious references, like the "HL," or "Holy Lord" hinges, or the "cross and open Bible" six-panel doors.

Near his barns right now is what will become a customer's guest house, assembled using boards salvaged from sites in Maryland, and a bit closer in Madison and Rappahannock counties.

With his experience in working with old parts and structures, Jacobs, who is 48, carries around in his head a virtual card catalog of what he has and how it can be used. The price is set when a customer asks, "How much?"

Ask him if he has hand-forged hinges, and he'll ask what size and how many. He even has a complete dumbwaiter--compartment, gears and pulleys--from an old house in Pennsylvania.

DATING CLUES

He refers to "indicators" that can help him date a part or structure.

"Does it have nails? Are they cut nails, wire nails or hand-forged nails? What is the roof pitch? How many panes in the windows?"

Pointing to twisted-metal lightning rods that could become rustic curtain rods in a restored home, Jacobs said many things can be reused other than for their original purposes.

Much of the lumber in his inventory is Southern pine, which he called "an amazing material" for its durability and versatility. He noted that the term "heart pine," which is a specific pine species, is often misused in reference to any quality Southern pine that has a tight grain from being allowed to grow slowly.

Looking for red Fauquier sandstone keystones, true Belgian paving blocks, real Buckingham (Virginia) roofing slates or stone slabs the size of a car hood? They're all here, waiting for a new place to call home. He believes some of the stones he has were used as ballast in British ships, removed when the vessels were refilled with tobacco and cotton for the trip back home.

Does every item he has come with a story? Jacobs smiles. "I like to tell [customers] that I'll give it to them for free, but the story's going to cost you," he said.

Richard Amrhine: 540/374-5406

Email: ramrhine@freelancestar.com

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