The most common question here at Eco Relics is “Where do you get all this stuff?” While we acquire our architectural salvage by purchasing from reputable sources, that is not the only way people have gotten a hold of building materials throughout history. Less ethical salvagers have resorted to trespass, theft, robbery, and even mob action in search of building materials.
Earlier this year, we explored the Emperor Justinian’s acquisition of Greek temple columns for the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul. Ancient civilizations laying in ruins have long been a source for stones, bricks, beams, and more. The idea of historical preservation has only gained popularity in the last several centuries. Greek and Roman ruins had long been a source of cheap product for marble cutters and lime burners, who were often licensed by contemporary authorities throughout the middle ages for deconstruction.
Even the Renaissance’s celebration of antiquity only extended to texts and language, not physical culture. Zeus was still remembered through Homer, not buildings or statues, and thus the old gods could not save the ruins from disassembly. In 1581, the French Renaissance philosopher Michel de Montaigne wrote in his Travel Journal that although ancient Rome’s remains were “fully adequate to carry away the present age with admiration,” they were but ruins of ruins, “the least worthy of disfigured limbs.”
Instead of preserving the buildings of the past, new classically styled buildings were constructed from pieces of old. Only when ancient monuments developed value as tourist attractions in the late 1700s did Romans begin serious efforts at conservation.
Meanwhile, in the Americas a different sort of salvage was occurring in the late 1700s. England’s American colonies did not have Roman ruins to plunder, but would-be aristocrats brought plenty of Old World splendor with them to set up their houses. Life for the majority of New World immigrants could not have been more different, and the contrast was often borne out in novel forms of protest.
Thomas Hutchinson was no aristocrat, but he was born to a family of successful merchants in Boston, 1711. He entered politics in 1739, and was elected to the provincial assembly for a decade. Despite success and popularity, he was voted out in 1749, and served in various positions for the king until his appointment as Lt. Governor of Massachusetts in 1757.
A prominent man of Hutchinson’s means could establish for himself the trappings of aristocracy in the New World without the encumbrance of a noble title. Hutchinson’s Palladian-styled home was the first such example in colonial New England, echoing the formal classical temple architecture of ancient Greece and Rome. Thomas Jefferson would adopt the same style for his beloved Monticello, as well as for civic buildings constructed during his presidency decades later.
When the English Parliament called on colonial officials to enforce the wildly unpopular Stamp Act of 1765, Hutchinson acquiesced, although he had privately lobbied against the act to his superiors in London. Hutchinson made his brother-in-law “Stamp Master,” and soon incurred the wrath of the mob.
On August 13, 1765, a mob formed around the palatial Hutchinson house in Boston’s North End, demanding that Thomas publicly deny supporting the hated Stamp Act. Hutchinson refused, but he was spared by the intervention of a moderate politician.
Less than two weeks later, the mob returned. This time, Hutchinson and his family fled just before the mob gained entrance. They did not burn the house to the ground, or otherwise ransack the premises, as is often reported. Instead, the angry colonists removed for themselves the architectural elements that they could never afford, symbols of Hutchinson’s great wealth and influence, which they imagined that he had used against them to help pass the Stamp Act through Parliament. Although the mob was mistaken about Hutchinson’s position on the Stamp Act, his scorn for the poor was well known. He wrote favorably of poverty, that is produced “industry and frugality.”
The mob demonstrated their industry and frugality by carefully removing the decorative paneling and woodwork throughout the Hutchinson house, as well as tables, chairs, rugs, and all other furnishings, leaving just an empty shell. Even the cupola perched atop the roof was removed. William Gordon, a witness to the events, declared that veterans of the army who had seen towns sacked by the enemy had never beheld such a spectacle. Although some of the material was eventually returned to the Hutchinson family, the rest remains unaccounted. Perhaps it is still in use in less opulent historic Boston homes.
This particular mob action was not unfamiliar in the colonies. “Leveling,” as it was known to its detractors, was an early attempt to wipe out inequality in colonial America. Salvage mobs occasionally rose up to capture the physical elements of an aristocratic lifestyle and redistribute this material among themselves. Although these radicals lacked the resources and organization of the Whigs who came to define the goals of the American Revolution, their rebellious spirit surely captured the hearts and imaginations of thousands of budding patriots, many of whom would give their lives in the struggle for independence.
Here at Eco Relics, we don’t mob up or raid archaeological sites to acquire architectural salvage. We just buy it from reputable sellers. So maybe we can’t afford to give this stuff away, but then again, we aren’t asking you to join the revolution, either. Instead, we are offering you the opportunity to purchase architectural salvage and much more at discount prices from a business that you can trust. Maybe together we can help build or beautify your home while reducing the need for more landfill space. That’s all. We might not be making history, but we are making sense.