Educated by his early-American-furniture-loving parents, Stuart Grannen bought his first piece of stained glass at age seven.
“As a kid, they dragged me to places like the Metropolitan Museum and the South Street Seaport Museum,” the 65-year-old owner of Chicago’s Architectural Artifacts says. “And It dawned on me that I liked this stuff.”
By the time he got to the University of Tennessee to study anthropology in 1975, Knoxville was starting to prep for its 1982 World’s Fair – by tearing down a great deal of its older buildings.
Grannen saw an opportunity in the salvage left behind. “We’d buy it, save it, drive it down to New Orleans and sell it,” he says. “Then we’d spend all the money in two nights.”
He’d eventually go to work for Chicago’s National Wrecking Company, then strike out on his own in 1987. “There were a wealth of things coming down in Chicago,” he says. “It was hard not to succeed – the artifacts were so plentiful and the market was there.”
Now he’s got one of the largest Louis Sullivan collections in the world, including hundreds of pieces from the Chicago Stock Exchange and the Garrick Theatre. “He’s my guy – I might sell something, but my rule is I have to trade up,” he says. “If I have two of something I’ll trade for another.”
After 35 years, his business is less about salvage and more about design. Grannen regularly tours Europe and South America in search of rarities – in Argentina, France, and Italy. Parma, he says, has the best market in the world.
And he doesn’t hesitate to take advantage of what he finds. “One thing that delineates us is that we deal in really high-end things,” he says. “A regular old Victorian fireplace will not get it, but if there are naked women all over it, we’re on it.”
His 35,000 square-foot showroom and 10,000-square-foot warehouse aren’t filled with old molding or clawfoot bathtubs – an 18th century, Italian marble bathtub is more his style “There’s fun stuff like a big neon café sign, and a 1966 Fiat 500 in mint condition,” he says. “There are big, massive cabinets and shelfs and tables from hotels, restaurants, and bars – and I have a 1961 Siam Argenta truck from Argentina.”
He built his business organically it by himself, starting out by buying one thing, selling it – and then buying two more things and selling them. “If I needed a loan, I’d borrow for a month at 10 percent interest,” he says. “I pay cash when I go to market – it’s honest and fast, with no BS.”
His clientele is basically anyone, though the commercial markets dominates business these days, with architects and interior designers seeking him out. “There are fun things for regular folks too, but not everybody needs a $30,000 marble fireplace,” he says. “The other day Restoration Hardware was in – they buy a lot from us, and Ralph Lauren too.”
And he gives back to the world, with renovation projects. “At least once a year I’m restoring a building in New Orleans, Havana, or Buenos Aires,” he says. “I have nine buildings that I’ve built with Cuban associates.”
His may be a serious business, but he prides himself on not taking it too seriously. “I cater to everybody, while realizing that this is all a luxury and none of it’s really needed – so I make it a fun process,” he says. “Coming in a container on Monday is a life-sized, educational, hand-carved, human skeleton made of wood.”
And surely, there’s a buyer for that somewhere in Chicago.
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