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On why a salvage-filled space often feels better than one that’s brand-new.

I’d heard about the Hugo House baby coffin since my first writing class there 15 years ago, but I never saw it until this past May, when I got so drunk at a reading that I fell into it.

Hugo House’s original 11th Avenue location was constructed in 1902 as a mortuary, and while the presence of ghosts there is still debated, the baby coffin is not. That night in May, the final event at the old space, friends and staff levered me out of the turn-of-the-century mortuary relic and removed it from the building along with everything else they sought to protect from the coming bulldozers. The coffin will go wherever the Hugo House does. But what would become of the rest of the building’s treasures?

“Want the sign from the Hugo House?” my girlfriend, Mary Anne, asked a few days later. Second Use, the architectural salvage yard where she works, had just cleared the last usable materials from the building. “It’s huge—we could put it on the wall at our new apartment and host a reading series called “Dick Huge-O-House!”

I was relieved to discover that the bones and guts of a special place I’d expected to be reduced to sawdust would have new life. The Second Use website catalogs Hugo House’s remains like the contents of a jewelry box’s orderly velvet compartments or a pharaoh’s tomb, honoring rather than mindlessly capitalizing upon them: a hardwood mantel, café tables with event flyers still under the glass, ornate century-old windows.

The flourishing of the salvage industry is one of the few positive results from Seattle’s flattening by global capitalism. We may be unprotected by our city’s urban planning and rent policies, but at least the exploded pieces of the places we once loved might wind up somewhere we grow to love. Most of my wardrobe I’ve found in buildings slated for demolition, like a pair of pants old enough to have wooden buttons; a men’s wolfskin collar lined with 1940s grosgrain; a century-old shoe-shine kit. I’ve rescued these things from the invisible stream of time and its parade of endings.

Environmentally sound and cost-effective, salvaged materials appear at many aesthetically pleasing Seattle business opened over the past 10 years. I think we’re all done with the Portlandia preciousness of the word “reclaimed” (how I tire of heritage branding), but I love when people use salvaged materials without making a big bougie deal about it.

Taryn Roy and Sam Weyer of Greenwood’s Cozy Nut tavern dredged up the moldy remains of a barn that had slumped into a rhombus out in rural Duvall. They sanded and finished the cedar until it glowed and glued glass eyes all over it to create a delightful place to drink. John Bennet, owner of the Georgetown Ballroom and the neighboring Stables, is a former antiques dealer and salvage connoisseur, rescuing everything from old garage doors to funhouse mirrors for the construction and furnishing of his venues. Some of the windows at the Ballroom formerly outfitted Garfield High School. Garfield’s old cabinets found a home at Loretta’s Northwesterner in South Park, where the bar top is fashioned from elementary-school bleachers. Pioneer Square’s historic J&M Café and Cardroom, one of Seattle’s oldest bars, was remodeled in 2009, but its antique mahogany bar and framed photographs from the era of its construction were auctioned to Harry’s Bar on 15th, where you can enjoy them today.

One of the salvage expeditions Mary Anne went on with Second Use was to a custom-built mansion rumored to have been inhabited once by members of the ’70s arena-rock band Heart. The place was in Sammamish, and seemed like evidence of what can happen if you have a lot of money and no architect: room after room of white carpet and black granite surfaces, even a 25-panel stained-glass window depicting the seasons. The stained glass, apparently, will have a new home in an as-yet-undisclosed Pioneer Square bar.

Once at a beach I saw piles of objects—500 rubber ducks, a thousand rat traps—all washed up in clusters exclusive to that object. It seemed magical, the physics of the currents and each of these things so specific that they were delivered en masse from all over the Pacific to a one-foot-high pile on five square feet of Washington beach. The city’s reconstitution of itself is like this, salvage from a given building washing up elsewhere, except that rather than the physics of the ocean the guiding forces are sociology and taste. What we salvage speaks volumes about who we are.

A salvage-filled space often feels better than one that’s brand-new. This feeling isn’t just about the pleasure of being near beautiful objects—which is considerable—or even the proximity to stories and the sense that history is in motion and that we are part of it. It’s the reassurance of knowing that other people value beauty and history, and that you are in their company.

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