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Issue 34

Treasure Hunting

by Paula Hendrickson

When Lisa Klein moved into her Chicago bungalow in 1998, she immediately felt comfortable in the North Park neighborhood. Home to two universities and located near the northernmost end of one of Chicago’s El lines, North Park consists of brick bungalows, Foursquares and some older apartments. Originally a predominantly Jewish neighborhood, the area is still home to a yeshiva, but as older residents have moved or died, a wider mix has settled in to create a culturally diverse neighborhood.

Just a block from Lisa’s house, a fork in the Chicago River acts as a buffer between this corner of Chicago and the rest of the city. The river means there are few through streets; it also provides habitats for many animals not often found in major cities, like rabbits, raccoons, opossums, deer and geese. It truly is a neighborhood with something for everyone. For Lisa, that meant a classic 1925 brick bungalow.

Everything was in good original condition from the front door to the back: oak trim, hardwood floors, a mirror-backed Murphy Bed, stained-glass windows and the art-glass light fixtures. She especially liked that the bathroom and kitchen had never been upgraded.

Realizing her existing furniture didn’t quite suit the new home, she started looking around. Wanting furnishings that reflected the home’s age and charm, Klein turned to her favorite places — antique malls, thrift stores, flea markets and garage sales — to fill her home. Around the same time, a friend of a friend was consolidating a bed-and-breakfast, and some of the furniture found its way to Klein — including an Arts and Crafts rocker.

“The first thing I bought was a carpet, in horrible shape, for $35 at a resale shop. I didn’t know anything about it, I just knew I liked it and was drawn to it,” Lisa says. The rug turned out to be the first of four Wilton rugs from the 1920s and 1930s now gracing her home. Originally in the living room, that first rug is now in her home office.

Lisa soon found a 1910 sofa with the original mohair fabric at an antiques shop that specializes in 20th-century pieces. Next came a 1920s French burled-walnut veneer armoire to hide her electronics. Once she realized it was from the same era her house was built, she knew what she had to do: find other furnishings from that period. One of Lisa’s hopes is to have no furnishings, other than electronics, made after World War II.

“Second-hand shopping has always been a passion of mine,” Lisa says. “I started when I was about 16. And I’ve cultivated my eye to find the hidden treasure — and my treasure isn’t necessarily anybody else’s treasure. I did start slanting heavily to Arts and Crafts furnishings once I realized how good they looked in my house and how available they were.” That was as recently as 1999.

“I think it was when I bought a machine-loomed Wilton rug and a Hoosier cabinet at a local auction that it really got in my blood. I liked how the rug accented the stained glass windows and brought the dark wood in my house and the furniture all together. I really got addicted to finding more stuff.”

One of her favorite finds was in a small shop about 100 miles from her home. “I found an old, mahogany-stained Arts and Crafts sideboard that looked perfect. They said it was originally from Chicago, so we thought it might fit. I’d seen it there a couple of times on my scouting adventures, and when it was on sale, I decided to buy it. It fit perfectly under the stained-glass windows in my dining room.” Only after she bought it did Lisa worry about how she’d get it all the way back to Chicago.

Lisa “garbage picked” a couple of things from her former neighbors, including a huge, wood-framed mirror for her hall, and a perfect-condition blue rattan chair that she put in her bathroom. Of course, all her finds aren’t free, some are just cheap.

“There was this Hoosier base at a flea market, marked about $140, and the dealer asked what I wanted to spend. ‘Five dollars,’ I joked. We haggled, and I ended up paying $50. The guy thought I was a dealer, and when I saw him at the same flea market a year later, he remembered me.”

It was at an estate sale that Klein found her dream stove: a 1934 Magic Chef American Stove Company range. “I had a stove guy who works exclusively on vintage stoves look it over, and he only had to replace some of the gaskets and put in a new thermostat. He said the oven and broiler were in impeccable condition — like they weren’t even used.” The cost of the range with repairs was about the same as buying a new stove would have been.

Perhaps her biggest splurge is one of her more recent ones. And it wouldn’t have happened if Lisa weren’t in the habit of stopping at just about every antiques place she passes — when she has the time, anyway. She found a Pullman-style hide-a-bed made by the Globe company, complete with original leather cushions. It may have been her biggest splurge, but she still didn’t pay much. “None of my purchases have been over $800,” she says.

“You can’t go out expecting to find something. Part of the adventure is just going and having the adrenaline rush of maybe finding something, and seeing all the possibilities and mentally figuring out what it is you like,” she advises.

While some antiquers insist on being the first person through the gates, Klein prefers waiting for the bargains. “If you want the best selection, go early the first day or wait in line for an estate sale, but if you want a good price, go to the second day of a two-day flea market when it’s threatening to rain because the dealers want to pack up and go home. And never pay the asking price. If the dealer won’t lower the price, get them to throw in a little something extra for free.” She says the biggest mistake many shoppers make is thinking they have no control over what the price will be.

Lisa also suggests frequenting the same shops so dealers get to know you. They’re more likely to cut better deals for their best customers.

“When you’re buying stuff, really look at all the sides and all the parts so you know it doesn’t have a broken leg or big scar,” she says. “If it does, you use that to your advantage to strike a good deal. You just have to be sure what you buy is solid. Look for repaired joints. It’s fine to buy that as long as you know what you’re getting into.”

“The best part of buying older furnishings is that they’re almost one of a kind, and they go so well with older homes,” Lisa offers. “Each piece has something unique about it. Even if you’ve seen two, four, 10 or 12 of the same thing, each piece has a life of its own. Collecting stuff like this is really an exercise in self-expression. You’re not buying something off the rack, you’re pulling together various aspects of your personality and combining them into a home.”

Lisa’s decor isn’t strictly Arts and Crafts — it’s an eclectic mix reflecting her artistic background as a graphic designer. Look around and you’ll see baby shoes dangling in a corner, a wall of crosses, a Hmong wall hanging and lots of Buddha heads.

“I like a lot of knick-knacky things so wherever I look, I see lots of eye candy. Being a creative person, I need a lot of visual stimulation and inspiration for my work.”

Lisa’s penchant is for collecting old things, so you won’t find reproductions in her home. “I like that my furniture has the same history that the house has. It has character and flaws, and blends in better. And good-quality reproductions are going to be more expensive than the time-worn pieces I buy.” Nor does she have, or want, $30,000 bookshelves.

“I don’t have museum-quality stuff, I have stuff my dogs and I can live with. I don’t have to worry that someone’s going to scuff something or scratch something. It’s a home, not a museum.”

There is one drawback to Lisa’s home-furnishing hobby: She’s running out of space. “Now that my house is starting to fill up, I’m going more for smaller things like pottery and linens.” Though in the next breath, she adds, “But I just might have to finish my attic to make room for more stuff.”

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