Real People. Stihl People.

Rural Missouri Magazine
Architectural Antiques
Antique dealer Harry Henderson saves
old house history from the wrecking ball

by Jim McCarty

Antique dealer Harry Henderson hoists an original terra cotta lion’s head architectural ornament, one of several unique pieces in his collection. Besides preserving original items from historic buildings, he makes replicas of stonework so the work of long-gone craftsmen continues.

Antique hunters who stop by Harry Henderson’s store in St. Clair are often surprised by what they find inside.
“Last year was my first winter being open and not many people knew what I had,” Harry says. “So consequently people stopped by looking for little collectible items and stuff like that.”

Instead they found the inside and outside of the 50-by-100-foot building packed with relics salvaged from old buildings destined for the wrecking ball.

Stacks of tin ceiling panels fill one corner. Pocket doors — designed to disappear in a wall cavity — are so numerous Harry has screwed them to the walls. Art-glass windows share space with stairway railing spindles.

Fireplace mantels lean one against another. Some carry heavy coats of paint while others let their original quarter-sawn oak elegance show through.

“I’ve never seen so many fireplace mantels in one place,” remarks a visitor, who has spent the better part of an hour wandering the crowded confines of the store.

“You should have been in here when I had a lot of church pews,” Harry replies. “I had so many standing on end it looked like a forest in here. I had 40, maybe 50 church pews.”
What often pulls visitors into Henderson’s Antiques are the rows of claw-foot bathtubs outside. Harry likes to keep about 50 of the cast-iron relics on hand.

“Sometimes no one asks about a bathtub and then I sell a couple over the weekend. Everyone wants that special one, and that’s hard to find.”

Stacks of iron railing, massive chandeliers, Victorian wood molding, clocks and the occasional phone booth — these are the stock of Harry Henderson’s trade.

“Basically, this is just recycling,” says Harry, a member of Crawford Electric Cooperative. “They’ve been recycling architectural stuff over in Europe for many years.”

Harry got into the antique business when high interest rates forced him out of the real estate business. Looking for something with a little more cash flow, he set up shop in the Cherokee Street antique row near downtown St. Louis. At the time, there were close to 50 shops there.

Harry visits with a customer inside his store near St. Clair. The antique dealer keeps irregular hours but customers know that when his gate is open, so is the store.

“When I opened my store, if you wanted to sell antiques, that’s where you had to be. Because it was before antique malls, before eBay, before the Internet. Since that time, things have changed dramatically.”

He says the antique trade has become a global market, with buyers and sellers getting together online. But the architectural items Harry sells don’t lend themselves to online selling because they would be too hard to ship.

When gas prices made the 120-mile round trip from his home in Beaufort to St. Louis too expensive, Harry decided to move the business closer to home. He chose a site just off Interstate 44 in St. Clair near where old Route 66 headed toward Springfield.

The store’s hours vary, though it’s usually open on weekends. Frequent visitors know the store is open when the gates are open. When they are closed Harry is most likely out salvaging more antiques.

“The way you get hooked in this business, if you don’t salvage the stuff out of the building you come back a week later and the building is gone. So if something is available, you have to say yes or no and take it out.”

On many occasions, Harry has found himself desperately working to salvage some architectural gem while the building is coming down around him. “They are flipping walls down and dust and debris is falling around me. The rule of thumb is be careful, don’t get hurt.”

The carving on this fireplace mantel reveals the kind of details that customers seek in antique architectural pieces. Such craftsmanship is nearly impossible to find in modern structures but common among Harry's inventory.

The work can be dangerous and difficult. Harry has fallen through floors and had to work out the logistics of moving items like heavy tubs and barn roof vents down to the ground.

“Everything is bigger and heavier than me,” he laments. “Like this coming week, I’m going to salvage a safe door. They’re not made to take out.”

But Harry likes a challenge. He says he often has to figure out how things were put together before he can figure out how to take it apart. “You have to work backwards,” he says. “All this stuff is very labor intensive. It’s almost a labor of love.”

Harry learns about what’s available from his many contacts in the antique business. He says people like him tend to specialize, so if one person gets a job the odds are good there will be things they don’t want to salvage and they contact Harry. He tends to favor things like tin ceilings and wood trim.

“Often it’s real interesting. Other times you just go in and leave. At times it can be dangerous.”

Harry especially likes unusual masonry pieces. His collection includes lion heads and fancy pieces of terra cotta that once graced the facades of brick buildings.

In his collection is an intriguing stone face that came from a railroad station that was torn down many years ago in Quincy, Ill. The face, along with other debris, was dumped in the river. A friend of Harry’s found the treasures and gave him one of the three that still exist. The others are in museums.

Harry helps move an antique fireplace mantel. Harry specializes in unique architectural details salvaged from older structures.

Another stone face came from a building Harry thought was being wrecked in the historic Soulard neighborhood of St. Louis. Instead, workers were repairing the building’s brickwork. Harry convinced them to let him borrow the face just long enough to make a mold.

From this piece and many others, Harry can make accurate copies in concrete. These one-of-a-kind pieces end up in gardens and on the walls of unusual homes.

“I tell people there’s a good side and a bad side to what I do,” Harry says of the concrete reproductions. “The good side is I don’t do very many. The bad side is I don’t do very many. So in other words, you won’t find these everywhere.”

Harry works hard to make his store interesting to customers. For this reason, a lot of what is on display is not for sale. One of the most intriguing items is a life-size statue of a woman that was made by a friend. He also has neon lights set to motion detectors that have surprised many browsers.

His latest additions are 21 massive oak cabinets that came from the Eugene Field School in St. Louis. These cabinets illustrate what is so unique about Henderson’s Antiques.

How many people would have the ability to remove 21 cabinets from a rickety old three-story building, especially after the elevator went out?

“I like big things,” Harry says. “In my store, it’s a focal point. It’s part of the ambiance. I want folks to say, ‘Wow, where’d you get that?’ ”

You can find Henderson’s Antiques at 495 West Gravois in St. Clair. For more information, call (314) 795-2612.

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