Housing Complex

Brass Knob Makes Its Final Turns

(Matt Bevilacqua)

(Matt Bevilacqua)

Stepping into Ron Allan’s office in Shaw is like passing through a time warp gone haywire.

It comprises no fewer than four withered desks pushed together in a rectangle, each surface littered with dozens of aged paperweights and other miscellany. Hardcover books with yellowing pages fit into a makeshift shelf. In the corner sits an ancient fan with yellowing blades, and in front of that, a flare gun.

“I’m a Victorian Home Depot,” says Allan, and after seeing his workspace, it’s pretty hard to doubt him.

Allan owns the soon-to-be-shuttered Brass Knob Back Doors Warehouse, a salvaged-parts supply store and gold mine for vintage furniture freaks. Open since 1981, its unassuming white-and-blue facade has long been a beacon for shoppers interested in odds and ends that are two, three, or four times older than themselves.

But collectors and curious homeowners will soon have to get their Gothic mantels elsewhere. Stifled, he said, by rising rent in a changing neighborhood and a citywide condo-culture that leaves little room for small businesses like his–all compounded with a bleak economy–Allan will have to close shop next month.

But he seems to have reconciled with this fate, saying that he’s ready for a break anyway. Over the nearly 30 years he spent as the Brass Knob’s owner, Allan has had to move his 24,000 square feet of inventory at least four times.

“The truth is I’m tired,” he said. “I’m tired of pushing that big load uphill.”

There is a shitload of stuff–a cacophony of wood, iron, and porcelain–inside the warehouse. Looking around, one sees doors, windows, garden fences, fireplaces, stained glass, columns, bathtubs, sinks, toilets, radiators, drawing boards, writing desks, chandeliers, candles, and gas lamps.

Allan started accumulating all these things while working as a planner for George Washington University in the ‘70s, when the school was demolishing Foggy Bottom buildings left and right. Unwilling to damn all the furniture and appliances left behind to a landfill, Allan took to the then-peculiar practice of salvaging other people’s garbage–he now calls it “early green-thinking.”

Allan and his partner, Donetta George, saw an opportunity to turn this hobby into a business, and began selling items they culled from historic D.C. buildings doomed to the wrecking ball. They established a shop in Adams Morgan, but soon realized they needed more space. Allan eventually arrived at L N Street NW, near North Capitol.

(George still owns the Adams Morgan location, Brass Knob Architectural Antiques, which for now isn’t going anywhere. The company split in 2005.)

But again: all this stuff. What’ll happen to it?

Allan doesn’t want to see it wind up in the trash. By early November he hopes to sell most of it–apparently there’s a big market in Europe for cast-iron radiators–but also aspires to take it to another side of the trade.

Inspired by seeing how customers put his products to use, Allan said he would like to start design work using the antiques he’s handled through the years. There’s a demand, he said, in place like “pubs on H Street” and “restaurants in Brooklyn” for archaic knickknacks as décor–old-growth wood, after all, looks better than modern, more disposable materials.

brassknobint

Brass Brain — Allan's Office (Matt Bevilacqua)

And Allan hasn’t stopped collecting, either. Just this month he bought lavish doors from the Hay-Adams Hotel in Downtown. It was an unwise move, financially, for a business to acquire more stock the month before its closing.

“But I just couldn’t resist,” Allan said.

  • http://distcurm.blogspot.com/ IMGoph

    except the brass knob warehouse isn't on L street, it's on N street.

  • Matt Bevilacqua

    Goph,

    Fixed. Ridiculous typo on my part.

    Mea culpa,
    Matt

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  • http://distcurm.blogspot.com/ IMGoph

    no worries!

  • Sad

    Are there plans for the building? Presumably the landlord would wnt some rent rather than none. It's an amazing space.

  • http://www.CommunityForklift.com RuthieatCommunityForklift

    Update for you:

    Ruthie from Community Forklift here, just outside NE DC. We are a nonprofit thrift store for building materials, and our name refers to our mission to "lift up local communities" by creating green jobs, reducing waste, and making repairs affordable. We offer modern building materials and renovation basics at up to 90% below retail prices, but we also have a "Salvage Arts" department with a range of more unusual, valuable architectural salvage and antiques.

    We are very sad to see the Brass Knob close - Ron is such a wealth of knowledge about local materials, and it's always been nice to refer folks there if we don't have what they need in stock. However, he has been kind enough to offer us some of his leftover stock, so rest assured that it will not go to the landfill.

    Thanks,
    Ruthie

  • http://www.adamsmorganstainedglass.com Daniel Wolkoff

    Some cities and counties place value on their Architectural heritage. They have laws to protect the arch. materials and try to keep them in the city or county. They make pilfering, and selling off the arch. details illegal and have salvage yards to keep the materials availble to the local restoration community. The district govt. doesn't give a crap about DC's architectural heritage, unless they preserve the fascade of some old building and glue it under a massive tasteless new develoment. So they let Ron Allan struggle with this valuable resource until his absoritiant rent causd his business to close. They are so busy building thousands of upscale condos, gobbling up all the last available open space to enrich a group of millionaire developers, they are too busy to even notice the loss of this special resource. Get this cliqie of crass whores for developers out of power!!The mayor, the shitty council and their lackies in the Office of Planning and Economic development. They are destroying our city!!!

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