In With the Old: Restoring Antique Furniture

Pam Bernstein turns others' trash into her antique treasures.

| July/August 2002

Our home is an alternative landfill of sorts—a refuge for discarded furniture and other household items. Over the years I have happily lugged home an assortment of neglected chairs, an old bathroom sink, and an antique commode with no top—not because I needed them, but because I couldn’t bear to see them thrown away. However, I do have a few basic criteria: I have to like the item and be able to restore it and use it.

My forays into Chicago’s alleys began in 1993, when my husband, Simon, and I acquired a charming five-year-old mutt named Spike. As Spike and I settled into a routine of early morning walks, we also began to scope out alleys, wandering down those where furniture sat beside garbage cans. I was amazed at what people threw away. One of my more impressive finds was a four-tiered, glass-fronted barrister bookcase. Made of mahogany, all it needed was some lemon oil and a new piece of glass.

Another stellar discovery was a regulator schoolroom clock, which I spotted on the lid of a dumpster. Its missing pendulum did not deter us from hanging it in our living room. A few years ago we celebrated our wedding anniversary by having a craftsman repair it. He informed us that our clock was made in the early 1900s and worth about $300. Even nicer is its timekeeping, which is completely friendly to the environment. All we have to do is wind it.

Fortunately, I have never had to explain how a dilapidated piece of furniture followed me home, for my husband has become a willing accomplice. A late sleeper, he has allowed me to drag him out of bed on many a weekend morning because I needed help bringing home a jelly cupboard or a chest of drawers.

Some of my finds have become major projects, such as the sodden rocker I rescued on my way home from work one day. Its only attribute was its unusually small size—the perfect fit for my mother, who shares our home. Clearly homemade, the piece required some repair as well as new padding. I painted the frame white, then designed and punch-hooked an outer layer of upholstery in gray wool with a floral motif. My friend Nina and I spent the better part of a weekend covering the seat and back with the hooked pieces. I like to think its maker would be pleased.

Six years ago we moved to Galena, Illinois. Although our home here is small and completely furnished, I still cannot resist a quick peek into the odd dumpster . . . so I have simply moved on to treasures for the garden and yard. An old rusted camp bed makes an excellent trellis. And just the other day Simon came home with a discarded gas grill. All it needed was a few new parts . . .

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