One Light Fixture at a Time
Inspired by the beauty of antique lighting, Jim Kelly founded a company that manufactures and sells brilliant reproductions
By David Hanson | From Preservation | May/June 2009
Many things in this world do not make sense. Starting an architectural salvage business in a condemned building does. That's how Portland-based Rejuvenation began, when Jim Kelly bought a collapsing Oregon storefront in 1975 for $1,000. After renovating the derelict property, Kelly claimed the upstairs apartment, and started selling old house parts on the first floor. "And that," he says, "was the beginning of the end for me."
More than 30 years later, Rejuvenation has outgrown the original 1,000-square-foot storefront half-filled with a few old doors. Today the company operates a retail store on Portland's east side, as well as a catalog order business Kelly established in 1982. His "little company" has grown into one of the nation's premier sources for house parts, period architectural lighting, and hardware.
Walking into Rejuvenation's expansive showroom feels like entering a museum of home building from 1870 to 1960. Rooms divided by era and style feel almost lived in; only the floor lamps, pendant lights, and wall sconces on every surface indicate a shop. In the center of the building, a rambling collection of salvaged doorknobs, doors, hinges, and cabinet hardware routinely converts the most IKEA-fied visitor into an ardent treasure seeker.
Jim Kelly grew up in Portland, where his father founded a remodeling company in the 1940s. Starting at age 12, young Kelly worked summers and weekends on residential projects that largely disregarded, or even destroyed, historic architecture.
"I remember one time in particular this couple had us rip out a bathroom that was covered wall to ceiling in gorgeous 1915 white tile," he says. "It was an incredible amount of work to demolish, and we tossed it all out the window. I was just a kid, but I remember thinking it was the coolest stuff."
By the time he was an adult, Kelly says, "I was very much wired to be a preservationist." That wiring explains why he bought the collapsing building on Albina Avenue and embarked upon a two-year renovation. It doesn't, however, explain why he began collecting old house parts. That was a classic case of supply and demand. "Old-home restorers needed a resource," he says, "and we could help." Kelly opened the doors to his tiny storefront and started selling salvaged items two days a week. He worked with builders and haulers to rescue what he could, turning up few surprises and very little glamour.
"Some people have this perception of the architectural antique business as being full of fabulous, expensive relics," he says. "This might be more true back East and in the Midwest, where there is a much deeper historical layer. But we sold mostly local, mundane finds—doors, hardware, and lighting. Our initial customers were a motley crew of regular folks restoring or remodeling small- and mid-sized homes."
At first, Kelly's customers only acknowledged Portland's prevalent Victorian style as historic, failing to recognize the significance of the city's abundant bungalows and four-squares. "An owner of a great old Craftsman would come into the store and say, 'I'm sorry for having this old bungalow,'" he remembers. "But now the public's overall sophistication and awareness have increased."
From Kelly's vantage point, the growth of a robust preservation ethic has been gradual. Customers used to think that restoration was the sole province of wealthy homeowners who could create their own house museums filled with one-of-a-kind relics from antiques shops. Gradually, more and more customers demonstrated an interest in affordable but authentically restored family homes—occupied by dogs, cats, and (gasp) children. Kelly and Rejuvenation supplied them with the house parts they wanted—especially light fixtures.
"When we were first making our lights," says Kelly, "all you could find in the stores were standard fixtures in a box. They were cheaper than the authentic originals, but they were generic." Homeowners wanted quality and variety. So Kelly took a page from the past, when scores of companies produced distinctive designs, and marketed his reproductions in a variety of finishes and custom styles.
"For a fixture to really work in a period interior, it needs to have the correct number of arms and the subtleties of the metal finishing, and must hang at the right length. Those are the key ingredients," says Kelly. "But beyond aesthetics, we match the quality and durability achieved in historic fixtures so our pieces will last. Now we call that sustainability."
In the most obvious sense, Rejuvenation hovers between two worlds, pulling information, techniques, and designs from the past and piecing them together with new parts for a modern function. Kelly has not only created a line of historical replicas in Rejuvenation's lighting fixtures and hardware, he has also built a factory operation that can claim the nostalgic attributes epitomized by companies that flourished a century ago (but with better labor and environmental practices).
Of course, the business wouldn't be doing well if it did not adapt to new technology. "After all these years," says Kelly, "I still enjoy finding the originals that we end up replicating. The Web has really changed that in a good way—a great thing for a specialized marketplace like preservation. It's just another tool to help us do a better job."
Someone who, as a boy, saw value in the 1915 white tiles he yanked off a bathroom wall, and who later built a profitable example of preservation retail inside a condemned building, has a good perspective on the relevance of historic architecture. "Mainly, it's been inspiring to see such a significant change in psychology over 30 years," says Kelly. "We're finally beginning to catch up to the many parts of the world where historic preservation has been an unassailed norm. We're starting to see these old buildings and their parts as having an economic and a cultural value."
David Hanson is a writer and editor based in Seattle, Wash.
David Hanson is a writer and editor based in Seattle, Wash.
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