Antique dealer Harry Henderson saves
old house history from the wrecking ball
|Antique dealer Harry
Henderson hoists an original terra cotta lion’s
head architectural ornament, one of several unique pieces in his
collection. Besides preserving original items from historic buildings,
he makes replicas of stonework so the work of long-gone craftsmen
Antique hunters who
stop by Harry Henderson’s store in St. Clair
are often surprised by what they find inside.
“Last year was my first winter being open and not many people knew what
I had,” Harry says. “So consequently people stopped by looking for
little collectible items and stuff like that.”
Instead they found
the inside and outside of the 50-by-100-foot building packed with relics
salvaged from old buildings destined for the wrecking ball.
of tin ceiling panels fill one corner. Pocket doors — designed
to disappear in a wall cavity — are so numerous Harry has screwed
them to the walls. Art-glass windows share space with stairway railing
lean one against another. Some carry heavy coats of paint while others
let their original quarter-sawn oak elegance show through.
never seen so many fireplace mantels in one place,” remarks
a visitor, who has spent the better part of an hour wandering the crowded
confines of the store.
“You should have been in here when I
had a lot of church pews,” Harry
replies. “I had so many standing on end it looked like a forest
in here. I had 40, maybe 50 church pews.”
What often pulls visitors into Henderson’s Antiques are the rows
of claw-foot bathtubs outside. Harry likes to keep about 50 of the cast-iron
relics on hand.
no one asks about a bathtub and then I sell a couple over the weekend.
Everyone wants that special one, and that’s hard to find.”
of iron railing, massive chandeliers, Victorian wood molding, clocks
and the occasional phone booth — these are the stock of Harry
this is just recycling,” says Harry,
a member of Crawford Electric Cooperative. “They’ve
been recycling architectural stuff over in Europe for many years.”
got into the antique business when high interest rates forced
him out of the real estate business. Looking for something
with a little more cash flow, he set up shop in the Cherokee Street
antique row near downtown St. Louis. At the time, there were
close to 50 shops there.
Harry visits with a customer inside his store near St. Clair. The
antique dealer keeps irregular hours but customers know that when
his gate is open, so is the store.
“When I opened
my store, if you wanted to sell antiques, that’s where
you had to be. Because it was before antique malls, before
eBay, before the Internet. Since that time, things have changed
He says the antique
trade has become a global market, with buyers and sellers getting together
online. But the architectural items Harry sells don’t
lend themselves to online selling because they would be
too hard to ship.
When gas prices made
the 120-mile round trip from his home in Beaufort to St. Louis too
expensive, Harry decided to move the business closer to home. He chose
a site just off Interstate 44 in St. Clair near where
old Route 66 headed toward Springfield.
hours vary, though it’s usually open on weekends. Frequent
visitors know the store is open when the gates are
open. When they are closed Harry is most likely out salvaging more
“The way you
get hooked in this business, if you don’t
salvage the stuff out of the building you come back a week later
and the building is gone. So if something is available, you have to
say yes or no and take it out.”
On many occasions,
Harry has found himself desperately working to salvage some architectural
gem while the building is coming down around him. “They are
flipping walls down and dust and debris is falling
around me. The rule of thumb is be careful, don’t get hurt.”
|The carving on this fireplace mantel reveals the kind
of details that customers seek in antique architectural pieces. Such
craftsmanship is nearly impossible to find in modern structures but
common among Harry's inventory.
work can be dangerous and difficult. Harry has fallen through floors
and had to work out the logistics of moving items like heavy tubs
and barn roof vents down to the ground.
“Everything is bigger
and heavier than me,” he laments. “Like
this coming week, I’m going to salvage
a safe door. They’re not made
to take out.”
But Harry likes a
challenge. He says he often has to figure out how things
were put together before he can figure out
how to take it apart. “You have to
work backwards,” he says. “All
this stuff is very labor intensive. It’s
almost a labor of love.”
about what’s available from his many
contacts in the antique business. He says
people like him tend to specialize, so if
one person gets a job the odds are good there
will be things they don’t want to salvage
and they contact Harry. He tends to favor
things like tin ceilings and wood trim.
it’s real interesting. Other times
you just go in and leave. At times it can
likes unusual masonry pieces. His collection
includes lion heads and fancy pieces
of terra cotta that once graced the facades
of brick buildings.
In his collection
is an intriguing stone face that came from a railroad station
that was torn down many years ago in
Quincy, Ill. The face, along with other
debris, was dumped in the river. A friend
of Harry’s found the treasures
and gave him one of the three that
still exist. The others are in museums.
helps move an antique fireplace mantel. Harry specializes in
unique architectural details salvaged from older structures.
Another stone face
came from a building Harry thought was being wrecked in the
historic Soulard neighborhood of St. Louis.
Instead, workers were repairing the building’s brickwork. Harry convinced
them to let him borrow the face just long enough to make a mold.
piece and many others, Harry can make accurate copies in concrete. These
one-of-a-kind pieces end up in gardens
and on the walls of unusual homes.
“I tell people
there’s a good
side and a bad side to what I do,” Harry
says of the concrete reproductions. “The
good side is I don’t do
very many. The bad side is I
do very many. So in other words,
you won’t find these everywhere.”
works hard to make his store
interesting to customers. For
this reason, a lot of what
is on display is not for sale. One
of the most intriguing items
is a life-size statue of a
woman that was made by a friend. He
also has neon lights set to motion
detectors that have surprised
His latest additions
are 21 massive oak cabinets that came from the Eugene Field School
in St. Louis. These cabinets illustrate what is so unique about Henderson’s
How many people
would have the ability to remove 21 cabinets
from a rickety old three-story
building, especially after
the elevator went out?
“I like big things,” Harry says. “In
my store, it’s a
focal point. It’s
part of the ambiance. I
want folks to say, ‘Wow,
where’d you get that?’ ”
You can find
Antiques at 495 West Gravois in St. Clair. For more information, call