New Orleans — Not all building supply dealers are interested in keeping up with residential trends. And not all specialty antique dealers play a major role in maintaining the history and charm of their surroundings. But in New Orleans, where a signature architectural style unites (and distinguishes) an entire city, having the right parts to restore an old home is at least as important as owning something with a fleur de lis detail.
We sat down with Kelly Wilkerson, the self-described "queen/owner/president/indentured slave" of Bank Architectural Antiques in NOLA's Central City neighborhood (she's the second-generation owner, along with her brother).
Founded by her father in 1972, but in its current locale since 1981, the sprawling premises (it might be 40,000 sq. ft., but Wilkerson says it's hard to really say) stretch all the way through to the next block. Inside, there's a vast repository of antiques, one-of-a-kinds, and odds and ends, not the least of which includes a massive warehouse stocked with an estimated 10,000 antique salvaged doors, along with hardware, spindles, brackets, cornices, shutters, locks, knobs, and more.
We talked about the challenges, advantages, and logistics of operating a store like this in an environmentally vulnerable area like New Orleans, as well as other forces of nature (like AirBnB) that are changing the landscape for NOLA's residential market.
The below interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Would you say this is the go-to spot if you're restoring an old home in New Orleans and you've got a hard-to-find antique item on your shopping list?
Definitely architectural antiques. We must have about 10,000 doors.
It certainly looks like a lot. How do you even go through all of them?
Once there's space for them, they come up, they get stripped, and then they go into stock. And then as we sell them, we cycle through, and doors get moved — lots of organizing.
You probably get your materials from homes that are being torn down — is that the case?
Yes. Regretfully, and it's a good thing, it's kind of dried up a little bit. The houses aren't getting torn down, so there's certain things that we're not getting now. Especially since after Katrina, there was a huge influx of material coming in. And then when they did that Tulane building downtown, the medical complex, a bunch of houses were torn down. We got a lot of material from there as well.
Who would you say makes up the majority of your customer base? Is it mostly people who are restoring old homes, or is it new construction that's trying to implement these traditional features?
Luckily, right now, there's so much building and remodeling going on in New Orleans, I would say most of it is local. Which pleases me to no end. But then we get people from New York and California, and they want a house full of doors or they want one or two special doors. We also make shutters — we have the same machines that the old ones were made with. We make furniture out of old materials, and we can hardly ever say no when we're buying, because we just don't ever know if it's ever going to be available again.
So people will have these things shipped across state lines?
Yep. Twenty years ago, we used to do more business in Jackson, Mississippi, then we did in the whole state of Louisiana, and all of that was new construction.
They just wanted that New Orleans flavor?
Yeah, and there was plenty of money out there. And then it kind of shifted to more local, across the lake, Slidell — even up to Monroe, which is way up in Nowhere-ville Louisiana. And then Alexandria is big. A lot of people are building, so they're putting a few old doors in to make a statement.
I'm sure for a lot of people with old homes around here, it must be hard to find certain pieces.
It is. We can only sell what we have. Sometimes we have a wishlist — you know, if a customer comes in and they need a certain size, certain style, we'll kind of keep them in mind, but we don't know if it's going to be the following Friday, or 6 months, or never.
So, there was a tornado here a couple of weeks ago —
It was on my birthday. February 7th. It was a Tuesday.
Oh no! I'm sorry to hear that.
But that's also the day the Saints won the Super Bowl, 7 years prior, so.
You win some you lose some. But I guess circling back to the whole Katrina thing, it seems as though New Orleans is kind of in a vulnerable location.
It has been for 250 years, but hopefully, the levees have been sufficiently improved, so if this should happen again, we won't have the damage like we had last time. But Katrina also offered a lot of people an opportunity for change. If we hadn't had it, they would have never been able to leave New Orleans. New Orleans is not good for everybody. Some people just cant handle it — all the fun and woo-hoo. And then now, New Orleans is so chic. We've got people moving here from New York to California.
But you know what I think is really going to ruin New Orleans — I'm not really for the Airbnb rentals. Especially the owner who lives out of state. You look at the French Quarter — people don't live in the French Quarter anymore. Down here, because of all the doubles and raised houses, I think if you occupy a part of the house, and you have a basement or left side or studio apartment, I think that's fine, as long as somebody who lives there actually lives there.
Would you say that Airbnb has impacted your business in any way?
No. If anything, there are more renovations. But those are some of the tightest people I've ever met, budgetwise. They can't go to Home Depot to get what they want, but then they come here, and the prices are higher because the stuff is antique. It's one of a kind.
Are your customers — the people you interact with directly — are they most often do-it-yourselfers, or are they contractors?
I think more often than not, the client comes in, but every once in awhile, they'll drag in the contractor or interior designer and they'll tell me what they want.
What do you think is one of the biggest challenges of operating a store like this in New Orleans?
Stock. And convincing people to come see me before they do their openings. Because the doors are our biggest thing, and then our repair (we do a lot of outside repair on doors, we strip them, and also shutters, we do a lot of that). But finding the sizes for the people who are renovating their houses and need to have a period-perfect entrance door or what have you not — that's a challenge.