Art amid the ruins

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January 27, 2003 // UPDATED 4:23 pm - April 27, 2007
By: sue rich
sue rich

Downtown's Art & Architecture is home to great stuff and a hot TV series. But you had better see it now because it will soon be leaving.

There are a few things you should know before stepping into Art & Architecture: You'll forget what time it is, unless you're a watch-checker; You'll probably get lost, but if you do just holler; If the owner himself, Jim Schmitt, comes to rescue you he can also tell you a great story about that church confessional, wrought iron gate, or box of glass doorknobs you're leaning against;

While you're at it, if you've taken a liking to a bigger item, try to haggle, because the Downtown store is moving at the end of summer;

Yes, this is the place featured in "Decorating Cents," HGTV's most popular show;

You'll never know what you'll leave with.

The duly warned are now prepared to enter the glass door at 404 Washington Ave. N. and proceed through the long, white, fluorescent-lit hall until reaching the dark wood entry with the sign "Antiqvues" at the top.

Pass below this threshold into the yellow-and-green-painted stairway. On your right, you'll see a tin ceiling panel framed despite -- or because of -- its crackling, falling white paint. A hundred sconces line the stairway. A pair of milk-glass lights, fit for a '50s princess, resides next to metal Victorian candleholders. Slide your shoe along the thick-planked steps and you can feel the grain of the wood through your sole. Descend.

At the end of the stairs, pass below a stained glass window portraying a sword and crown, then help yourself to a cup of coffee. A welcoming table also offers cream, sugar and a chance to sign the guest book. Once the sugar packet is emptied, you can toss it into the old-fashioned dome-top trashcan from the Minneapolis Armory's pre-parking lot days.

There's not a clean line of sight across this basement catacomb -- ceiling fixtures sometimes rest on the floor while elegant entryways lean against painted concrete walls. Nor do signs tell you where to find hardware or ceiling fans. The closest thing to a clock is the 8-foot-diameter wooden circle with "CORN SHOW TIME" painted on it in blazing red capital letters and with two wooden 2-to-3-foot-long clock hands that, if you manipulate them just right, you can turn to indicate whatever time you please.

If you have the time and enjoy meandering, grab your coffee and get lost in this strange land where animal skulls sit on the same countertop as fancy drawer pulls on a counter in front of a Frank Lloyd Wright-designed window. If time is precious, or if you need a specific hard-to-find item such as a metal floor grate or patterned hinge, just head for the front desk. It's just a 20-step beeline from the coffee pot.

On most days, this is where you can find Jim Schmitt, Art & Architecture's owner. Sometimes, this is where you can find his black lab, Sully (named after turn-of-last-century architect Louis Sullivan), and Schmitt's 3-and-a-half-year-old son Ted. (Wife Kelly Harmon-Schmitt works in an advertising agency a few blocks down the street.)

With his reddish-blond hair, pink cheeks and big smile, Schmitt is one approachable business owner. "Anyone who walks down the stairs is an interesting, creative, motivated person," he says. "The mere fact they walk in the door, you know there's something special about them. Otherwise, they'd be at Menard's."

Rust runs in Schmitt's veins. His grandparents, Joe and Lorraine Schmidt, owned a cabin and an antique shop near Sandy Lake. As a child, Schmitt picked up old rusty tools and hardware at garage sales, polished them off, and sold them to his grandparents for resale. Not believing that antiques were a viable career option, he studied marketing in college in Michigan then moved to New York City to work for an advertising agency.

On a lark, he answered a New York Times want ad for a traveling architectural antiques salesman. He began reselling architectural elements purchased by a salvage firm, and soon found that a life in antiques could be fairly lucrative. He changed course, eventually returning to Minnesota and opening a consignment stall in the Antiques Riverwalk, 210 3rd Ave. N.. He continued to acquire antiques until he had enough to open Art & Architecture in 1998.

If you're looking for a matching hinge for an old door, Schmitt or Greg Gilquist, his right-hand man, can lead you directly to what you're looking for, or at least tell you they don't have it and suggest another place to look. Don't worry if the request seems strange; Gilquist, an architecture graduate from the U of M, was recently asked where to find the ugliest lamp in the store. "We don't do ugly -- maybe kitsch here and there, but not ugly," he said.

Most of the items in the store come from soon-to-be-demolished or newly remodeled homes. The homeowner usually calls Schmitt to see if he's interested in the old fireplace mantel, windows or what have you. Over the years, Schmitt has had dozens of unusual offerings come in. Currently, the wood mantle and accent pieces from a pipe organ grace the wall by the counter. Schmitt reverently runs his hand across the wood -- African ribbon-striped mahogany -- as he explains, "This woman in Red Wing was a professional organist. So in 1915 she had this full pipe organ installed in her home."

Schmitt was quick to take advantage of the opportunity to add more "uncategorizable" items to his store. He figures someone will want to use the mantle for a fireplace for around $4,500 or so. He recently sold a confessional to local Native American author Louise Erdrich for her southwest Minneapolis store, Birchbark Books, as a listening station. How hard can it be to sell this? The pipes for the organ are sold individually. Stacked on their sides on racks in the middle of an aisle far from the organ's mantle, the pipes look more like miniature missiles than anything musical.

Veer to the left of the counter and you'll probably notice the incongruity of several artfully arranged pieces near the wall. A white and gold Gothic niche towers over a modern wooden pulpit. In front of the pulpit is an antique barber's chair, near a Rococo couch that needs a little love. A pair of frilly milk-glass lamps graces the pulpit's top.

One browser can't refuse the setup. He steps his diminutive frame into the pulpit, smiles, lifts his hands, waves them a little and is sated with his gesticulation. Church altars, confessionals, chandeliers and candleholders can be found throughout the store. Schmitt bought most of them from Buca restaurant after the Italian food chain ditched their initial Catholic church theme for kitsch of the Dean Martin/Sophia Loren variety.

Large items, such as the pulpit, will most likely be discounted this summer. Tired of leasing, Schmitt has purchased a building on University Avenue near Highway 280 and will be moving the entire operation out of Downtown by September. He jokes about having an anti-bag sale: anything that doesn't fit in a bag will be 25 percent off.