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Sven Kraumanis brings in much-sought wrought iron work from Eastern Europe.

Gary May/Gary May

Sven Kraumanis is a sort of grave robber with a passion for architectural history.

The Cobourg, Ont., architectural salvager picks the bones of homes and commercial buildings on the eve of their destruction. It sounds like a grim vocation, but if he didn't do it, artifacts from some of the country's most precious built heritage would be consigned to garbage skips.

Mr. Kraumanis operates Legacy Vintage Building Materials and Antiques from an old railway shed, itself once slated for demolition. From his 10,000 square feet of floor space and three-acre yard, the former lawyer and builder helps customers weave morsels of history into their homes.

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"I believe in the value of our built heritage and keeping things going," Mr. Kraumanis says.

Mr. Kraumanis has made a name for himself as an architectural salvager who works with designers and ordinary homeowners to incorporate treasures of the past into their homes, often blending antique specimens into modern designs and decor.

One such client is Lee Caswell, a partner in Caswell Gaetz Period Design of Port Hope, Ont., who has been constructing and restoring homes for two decades, often utilizing precious items plucked from buildings destined for demolition.

"Building and renovating with historic architectural pieces is time-consuming, labour-intensive and expensive," the former president of the Architectural Conservancy of Ontario admits. "But we have a duty of stewardship over old things."

Mr. Caswell blended a 1,000-square-foot addition into his 150-year-old Port Hope home, using hand-crafted period elements such as cornices, pillars, mantles, doors and windows. Mr. Kraumanis is building a new home that will use period materials and be faced with reclaimed Kingston limestone. Both projects employ green technology, including insulated concrete-form construction.

Leila Mirshak, co-owner of the Door Store in Toronto, says more people are restoring old homes and building new ones to replicate the style of an earlier era. When her father, Sam Mirshak, started the salvage shop more than 30 years ago, "no one else was doing this," she says. "People were just tearing down old buildings and trashing them."

But can century-old windows compete with modern thermal pane? Absolutely, says Mr. Caswell, who installed salvaged, restored windows in his addition.

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"If you apply an old, rebuilt window and add a good storm window, the insulating properties are just as good or better than argon gas-filled windows." Many old windows were constructed from expertly cured, old-growth wood, which is denser and will survive far longer than a modern PVC frame, he says.

Chris Cooper, editor of Edifice Old Home Magazine in Brantford, Ont., agrees. He restored a 320-year-old sash window, made of eastern white pine and complete with original hand-blown glass, from Annapolis Royal, N.S. He says it was in better condition than the 1980s reproduction it replaced.

Ms. Mirshak says many of the Door Store's clients are building new homes, but want something that looks as though it's been there a long time.

Not everyone agrees that salvaged antique pieces have a place in a modern home. Toronto architect Catherine Nasmith, another past president of Ontario's architectural conservancy and editor of Built Heritage News, says bluntly: "I don't believe in faking history." Instead, she believes a builder should produce a home that reflects its era.

Ms. Nasmith would rather see a greater effort to preserve old buildings, and says most governments in Canada lag behind public opinion with their preservation policies and financial incentives. Only Quebec has shown a true commitment to built heritage, she says.

But some argue that if a building is going to be lost anyway, better to save what you can. Vancouver heritage consultant Donald Luxton says: "I am a purist about how we maintain our authentic heritage buildings," he says, "but I see no reason why we can't reuse historic items."

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Mr. Luxton believes "the tide has turned" on preservation legislatively, but adds that "financial incentives remain limited. When you compare our federal programs to the other G8 countries, our lack of financial incentives is an embarrassment."

Still, the preservationist's loss is the restorer's gain. A visitor to Cobourg's Legacy in search of reusable items will find everything from vintage doors, windows, hardware, leaded stained glass, lighting, flooring, plumbing fixtures, roofing, shutters, signs and stairs, to pillars and posts.

Leaded stained glass is a significant subcategory of windows. Paul Singleton, co-owner of the Stonehouse of Campbellville, boasts the biggest supply in Canada. Mr. Singleton scours Britain to add to his collection at his location north of Hamilton, where he carries everything from small, single-colour panes to 20-foot giants.

How should one go about stitching these noble relics into a restoration or new-build project?

When they purchased their 19th-century Port Hope house, Mr. Caswell and his wife spent the first year developing a plan, before they began to remove the 1970s-era "schlock" it contained.

He suggests that would-be restorers tour salvage places such as Legacy, as well as well-preserved period homes, such as those in pioneer villages or serving as museums.

Once decisions have been made, he says, it's time to hire an architect who can make your ideas work.

While salvage operations represent rich storehouses for those seeking the right pieces for their project, where do operators find supplies? Mr. Kraumanis visits Europe, Quebec and the United States to replenish his stock, but says many suppliers come to him.

"Every day, I get five people pulling up with pickups full of items."

He's always on the lookout for unusual pieces, as well as doors, hardware and lighting fixtures, which are among his bestsellers.

Mr. Kraumanis calculates that 10 per cent of his merchandise is purchased for film and TV sets. He's supplied pieces for movies such as Cinderella Man, Chicago and numerous horror flicks, and once provided 30 desks to a film producer who wanted to replicate a vintage police squad room.

Home design diva Sarah Richardson is a regular. And restaurateurs account for another 15 per cent. But most clients are homeowners looking for that special piece.

Special to The Globe and Mail

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