Her search and rescue missions yield relics of the past
Story by Alexandra Chughtai-Harvey, BA ’99
Photo by Roark Johnson
What happens when you combine a fine appreciation for pre-1950s residential architecture with brute force and an unwavering “can-do” attitude?
The result, according to savvy preservationist Elizabeth Ross, co-owner of Island Girl Salvage, an architectural salvage company located in Chicago’s northwest suburbs, is a 5,000-square-foot retail space filled with one-of-a-kind relics, each lovingly saved from the wrecking ball.
“While we can’t always stop tear-downs, there’s a great feeling of accomplishment saving something that would otherwise go to a landfill,” says Ross, who cofounded the company in April 2003 with business partner Tabitha Long.
Ross compares her salvage work to “search and rescue” missions. “There is a great feeling of excitement and anticipation when we first pull up to a house,” she says. “What treasures will we find? Who lived here? Will the roof cave in or the floor give way?”
Armed with “very large crowbars and a lot of determination,” Ross and her business partner do all of the physical labor themselves. Because Ross also works full time as a project manager for a Chicago-based telecommunications company, nights and weekends are reserved for prying wooden fireplace mantels away from the walls of homes slated for demolition, or lugging claw-foot bathtubs from third-floor bathrooms to the back of Ross’s Chevy pickup truck.
The original period pieces and collectibles fill a unique market niche for affordable, retro home decor, catering to the preservation-minded client. “We try to tell people where the object came from and they love the piece even more,” explains Ross.
Ross says that a bachelor’s degree in history earned at UB and a lifelong appreciation for architecture inform her work as a pioneer preservationist. Looking back, she says the Main Street apartment she rented near the South Campus helped to inspire a love of old homes. “Every space was filled with some closet, no space was wasted,” she says. “There were secrets to be found around every corner.”
As for the future, Ross says she hopes to devote all of her time to salvaging architectural remnants of the past, and of course, “the pie in the sky dream is that everyone knows the name Island Girl.” With efforts under way to work with a local restaurant chain and a national clothing retailer for their decorating needs, that future may be just around the corner for this entrepreneur with a social conscience.