Rough and beautiful

Salvaging architectural remains for profit.

In the clanky industrial heart of Calgary, Jennifer Brock wanders through a warehouse—wine in hand—claiming her favourite objects. She places a “sold” tag on a mysterious pair of rough-hewn beams, stitched together with rusty hardware. “I don’t know exactly what it is. But I’m going to make it into a bench or table,” muses the senior partner at Thom Design. (“It” was a Victorian track used to roll barrels of ale into the cellar of an English pub 150 years ago. Price: $250.)

This isn’t Brock’s first “reveal” party at Uniquities, a 20-year-old architectural antique and salvage company. Nor is Brock alone. This November night some 450 people are trolling the warehouse, clutching cornets of salted-caramel ice cream and perusing the array of freshly uncrated construction materials and objects found and rescued by 54-year-old transplanted Welshwoman Judith Shantz.

In polished glass-and-steel Calgary, where bulldozers stand ready to crush any structure older than your grandmother, Shantz has become a hound and hero to a growing cadre of designers, architects and home builders. Four times a year, following U.K hunting missions that can last up to a month, Shantz returns with 20- and 40-foot containers brimming with rustic treasure.

A hefty stone baptismal font from Singleton Abbey ($10,500). Wooden specimen cupboards from the British Natural History museum ($3,500). Old wrought iron benches, craquelured tile, blemished floor boards and eroded stones from entire chapels transplanted to Calgary. Uniquities’ warehouse is full of neo-nothing and post-never. It all suits a look created in 2008 when designer Rabih Hage transformed a shabby home in London’s King Cross into the Rough Luxe Hotel. And though it took a recession-fuelled renaissance to jump-start the “rough luxe” movement in Calgary, there’s now a waiting list for Uniquities reveal parties.

“It’s not a trend, it’s an ethos,” says Shantz, whose secret network in Britain informs her when old schools, abbeys and other structures are being torn down, their skins and bones destined for landfills. Shantz makes sure those buildings are carefully teased apart, the well-worn materials and objects destined for hotels, restaurants and homes in North America.

While a handful of architectural salvager firms exist in Ontario and Quebec, Uniquities is virtually a soloist in the West, serving a growing core who appreciate the history of humble bricks. “The wood we brought over from a chapel from Wales, that was Canadian wood that went over in the 1700s,” she says. “It’s provocative, and it gets people talking.”

And so a recent shipment of industrial windows pried from old military barracks are destined for a Calgary pub. “We are the proverbial butcher,” says Shantz. “We use everything. And this stone will last a gabillion years.”

Anthony A. Davis is a Calgary-based writer whose only antique is a 1986 VW Cabriolet