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Charmed Life

Take a Load Off

Christopher Myers

By Brennen Jensen | Posted 6/19/2002

A framed, color photo of Gerald Ford hangs over a pink toilet. The president looks determined and thoughtful. The toilet looks, well, very pink.

Stepping away from this pairing of Gerald and john, I am keenly aware of one thing: I might be standing in a warehouse full of building materials and sundry household goods, but this is no Home Depot.

I'm taking a tour of the Loading Dock, an 18-year-old nonprofit distributor of surplus and recycled building supplies whose 21,000-square-foot facility resides in a business park just south of Mondawmin Mall in West Baltimore. Pastel toilets and ex-presidents are not its main stock and trade, but just about everything related to home-building and rehabbing is. The Loading Dock's motto: "You can build a house with what people throw away." And by collecting castoff construction material and offering it for sale on the cheap, that's exactly what it helps people to do. By the organization's own estimation, it aids in the rehabilitation of nearly 10,000 houses a year.

"Manufacturers, distributors, and private individuals are our primary source of materials," executive director Leslie Kirkland says. "You kind of never know what you'll find. You can come here next week and see something totally different."

The first thing I see is a lot of windows. Windows of all sizes and shapes, some brand new (perhaps a builder's misorders or leftovers), some older (perhaps rescued from a house demolition or an extensive rehab). All are in decent shape and ready to be bought for a song. And what's true for windows is true for shingles, lengths of gutter, plumbing fixtures, bits of banister, carpet--all manner of home-building jetsam.

"Pricing gets interesting," Kirkland says. "In general, we try and price items at about a third of what they'd cost new."

The Loading Dock is one of those rare win-win operations. The contractors, companies, and Harry Homeowner types who donate supplies get tax write-offs; local landfills are spared tons of would-be refuse; and low-income folks and nonprofit groups involved in low-income housing get affordable supplies. To access the goods, groups or individuals first need to buy an annual membership, which ranges in price from $6 for low- to moderate-income individuals to $18 for groups that build or manage low-income housing. (There are some income restrictions when it come to memberships, and these are perhaps best explained on the Dock's Web site, Suffice it to say, well-heeled Ruxton residents seeking cheap replacement shutters or $5 buckets of paint are not the organization's target audience.)

"The basketball court is one of my favorite stories," Kirkland says "[A school] donated it to us in the form of loose flooring, and it was reused in a housing project. It was beautiful maple, and it made an absolutely gorgeous floor."

So where does the 38th president of the United States figure in all this? Gerry hangs in a back room that's home to the Dock's oldest and quirkiest items. Here you'll find pedestal sinks pulled from a recently rehabbed 1920s Washington hotel, stacks of antique doors (and the brass-and-glass hardware to go with them), and a massive claw-foot tub. The walls are strung with a curious collection of artwork--trippy 1960s cityscapes cheek-by-jowl with staid familial oil portraits. (Much of the art was donated by a defunct auction house.) And then there's that pink toilet. The Dock actually has dozens and dozens of toilets for sale (many donated by a motel chain), but their run-of-the-mill whiteness relegates them to the main room. ("People are always looking for toilets--they're a valuable commodity," Kirkland says.)

When the Dock opened in 1984 (originally at a much smaller warehouse in Waverly), it was one of the first nonprofit building-supply reuse clearinghouses in the nation. The Loading Dock's pioneering efforts have been recognized in high places, including the United Nations (which gave it a Building Communities of Opportunity award) and the White House (the Dock's trophy case includes a Presidential Award for Sustainable Development). It has since helped establish a nationwide chain of similar centers, and these partners can come in handy--especially when it comes time to share the wealth. A Baltimore custom-fireplace firm recently donated 570 crates of marble. "We would have never been able take it all, so about half went out to [reuse centers] in other cities," Kirkland says.

Perhaps due to the ongoing strength of the local real-estate and building markets, the Dock is doing a bang-up business, both in donations and memberships. Indeed, it has outgrown its space and is looking for a larger warehouse. The Dock workers hope to gain something else in a move besides elbowroom. Curiously, about the only thing you won't find at the Loading Dock is an actual loading dock.

"Nope," Kirkland says with a grin "We don't really have one."

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