Every Piece Tells a Story

Giving new life—and preserving histories—through antiquities trading

Eric Nielsen had just turned the corner down a dark and neglected hallway when the backhoe began ripping away the exterior of the historic Hayes Funeral Home, the first African American-owned business in Memphis. He had, at best, an hour before the building would be uninhabitable.

Nielsen walked the corridor with his flashlight, looking for clues. He stopped at an arrangement of trim that framed no visible window or passageway. Bingo. As he ripped away the sheet rock in the center, he uncovered the kind of find that antiquities pickers dream about—a perfectly preserved, five-foot round stained glass window that dated from the original late-1800s construction.

“It had been bricked up on the outside and sheet-rocked over on the inside, so that’s why it survived,” Nielsen marveled. “The backhoe was literally crushing down on one side of the house, and I had a very short time frame to get whatever was in there.”

The thrill of discovery drives pickers like Nielsen to brave the attics and crawlspaces of abandoned or derelict houses and warehouses in search of rare antiquities, especially those with good stories attached.

“I’ve gone into old houses where the basements are full of water and I’ve put on waders, taken a flashlight, and walked through 2 or 3 feet of water to find stuff,” Nielsen said. “I’ve gone into houses where I’ve almost fallen through the floor. I’ve gone through an upper floor and caught myself on my elbows.”

Nielsen’s father, Svend, began importing architectural artifacts from disused buildings in Paris around 1971, picking choice pieces and shipping them across the Atlantic in 40-foot containers to his storefront in Overton Square. The younger Nielsen grew up hunting and salvaging architecturally significant pieces and has more than four decades in the business today.

“I hate to see these buildings come down, but if they’re going to do it, let me come in and save every piece I can.”

Now known as South Front Antiques, the family-run shop serves customers in a five-state area, and sometimes even farther away. Case in point: a collector from Portland, Ore., bought that Hayes stained-glass window. Today, it’s featured in the collection of the Pink Palace in Midtown Memphis.

Chad Schwarzauer and Bri LoChiatto, owners of The Reclaimed Miles in Jackson, Miss., grew up in homes like the ones Nielsen frequents. While the former grew up and joined his father and grandfather in the contracting trade, the latter earned her skills in Los Angeles hiring creative talent for the Oscars, Sony and others. Their mutual passion for preserving architectural treasures brought them together in the venture.

“My family lives in a plantation home in Satartia (Miss.),” said LoChiatto. “There were five houses built in a circle where five sisters lived, and every wall, every piece of wood has a story to tell. My grandmother’s mantle to this day comes from wood from a barn on her mother’s land years ago.”

Their 18,000-square-foot warehouse catalogs reclaimed lumber, beams, farm tables, doors, windows, stained glass and porcelain signs, mostly from homes and barns built in the 1800s. All of their pieces are reclaimed by hand, without power tools. Treating the materials with care, said LoChiatto, helps them ensure they become something new to the next owner.

“Those things tell a story and add character to a home,” said LoChiatto, “and it’s important to us to maintain the integrity of what these pieces once were.”

Reality TV shows like “American Pickers” began bringing these artisans and dealers to the mainstream just as flipping faded with the housing market. While the trend shares some devotees with the coiffed-mustache hipster set, the authenticity in repurposing a piece that has real life behind it is something a pair of new-old dungarees or period window dressings from Pottery Barn can’t replicate.

Preservation Station in Nashville, which has established itself as a source of architectural pieces dating to the 1880-1930s industrial era, is riding the next wave of picking shows with appearances taped for the forthcoming seasons of “Masters of Flip,” which chronicles the adventures of a husband-and-wife team in the Music City for DIY, as well as “Nashville Flipped” on HGTV. Many of their clients are private homeowners, said manager Natalie Villarreal.

“Nashville has had this huge influx of people moving here, and I would say it’s pretty evenly divided between people restoring and people building new,” she said. “I think people are trying to add a bit of character to these newer, more sterile spaces, and those little details can make a space more special. It’s nice to have a new house with a new air conditioning system, but you lose the character in return.”

The collection at Preservation Station includes hardware such as authentic glass doorknobs and door plates to antique iron chandeliers sourced from a network that stretches from the south to cities like Philadelphia, St. Louis and Detroit. One of its most prized pieces—a rare 11-foot, gilded pier mirror with a woman’s bust at the top—originated from Nashville’s Belmont Mansion.

Putting a monetary value on history isn’t always easy, though. Back in Memphis, Nielsen recalled hearing papers crinkle and rustle under his feet as he was busy pulling out that stained glass window. He shined his light at the floor, picked up a set of the papers and scanned the columns—then realized another major discovery. At his feet lay scattered a century’s worth of burial ledgers.

Nielsen called his sister, a genealogy expert, who raced over to collect the ledgers and a small box containing cremated remains that were never claimed. She took the box to Memorial Park and then decided to drive down Parkway to find Zion Christian Cemetery, at the time overgrown and in disrepair after years of neglect, but where many of the folks who passed through Hayes found their final rest.

“As she’s driving down, she sees a group of people at the cemetery, so she pulls in,” Nielsen said. As it happened, the group was trying to figure out a way to save the cemetery. They had lost all the records of who was buried there—the records that she had on the seat of her car, which contained those intimate and missing details, the very circumstances surrounding the lives whose dignity and stories the group was hoping to restore.

“That’s treasure, in my opinion. That’s something you cannot put a money value on.”

Originally published in Desoto Magazine, May 2016.