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Nonprofit's founder has 2 missions: Save history, help veterans

By Stephen Deere St. Louis Post-Dispatch
Dec 3, 2016

ST. LOUIS • The bathtub weighed more than a ton, a mass of concrete glazed in white porcelain. It took a track hoe and heavy duty straps to lift it from the second story of a Clayton mansion. Now it sat on a flatbed truck, accompanied by a hint of folklore.

Eric Schwarz looked it over and guessed how much the 105-year-old item would fetch. Five thousand? Ten? He couldn’t say. Its value lay in the one trait he couldn’t see.

Only one other bathtub like it existed. It was in the White

House and had been built to accommodate the 350-pound

frame of President William Howard Taft.

Or so Schwarz was told. Was it true? Did it matter?

“It’s a great story,” he said. “And it will sell this tub.”

Schwarz’s experience had taught him that in an increasingly imitative world, some people hungered for an authenticity conceived in the marriage of age and use.

He founded Refab, a salvage yard in south St. Louis, in a condemned building four years ago. At the time, he had about $3,000 in his pocket and an idea for salvaging discarded building materials and turning around the lives of veterans.

Today, Schwarz leases a 40,000-square-foot warehouse off Gravois Avenue and employs 14 people. His budget for 2017 is $1.2 million. That growth is partly attributable to a backlash against the uniformity produced by globalization.

The customers who frequent this two story red-brick repository of rescued material are weary of seeing the same furniture, the same sinks and the same light fixtures — all of it mass-produced on the other side of the planet.

“You go into a lot of houses — and I don’t know if we coined the phrase — but they are all ‘Lowes’d up,’” said Randy Miller, who was looking for material for his coffee shop in Southern Illinois. “This is a like a candy store.”

It can also feel like being in a time machine that stops at irregular intervals, yo-yoing you through the past.

In front of a soapstone and lath counter is a 1903 gas stove. Straight ahead are rows of 1960s auditorium seats with green velvet cushions. In the back of the room, toilets, tubs and sinks spanning at least 130 years of architectural strata — from 1870s farmhouse sinks to jacuzzi tubs — cover the floor.

In places, there is no clear path through all the stuff, but six days a week, people navigate a maze of others’ junk searching for material to create something unique. Barnwood for dining tables. Discarded soapstone for countertops. Fifty-year-old corrugated metal for accent walls.

‘It was so beautiful’

The dropped ceiling was made of those flaky, cellulose acoustical tiles that sprouted from mid-20th century design, but appeared worn and fragile 50 years later.

Schwarz, a teenager working for a construction company, was told to rip it down. When he finished, the original tin ceiling was exposed. He stared up in wonder at the squares embedded with ornate patterns.

“Why would anybody cover that up?” he said. “It was so beautiful.”

Perhaps, he said, that’s where his appreciation of old building materials began.

As for his fondness of veterans, Schwarz traces that to years spent following a woman around the world.

At Webster University, Schwarz studied abroad in Thailand where he met a Colombian woman. He traveled with her to her native country, then to Korea and Germany, where he couldn’t find work and ran out of money.

He was always running into military personnel, many of whom feared unemployment after the service.

“One time, I sat on a flight with a guy who was a field technician,” Schwarz said. “He put people’s guts back into their bodies and sewed them up and they lived. But when he came back, he would have to go to school to be an EMT.”

Coming home

Schwarz returned to St. Louis and volunteered for various nonprofits until he wrote a grant for Habitat for Humanity that included a job for himself.

Habitat sells salvaged materials and other items through its Restore shop, and Schwarz soon learned that Restores in other cities employ deconstruction crews. Under that model, property owners pay to have Restore workers demolish buildings but they also received tax deductions for donating material.

Habitat for Humanity St. Louis has volunteers who will deconstruct buildings, and the group sells the salvaged materials through its Restore shop.

Schwarz created a plan for his own nonprofit, tweaking the blueprint he discovered at Habitat. His organization’s mission was twofold: to salvage architectural history and retrain homeless veterans for the workforce.

He shared his vision with a few others and was introduced to Eric Friedman, president of the commercial real estate firm the Friedman Group. Friedman agreed to allow Schwarz to use a condemned building he owned.

When Schwarz founded Refab in August 2012, his timing was nearly perfect. That same month, the website Pinterest, a virtual catalog of do-it-yourself projects, had a record 25 million unique visitors.

Barely surviving

The startup was slow going. Schwarz was open by appointment and occasionally on weekends. The organization produced $88,600 in revenue that first year. Schwarz took a $16,000 salary.

Soon he looked like the men he was trying to help. His father took over his student loans. His car was repossessed. Then he got it back. Unable to afford rent, he often slept in it in front of Refab.

“I think he went into it really naive about how businesses work and how much money it was going to take,” said Eric’s father, Bob Schwarz, an information technology consultant. “It was tough on him … He was barely surviving.”

His first contract was with Washington University to deconstruct 81 housing units. Then Refab won a contract with a hospital. The two projects netted doors, windows, surgical sinks and lockers.

At the warehouse, none of the inventory had price tags. To know what something cost, you had to ask Schwarz, whose prices fluctuated based on what he had in stock, the amount being purchased and, sometimes, the brand of car you drove.

Refab’s revenue grew to $151,700 in 2014 and to $270,000 in 2015.

Meanwhile, Schwarz was engaged in a delicate dance with city inspectors and insurance agents. He didn’t have an occupancy permit. To keep the city at bay, he obtained a building permit to allow Refab to work in the building. To keep his insurance policy, he scheduled meetings with agents at restaurants instead of a structure deemed unfit for habitation.

A falling out

After a couple of years, Schwarz and Friedman’s relationship frayed. Friedman had allowed Refab the use of his building rent-free. When discussions began about a long-term lease, the two couldn’t agree.

Refab relocated to a former brewery two miles north.

“When they moved out of our building, they left it full of junk,” Friedman said. “It was a disappointing experience.”

Last week, the old warehouse teemed with broken vinyl windows, cracked toilets and an overturned piano.

When the business moved to the former brewery, sales dropped, because Schwarz reserved the best inventory for the opening of the new location in October 2015. He told employees their paychecks would be delayed by a week.

“I don’t think anybody seriously thought about leaving Refab to get another job,” said Robert Phillips, 46. A couple of years ago, the Navy veteran was living in a tent on the Mississippi River. He found Refab through St. Patrick Center downtown and now has his own apartment.

“We knew we were going to get paid,” Phillips said. “We all banded together.”

A tub for Taft

Schwarz stopped sleeping in his car when he met his wife in 2014. They now have a 2-year-old daughter. In November, Schwarz ran his finger across a floorboard of a late 19th-century barn in Illinois. The grain resembled a flame, a sign that it was maple. He didn’t see a lot of that. The 10-foot long board would sell for between $70 and $120.

Refab deconstructed another barn and a pre-Civil War farmhouse that month. Schwarz’s employees had trouble finding spots for the material. But he didn’t want to turn jobs down for fear that people would stop calling.

The weekend after Thanksgiving, Refab sold $17,000 worth of material, a record. Schwarz expects to end the year with $600,000 in revenue.

He plans to build a fabrication shop and train employees to be carpenters. Customers could pick out salvaged material for custom furniture.

But realizing that vision means letting go of things he enjoys. Administrative tasks have kept Schwarz from traipsing through old buildings as much as he used to.

Handwritten price tags have appeared. He can no longer offer prices based on perceived wealth. Soon there will be bar codes. He can only smile and nod in recognition at what is happening. The nonprofit fueled by resistance to big box home improvement stores was looking more corporate.

Last week, the vessel rumored to be the doppelgänger of a bathtub custom built for William Howard Taft sat on a dolly under fluorescent light. The veracity of the tale that came with it had become more clear.

According to historians, the captain of a warship that transported Taft ordered a 7-foot-1-inch-long and 41-inch-wide tub for Taft, who was elected in 1908. The tub from the 1911 Clayton mansion also measures 7 feet, 1 inch long and 41 inches wide.

Shortly after Taft’s tub was built, four workers climbed inside and posed for a picture — a photograph that fed the myth that Taft got stuck in a bathtub.

The tub in that photo looks identical to the one at Refab.

It could have been in a landfill. Instead, its value is rising.

Refab is a registered 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization. Refab operates on grant funding as well as public and private donations.