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Feature Story: Reclaiming Old Treasures

At Landmark Reclamation Co., the old becomes new. Or something else entirely.



This is Landmark Reclamation Co.: Architectural Antiques & Salvage, a casually stylish Fan District retailer that's operated out of its sprawling, brick building at 1708 W. Cary St. since last spring. While the name describes the place, its owners say the handsome and textured elements they like to purvey — and what their customers excitedly weave into their indoor and outdoor living spaces — are increasingly difficult to find.

"We get calls all the time from folks asking if we'll come pick up something," the store's co-owner and manager Leigh Towell Jr. says. "One day a woman phoned and asked if we'd remove 20 radiators and pull out the window frames at a house she was renovating. On top of that, she wanted us to write her a check for what we took. I thought, 'Lady, are you from Mars?'" Towell throws back his head of tousled head and lets out a laugh. "Radiators give off a wonderful heat, but to send a truck and take that many radiators out without damaging her floors — tell me how we're going to make a buck on that?"

"Finding the pieces is one of the biggest expenses in our business," says co-owner Chris McCracken, who has been friends with Towell since the two were boys growing up in Richmond, exploring the James River banks and old neighborhood buildings. Today, at 45 and partners in business, they don't think twice about driving to North Carolina, Philadelphia or even New York City to check out the possibilities of pieces that can be rescued from a not-long-for-this-world old house, church or commercial building. In Philly they recently bought a 125-year-old oak mantel out of a threatened church rectory.

"But once you find something, you have to pay people to go and get it," cautions McCracken (whose wife is an account executive at Style Weekly). "And everybody has champagne tastes," he continues. "We'd love to do nothing but sell all the good stuff, but the law of physics says you can't collect good antiques without taking some junk with them."

"But there's no set standard of taste in what we purchase," McCracken says. "We want things that will appeal to everyone."

It's clear, however, not just from the merchandise but also from the display and organization of Landmark Reclamation, that Towell and McCracken have a discerning eye and retail flair. The merchandise is well-displayed, clearly marked, and cleaned up — but not too pristine or stripped down.

They say they do, however, draw the line at certain things. Don't go shopping at Landmark for a commode, for example. McCracken says a Richmonder of considerable refinement was in the store recently and blessed the place with her highest praise: "It's so good to shop in a place like this and not see any toilets."

Towell says that from experience, he can pretty much decide from an initial phone conversation which leads he should pursue. "When a call comes in," he says, "I ask six questions and know if I should take a look."

Most importantly: Does the caller own the building? "Just because a house across the street is abandoned doesn't mean you can go in," he says, smiling.

Secondly, Towell says he asks if the house is built of wood or brick. "We don't take brick because we don't have the space for it," he says. "We will look at brick if its from before 1800."

"Has water gotten in?" is his third question. "There's value in old flooring in good condition," he says.

Before he can continue, the shop telephone actually does ring. It's a late Saturday morning and the store is getting some traffic. There are a few young couples doing comparative shopping and generating ideas and some older men who look, well, like they just wanted to get out of the house for awhile.

Towell answers the phone cheerfully at the front counter: "Landmark." Pause. "I don't have copper ones. I have some terra-cotta ones that are English-looking." Pause. "We're on West Cary. Yep, parking is right out front."

Hanging up, Towell explains the caller was in search of chimney caps — but not necessarily for the roof. "There're just as likely to stick them in the garden and put flowers in it as place them on a chimney," he says.

It seems many of Landmark's patrons have something entirely different in mind for their finds than their original intended use.

On this particular Saturday in March, repeat customer Kenneth Iseman is considering yet another purchase for the fenced backyard of his condominium townhouse in the near West End. A few weeks ago he purchased a 1920s concrete bench, but he's holding off delivery until some landscaping work is completed.

"Try and lift it," he challenges a few people passing by. They try; it doesn't budge. This morning he's considering the purchase of a metal screen that he thinks would enliven a garden gate he describes as "cookie cutter." The screen was one of 10 teller windows in a Parisian bank. Landmark Reclamation has sold all but two.

"I'm looking for things that will make my yard distinctive," Iseman says. An antique lunette, or fan, window propped up nearby catches his eye. "I think I'll knock out the glass and let roses grow through," he says. "I've lived in Richmond all my life and this place is one of the greatest finds. My kids are grown and it's the time of my life I can do what I want."

After making a payment, Iseman asks Towell if he knows of anyone who can help him lay some stone. Towell assures him he'll find somebody within a day or two.

"It just takes a few things to tone down some new-looking construction," Towell says of the effect many of his customers are seeking. "Something that reminds you of your grandmother's house. Everybody is going back to an older-style look. They're mixing things up and that's helping us 100 percent."

"We get of people doing historic restorations coming in. We've discussed architectural elements for rebuilding a presidential birthplace in Westmoreland County," Towell says. And although he and McCracken say they've met a lot of people since they opened their business, they're still ascertaining who their customer is.

"We get a lot of builders and a lot of decorators," Towell says. "And we get a lot of students coming in for something little, not expensive — a piece of iron, a tile. They'll surprise you better than anybody with how they can work with anything."

"I'd like to have a lot more architects poking around because so much of this requires installation work to fit it in before the construction gets too far along. I try to warn people: If you like it, be prepared to know what follows. I don't want some gal to be dragging something huge back here because it didn't work or she didn't know what was involved."

"We're about connections," Towell says. "Putting together old and new, collector and craftsman."

Among their finds and engaging customers in their milieu, Towell and McCracken look like a couple of kids in a candy store. Why not? They actually grew up and eventually went into business doing what they loved to do as boys. Although they say they had some close calls as youngsters — sliding down, or on another occasion, falling off a steep roof — each has a salvaged architectural piece from his boyhood wanderings placed on his desk.

At the University of South Carolina, Towell earned a business degree. He later worked for S.B. Cox, a large Richmond-based demolition company.

McCracken graduated from Elon College with a business degree and became a contractor, specializing in high-end residential and renovation projects. It was one of his motivations in starting the company, he says: "Partially from that activity over 20 years I'd had accumulated a warehouse of stuff and it was costing me to store it.

A third partner, Anne Marrin (and a cousin of McCracken's) works part time with accounting and developing and maintaining the company's Web site. "We wanted to do this right," McCracken says of the new business, "We didn't want to start in the Dark Ages."

And after a year, what's their rarest find among the old and unusual things that have passed through their business? "That's easy," Towell says, grinning: "It's whatever we can't find." HS


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