Near the busy Five Corners intersection in Essex Junction, an unassuming warehouse complex holds one of Vermont's biggest recycling operations. While the central warehouse is the site of a former cannery, this is not a recycling plant that processes cans, bottles or copies of last week's Seven Days. Mason Brothers Architectural Salvage recycles old buildings — and nearly everything inside them.
David Knox, who's owned the business since 2005, says "keeping things out of the waste stream" is at the core of Mason Brothers' mission. Stacked in the store's aisles and hanging from its walls are window frames, doorknobs, claw-foot bathtubs, newel posts and countless other durable goods that might otherwise have been sent to landfills.
For homeowners and decorators, Mason Brothers offers more than just Earth friendliness. The place is an idea factory. The thousands of pieces of furniture, fixtures and hardware packed into its 13,000 square feet represent an almost unlimited array of options for rebuilding and redecorating.
The vintage doorknobs, light fixtures and hinges are too plentiful to describe or count. Larger items such as sinks, chandeliers and mantelpieces occupy every corner and aisle, with their prices and punning descriptions handwritten on stringed tags by longtime employee Brian Barclay. Then there's the stuff you can't haul away in your hatchback: enormous butcher-block counters and U-shaped restaurant bars, as well as several complete sets of kitchen cabinets.
Besides the carefully curated finished goods, Mason Brothers stocks thousands of board-feet of reclaimed lumber — more than enough to satisfy the DIY itch of even the most self-motivated homemaker. Sorted by wood type, condition and length, the boards run the gamut from chunky, pockmarked hunks to gorgeous old beams that look like they could support a family of rhinos.
OK, but big-box hardware stores carry plenty of lumber. Why opt for pine slabs from a 150-year-old barn when you can have the freshly cut stuff?
For Knox, it's a no-brainer. "If you use reclaimed pine for your flooring, it's going to last another hundred years," he says. "If you use new, farmed pine for your flooring, it's going to wear down and look like crap after a few years."
Look at the end of a cut pine board, he says, and count the growth rings. More rings means a denser wood. Old-growth pine, says Knox, can have up to 20 rings per inch, while farmed pine might have only four.
Anyone who's recently dined in one of Burlington's design-forward restaurants can confirm Knox's decree that "barn board is crazy-hot right now." Indeed, many shoppers at Mason Brothers are business owners or contractors looking to give a vintage appearance to new projects.
Likewise, consumer demand for retro — and even faux retro — items has climbed steadily over the past couple of decades. Just witness the success of home-goods businesses such as Restoration Hardware and the popularity of reality programs such as "Antiques Roadshow."
Knox happily acknowledges that the trend has been good for his business. His customers include many first-time homebuyers who want to tweak their new nest to suit their tastes. That could mean undertaking a straightforward project such as replacing chintzy new plumbing fixtures with older, classier ones; or a bigger task like swapping out a house's windows or banisters.
Knox notes with some surprise that many of his customers own "tiny houses," those small-scale domiciles that have recently surged in popularity among eco-minded homemakers. "It's really important in a tiny house to have a couple, few pieces that are really interesting," he says. "You've got less area to express yourself, so you need two, three, four pieces that'll really make an area." Such patrons, Knox says, tend to home in on items such as stained glass or unique front doors.
You want doors? Mason Brothers has doors. Upstairs, in an airy loft made chillier by unseasonably cool spring weather, hundreds of salvaged doors are arranged in bays: doors with four, five, six panels, ordered by descending size.
Mason Brothers is no jumble shop or ramshackle antiques mall. Though nearly every square inch of space is crammed with fixtures, furniture or building materials, the careful arrangement of the goods permits even an inexperienced shopper to locate the right materials.
Under former owner and namesake Dave Mason, the warehouse was arranged more haphazardly, Knox notes. Back then, too, he says, salvaged items weren't always tidied up before they were displayed in the showroom. Now, though, Knox and his employees take care to clean and polish objects such as the many claw-foot tubs — among the store's most popular items. "You can take this and be bathing in it tomorrow," Knox says, gesturing at one of the brilliantly white beauties.
The luminous tubs, many of them from the 1920s and '30s, are not just attractive and iconic. For Knox, they represent a bygone dedication to craft and durability. On many new tubs, he says, "The glaze is thinner, the iron is thinner ... They chip really easily. We have some tubs that are a hundred years old, and the glaze is still in mint condition. Planned obsolescence wasn't built into everything they made back then."
Where do Knox and his crew get all this stuff? Almost all of it comes from teardowns of homes and farms within a roughly 200-mile radius of Burlington, he says. That area includes much of Vermont, as well as chunks of New York and New Hampshire; Knox occasionally ventures farther for especially large or unusual salvages. A recent operation in Camden, Maine, was worth the trip: It yielded a bounty of 30 mint-condition claw-foot tubs.
"We buy things from architects, designers ... from contractors, from developers," says Knox — anyone who wants a building or buildings removed from a parcel of land. Mason Brothers then owns the building for a set period, extracting anything salable before the contract expires. The company does takedowns, large and small, year-round.
Mason Brothers' bread-and-butter business is in hardware fixtures, windows, doors and claw-foot tubs. But that doesn't prevent the store's owner from indulging his eye for unusual artifacts. Adventurous decorators will find plenty of curiosities.
For example, a homeowner with a flair for the dramatic might be attracted to a pair of pointy, wooden, red-velvet-upholstered chairs from a Masonic temple. And anyone who really wants to confound their neighbors could pick up the fully functional vacuum-tube-powered carillon simulator. This bizarre contraption, salvaged from a New Hampshire church, comes with audiotape cartridges that, when loaded into the silver-and-blue control unit, play a wide variety of church-bell tunes. Very useful for those times when your in-home carillon is acting up.
Another unwieldy object rests in pieces next to the warehouse's loading bay: an old multiblade windmill of the type once used on farms for pumping water. At 10 feet in diameter, it's the kind of thing that, once reassembled, could either be returned to useful service or become a striking decorative accent on a sufficiently large exterior wall.
Seven Days' visit to Mason Brothers coincides with that of a homeowner named Mark Anair — a regular customer who's purchased what Knox calls some "epic pieces" over the years. Anair strolls around, his gaze darting here and there. You can almost hear the mental gears turning as he envisions how he might put some of these old objects to new use. Then he sees the windmill blades.
"That would look good on the side of my barn," Anair says to Knox. "We'll be in touch."
The original print version of this article was headlined "Bedeck and Salvage"