Five years ago, my good friend Niko told me about an historic church that was being demolished at 19th and Parrish in the Francisville neighborhood of Philadelphia. “Tons of HUGE beams,” Niko assured me.
At the time, I was driving an ‘82 white Dodge mini-van that definitely looked suspect; the type that every creeper in a suspense thriller drives, but perfect for transporting piles of tools, renovation supplies, and all sorts of reclaimed materials. The mention of free, tight-grained, historic timber had my head swimming with potential design ideas so I throttled across town.
When I arrived, I walked up to a crater of red rubble. Situated on a corner, what was once an historic house of worship home to Philly’s faithful was now a four-sided berm of broken bricks, terra cotta blocks, and beams hewn from trees felled over a hundred years ago. I jammed my van into park, made sure my tools were covered inside the bed of the van, and literally sprinted across the street. The construction kid in you can’t help but override your city cool stride as you walk onto a demo site in search of old relics—these were the ancient fibers that have knit Philadelphia together for centuries right in front of my eyes. I hastily clambered over the ten-foot berm not knowing what I would find.
Upon reaching the summit, the adrenaline gave my body a literal shock. Below me, it looked like someone had dumped a box of toothpicks onto a construction site —except the toothpicks were all 16’ in length and 7” x 11” around, dimensionally-perfect, and in pristine condition. This was where carpenters go when they die, I thought. For the next five hours, I loaded up my van with as many of these white pine beams as I could carry before the back bumper started dragging on the pavement.
Fast forward years later. My good friend Evan Inatome decided he was going to expand his start-up coffee shop, Elixr, in Rittenhouse Square, Philadelphia, a project that Niko (from Greensaw), architect Gerry Guiterrez (from Group G), and myself would ultimately collaborate on.
The white pine beams from the old Francisville church were de-nailed, slightly planed, sanded, and cross-cut into ¾” rectangular tiles. I also had a cache of southern yellow pine beams that had once held together a barn in central Pennsylvania planed and cut into similar sized tiles. I felt it was important to honor the church and the architectural period when the church was erected by not only using the wood for the sake of reclamation, but by also creating a unique design style that is rarely seen today in modern construction. If you go to the old fabric districts or certain art and furniture galleries in many historic cities, you’ll find one of the most remarkable materials is right under your feet: end grain flooring. Historically, the use of end grain flooring was primarily a utilitarian decision since it’s more impact resistant and better absorbs the oils typically found in old factories housing heavy machinery. We wanted to take this utilitarian concept and give it a chic, modern design spin. For our own personal touch, we also encased the mixture of white and yellow pine tiles with a walnut border, another classic flooring design element now seen as frivolous that most won’t spend the time or money to do.
Thankfully, Evan knew the time and money would be well worth it since the lower level where our floor would be installed is a part of Elixr’s main entrance where the majority of the space’s energy and traffic is located. How you enter and initially perceive a space often dominates the rest of your experience. My friends at Greensaw drew an amazing parallel with the end grain flooring at the entrance by using thin slices of the same southern yellow pine squares sandwiched between glass as a means of privacy between the seating area and the prep area of the coffee shop. The sap saturated tiles when backlit glow a vibrant and rich amber color, almost as if they were bioluminescent. With these two opposing corners of the space dialoguing back in forth you find balance.
Every historic renovation project I’ve been involved with over the years creates a sense of pride. But the ones that utilize reclaimed materials to achieve a unique modern design are the most satisfying. For every demo site I’ve come across, I’ve re-purposed the materials into dozens of renovations throughout the Philadelphia—the best type of re-use and recycle. When you drive by them years later, you can’t resist pointing out to a friend or relative—I built that.
Eventually at some distant point in the future, these buildings will be demolished as well. And one can only hope that someone with the same sense of adventure and creativity inside of them will rip through the heap of bones to find something that inspires them and keep history alive and out of the landfill.