Cast Iron Fireplace Faces, 2011
When my wife and got married, we didn't have any money to spare. Our only furnishings were a few castoffs from relatives. We didn't have a dresser for the longest time. Our first "dining room" table was a rickety wicker affair with four flimsy chairs that had served duty in a variety of model homes until the developer concluded that they were too dangerous to risk having small children climb on.
What we didn't have I made out of found materials. Bookcases from recycled lumber. Lamps made with cheap lamp kits and chimney flue pipes painted bright colors.
Going to the Pleasants Hardware Store on Broad Street was one of my favorite Saturday morning pastimes. I'd wander the plumbing, heating and electrical aisles looking for cheap materials I could fashion into lamps or other practical necessities.
We loved that first apartment. It was on the second floor of an old three-story apartment house in the city. It had a covered porch on the front where we could find relief from the heat in the summer, grow tomatoes on the iron railing and have cookouts with friends.
When we finally started making a little money we could afford to replace the hand-me-down furnishings with new purchases, some old and some new. Saturday mornings at the hardware stores were replaced with Saturday afternoons at antique shops.
Sometimes we would head across the James River from our West-of-the-Boulevard pied a terre to the South Side and Caravati's salvage yard. In a warren of sheds, lean-tos and dark storefronts, old man Caravati kept hundred of old doors, staircases, fireplace surrounds, mantles, windows, wood paneling, floorboards and all manner of other architectural relics salvaged from the demolition of grand old homes all over Central Virginia.
I might come home from Caravati's with a piece of leaded glass or an old sconce from a church or, on one occasion that completely confounded my wife, a long mahogany bannister. Like the newel post I brought home on another occasion, we didn't need any of this stuff. But that didn't stop me. I'd sand the old paint off, put some stain and polyurethane on them and prop them up against the wall.
We carried this stuff around with us through a succession of apartments, a condo and then our first house. Over time, my wife's design tastes changed and most of those old pieces of history got sold at yard sales or given away.
After we moved away from Richmond, a fire destroyed Mr. Caravati's salvage yard. A few years later I heard that Caravati's grandson had decided to re-open the family business in an old warehouse down by the James River. The first time I visited the new Caravati's, I was taken aback by the prices. Old man Caravati had prices that reflected the shabby salvage yard. The grandson's place had two sprawling floors of the same kind of stuff, but prices reflected the intention to serve a more gentrified clientele.
Window Sash Weights, 2011
Still, every now and then if I’m in Richmond I’ll make a trip across the river to Caravati's. The once desolate and flood-prone industrial neighborhood is now home to a lot of hip start-ups. Even if I don’t buy anything, Caravati's is still a great place to wander around and imagine what I could make out of old doors, windows, wood paneling, recycled hardwood floors, cast iron railings, sinks, tubs and hundreds of other old fittings. They're just leaned up against the wall or piled up on the floor. It’s a perfect place to spend an afternoon.
Comparing Tiles, 2011