Thick poplar trees covered the Tennessee Valley a hundred years ago. But they were steadily cut down and used as lumber, and now the old-growth wood is nearly impossible to find.
"It's not available in stores, and there is a limited quantity of it left in the world," said Matt Sears, owner of Haskel Sears Design, which makes wooden furniture.
Which is why he was excited to find 25-foot-long old-growth poplar floor and ceiling joists in the old brick building on the southeast corner of Main and Market streets. The building has since been demolished to make room for a new mixed-use apartment and retail complex.
But not before Sears got the wood out.
"We pulled the building down without disturbing the valuable materials inside of it," Sears said. "We also discovered some pine beams and some steel beams that had Woolworth's stamped on them."
He estimated he pulled about 10,000 board feet of wood from the building, or about half of the site's total wood.
"It gives it a second life and keeps it out of the dump and keeps new trees from coming down," Sears said.
The site on the corner of Main and Market across from Battlefield Academy will be rebuilt as a $7 million mixed-use apartment complex by Chattanooga developer John Wise. The new development will hold 60 apartment units and add 10,000 square feet of retail space to a key downtown intersection.
Wise said the development will be LEED certified, so recycling the old building materials just made sense.
"I wanted it to be reused instead of throwing it out," Wise said. "It's definitely taken me more time and money because we've had to pick through the debris and pick it out, but it will make some really beautiful furniture."
Many of the old building's bricks have also been salvaged. Brewster Yates, owner of Yates Bleachery, said he pulled about 2,500 old bricks out of the rubble that he plans to reuse either at the bleachery or in his home. He thinks the old bricks were made at Key James Brick in Alton Park.
"Bricks are a couple bucks a piece to buy new," he said. "But it would be hard for new brick to emulate something made by hand in the 1800s. Chattanooga has its own unique clay pits that made the brick and it's got purple and red hues. It's a really rare brick."
Sears hopes to use some of the reclaimed wood to create furniture or other interior decor and put it into Wise's new building.
"That's one of my favorite things to do," he said.
Contact Shelly Bradbury at email@example.com or 757-6525