A New Life For Old Homes: Seattle’s Earthwise Architectural Salvage expands to Tacoma

Kurt Petrauskas remembers a period more than 20 years ago when he started looking at his job a little differently.

Petrauskas was a general contractor working on high-end home renovations and demolitions in Seattle. Work was busy and good, but very routine. At one point, he was getting ready to dump old building materials from a job site into a landfill when he paused. “The traditional way is to bring in an excavator, a bulldozer, knock the thing down, crunch it into toothpicks, and take it to the landfill,” Petrauskas recalled one rainy morning recently in Tacoma. “I would sit there at the dump and take really nice single-pane windows, nothing wrong with them, and I would look down into the pit, and I just couldn’t do it.”

Petrauskas was so sure the material he was throwing away was perfectly salvageable that he decided to buy an old house and completely gut and renovate it using the scraps he scavenged and scrounged from demolition job sites. Sometimes he would drive around the city scouting for home demolitions and ask if he could haul the old lumber, doors, and windows away. Other times he would go to the local landfill, scope out building materials other contractors were getting ready to toss, and ask if he could haul some of it away.

“I would scale out with more than I came in there with,” said Petrauskas, laughing today at how odd he must have looked back then in the eyes of other contractors.

Still, Petrauskas, who graduated from the University of Illinois with a degree in biology before moving to the Pacific Northwest, knew he wasn’t the only person who saw value in old building materials. In 1991, he opened Earthwise Architectural Salvage in Seattle long before “reduce, reuse, recycle” became a mantra. “My niece says, ‘Uncle Kurt, you were green before they even intended the word green,’” he said. He quickly learned there was a market for salvaged building materials. Over the past 20 years, Earthwise Architectural Salvage has been a destination for DIY homeowners, interior designers, contractors, architects, carpenters, and artists. You might have even seen some of the company’s salvaged lumber, iron work, and vintage light fixtures in many Seattle shops, restaurants, and bars, including Starbucks-owned Roy Street Coffee and Tea, Grim’s Restaurant and Lounge, Oddfellows Cafe and Bar, Rudy’s Barbershop, and The Kingfish Cafe.

Earthwise Architectural Salvage expanded to Tacoma last summer. The store, located at 628 East 60th St., on Tacoma’s East Side, is managed by Tacoma native Tracy Earles and Karen Carston, and occupies two floors and approximately 14,000 square feet of the Hillsdale Lumber Company. Earles and Carston have been busy promoting the Tacoma store to locals by setting up booths at the Tacoma Home and Garden Show in January, the 6th Annual South Sound Sustainability Expo in March, and Earth Day Weekend events at Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium in April.

“There’s a lot of homeowner interest in locating replacement windows, hardware, doors, et cetera for their older homes,” said Historic Tacoma Board Vice President Sharon Winters. “Up until the Earthwise move to Tacoma, we all had to go to Seattle or Olympia to dive through salvaged architectural materials. Earthwise provides an alternative to buying new reproduction building materials and supports an ethic of re-use. While purchasing new materials is sometimes the best choice, we support re-use because we think it is sound environmental practice and because we love the patina of old building stock.”

Earlier this year, Historic Tacoma raved about Earthwise Architectural Salvage in an e-mail newsletter to its members, highlighting its “wealth of small to large items from brass doorknobs to gently used kitchen cabinets and hard to find reclaimed beams” and an impressive “range of materials that were very well-organized and attractively merchandised. We spotted a number of great vintage lighting fixtures, some very cool gym flooring (some pieces had letters — gimme a “K”), and we’re still thinking about the appropriate installation for that lavender toilet.”

The Tacoma Daily Index recently spoke with Petrauskas about his company, its expansion to Tacoma, and his interest in historic preservation.

ON THE EARLY HISTORY OF EARTHWISE ARCHITECTURAL SALVAGE
I did all kinds of different things before I was a general contractor in Seattle doing high-end remodels. We were just throwing this stuff away. It was part of the natural progression of doing the work. You go in there, you take out what the client wants removed, and you put in the new stuff they want. I was throwing this stuff out. I got married and bought a complete dump house and totally gutted it and built the whole house out of used building materials. I did all the woodwork out of salvaged fir. I said, “There’s got to be more people like me.” There was nobody in the area that was doing any of this. I was just using the material that was left over on the job site. I would bring home all this lumber. I would stay up at night and de-nail it all and then I would have sales on the weekends.

ON HIS DECISION TO OPEN IN TACOMA
We’ve been up in Seattle for over 20 years, so we’re pretty embedded there. I [thought about] Tacoma because there’s nothing like it. Tacoma’s got a great history. It’s actually older than Seattle. I said, “I think Tacoma has the market and the surrounding area. I think there’s a market. I think people will appreciate what we do down here, as they do up in Seattle.” It is different [in Seattle than in Tacoma]. But I’m not sure [if it's] because we are so young down here.

When the Seattle store started, it was very similar to what we are experiencing now in Tacoma. It was more ‘function’ as opposed to ‘form.’ When Earthwise started in Seattle 20 years ago, it was [about] function and people would come to the store because they needed cabinets or they needed a hot water heater or they needed a door. In Seattle, it used to be 100 percent function and a little bit of form. Now in the Seattle store, it’s almost gone to the opposite of more form than function. So in the Tacoma area right now, it seems to be more function than form. The percentages are just different, but the clientele is the same. Everybody who comes in the store really enjoys it and likes it, so we’re starting to gain a little bit of traction in the area. I think the more people realize we are here, the more encompassing the clientele will be. I know they’re here. There are very creative people in Tacoma. Some of our really good clients in Seattle are actually Tacoma residents.

ON INTERESTING ITEMS HE HAS SALVAGED
Ideally, what we would like to have is architectural features that come out of Tacoma remain in Tacoma.

[On one job, w]e went into the North Slope Historic District. Somebody from our Seattle store, she lived down here and said, “Come down here. I’ve got some stuff. I’m doing a re-model.” I went up into the master bathroom. I’ve never gotten one of these before. It was a needle-nosed shower. They are extremely rare. You can find them on the East Coast. Late-1800s. I’ve never had one in the store. I’ve seen them in magazines. It’s a rib cage shower. You go in to this thing and it has a series of nickel-plated tubes that completely enclose you. You’ve got a big shower head and then the curtain goes around it. So you go in there and you’ve got all these dials. You can have it come as a traditional shower and have a shower head and then full on it’s coming out completely surrounding you out of these needle-nose headed showers. It had a big porcelain shower pan that came out of this house. It was the last thing in the world I thought I would see. We salvaged that out, as well as the sink in the bathroom and the tub. We spent all day there pulling that thing out. The house was owned and built by one of the first judges in Tacoma. That was his house. He was definitely a man of great importance and wealth because it came from the East Coast and was shipped over probably in the early-1900s. I had never seen one in Seattle and it came out of a Tacoma house.

Karen [Carston] brought in these really cool fluted cast iron columns. Each one of them weighed about 250 pounds. I’ve seen a lot of stuff. I’ve never had them available in our store. I’ve never seen them in a salvage store. I think they might have been on a light post. I’m thinking these things are late-1800s or something like that. So I said, “Where did you get them?” She said, “I got them from a local gal who said they were sitting out in a field.” I took them up to the Seattle store and I sold them to a guy [who] owns a [historic] hotel in Virginia City, Nevada. He’s going to use them in his hotel. They came out of Tacoma, went to Seattle, and now they are going to Virginia City.

It kind of goes against me keeping things here. We would like to keep it here. Offer it up to the local community. If it gets removed from a historic building, now we want to be involved in it because we are part of the community. I’d like to keep it in the Tacoma area. We’re not going to take all the Tacoma stuff out of Tacoma and bring it up to Seattle.

ON HIS INTEREST IN HISTORIC PRESERVATION
That’s really the nuts and the bolts of our business — preservation. I personally like the historic preservation aspect of it, so I bent [the business] in that way. I enjoy the craftsmanship of the older buildings. They paid attention to detail — great attention to detail — during the construction phase, as well as the outfitting, unlike we do today. I love going into a house where the door hardware matches the pinch pins, which match the little strike plate that the door hits on. Details that they paid attention to and were important in the past seem not to be so important today. Everything is just a uniform, very cookie-cutter. The uniqueness has kind of gone away. That’s what we like to do. We like to preserve. Most of our clientele in that realm, they can’t find a lot of this stuff. Certainly there are some reproductions. But a lot of people, when they are doing a restoration, they want to use the original hardware from that time.

ON CHANGES IN THE INDUSTRY
The waste that I saw within the building industry and demolition, it’s really changing now. There is so much more awareness now.

When I first started, we went into our first house and we literally took it apart by hand. We salvaged all the lumber, all the doors, and all the siding. We deconstructed the first house, and people were saying, “You’re crazy! Why?” The mindset was totally different. They just didn’t understand why we were doing it. But this was great wood. You look at the lumber now, it’s a renewable resource and you can reharvest it, but there’s nothing like the quality of a tree in a natural environment and a natural forest canopy as far as the quality of the material.

People now realize it. Right now, reclaimed lumber has become something. When I first started, I didn’t know of anyone else in the country that was doing something similar to what I was doing. Now, you can see how it’s changed. You look at operations now like I have, they are popping up all over the place. It blows me away. I was happy. I was just so pleased that this type of level of awareness of people is changing in the United States.

When I first started, 90 percent of my materials came from demolitions. That has shifted. Now we go in with crews. We get a call from a contractor saying they are demolishing a house or remodeling a house. Now even the homeowners will tell their contractor or they will call us directly. In the minds of the individual homeowners, they want to do the right thing. It’s not going to cost them more. As a matter of fact, sometimes we pay. We get there long before the bulldozer, we’re not holding up any scheduling issues, and we’re salvaging materials that are re-used in the local environment. Why wouldn’t you do it? Now people are starting to realize there are no losers here. Trees don’t get harvested. Historic buildings get preserved.

More information about Earthwise Architectural Salvage is available online at earthwise-salvage.com.

Todd Matthews is editor of the Tacoma Daily Index and recipient of an award for Outstanding Achievement in Media from the Washington State Department of Archaeology and Historic Preservation for his work covering historic preservation in Tacoma and Pierce County. He has earned four awards from the Society of Professional Journalists, including third-place honors for his feature article about the University of Washington’s Innocence Project; first-place honors for his feature article about Seattle’s bike messengers; third-place honors for his feature interview with Prison Legal News founder Paul Wright; and second-place honors for his feature article about whistle-blowers in Washington State. His work has also appeared in All About Jazz, City Arts Tacoma, Earshot Jazz, Homeland Security Today, Jazz Steps, Journal of the San Juans, Lynnwood-Mountlake Terrace Enterprise, Prison Legal News, Rain Taxi, Real Change, Seattle Business Monthly, Seattle magazine, Tablet, Washington CEO, Washington Law & Politics, and Washington Free Press. He is a graduate of the University of Washington and holds a bachelor’s degree in communications. His journalism is collected online at wahmee.com.