Subscribe to receive ARCADE in print.

Lee Plaza Detroit

Lee Plaza interior mezzanine, showing the ocular windows alongside the gaping holes from which the lion heads were removed. Photo: © David Kohrman /

In the early 2000s, sometime in the night, or perhaps brazenly during the day, over 50 decorative terra-cotta lion heads were stolen from the abandoned high-rise called Lee Plaza in Detroit. Passing it, locals experienced that familiar blank sadness: something else was missing, and holes were left behind. And when six of the lions reappeared on the facade of a high-end condominium development in Chicago, dismay turned to outrage. As Dan Austin chronicles in Lost Detroit, 24 of the Lee Plaza lion heads were eventually recovered. Others remain missing, and those in Chicago still stare out of the facade of their new home.  

While the art world has built up terminology and protocol around the removal, theft or selling of cultural objects, there has been less dialogue about architectural artifacts—old building components from windows to ornaments to wood—that are looted, lost or legally sold in communities suffering from civic breakdown and economic distress or experiencing significant population shifts. Like the lion heads from Detroit, these artifacts—tangible assets of vulnerable or transitioning communities—are often disassembled and exported by architectural salvage purveyors, both legal and illegal, or by curators of the built environment: preservationists, architects, craftspeople, planners and those involved in municipal processes. A disproportionate focus on the environmental merits of architectural salvage has left a glaring absence of discussion on the numerous other ethical issues that emerge from the material reuse process.

Detroit lion

A lion head from Detroit reinstalled on a Chicago condominium project. Photo: © David Kohrman /

The story of St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in the Germantown neighborhood of Philadelphia illustrates some of complexities of architectural salvage in the transitions between vacancy and occupancy. The imposing neo-Gothic structure designed by Furness and Hewitt was completed in 1883. By the turn of the 21st century, as Alan J. Heavens of the Philadelphia Inquirer describes, the congregation had dwindled while costs to maintain the building had risen, resulting in the church’s closure. As reported in the local blog PlanPhilly (see Alan Jaffe’s “Preservation Row: St. Peter’s Windows Reflect Church/State Debate”), the diocese first sought permission from the local Historic District Commission to sell components of the National Register–listed church in 2009. Philadelphia’s Historic District Commission approved the removal of four stained glass windows from the property, citing their “great artistic value and historic significance” and their insecurity in their current location. The windows, designed by Violet Oakley and Tiffany Studios, were sold to the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, who agreed to hold them in perpetuity.

This outcome was a gain for the artifacts themselves, which are now safe from vandalism, theft and the effects of time and weather. The curators of the built environment (in this case, the owner and the Historic District Commission) acted in the best interest of the artifacts by removing them from the context. Yet the transfer of the windows was a loss for the community, as it exported the character that contributed to the neighborhood’s visual fabric. The commission may have had this in mind when it denied a subsequent petition by the diocese to remove additional windows from the building. As reported by PlanPhilly, the commission asserted that character-defining features should remain in situ despite the diocese’s contention that the windows and their associated maintenance costs were an obstacle to potential buyers. Now, a decade after the church was closed, it is being rehabilitated for use as a Waldorf school. Its windows, both present and absent, mirror the complexities of balancing the interests of the artifacts, the interests of the owners and the interests of the community.

St Peters

Interior of St. Peter’s Episcopal Church, Philadelphia, PA. Photo: © Laura S. Kicey

The flurry of demolition activity currently taking place in Detroit highlights some of the commingled values that accompany the exportation of a vulnerable community’s architectural assets. Under city-sanctioned auspices, the Blight Removal Task Force is using various reclaim programs to salvage materials from structures targeted for demolition. In contrast to the outrage over the stolen lion heads, the press has been largely positive about this process. Lauded as a win-win that sustainably removes long-standing eyesores and provides local jobs, the materials from these structures are being catalogued, warehoused and resold.

Some of these salvaged building materials have remained in Detroit. In the Detroit Free Press article “Reclaim Detroit Finds City’s Treasures in Abandoned Homes,” L. L. Brasier describes how coffee shop proprietor James Cadariu was convinced to use locally salvaged materials for his rehabilitated storefront space when he discovered wood in a reclaim warehouse that came from a home on the same block where he played as a child. The retention of building artifacts in their original contexts is one of the powerful ways that artifacts can serve their communities by preserving cultural memory. When this happens, the story of the built past is woven into the community’s future.    

However, other materials from Detroit’s demolished buildings are leaving the city. Some are being remade into products ranging from sunglasses to butcher blocks to ukuleles and guitars. “Detroit debris as a marketing tool is in vogue. Detroit is now a brand,” said Craig Varterian, executive director of Reclaim Detroit, in a recent Bloomberg News article by Chris Christoff and Alexandra Mondalek, “Detroit Craftsmen Sift House Rubble in Quest for Treasured Wood.” While many of the craftspeople who create these products live or work in Detroit and may benefit from this new business, the fetish for the artifacts of the city’s urban decay is resulting in the permanent removal of many of Detroit’s material assets from their long-standing context. It could be argued that salvage and reuse are a natural process of human and social evolution and that in this process some communities’ resources are co-opted into other forms of buildings and objects. When communities are displaced or abandoned through urban migration or depopulation, artifacts remain and questions about their removal and use can be seen from multiple vantage points. In Detroit, new craft traditions are both transforming and exporting the materials left behind, benefiting the community but also permanently removing pieces of its history. It is both a gain and loss together.

Across the globe, a recent project in China provides a different example of architectural salvage that demonstrates how material reuse can interpret the narrative and preserve the craft tradition of a vulnerable community that preceded it. In the historic city of Ningbo, a new district called Yinzhou sits on the site of old agricultural villages that were razed for its development. In the Architectural Review article “Ningbo Museum by Pritzker Prize Winner Wang Shu,” Till Wöhler reports that for the design of the new Ningbo Museum of History, which was built on the site, architect Wang Shu knew “he could not renew the site’s rural vitality, since it had simply ceased to exist. All that remained of the villages were acres of broken tiles and bricks.” Instead, he incorporated the remaining masonry materials into the facade. The use of reclaimed material made sustainability a visually prominent element of the building, but this choice also reintroduced a traditional building practice called wapan. Wapan is a masonry assembly technique that uses fragments of terra-cotta tile, stone and brick and was developed as a way to rebuild quickly after disasters such as typhoons. The looming brick-patterned facade makes a statement about demolition and urbanization with this allusion to disaster recovery and invests the building with the memory of what came before. It also actively carries the thread of a local craft tradition into the present day. When rooted in its place of origin, material reuse has the opportunity to provide cultural value beyond only ecological benefit.

tile wall ningbo

Photo: Tile wall in Ningbo Museum by Siyuwj, building designed by Wang Shu, 2014. CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

The art world provides a corollary for this discussion about mobility and ownership. Art repatriation, a term for the practice of returning disputed artifacts to their lands of origin, has been a favored policy in recent years. This is evidenced by some Western museums returning artifacts acquired under dubious circumstances to their places of origin. However, dissenting voices are emerging that support the view that important antiquities are the common property of all humanity and that spreading them throughout the world distributes the risk of destruction. Which view best fits architectural salvage? One important distinction between artistic objects and building components is that the former are inherently mobile, while architectural artifacts are designed to be one of a whole, rooted in place. It follows then that curators of the built environment must consider context in making ethical judgments about architectural salvage. They should not only consider what’s best for the objects or the environmental benefits of their reuse but how the artifacts can best serve their communities.

Even when dilapidated beyond reasonable repair or condemned to destruction, buildings’ artifacts contain both craft knowledge and cultural memory. Buildings are the fabric, the soul of a city. Old buildings and their components are also particularly important assets for vulnerable communities, which have historically been on the losing ends of resource grabs. Curators of the built environment must look beyond the environmental good of material reuse to consider a range of ethical questions about mobility, context and ownership. These questions can include the security of the artifacts, the burden of maintenance costs, the material and cultural value of the artifacts to the community, the benefit or loss to the community’s visual fabric and the craft traditions and opportunities that the objects present. Cultural resources can be used to benefit their contextual communities and participate in their futures when residents and curators of the built environment work together to evaluate these issues.