Back to previous page


Post Most

From Cleveland’s dilapidated buildings, salvage workers unearth treasures

By ,

East Cleveland, Ohio — Inside a forgotten apartment building off Eddy Road, Tom Hennessy is hunting ghosts.

He has come to this once-stately, long-abandoned structure to sift for the beauty inside the mess, to reap something salvageable from its old bones. Fine wood. Intricate moulding. Antique fixtures. Whatever it might have left to give.

The neglected edifice, known as the Ardmore and built just after the turn of the century, has crumbling ceilings and busted-out windows. The copper pipes were stolen long ago. Graffiti artists tagged the walls. Weeds have taken over outside. It has sat empty for years, just like the building next door, and the one next to that, like thousands of others in Cleveland beset by population loss and a brutal housing crisis.

Recently, the Ardmore received a death sentence. It will be torn down in a matter of days, part of an ongoing effort to demolish vacant and abandoned properties and chip away at blight. But first, Hennessy and his colleagues have a chance to salvage whatever is worth saving.

They work for a small firm called A Piece of Cleveland, which specializes in the “deconstruction” of buildings headed for demolition. They bid on the jobs, agreeing to tear down the buildings after they have scoured them from top to bottom.

The idea: To salvage perfectly good wood and other materials from the past and to give them a future in the form of custom-made furniture and other projects. To take a forgotten corner of the city and to give it new life. To save a slice of history before the bulldozers erase it forever.

It is part of the growing business of reclaiming pieces of condemned homes, as well as a speck of optimism in the face of the economic scourge that has devastated Cleveland and left behind falling property values, rotting eyesores and endless frustration.

“It’s our treasure hunt,” says Hennessy, 39, blue-eyed and soft-spoken, and sweaty toward the end of a day spent peeling up pine floors and sawing through old joists.

In recent years, he and his colleagues have deconstructed offices and old homes, empty churches, a school and vacant apartment dwellings like the one off Eddy Road. Each building is a mystery, each room its own puzzle.

Where others see ruin, they see the craftsmanship of built-in cabinets and stone masonry. In the waste of the foreclosure crisis, they see slivers worth preserving.

“Pine, maple, birch. Beech, honey locust, purple heart,” Hennessy says, eyeing the stripped-out interior of the Ardmore and recalling the types of wood he has encountered. “This stuff is more beautiful than anything you could buy today.”

Then there are the stories that emerge from the walls. Birthday cards and old records buried behind fireplace mantels. A picture of a well-dressed couple with the man’s head carefully snipped out. Faded postcards like the one dated March 12, 1941, to Mr. & Mrs. Snyder, letting them know of a change in Saturday night’s plans.

“You think about the people who lived here, who built it,” Hennessy says of the wave of immigrants who settled here. “Many of them probably didn’t even speak English.”

With the autumn sun fading, Hennessy packs up his truck and excuses the workers helping him dismantle the building, two young men hired through a local program aimed at finding permanent employment for ex-convicts and other at-risk residents. Tomorrow, they will press on inside the Ardmore.

He lingers for a moment to talk about the properties that got away. Earlier in the day, an excavator demolished an apartment building one street over, and other homes nearby are on the chopping block. Often, he finds himself wincing at the sight of perfectly preserved, generations-old wood surrendering to the heavy machines.

“You can’t save it all,” he says wistfully.

But they have saved some.

Tonight, at a local jazz club, the saxophone’s notes will drift across wood tables that once made up the homes where Hungarian immigrants flocked a century ago. The welcome desk of a hospital off Euclid Avenue shines with refinished oak and maple from a former post office. The patrons inside the Capitol Theatre off W. 65th Street will lounge on pine benches that once housed an Italian family who held pasta dinners on their front porch on Sunday evenings. Diners inside the Fahrenheit restaurant will eat their black-truffle cheese pizza and maple-glazed sweet potatoes on tables fashioned from the remains of a 1927 home that stood west of downtown.

That home is gone, but pieces of it live on. Not so unlike the city itself.

© The Washington Post Company