By Royal Brevvaxling Special to Published Aug 22, 2012 at 5:31 AM

Ralph "Bones" Gollnick started collecting salvage long before 1986, when he founded I. M. Salvage, Ltd., 737 W. Cleveland Ave., a salvage contracting firm, yard and warehouse that sells reclaimed building materials of all kinds.

"I feel like I was the first one to get into this business. In the '80s, pretty much everything (from demolition) was left behind, before auctions were widespread. There was no place available for the public; there were a lot of restoration and antique shops, sure, but no place where somebody could buy salvage on a walk-in basis," says Gollnick.

I. M. Salvage has, or had, almost everything imaginable from structures built a few months to 140 years ago. For example, street lights, exotic chandeliers and ordinary kitchen lights fill just a few of the different spaces in I. M. Salvage's 30,000-square foot building.

In between rows of doors and windows are items like six pillars from a Beaver Dam church built in 1887, wood cabinets from Walworth High School classrooms, plaster and horsehair pillars once inside a funeral home and gas stoves from one of Milwaukee's first furnished apartment buildings.

"There's a lot of history here, representing a lot of different places all over this side of Wisconsin," says Gollnick.

There are huge commercial garage doors standing on end next to 4-by-6 residential ones in the warehouse. And across the aisle from these are restaurant refrigerators and a commercial-grade wine cooler with tappers that retails for $14,000.

In the 20,000-square foot yard in back of I. M. Salvage are fences (and not just parts for fences but entire fences that used to be around buildings, like a North Side Walmart) as well as hard-to-find bricks and blocks that will match homes built over 100 years ago. There are also industrial trash compactors and loading docks. And some still-open space.

"We've got a lot of room for expansion, for advancement," says Gollnick, with a gleam that can sometimes be noted in a collector's eye – and in the eyes of everyone who loves what they do.

Gollnick's primary business used to be remodeling and construction and he originally started I. M. Salvage primarily to collect materials for remodeling jobs.

Gollnick started in an era before demolition firms sent concrete for grinding and reuse instead of dumping, and separated iron for scrapping instead of adding it to a landfill.

"It just got too expensive not to," says Gollnick, who adds that the culture of re-use is now to the point where he's seen some doors in his salvage yard four times.

Gollnick, and his second-in-command, Mike Mann, take pride in what they salvage and always seem concerned about the condition of materials they resell.

I. M. Salvage has rows of iron radiators and is getting even more from a current salvage project, but Gollnick doesn't sell anything that he doesn't first test.

"Radiators have to be handled a certain way. I run the boilers up to temperature to see if they work first," says Gollnick. "Some people have come through here with a couple radiators in the back of a truck looking to sell them and I always say, 'Take them to the scrap yard.'"

Mann now does much of the field work and is currently on projects along the Kinnickinnic River just north of the salvage yard, where 85 houses are being demolished.

"We've done about 29 houses for two different (demolition) companies so far," says Mann.

Gollnick says that on some projects they're able to salvage over 90 percent of the structure, removing stairs and railings, lights, windows, wood flooring, anything that might have value for someone.

Gollnick says he's become a "master of removing stained glass" and getting these to lay flat once again, if they break. He understands sandstone so much that he knows how to take it apart just by looking at it.

A large, arched wooden door from a mansion currently sits in the warehouse, accompanied by an orderly pile of sandstone trim that once surrounded it.

"I've been followed by a half dozen people, none of them too successfully, and non-profits like Habitat for Humanity (with its ReStore retail salvage shops). Before people jumped on the green bandwagon, we were here," says Gollnick.

Gollnick remembers representatives of Habitat for Humanity touring his warehouse when it was located on Loomis Road, asking questions about where and how he amassed all that stuff.

I. M. Salvage usually had more time in the beginning, Gollnick says, even working months on some larger structures – and salvaging 99 percent of them. They once took a mansion apart entirely by hand – no wrecking ball or other large equipment – salvaging almost everything down to nearly the last brick.

Now there are more rush jobs. And Gollnick's crew has shrunk since the onset of the Great Recession.

"One time, when I had a crew of eight guys, I was supposed to have a week to do a mansion in River Hills, but then the owner gave us one weekend. At 10 a.m., we were pulling out the rec room, a massive amount of kitchen cabinets, all the windows, doors and door frames and two bathrooms. We were out at 1 p.m.," says Gollnick.

I. M. Salvage crews often work right alongside the demolition crews.

"If you make a mistake, there's no forgiving in this business," says Gollnick, "You can walk down a hallway one day and the next day it's gone."

I. M. Salvage is part of the Building Materials Reuse Association (BMRA), an international group representing companies whose goals are to avoid filling up landfills and to reduce the use of new materials. BMRA has an annual convention, which was held one year in Madison, and Gollnick says Wisconsin really impressed everyone there.

"The next one is in Seattle. It's usually held at a university and co-sponsored by student groups involved in recycling, saving the earth and all that," says Gollnick.

Gollnick has salvaged some impressive structures in his day, including a school in Cudahy, police stations, the old Schwinn mansion on Lake Geneva (where a new one now sits), a seminary in East Troy and the Ambrosia Chocolate Company, but he takes all jobs, including removal of dog houses and outhouses.

"Outhouses were expensive at that time, mostly because Martha Stewart used one as a tool shed, I believe," says Gollnick.

One of Gollnick's jobs was the Wisconsin Theater, located at 6th Street and Wisconsin Avenue. It was built in 1924 and demolished in 1986, but the grand old theater was first split into two cinemas in 1963. Ornate features like the gilded trim work were painted over or covered by new walls.

Gollnick uncovered all this and salvaged much of it, including a gargoyle-like decorative piece he calls his "self-portrait" and hangs in his office.

I. M. Salvage also recuperated much of Gimbels Department store, which was also built in 1924 and located on Wisconsin Avenue. The display cabinets from Gimbels were reused and Gollnick salvaged them again before their second home was torn down.

Cupolas that Gollnick and his crew salvaged from the roof of the Milwaukee County Mental Institution are now spread all over, some have been reused, one is at a surplus store in Baraboo.

Gollnick says nearly everything in the restaurant that is now the Water Street Brewery in Delafield came from his salvage jobs.

"I remember where stuff comes from and how to put it back together, even if it was 30 years ago," says Gollnick. "But don't ask me the names of the medication I take."

The Montgomery Building on Michigan Avenue Downtown was one of Gollnick's first – and most memorable – jobs. Gollnick's father worked for Plastronics when it was located in the building.

"As kids we would roam those halls, even doing some painting and cleaning the floors. I remember climbing the staircase to his work; 30 years later I went back to tear it down," says Gollnick.

Royal Brevvaxling Special to
Royal Brevväxling is a writer, educator and visual artist. As a photo essayist, he also likes to tell stories with pictures. In his writing, Royal focuses on the people who make Milwaukee an inviting, interesting and inspiring place to live.

Royal has taught courses in critical pedagogy, writing, rhetoric and cultural studies at several schools in Wisconsin and Minnesota. He is currently Adjunct Associate Professor of Humanities at Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design.

Royal lives in Walker’s Point with his family and uses the light of the Polish Moon to illuminate his way home.