Reynold Lowe wears a lanyard around his neck; strapped to it is his name tag. It reads “Reynold, Big Cheese.” He’s the guy behind Materials Unlimited. Lowe founded it 40 years ago, two years after his first salvage job, an Ann Arbor house that was slated for demolition.
Four decades later, he and a team of history buffs and antique enthusiasts run the shop. James Wilson is a marketing specialist, but he works with customers as well. Michael Newberry is an architectural preservation and design consultant. Bill Weber is a lighting restoration specialist, and William Danforth is an architectural historian, consultant, and restoration specialist. Together, with a shipping coordinator, a couple of managers, and a social media specialist, they operate the shop, making old things new again and helping people appreciate and enjoy the craftsmanship of decades and centuries gone by.
The shop is located in Depot Town, Ypsilanti. The Michigan Avenue location is actually an old car dealership, though it’s almost impossible to tell now. The only evidence of its past life is a black-and-white photograph that hangs behind a desk on the main floor.
Now the three-story shop houses thousands of light fixtures — you could say that’s what Materials Unlimited specializes in. The fixtures come to them through different avenues, but they all have a similar fate. Maimed fixtures are broken down into pieces, some of which go toward creating new lamps, sconces, or chandeliers, while others are rewired and refitted with hardware that will allow them to be used in modern homes. After they’ve been cleaned, resurfaced, and restored, they’re taken to the showroom floor, where they hang, awaiting the perfect adoptive parents.
While the main floor acts as a showroom, filled to the brim with stained glass, formal dining tables, wooden pews, ornate sconces, fireplace mantels, and colorful hearth tiles, the basement offers more of a salvage yard feel. That’s where you’ll find pieces in need of some repair. Cast-iron clawfoot tubs litter the floor. A few pedestal sinks, and boxes piled high with powder-blue tiles are among the treasures in the space. Rows and rows of doors need cleaning and refinishing, some even come with the jamb, making them perfect for a custom build. From 8 to 5 feet ta;;, doors range from strikingly ornate (a heavily etched specimen from a now-demolished mosque comes to mind) to the beautifully simple, Materials Unlimited has just about everything.
Down in the lower level is where you’ll find Weber’s shop. That’s where he tinkers with fixtures, doing the rewiring and painstakingly bringing long-hidden paint and metal to light. If a piece can’t be resurfaced, it’s repainted, keeping as much of its original integrity intact. Sometimes customers find lamps and bring them to Weber; other times he creates entirely new pieces with new guts and old exterior parts. Some of his pieces are on display in the showroom, including a couple of cool, industrial-looking shop lamps that’d be great for either a workspace or the home — either way they’re one of a kind. Next to that space is where the doors are redone. They’re sanded down, restrained, and shined before they’re presented to their owners for new use. Some become headboards while others are repurposed as pocket doors, and still others become pseudo walls in the high-ceilinged lofts of Chicago city-dwellers.
Down here, sectioned off from guests, there’s also a stockpile of stained- and beveled-glass windows, any of which can come commissioned to be added to a door or become a window in a home, office, or restaurant.
Up on the third floor is what Lowe refers to as the “library of lamp shades.” An entire room is dedicated to the blown glass, hand-crimped, etched crystal shades, some of which are very rare. These shades will be used for fixture restorations or possibly for creating new lamps. Some are 120 years old, some younger. Some are ruby red, painted yellow, white, or pale blue, and Lowe seems to know each one personally.
Newberry has a master’s of science in historic preservation. He likes taking care of old things, which is something of a rare trait among Americans, though it seems more and more that young folks are starting to value quality. “These things were built by hand 100 years ago in the United States,” says Newberry. “When you believe in a product, it’s easier to sell it. It’s nice to be surrounded by quality.” While folks travel from far and wide to shop at Materials Unlimited, Lowe says they get at least 15 people a day who just stop in because they were driving by. Those unfamiliar are surely awestruck by the vast stock, but sometimes the prices can also garner a gasp.
“A lot of people have sticker shock when they walk in,” says Newberry. “But if you go to Chicago or any other big city, you’re adding a zero to the price tag.” On Sunday, Sept. 7, from 1 to 4 p.m., the shop will participate in the Ypsi Roadshow, where one of their experts will give free appraisals on pottery, period lighting, jewelry, architectural salvage, furniture, art, and stained and beveled glass. They’re up for appraising other goods, but they recommend you call first, especially if it’s a larger item.
2 W. Michigan Ave., Ypsilanti; 734-483-6980; materialsunlimited.com