Harry Henderson has been dealing in architectural antiques for about 30 years. Yet, the 71-year-old man who maintains a shop in St. Clair is nowhere near being an antique himself.
Henderson moved his unique business from St. Louis to St. Clair about a decade ago and spends his days in the shop, on the road or looking into what else he can salvage from buildings that probably have a date with the wrecking ball.
“I’m in the business because I like the stuff,” Henderson said from his shop at 495 W. Gravois Ave. “It’s not the money you get for the piece. It’s the piece itself that makes it exciting.”
The pieces are countless doors, art-glass windows, fireplace mantels, neon signs, lights and lamps, moldings and woodwork, stone and brick, tin ceiling tiles, claw-foot bathtubs and many, many other items that could be as small as a glass doorknob or as big as a full-wall bar mirror and cabinet.
A couple of the more unusual items are an old St. Louis street corner fire bell and a huge bowling pin that stood outside of an old alley.
No matter the size, all of the relics were removed from old buildings, most of which were in the St. Louis area before they were leveled. Henderson has removed items from homes, churches, schools, businesses and even a riverboat.
Items are priced from a few dollars to several thousand dollars.
Henderson does most of the work himself, and age has not deterred him much over the years.
“I get a few aches and pains now, but I’m trying not to slow down,” he said, adding that he works seven days a week between spending time in his shop, on the road and looking for both old items and old buildings in which the antiques are housed.
“I have a network of people I work with,” he said. “There are two other architectural dealers in the St. Louis area, and we’re all friends. And some of the wrecking companies call me if they have a job to tear down a building I might be interested in.
“It’s a lot of work. It’s very labor intensive. But I love it.”
Henderson said his dilemma always has been that he can’t figure out how to be in two places at once.
“I stay that busy,” he said.
So, why does this man continue to do what he does?
“I do it because I love it,” he said. “I guess a big part of it is the search. You find something you like, and you hope someone else will like it, too.
“There is a lot of history in so much of this stuff. It can be like being on a treasure hunt. I just think the stuff is cool.”
Most of the items he has probably would have been trashed if he hadn’t made deals to remove them.
“Most of the time I get there right before the wrecking ball,” he said. “I make a deal with the wrecking company and go in and take out the things I want.
“If you wait, you run out of time. With most demolition jobs, you can’t wait long and expect everything you want to still be there. You can go to the site expecting to get the stuff and they’re already planting grass where the building used to be.
“Then, everything already is gone.”
And, he said, once it’s gone, it’s gone forever.
Timing is key, Henderson said, because the wrecking companies get paid after their job is completed, and they want to get paid as quickly as possible.
“It can be a lot of work to remove an item,” Henderson said. “You have to be careful to remove it properly. You have to look how it was put in so you can try to take it out the same way to preserve whatever it is you want. You don’t want to damage it.”
He also said the items may have to be disassembled or detached before they can be removed.
“And I don’t have much help as well as the time,” he said. “And, things may be on the third floor in buildings with no elevators.”
Sometimes, it still takes him hours, or even days, to get what has caught his fancy.
“It can be big, awkward and heavy,” he said. “A lot of the things weigh more than I do.”
And, of course, getting the items out is only the first step.
“You have to clean it up, and it may need some work,” he said.
Henderson’s shop measures 50 by 100 feet. There is very little walking room inside. He also has a plethora of goodies outside.
He said most of his customers are people who know him or know what antiques he has available.
“Advertising is done by word of mouth,” he said, adding that his relics are artifacts for the home and garden..
Henderson said the antique business is now a worldwide market, and many buyers and sellers work together online. However, he does not have a website and said the architectural items he has do not lend themselves to online selling because they would be too difficult and expensive to ship.
Henderson used to work in real estate, but got into the architectural antique business in the early 1980s when interest rates soared to about 20 percent.
“I lived in St. Louis and had a bunch of property,” he said. “When those interest rates soared, I couldn’t move it.”
Looking for something that would provide a little more cash flow and since he always had an interest in old buildings, he decided on architectural antiquing.
He originally set up shop on Cherokee Street in St. Louis and was one of about 50 similar businesses in an eight- to 10-block area there.
“It was where the action was at the time,” he said. “People (customers) would make a day of it and visit many of the stores. They would go to one shop after the other.”
When he and his wife started to have children, they started discussing schools and future locations to live. They settled on a piece of property in Beaufort, so they bought it and built a house.
They still live there.
However, over time, the 120-mile roundtrip to and from St. Louis to his store got to be too much for Henderson, so he started looking at relocation options closer to home. He liked the idea of being somewhere near Interstate 44.
“Driving that distance five days every week plus working flea markets on the weekend ... it was just too far and took too much time,” he said. “So, I kept looking for a piece of property closer to home. This piece came up and I got it annexed into the St. Clair city limits, and here I am.”
Henderson’s Antiques is open on the weekends and by special appointment. He can be reached by calling 314-795-2612.