Back from the past: restored 1890's ice box is ready for its closeup

Update:The ice box has been sold and will soon become the focal point of a restaurant in SoHo. I plan to visit it on my next trip to NYC! Saying goodbye to an antique is always sad for me but I am happy that this one has found a good home with an owner who appreciates its history. May 9, 2013.

It may come from the fact that I was born and raised in Virginia's Peninsula area. Surrounded by the history of Yorktown and Williamsburg. The ghosts from our country's past were everywhere.

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I've always held a fascination and wonder for antiques from the past – primitive furniture mostly – that was used by our ancestors in their homes, shops and workplaces. From dry sinks to pie safes, from step back cupboards to wooden iceboxes and farm tables and beyond, their faded paint, worn patina, scrapes and knife cuts almost speak out loud their past and individual stories. And as a Fort Myers interior decorator, I love working vintage pieces into the beach houses, traditional and contemporary homes where a little wow is needed.

In fact, with a little imagination, sometimes one discovers a piece that almost cries out to you, “Look at me…if you only knew the history I have been through…the people who have used me in their daily lives…the conversations that I have heard from owners long-since gone.  And while my looks have long since diminished, I am still standing.”

Such has been the case with much of the antique furniture I have found and collected over the years, one-of-a-kind pieces that I will always treasure. And up until recently, I thought I’d seen just about every antique that could possibly take my breath away.  I was wrong.

Last summer, on a website of a well-known architectural salvage firm in Roanoke Virginia, I stumbled upon an offering of what can only be called the “mother of all ice boxes.” Solid oak. Almost eight feet long, six and a half feet high, with six working doors, all original hardware --- and appearance wise, a complete and utter mess.

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Ice box circa 1890 before restoration.

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After restoration.

A few calls and some research told me why. This ice box was built by the Howe Company in Rutland, Vermont, in the late 1890’s. It had spent its first 40 years in at least one east coast country store, holding large blocks of ice to refrigerate and preserve the meats, poultry and milk products of the day. Sometime after the introduction of electric commercial refrigeration, most likely in the 1930’s, it was retired and somehow ended up in a rear barn/storage building on the outskirts of Roanoke.

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Forgotten and left for 50 years in a rear barn/storage building on the outskirts of Roanoke.

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After restoration: A vintage piece worth saving.

Part of a larger complex of buildings that was purchased by a well-known Roanoke florist, the ice box sat there by itself for some 50 years.  It was covered with cobwebs and layers of dust and dirt. And when the florist passed away and his wife decided to close the business in 2010, a local architectural salvage firm purchased many of the store’s fixtures --  and the giant treasure hiding in the back barn.

They advertised it for sale, of course, “as is”.  And while the rusted inside tin, badly scratched glass, wood deterioration and evidence of a green paint job from many decades ago could be easily seen, no one could accurately assess its true condition. The photos in the ad confirmed that there was no missing hardware, which is extremely rare on a piece this old. But the photos also showed what was once an elegant “lady” who had served faithfully for so many years, only to be abandoned in a dark barn for half a century. If a primitive piece of Americana ever spoke to me, this was it.  Purchasing it “as is” and shipping it by truck from Virginia to southwest Florida would have scared off most, but this lady begged to be saved and I was just the one to do it.

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The ad read: "For sale. As is."

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As it is today after its restoration!

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After it arrived, a detailed examination proved the old adage, “the more you look, the more you’ll find...” Indeed, dry rot, warped and cracked boards, moldy insulation and frayed seals seemed to be everywhere.  I knew a daunting task lay ahead if I was going to save this girl. Over the next year, a significant portion of the ice box was dismantled, structural wood replaced, new glass installed, hardware refurbished and every inch of the exterior and interior was meticulously sanded and refinished. A heavy duty sub-frame of industrial caster wheels was fabricated and installed so the heavy ice box could be easily rolled around. New adjustable shelves were designed and the entire piece was reassembled and polished.

This grand lady from the 1890’s is now ready for her close up on a new stage. In the kitchen of a private home, a restaurant, a hotel or shop,  I’m confident that she will undoubtedly be the center of attention for at least another hundred years.

Want more information on this vintage piece? Contact me.

Update

on 2014-05-12 02:32 by Wrenda

Update: The ice box has been sold and will soon become the focal point of a restaurant in SoHo. I plan to visit it on my next trip to NYC! Saying goodbye to an antique is always sad for me but I am happy that this one has found a good home with an owner who appreciates its history.