RACINE — When city officials decided to clear the area known as Machinery Row, or the Water Street Redevelopment Area, it was the end for those former industrial buildings.
But it was the beginning of a massive salvaging of materials from them: primarily lumber, Cream City bricks and metal. The lumber harvest will mean the wood used to construct those buildings will live on, as flooring, furniture, cabinetry and more.
Since mid-September an Appleton company, Urban Evolutions, has been buying and dealing in old-growth timbers, maple flooring and decking from: the former J.I. Case Plow Works, 615 Marquette St.; and two former J.I. Case Co. factories at 820 and 900 Water St.
Urban Evolutions is buying the wood from Veit & Co., the contractor for the Redevelopment Area’s deconstruction. Urban Evolutions President Jeff Janson said he pays according to what he can salvage.
“I’m buying it by the board foot,” he said. “If he (Steve Hosier of Veit) gets it out of the building and does a good job, he’s going to make more money.”
Janson subcontracted the processing of the wood to Recyclean of Kenosha, which is also buying all of the bricks from the site.
The first project, Janson said, was pulling out all of the maple flooring. They were able to save close to 200,000 board feet of flooring and about 400,000 board feet of decking, or subfloor, from the buildings. (A board foot is 1 by 12 by 12 inches, or 144 cubic inches.)
Much of the flooring is sold to retailers, Janson said.
And he will get a total of more than 1 million board feet of timbers from the Case buildings which were constructed between the late 1800s and early 1900s.
“And (the wood) weighs about 4 pounds a foot, so you can kind of do the math on how much we’re saving from the landfill,” Janson said. Some of the timbers from the site weigh up to 1,500 pounds each.
Shawn Burks, owner of Antique Woods of Louisiana, is a large buyer of wood from the Case buildings. And both he and Janson say those timbers are something special. They were cut from huge longleaf yellow pine trees that were 300 to 800 years old when they were harvested, Burks said.
Many people are familiar with the relatively soft pine lumber that one finds at big-box home-improvement stores. But longleaf pine is anything but soft.
“This wood was (growing) prior to the steel industry, for the most part,” Janson said, “and it was considered as strong as structural steel. Some of them are probably as strong as some steel.”
Burks’ 28-person company designs and builds lodges across the country, makes custom-finish wooden floors, walls, cabinetry and furniture.
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“Just about anything to do with wood, we fool with it,” he remarked.
So far, Burks has bought more than $500,000 worth of Case wood from Janson, most of it for his company’s own projects.
Burks said there’s much he likes about longleaf yellow pine which is not just strong but also beautiful. “I like the density, the growth rings — the slow growth and the tensile strength, the pitch, the colors,” which include reds, browns, oranges and yellows, he said.
The virgin forests that produced the longleaf pines are gone, Burks said. “The only place you will see timbers like these are river bottoms and buildings like these.”
Burks called Janson a “unicorn” in the wood salvage business. “Generally, the people who start the job never finish it,” Burks said. “He and Veit have done a tremendous job.”
“We have a saying: ‘There are more honest people in the drug business than in the antique-wood business,’” Burks said. “They will generally take the candy out, and it will look like an atomic bomb hit.”
Urban Evolutions has its own store and showroom in Appleton, 35 employees and hits about $8 million in revenue in its best year, Janson said.
More than half of the business is supplying flooring to the retail and residential markets. The company has done more than 500 stores for Urban Outfitters stores alone, in the past 15 years.
“Because of that,” Janson said, “I get orders almost every week to replace a floor that either was flooded, damaged, hurricanes; we replaced all the floors in Puerto Rico.”
Urban Evolutions, which Janson co-owns with his wife, Robin, also makes furniture for a company called Room & Board and wholesales it to them, Janson continued. Urban Evolutions also makes furniture for Sundance, which Robert Redford founded.
Janson said he will retain most of the maple from the Case job and sell it over the next three years.
Burks promised to buy about 1 million board feet; the rest Janson is selling to other companies. He has shipped Case wood to North Carolina, Virginia, Baton Route, La.; Georgia, Illinois New York and Pennsylvania.
“I’m selling to other companies that are like mine,” Janson said. “… Maybe a competitor, but that’s all right.”