Treasure Hunter

At Architectural Artifacts, his huge store in Ravenswood, Stuart Grannen holds court in a kingdom of the beautiful, the rescued, and the reclaimed

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In the foyer of Architectural Artifacts, his 80,000-square-foot antiques and architectural elements store at 4325 North Ravenswood Avenue, Stuart Grannen is contemplating >>>

a table. To reach him, you have to walk past a French art deco glass door etched with an aquatic scene ($8,500), an Argentine wood pipe display stool ($4,500), and a four-foot-tall carved marble crucifix that was purchased today by the diocese of Omaha, Nebraska. There, next to an eight-foot-tall stone fireplace surround ($32,000), he stands beside a futuristic glass-and-steel table suitable for the Jetson family dining room.

“This isn’t really my style,” says Grannen, 49, as he studies the piece, a 1980s techno design similar to that of the English architect Norman Foster’s Nomos table. There is no price tag on the table yet; it has just arrived in the store, and now that it has been set up Grannen seems a bit unsure about it. “Do I even like this?” he asks. The contrast between Grannen and the sleekly contained Argentine table is strong-the table is a pristine slab of thick glass held aloft by a steel grasshopper-cum-gecko creature. Wearing shorts and sandals, and with his long, curly hair pulled back in a ponytail, Grannen resembles a cleaner, spiffed-up version of a 1960s hippie. And instead of sharp edges, there is an openness to both his face and his conversation. “OK, it’s growing on me,” he says, making a decision about the table. “We’ll see, but I think it’s growing on me.”

photography: Michael Monar

For more than ten years, Grannen has been playing lost and found with antiques and architectural elements: terra cotta tiles, stained-glass doors and windows, iron porches from London townhouses, and even 22-foot-tall columns from the old Chicago Mercantile Exchange. He collects them, cleans them up, moves them into his vast store, and usually sells them. The exceptions are certain pieces (Frank Lloyd Wright windows, Louis Sullivan terra cotta) that he keeps for his museum of architecture, a work in progress located in the lower atrium of the store. “Stuart is a pioneer in the architectural recovery business,” says Tim Samuelson, the cultural historian of Chicago’s Department of Cultural Affairs. “He appreciates the artistic value of such fragments, and he’s gotten many other people to understand that value, too. Seeing the Chicago Mercantile columns he has erected at his store, you look up in wonder. But it also makes you a little sad that such architecture is being destroyed by society.”

Grannen’s crew, which varies from five to ten people depending on the scale of the job, goes out and removes parts of buildings before they are demolished, but Grannen doesn’t like the word “salvage” applied to his work. “Maybe that’s a little bit false on my part,” he says. “‘Salvage’ is a perfectly good word. But it’s not for me. I don’t want to say we’re better than that, but I also don’t want to get lumped in with a group of people who have buckets of old doorknobs sitting around in a dusty warehouse. I’m trying to give people a good product here.”

Despite its size, Architectural Artifacts does not bear much resemblance to a salvage warehouse, or even a regular antiques store. The place is bright and airy, thanks to the huge windows that are thrown open every day. Items are displayed artfully, rather than tossed together, and each has a manila tag attached with a hand-printed description, the price, and sometimes a comment. The tag on a marble bust reads, “Male torso-He’s Ripped-$465.” Another says, “English Victorian Inlaid Full Mantel-Killer-$16,000.” And the store is clean enough that Grannen does a nice side business renting it out for events.

“Everything he buys is high quality,” says Michael Del Piero, an interior designer at MJ Spear. Among the items that Del Piero has bought from Grannen over the years are a pair of steel-and-glass shelving units, 24 matching light fixtures, and an 18th-century santo. “And Stuart makes it effortless for the customer. He’s very pleasant with people, and if needed, he restores items to their original condition.”

photography: Kim Thornton

“I think of Stuart as an artist,” says Dorothy Mackevich Marks, a North Shore customer who has been buying from Grannen for more than ten years. “He just breathes new life into beautiful things,” she says. An example: pieces of an iron balcony that she bought and held onto for years, not knowing what to do with them. “When we renovated part of the house, they became the stair banister.”

Still, not everyone has been delighted with the reclamation of antique and vintage items by Grannen and his colleagues. His store’s recent selling of religious artifacts-altars and chalices from Catholic churches, a synagogue’s Ten Commandments stone-has irritated some people. When questioned about it last year, Grannen made a comment that hit the Associated Press wires: “I’m an equal opportunity seller.”

“Nobody needs any of this stuff,” says Grannen, sitting on an Argentine deco love seat on the second floor of Architectural Artifacts. “They just want it.” The buyers are dealers, designers, and homeowners, both local and out-of-state people. On a smaller scale, antique fireplace mantels from Grannen’s store have graced Ralph Lauren’s stores, and his ironwork objects have turned up in the pages of Architectural Digest. The top request is always doors, Grannen says: “wooden doors. Boring, but people need them because over the years, they were removed or got beaten up. Doors.” He drags the word out into several syllables, making it sound like a ridiculous request. “Personally, I hate doors.”

photography: Brittney Blair

Over the years, Grannen has bought, renovated, and sold properties in Roscoe Village and Ravenswood. He is between homes now but is closing on a new building soon. In spite of his love for antiques, the style of his homes is always minimal and somewhat modern. “The one kind of place I could never live in is a Victorian house with lots of little rooms,” he says. Instead he likes wide-open spaces furnished sparely. “I once had just a bed and a chair in a 6,000-square-foot place. And no doors.” At home, he tends to remove even the doors to his bathrooms.

So door seekers usually have to go somewhere else. Other top requests from buyers include fireplaces, lighting, tiles, and “things people can make into a table base,” Grannen says. “Like a capital column. But those aren’t that easy to find anymore.”

The architectural salvage business sprang to life in the 1970s when there was a demand for Tiffany-style lights and stained-glass windows for restaurant décor. “It was places like T.G.I. Friday’s or Ruby Tuesday, the fern bars,” says Grannen. “People were taking bits and pieces and building a new Victorian look for commercial properties. The guys who got into that were about ten years older than me, generally old hippie guys. I was in the tail end of that-I was known as the youngest of the old guys-but I never liked doing that particularly. I wasn’t into the renovation angle of it all, or into making things look old. I like objects for what they are and how nice they look.”

In the past five years, architectural salvage stores have flourished beyond the biggest cities. “I used to be able to go to, say, Buffalo, and they would have saved everything for me,” Grannen says. “Now there are stores there doing the same thing.” Because of the competition, he turned to Europe, and when the dollar’s value fell there, he started buying in South America. Buenos Aires has become such a favorite spot that Grannen recently started a business there with the antiques dealer Guillermo Castro. When Grannen visits, he stays on the 70-foot 1920s yacht that he bought earlier this year.

“I guess there are some things here that are useful,” he says of the objects in his store, although he makes the word “useful” sound dubious. “Let me find something here.” He pauses, his look searching the contents of the vast second floor: marble cemetery angels, a 1940s children’s pedal plane, a midcentury mosaic coffee table once used in a Playboy photo shoot. “Boy, there’s not much here you really need,” he admits. “Well, fireplaces, light fixtures. But do you really need anything else that’s here? Not particularly. Life goes on without it. Maybe not as beautifully, but it does go on.”