The Artful Salvager: Eric Nordstrom’s Urban Remains

The sheer variety of rare and unusual pieces here is mind-blowing. Between the huge warehouse in Chicago’s West Town and the online catalog, this architectural antique store is like a museum where everything is for sale.

Photo by: Eric Nordstrom Eric Nordstrom, founder of Urban Remains, on a salvage at the 70-story YWCA hotel at 830 S. Michigan Avenue. He's touching a deep relief salmon colored terra cotta rosette block, part of the ornamented doorway of the 1895 building. 

From stained and leaded glass windows, to historic building hardware and 1920s Farie lamps, Toledo stools and industrial tables, antique electrical devices, the odd medical cabinet and old service station signs, it's here, or among more than 16,000 items cataloged on the Urban Remains website. The search is for art. Buyers with $5,000 or $15,000 or $80,000 to spend ask: What piece will offer me the beauty or history or whimsy I want to live with? “People want something they’re not going to be able to find anywhere else,” says general manager Brian Janusheske. Then this must be the place, a vision conjured by Eric Nordstrom, a hybrid man part archeologist, art historian and scientist (he holds a MS in molecular biology).

“I’m a picker, hoarder, collector,” says a black beanied Nordstrom in a promotional video.That's the CliffsNotes version. The Lacrosse, Wis., native also has more than a glimmer of romantic urgency about him, like a man having all but the last chip of a rare cuneiform. He can recite the lineage of a piece, chapter, verse and syllable, and writes the narrative of each object’s DNA in dense, meticulous descriptions for the exquisite online catalog. “Even if it’s a doorknob, I’ll say, Okay, it was taken from the David C. Cook mansion. This doorknob was on the second floor bedroom. It was made by this company. Here’s a picture of the house that it was taken from. And people really dig that narrative," says Nordstrom. "The story means everything to me.” So protean is his knowledge, auction houses solicit him for information on pieces, says Janusheske.

The majority of these rescued items come from wreckers who call Nordstrom about upcoming demolitions. Or he’ll buy out factories liquidating their assets, where he finds industrial artifacts. “I definitely have taken my science background and used it toward architectural salvage. There’s a lot of complexities. It takes a lot skill," he says. "Like with plaster. You really have to understand how it was put in before you take it out. I have a huge intensity toward learning about the buildings.” Nordstrom, who does the photo documenting, has by his estimation more than 300,000 images in his archive.

It’s obviously a calling. While in graduate school, a typical weekend meant exploring abandoned buildings in Milwaukee, Chicago or New York. “I was living a kind of dichotomous lifestyle,” he says. “I’d come back with a suitcase loaded with Victorian tile and doorknobs.” By the time he finished his degree at the University of Minnesota, ducked out of a Ph.D program and moved to Chicago, he had storage facilities all over the Midwest. He opened Urban Remains in 2006 and has been principal salvager on some of Chicago's most glorious buildings: The aforementioned David C. Cook mansion; the candy factory turned George Westinghouse High School in East Garfield Park. The 31-building Michael Reese Hospital took nine months. "I spent hours researching [Reese] because there are multiple architects. Walter Gropius. Schmidt, Garden and Martin did some of the buildings. I mean, that was just an enormous undertaking."

Today, the insanely passionate Nordstrom is developing Bldg. 51 American Building Artifact Museum and Gallery, home to several items in his personal collection. The museum “revolves around Frank Lloyd Wright, Louis Sullivan, high-end folk art. You know, stuff like that.” 

Asked what was the very first item he placed in his collection, the one that stoked the first glimpse of a long journey? He becomes quiet, draws out the moment, and then begins to trace shapes in the air, as if he wants to show you the pictures in his head. “When I was working at that restaurant in high school,” he says finally. “This establishment – Coney Island – I think they set up shop in the early 1900s. And I found a framed painting advertisement that probably hung in a window for passersby to see. All hand painted. And it said, like, ‘Two big wieners and a cup of coffee makes for a good lunch.’ And it had a picture of this creepy looking guy with a hot dog. So I took that. And that has been with me ever since.”

Nordstrom never even dusted it off. It remains in the same condition today, an intact memory, just as he found it. 

Urban Remains is located at 1850 W. Grand Ave.; showroom at 1818 W. Grand Ave. Telephone: (312) 492-6254. Monday – Friday, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.; Saturday 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Sunday 12 p.m. to 5 p.m.

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