Evansville Firm Finds Treasures Amidst Trash, Blighted Homes

They go into some of the most blighted, rancid and trash-filled homes in Evansville and yet, more often than not, they can still find something to salvage. fHg Architectural Salvage, an Evansville-based firm that opened in September 2014, has a contract with the City of Evansville to go into homes before they are demolished in order to find historically or architecturally significant items from the late 1800s and early 1900s.

On a warm and muggy Saturday afternoon in early May, Kent Ahrenholtz shuffled through the knee-high weeds to get to the front port of a blighted home on West Maryland Street. The home had been vacant for years, evident by the numerous code violation flags in the front yard. As Ahrenholtz used a power drill to unscrew the dozens of wood screws holding the plywood 'front door' up, the smell of rotten and rancid garbage greeted him like a wave during high tide.

"I'm always a little curious as to what we'll find," Ahrenholtz said. ""It's kind of a treasure hunt because we never know what we're going to find."

He walked inside, stepping over empty milk cartons, personal effects and rotten food. The trash pile seemingly covers the entire downstairs and upstairs floors. While especially full of trash, this house is not entirely different than those Ahrenholtz typically sees."

"It's sad because you know that somebody had lived in this," Ahrenholtz said. "To find it in this condition, I'm just amazed that somebody lived like this."

Despite the nauseating settings, Ahrenholtz is on a mission. He's here to find something for his shop located on East Franklin St.

"You've got to look past the trash to try and see is there anything that may have some value," Ahrenholtz said.

117 West Oregon St., a run-of-the-mill shotgun style house in Jacobsville, has been standing for 107 years. It won't see 108. What's left of it has a date with demolition.

The house can't be saved but some of its contents can.

"Generally, we're looking for architectural stuff. If it's in good condition, all the better," Ahrenholtz said.

As the son of a carpenter, Ahrenholtz has the mind of an engineer but the eye of an artist. He has a nine-to-five job as a civil engineer, but digging through blighted homes for relics of the past is serious passion.

Through the trash, debris, and long-forgotten memories,  Ahrenholtz takes inventory of what can be saved and what can't. He doesn't do it alone.

"My wife is part of our business," Ahrenholtz said. "My daughter's boyfriend and his brother are a part of the business. It's kind of a family business and so we all work together to make this thing go."

One of his team members canvasses the basement and makes a discovery: a french door with 15 panes of glass, all of which are intact. The discovery reinforces the need to search high, low and wide.

"We search pretty much every nook and cranny because you're never quite sure what might be in there," Ahrenholtz said.

Surrounded by warehouses, the company's storefront at 823 East Franklin St. has 8500 square feet of history. There are tin ceiling panels from the former D-Patrick Downtown dealership, a century old gun safe from Mt Vernon and dozens upon dozens of doors.

fHg, which stands for 'For His Glory,' has an agreement with the City's Department of Metropolitan Development that makes all of this possible.

"Through that process of talking with the city, I recognized the problem but being an engineer by training, I was always taught to see every problem as an opportunity," Ahrenholtz said.

That opportunity was seized in September 2014 when the company established its store. A little more than a year later, it expanded into an adjacent warehouse. Ahrenholtz and his wife cornered the market that, at one time, didn't exist locally.

"Having known the blight crisis in the area, it always made me really sad to see a house get torn down that nobody had the opportunity to get inside and save some of the architectural pieces," Ahrenholtz said. "We're getting more and more customers every month and we still get people who walk in the door and say, 'we didn't know you guys existed."

Luckily for him, Evansville has more than enough supply but a windfall of work could be blowing in.

Earlier this month, the City Council took the all important first step in the fight against blight by approving $1.7 million in Tropicana lease pre-payments to provide the initial funding for the Land Bank of Evansville. The non-profit Brownfields Corporation will assume ownership of roughly 200 properties that went unsold at the most recent tax sale, have the structures demolished and the property cleaned up. The titles will then be cleared of any and all liens before being deposited into the land bank before being held for future development.

It's a blight divers dream.

"Our anticipation is we will again have to compete for it just like the Blight Elimination Program and submit a proposal and hopefully our proposal will be chosen," Ahrenholtz said.

Until bids are sought and contracts are signed, Ahrenholtz remains focused on picking every last piece that he can. A few hours of work on a Saturday yielded century-old hardwood floors, a two tiered mantle and french doors, the company's 'bread and butter' item.

The items came from someone's memory of a home but these pieces can bring new memories into someone else's.

"It's kind of a passion so it makes the extra hours not that hard," Ahrenholtz said.

fHg

   


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