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Stepping into Ron Allan’s office in Shaw is like passing through a time warp gone haywire.
It comprises no fewer than four withered desks pushed together in a rectangle, each surface littered with dozens of aged paperweights and other miscellany. Hardcover books with yellowing pages fit into a makeshift shelf. In the corner sits an ancient fan with yellowing blades, and in front of that, a flare gun.
“I’m a Victorian Home Depot,” says Allan, and after seeing his workspace, it’s pretty hard to doubt him.
Allan owns the soon-to-be-shuttered Brass Knob Back Doors Warehouse, a salvaged-parts supply store and gold mine for vintage furniture freaks. Open since 1981, its unassuming white-and-blue facade has long been a beacon for shoppers interested in odds and ends that are two, three, or four times older than themselves.
But collectors and curious homeowners will soon have to get their Gothic mantels elsewhere. Stifled, he said, by rising rent in a changing neighborhood and a citywide condo-culture that leaves little room for small businesses like his—all compounded with a bleak economy—Allan will have to close shop next month.
But he seems to have reconciled with this fate, saying that he’s ready for a break anyway. Over the nearly 30 years he spent as the Brass Knob’s owner, Allan has had to move his 24,000 square feet of inventory at least four times.
“The truth is I’m tired,” he said. “I’m tired of pushing that big load uphill.”
There is a shitload of stuff—a cacophony of wood, iron, and porcelain—inside the warehouse. Looking around, one sees doors, windows, garden fences, fireplaces, stained glass, columns, bathtubs, sinks, toilets, radiators, drawing boards, writing desks, chandeliers, candles, and gas lamps.
Allan started accumulating all these things while working as a planner for George Washington University in the ‘70s, when the school was demolishing Foggy Bottom buildings left and right. Unwilling to damn all the furniture and appliances left behind to a landfill, Allan took to the then-peculiar practice of salvaging other people’s garbage—he now calls it “early green-thinking.”
Allan and his partner, Donetta George, saw an opportunity to turn this hobby into a business, and began selling items they culled from historic D.C. buildings doomed to the wrecking ball. They established a shop in Adams Morgan, but soon realized they needed more space. Allan eventually arrived at L N Street NW, near North Capitol.
(George still owns the Adams Morgan location, Brass Knob Architectural Antiques, which for now isn’t going anywhere. The company split in 2005.)
But again: all this stuff. What’ll happen to it?
Allan doesn’t want to see it wind up in the trash. By early November he hopes to sell most of it—apparently there’s a big market in Europe for cast-iron radiators—but also aspires to take it to another side of the trade.
Inspired by seeing how customers put his products to use, Allan said he would like to start design work using the antiques he’s handled through the years. There’s a demand, he said, in place like “pubs on H Street” and “restaurants in Brooklyn” for archaic knickknacks as décor—old-growth wood, after all, looks better than modern, more disposable materials.
And Allan hasn’t stopped collecting, either. Just this month he bought lavish doors from the Hay-Adams Hotel in Downtown. It was an unwise move, financially, for a business to acquire more stock the month before its closing.
“But I just couldn’t resist,” Allan said.