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Wooden Nickel was salvaging and preserving long before it became fashionable to do so

It all started with $400 and an old van
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Posted at 12:00 PM, Jul 05, 2016
and last updated 2016-07-05 12:00:08-04

CINCINNATI — Mike Williams started the Cincinnati architectural antiques shop Wooden Nickel 40 years ago with a buddy, $400 and an old van.

He has salvaged doors, bars, stained glass, mirrors, mantels, tile installations, stone columns, landscape sculpture and tavern bars — just about anything too big for the average antiques dealer to handle — at locations hundreds of miles in every direction.

Wiliams did most jobs quietly, although occasionally protesters pointed fingers at him and his partner, Tim Miller, and claimed they were greedy demolishers and anti-preservationists.

But Williams persevered. These days, his skills are so revered that a high-profile next-door neighbor — Cincinnati Music Hall — called on Wooden Nickel by to remove its 12 beloved and delicate crystal chandeliers to their warehouse while its $135 million renovation is under way.

GALLERY: Wooden Nickel tackles delicate task of removing Music Hall chandeliers

Other than the two-block walk from his Central Parkway shop to the job, the first week in June that Williams and his crew spent in Music Hall was far from easy.

“Talk about stress,” Williams said. “I was not intimidated by the job, but they gave us just five days to do it.”

He said about 140 hours went into lowering, dismantling, tagging, wrapping and removing the chandeliers from the 1878 performance hall. Surprises encountered along the way forced Williams to improvise by digging deep into his 40 years of hands-on engineering skills.

The custom crates for the chandeliers that Wooden Nickel fashioned from two-by-fours were an unusual challenge, Williams said.

He credited his innovative skills to his father, who was both an engineer and a doctor, but his wife and long-time business partner, Patty Williams, said there’s more to it than that.

“I have to say that Mike is a natural engineer,” she said. “It’s an art form to take stuff out that’s not meant to be taken without breaking it.”

The Music Hall job

Some of the pieces that Wooden Nickel removed from Music Hall:

  • A 20-foot-long, antique front-and-back bar from Music Hall’s Critic’s Club.
  • Twelve crystal chandeliers — five from the lobby and seven from Corbett Tower.
  • Two 200-pound corbels featuring classic comedy and tragedy faces that once hung in an old downtown Cincinnati theater.
  • The original bronze marquees and ticket booth from the Albee Theater that the Westin Hotel replaced.
  • All the French furniture from Music Hall’s Green Room.

Catching the bug

Mike Williams was working as a rock ‘n’ roll roadie and living in Mount Auburn when he caught the love bug for old stuff. He recalled that while watching the demolition of an old Mount Auburn house he was saddened that its contents were being thrown out.

So he went into the house and salvaged what he could. He met Miller, who is from Columbus, in the late '60s, and the pair started buying and selling architectural salvage out of their van. Back then, there were a lot of salvage opportunities because freeway and expressway construction was wiping out entire neighborhoods.

“We thought it was sad the way they were tearing things up, so we started saving things. We thought it was a really cool thing to do,” Williams said.

He and Miller traveled around the Midwest and as far away as upstate New York to salvage sites. They cut their teeth on approaching demolition crews and offering to buy and remove what was destined for the landfill, and they prided themselves on harvesting pieces from grand Cincinnati houses and seeing them find new homes in the community.

Their work often was done on what Williams calls a “do it now, you break it, you pay for it, no refunds” basis. He recalled hustling to buy two antique front doors from a New York teardown.

“They had these beautiful butterfly hinges,” he said of the doors. “We paid $20, tore the doors off and drove around the block and came back. The house was gone, literally gone.”

A changing business

The salvage scene has changed as preservation has gained popularity. Williams said that, since 1976, Wooden Nickel has bought and removed the architectural contents of about 3,000 buildings, some of which hadn’t been touched in 50 to 75 years, but those opportunities are diminishing.

That’s fine with him, he said.

“I don’t want to see buildings torn down. We’re basically preservationists. We have been for years,” he said. “You know, the stuff goes all over the U.S., but we like it when it stays local. It’s a lot of fun.”

Wooden Nickel has shifted gears over the years, adding removal and transportation as well as stained-glass restoration and reproduction to their services. And, Williams said, the shop has found honey pots elsewhere.

“There are huge collections out there that are opening up,” he said. “People die. There’s divorce. But the wholesale demolition of buildings is not going to happen as much as it did. We find caches that have been privately controlled for decades by families. The awesome stuff you see down at Wooden Nickel is not coming out of properties. It’s a changed business pattern. We don’t get killer, killer stuff on-site anymore.”

Demand for the best

Nevertheless, demand for large, high-quality antiques and architectural pieces isn’t going away, Williams said.

“The younger people today don’t want some of this stuff, but the best is always the best. ... That’s why there are museums,” he said.

The Cincinnati Art Museum bought Rookwood sculptor Clement Barnhorn’s 1912 “Fountain of the Water Nymph” from Wooden Nickel. In 1991, Williams said, he and Miller paid $10,000 and removed the 2,000- to 3,000-pound fountain from Losantiville Lanes in Golf Manor after it was closed and sold.

“So much incredible stuff has come through my hands,” Mike said. It’s so cool. We’ve met so many incredible people doing this. The diversity of people we meet in the course of a month is amazing."

Now 65, Williams said he hasn’t thought about retiring. He has no children to pick up the Wooden Nickel mantle, but he said he is hopeful someone will.

“I watch as some of these antiques dealers retire and take away a great amount of knowledge with them,” Williams said. “Will there be people with interest to carry on? I don’t know.”

So, while Miller cuts back on time spent at the Wooden Nickel, Williams and his staff carry on at a brisk pace that suits Williams fine.

“Once a month, I see something I’ve never seen before,” he said. “I like to hunt for things, acquire things. I like having it for a couple of months and then selling it. If it goes to a public place, that’s even better.”

And when he gets a job like the Music Hall one, the juices flow as they did when he made his first salvage as a young roadie.

“It’s not ever routine. It's always exciting.”