salvaged features featured
Julie Bidwell for The Wall Street Journal

Wealthy homeowners are spending big to make brand new construction look old. The trend that started with reclaimed wood flooring is now moving to a whole new level, as homeowners integrate huge architectural artifacts—from intact staircases to 20-foot-long wooden bars—into newly built homes.

Salvaged from old buildings or junkyards, these items ensure a home’s uniqueness, proponents say, and can boost resale value if done well. But incorporating large artifacts into a 21st century home demands willing and skilled craftsmen, lots of patience—and plenty of money.

“I thought my plumber was going to kill me,” groans Liz Tiesi of Threshold Interiors in New York City, recalling the process of installing a vintage sink in her Manhattan apartment. Ms. Tiesi happily paid about $800 for the oversize sink, which hailed from the old Tastykake factory in Philadelphia and worked perfectly with the industrial aesthetic she wanted. But then she learned it was nearly impossible to find a drain and drain pipe to fit. When her long-suffering plumber finally got it to work, “I was so happy,” she says. “A sink like that—you will not see another one of those for a long time.”

Salvaged church altar kitchen island
The Rhode Island home of Todd and Debbie Martin contains a number of salvaged artifacts. The kitchen island was once a church altar; the lights above it also came from a church.

Joel Zettler, owner of Oley Valley Architectural Antiques in Denver, Pa., said until five years ago most of his clients were restaurants, hotels and other commercial venues. Now, roughly half of his customers are homeowners snapping up his most popular items—antique wooden bars from old hotels and saloons that usually span 14 to 24 feet and sell for $50,000 to $200,000 (not including shipping and installation).

Salvaged items can add an instant sense of history to an otherwise bland new house, said Jessica Engholm, founder of architectural salvage company Cultheir. “We’re going into an era of building where a house can be put up overnight,” she says. Reusing older items can “introduce character that otherwise wouldn’t be there.”

Todd and Debbie Martin bought seven stained glass windows, salvaged from an 1870s church in rural Pennsylvania, before they “even had the blueprints” for the addition to their house in Tiverton, R.I., Mr. Martin said. After spying the ornate windows in the Philadelphia showroom of Provenance Companies, which specializes in reclaimed materials, the couple was determined to use them in the new structure.

Todd and Debbie Martin
The Martins discovered that installing the antique stained glass windows was far more complicated than they expected. ‘I thought, “you buy the window, you put it in, that’s it”,’ says Mr. Martin.

It took multiple craftsmen nearly a year to prepare the 150-year-old glass for installation. One firm reinforced the delicate glass with zinc; another built custom wooden window sashes and a third fashioned clear glass windows in the same shape as the stained glass, to protect it from the elements and provide insulation. Meanwhile, the home’s walls had to be carefully designed to accommodate the arched windows. “It’s almost like putting the space station together,” says Mr. Martin, a 48-year-old retiree.

While the Martins paid about $4,000 for the windows themselves, it cost about $15,000 to retrofit and install them in the house. Altogether, the Martins spent about $800,000 on the addition—more than double what the project would have cost if they’d skipped the reclaimed items they gathered on various road trips, Mr. Martin estimated. It was also twice what they spent on the house itself; they paid $397,500 in 2013.