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There are certain kinds of people among us, ghost-world travelers who experience near spiritual moments in the presence of the things that Ben Riddleberger likes. Others might call the stuff junk, but to Riddleberger it’s treasure—usually chipped or dinged and often rusting. “When another row house comes down in Baltimore, hardly anyone sheds a tear,” said Riddleberger. “But there are things inside those houses that are a crime not to save.”

To list the items that Riddleberger has saved from landfills would take a building as large as the 1885 gas company “valve house” in South Baltimore where he keeps his collection of curios: an architectural salvage business called Housewerks. All 8,000 square feet of it.

“They made gas from coal here,” he said of the edifice built by the Chesapeake Gas Company, a forerunner of today’s BGE. “They’d compress the gas and send it out to a third of the city.”

Riddleberger purchased the building from photographer Al Fiterman in 2004 and opened for business the following year. Since then, repair, restoration, and commerce have taken place below a vaulted roof topped by a clerestory. Photographer Dean Alexander had a studio there before Riddleberger bought it. “It took us hours to paint the ceiling with industrial sprayers,” Alexander said. “When you’re up there, the place looks like a football field.”

Shafts of sunshine bathe stained glass from a Federal Hill church demolished for townhomes, a crystal chandelier with dozens of dangling baubles refracting the light and oddities like a 1950s pedal car for kids. “Great lines, I’ve never seen a model like it,” said Riddleberger of the vehicle. “It’s got four wheels and a kid’s license plate from Mississippi dated 1953. I bought it from [an antique] picker years ago.”

 

When another row house comes down in Baltimore, hardly anyone sheds a tear, but there are things inside those houses that are a crime not to save.
Ben Riddleberger

The “car”—just steel tubing with wheels and a seat—sits atop a red wooden tool crate that Riddleberger found at the Kaydon Ring & Seal company on nearby Wicomico Street. It just needed a bit of cleaning up, like the 250 lights salvaged from the tin mill at Bethlehem Steel in Sparrows Point, once one of the most powerful economic engines in the country. Salvage work at “the Point,” he said, “has been over for some time.”

A second chandelier, also 19th century and believed to be from the original Garrett-Jacobs mansion in Mount Vernon, arrived in pieces from an estate sale on the Magothy River. Gilt bronze made by the Cornelius and Son company, it dates from 1853 and was wrapped in a newspaper from 1939, awaiting assembly while Riddleberger hunts for big game, like an intact 1950s dentist office recently acquired from the deceased tooth man’s residence in Dundalk. Who would be interested in a dentist’s chair from the Eisenhower Administration? Who knows? That’s the nature of the trade. “The dentist was a World War II veteran who had a side entrance at his home for patients,” said Riddleberger. “And he only took cash.”

“People are charmed when an interesting story goes with something because 99 percent of the time stuff is largely anonymous, but we go out and get most of it” from the original site, said Riddleberger, 52, who lives with his wife and three children in Waverly. “People want to know who something was made for, whose hands did it pass through. Especially if they’re putting it in a rehabbed home that’s been denuded of character. Most of the time we can tell them. That separates us from other dealers.”

Near the entrance is a 19th-century cabinet for gun parts salvaged from a once notorious and now defunct shop at 218 South Broadway, the Baltimore Gunsmith. “It’s primitive in a way that’s charming, looks a bit like an apothecary cabinet,” Riddleberger said of the wooden piece, painted black, with rows of handmade sheet metal drawers. “It’s handmade, it’s local, and it’s associated with a nefarious shop.”

The object might strike some as a card catalog, if Dracula had been a librarian. Each drawer has a faded tag saying what was stored there, including a few with the name “Enfield” for parts, taps and dies made by the historic Royal Small Arms manufacturer in that borough of London.

Other drawers—“people seem to like cabinets with small drawers,” said Riddleberger—are marked “Springfield ‘03” (for a bolt-action rifle used in World War I), “Browning,” and “Krag 30-40,” the last one the name of the rifle carried by US soldiers in the Spanish-American War.

 

It’s all reflective of our better selves, the connective tissue between generations that very likely won’t ever be made again.
Ben Riddleberger

The cabinet, he said, “held parts that made guns viable. The shop was filled with hundreds and hundreds of cheap pistol frames for guns you could keep in your pocket, buckets of them just lying around. It was an unusual salvage opportunity and kind of titillating—an environment with an ominous specter.”

The gunshop—now one of dozens of mattress stores in Baltimore—was owned and up for sale by the late Anthony A. DiMartino. It was investigated by the federal government several times for illegal sales during the crack cocaine-driven crime waves of the 1980s and early ’90s, but DiMartino was never convicted. He allowed Riddleberger to scour the place for goodies while waiting for the building to sell.

“I was there in 2015,” said Riddleberger, who also picked up hundreds of wooden skate wheels from another long-gone DiMartino enterprise. “Closets were nailed shut and I asked if I could open them. Inside one of them were floor-to-ceiling shotguns, all modified. A lot of them were antique black powder shotguns.”

But guns, except for the odd military piece, are not Riddleberger’s thing, not part of the vanishing “built-up” Baltimore that calls to him, like the Bayard Street building itself, which opened the same year National Bohemian beer was first brewed in Baltimore. “The space is the best artifact of all,” said Riddleberger, with some folks visiting 1415 Bayard Street “for the theater of shopping.”

 

The show? The Dead Industries of America, for-sale history before your eyes. Here’s a row of Crouse-Hinds spotlights from Bethlehem Steel used to illuminate work yards with enough candle power to light a small baseball stadium. Also from Bethlehem Steel: pattern molds— wooden forms for sand casting in the production of steel—for the architecture of the nation that won World War II. And a pair of tugboat propeller screws.

“It’s all reflective of our better selves, the connective tissue between generations that very likely won’t ever be made again,” Riddleberger said. “It was all skill and pride. Pattern makers don’t even exist anymore. No one touches a pattern, it’s all computers now. This is stuff from the days when we used our opposable thumbs to do something other than swipe right.”

 

This story is from Issue 13: Collect, available here.

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