The footnotes of design history may record Washington Navy Yard as a source of hidden treasure.
All along the old sea wall at Third Street SE, the Anacostia River has washed over a cache of heart pine timbers dating from the last century.
More than 3,000 pilings cut from Southern longleaf pine have been submerged in the muck--and protected by it--since the pier was completed in 1916. Now those logs, measuring up to 65 feet in length, are being reclaimed and turned into luxury lumber.
"The whole beauty of the wood is the aging," says Willie Drake, president of Mountain Lumber Co. of Ruckersville, Va., and recipient of the Navy Yard's lode of pilings with provenance.
Restoration experts and architects covet so-called antique wood for its historicity and rich hues. These first-growth timbers were saplings when Christopher Columbus crossed the ocean. That's the kind of precious material sought for projects from Blair House and the secretary of state's office here in Washington to the Eddie Bauer store in Seattle. Increasingly, it is making a high-end design statement in private homes, where vintage wood turns up as flooring, mantels, beams, cabinetry, railings and doors.
Salvaged lumber also makes an environmental statement. Drake prides himself on running "a lumber company that hasn't cut down a tree."
Longleaf pine forests once stretched from Virginia to east Texas in a band 150 miles wide. Trees grew slowly and ramrod-straight, to heights of 100 feet or more. But the vast forests were used up by 1930, turned into mills, factories, warehouses and other commercial structures.
Drake began reclaiming lumber more than 25 years ago, salvaging American chestnut timbers from an old barn. Lately, he has been working in the Savannah, Ga., harbor to raise pilings dating from the 18th century.
On a crisp November morning, Drake stood in a brisk wind at the edge of the derelict Washington Navy Yard pier. He watched demolition workers from Modern Continental South Inc. tackle the last stretch of unexplored water. They were directly over Metro's Green Line tunnel, on what is now General Services Administration land.
A crane operator aimed the clamps of an extracting machine into eddies clouded by the incoming tide. Near a cluster of exposed pilings, he dipped below the surface to locate another. The contraption shook a log from its resting place and raised it halfway. It was judged too knotty to keep, and the giant claw moved on.
Salvage is 90 percent complete. Drake has been working with Navy Yard timbers since mid-July, hoping to salvage 300,000 board feet of heart pine. He has begun offering finished Navy Yard planks as "Tidewater Pine" flooring at $6 a square foot. Mineral deposits left by the Anacostia River have shaded them bronze and green.
Mountain Lumber banks on the cachet of history, marketing its floorboards with documentation and old photos. In this case, one shows servicemen and civilians gathering on the 1,400-foot pier to greet Charles Lindbergh in 1927, a snapshot of the Navy Yard in its heyday.
"Every floor has a story to tell," Drake says. "We actually found bullets in these timbers from the first replicating rifles."
The Barbra Streisand auction at Christie's this week brought a total of $4.8 million. A sideboard by Gustav Stickley, a key figure in the American Arts and Crafts movement, set a record for furniture of the period at $596,500. The buyer was anonymous. Two corner cabinets made by Stickley for his Craftsman Farms, now a house museum in Morris Plains, N.J., were purchased by the museum for $142,500.
Ready for the next wave in decor? Join Linda Hales live online Thursday at 2 p.m. This week's guest: style-watcher Marjory Segal of the Well-Furnished Garden and Home in Bethesda. Send questions starting tonight to www.washingtonpost.com/liveonline.