Reclaiming pieces from the past

Cleveland is a city that turned a streetcar powerhouse into an aquarium. Converted a failed bank into a swanky restaurant. Transformed a former car factory into art studios, and an old creamery into an athletic club.

Innovators here are increasingly finding new, beautiful uses for abandoned buildings, honoring their history while giving the spaces new life. But not everyone finds value in these places, and not all structures can be saved.

That’s where local companies like Old School Architectural Salvage Project come in. Old School tracks down construction and demolition projects in and outside of Cleveland and acquires wood and other materials that would otherwise be destined for the landfill.   

Salvaged wood decking from the Columbus Road Bridge acquired by Old School and sand casting forms from Taylor & Boggis Foundry Co. acquired by Rustbelt Reclamation were used to build customized tables at The Corner, the much-anticipated bar at Progressive Field nestled in the stands in right field. Rustbelt Reclamation upcycled the old materials into customized furniture.  

<span class="content-image-text">Rustbelt Reclamation</span>Rustbelt Reclamation
That project is a favorite for John DeLuca, owner of Old School Architectural Salvage, who has been reclaiming materials for more than 20 years.

“After months of negotiating access, my crew and I were able to purchase and salvage many iron and wood components [from the bridge],” he says. He then sold the pieces to Rustbelt Reclamation, which transformed the lumber and foundry forms into the lavish furnishings.

Once a rarity, furniture made with reclaimed pieces is sprouting up across the city, and not just at the unique, hip bars and restaurants you’d expect. First Watch hired Rustbelt Reclamation to make reception desks and booth tables for their franchises across the country. Wood salvaged from Beachwood High School created tables at the city’s Winking Lizard location. Slate chalkboards from Old School were used to build the bar top at Brick and Barrel, which leaves out chalk for customers to get creative at the new brewery.

One of the biggest misconceptions about this work is that reclaimed materials are free.

“It costs a lot to do salvage work, with the labor, insurance and storage [involved],” DeLuca says. “If it were cheaper and easier, all of the wood would be reclaimed.”

But salvagers have their reasons.

Gems you can’t replicate

Old School Architectural Salvage Project is housed in a 20,000-square-foot factory in the Flats. Iron gates, church pews, gym flooring, doors with chicken wire glass, lockers and other procured objects fill most of the space, much of it from schools. “Districts let vacant schools fall apart, and it’s painful to watch,” DeLuca says. “It’s not their priority, and I wouldn’t want it to be.” A 6-foot-wide pathway allows people to walk through and view the treasures.

<span class="content-image-text">Old School Architectural Salvage Project</span>Old School Architectural Salvage Project

“It filled up a month after we moved in,” said DeLuca, who bought the factory space two years ago. “It was a mess. The copper piping was stolen. But you have to control your own cheap space to be able to do this.”

DeLuca first got into the business out of necessity. He was rehabbing homes he bought in Ohio City and needed materials for his projects.

“I needed to get things for free,” he says. “And I hate to see things that are useful get wasted.”

That was a mantra he repeated often as he walked around his space and told stories about the scoreboard, science lab tables, and one of his favorite finds – an industrial cardboard cutting machine he sees fitting well as a display table in a retail store.

“The materials we salvage most are doors and wood flooring. Those take most of our time and occupy more of our warehouse than other categories,”’ DeLuca said. “We have over 1,000 doors at any given time. We usually have 5,000 to 10,000 square feet of salvaged maple, oak, and pine flooring on hand.”

On a recent Saturday afternoon, Christopher Diehl, architect for the city of Cleveland, stops by. He tours the space and takes special interest in post office mail slots DeLuca found in Pennsylvania.

“I drove 200 miles to get that,” DeLuca says. “We went there primarily for doors, but ended up buying that, too.”

He also leafs through slate chalkboards, some of which date back to the 1870s. Pieces often identify the quarries they came from.

“I’ll be back because I love slate chalkboards,” Diehl says. “White boards just aren’t the same.”

DeLuca increased the scale of his work 10 years ago. Most of the salvaged pieces used to end up outside of Cleveland, but now it’s a 50/50 split in terms of what stays in the city or is sent elsewhere, to places as far as Japan. People in Northeast Ohio are increasingly valuing these materials. He has about six part-time employees he works with, “people like musicians and artists who can pick up and help us with a project for a few days.” He can try to plan ahead as much as possible, but the schedule is often erratic and unpredictable.

“Even if I know about a project for three years, I get two days [to salvage materials]. Typical notice time is a week at most,” he says. “We get anywhere from a half a day, and if we’re lucky, a month. It’s a very interesting business. No two days are even remotely similar.”

The work is very labor-intensive as well, and getting the materials isn’t always cheap. Floor boards are especially challenging – the crew has to harvest them in a certain way and remove the nails. But you can’t find the same quality of wood today – old-growth trees produce better material than new. Despite the value, old wood is often thrown out.

Giving materials new life

The stories and sustainability of materials are what inspire Jeff and Zora Eizember of (ARC)form, their architecture, interior design and landscaping firm, to use reclaimed doors, gym floors, chalkboards and wood scraps to build everything from bars to hardwood floors to stools.

“The bench installations we did at Tremont Athletic Club, those were made out of old reclaimed gym flooring from Taft Elementary. And the owner of TAC later found out his mom went there,” Zora explains. “It’s just this beautiful circle.”

<span class="content-image-text">Reclaimed wood entertainment stand created by Jeff of (ARC)form</span>Reclaimed wood entertainment stand created by Jeff of (ARC)form

She got her start salvaging with her dad. They used to drive around looking for items others had discarded. These days, the husband-and-wife team get most of their construction materials from John DeLuca.

“He’s good. He knows what we like,” says Jeff, who founded (ARC)form. “How he salvages materials, he sends us enough that we can actually use it as flooring for houses. If it wasn’t done properly, we wouldn’t be able to do that. It would be cost-prohibitive.”

The found pieces all have slightly different stains, resulting in gorgeous, multi-hued floors.

“It’s one of those aesthetics you can’t replicate because the amount of time it would take to stain each individual board. You wouldn’t do that,” he says. “It would look sloppy if you took newer wood and took different colors and put it together. This is much more organic. It has some meaning to it, too, because there’s a history there.”

The couple, who work with clients “from conception to completion,” construct projects that are registered for LEED certification, and add more sustainability to their structures with their recycled lumber and other materials. It also gives their work a rustic, beautifully worn aesthetic. A recent example is their project for The Spotted Owl, where the bar was created from reclaimed barn wood. Even the bathroom vanities and doors were found at DeLuca’s warehouse.

“We bounce ideas off of DeLuca; sometimes we go and just talk to him and have an inventory in our mind so when we are talking to potential clients we have a game plan,” Zora says.

Jeff jumps in. “You don’t always know what you’re going to get. John’s place is like going to Marshalls; you can’t go in there with an agenda that you want to get a certain thing. You have to figure out what is available, and how it can be used to execute whatever project you’re working on.”

And that’s what makes the materials so meaningful.

“You can’t buy that anywhere, or if you do, it’s extremely wasteful or extremely costly,” Zora says. “And it’s always nice to give something new life."

Michelle Simakis
Michelle Simakis

About the Author: Michelle Simakis

Michelle Simakis is editor of Garden Center magazine, a trade publication serving independent garden center retailers and lives in Cleveland. She has also covered Cleveland Heights for, an online community news source.