Remembering the Americana of Mary’s Antiques
By Ross Howell Jr. • Photographs by Steven Burke
When Hillsborough collectors Steven Burke and Randy Campbell heard that Mary Wells — their friend of nearly four decades — would be closing the doors to her South Elm Street antiques business in Greensboro in May 2017, they were dismayed.
After all, she’d found an interesting piece for their American Folk Art Buildings collection. She’d found a lovely metal chandelier they’d used in a room of the Greek Revival five-building compound they designed and built. She’d found unusual double-grooved molding for a ceiling. She’d found the section of a carnival carousel that was perfect for a wall in the master bedroom.
She’d found architectural details and colored glass windows and exquisite picture frames. She’d found 19th-century wood-grained painted doors Burke and Campbell had designed rooms around. She’d found tall industrial doors they’d used in the design of the façade of their backyard folly — and an
18th-century Episcopal church door for the interior. She’d even found a cupola for the roof from the state of Georgia — no, not that one, south of the Mason-Dixon; the one in Eastern Europe, on the border with Russia.
“We first visited her shop in 1979,” Burke says. “She was knowledgeable, engaging.” He found Wells to be not only a smart businesswoman but also an advocate and communicator.
“Mary is not just a seller,” he continues. “She has business sense matched with good intentions. She has a great eye. She’s passionate. She is a storyteller of stuff.”
Obvious in Mary’s collection was her attraction to architectural pieces. Columns, pilasters, plinths. Doors, windows, hinges, hardware.
“She had this extraordinary emporium,” Burke says. “Architectural things Randy and I were interested in, things we wanted in our home. And by having these things in her shop and offering them for sale, Mary had saved them, preserved them.”
When Burke employs the word “things,” he doesn’t use it in the casual way you and I might. He speaks of “things” with a certain reverence because he sees them as artifacts of American life, American history, much of which has disappeared, often relegated to the trash heap.
“Americans haven’t been very good at preservation, you see,” Burke continues. “Mary understood this. She was a preservationist before she even realized it herself. She was an ‘adaptive reuser’ long before the term came into fashion.” He pauses.
“I think that’s because, at heart, she’s an artist,” Burke says, nodding slowly for emphasis.
With their mutual interests, Burke, Campbell and Wells became strong friends, even “partners,” as Burke puts it, to embark on a 40-year quest for the preservation and reuse of unusual, beautiful things.
So when they knew the professional side of Wells’s quest was coming to an end — “Everything must go,” she’d said, announcing at age 75 in the News & Record she was closing her shop — Burke and Campbell had an unusual, beautiful thought: They would document in photographs the historical evidence of her life’s work.
“Mary had introduced new generations to the idea of putting old things in their homes, in their lives,” Burke says. “We didn’t want people to forget the importance of that.”
Near Mary’s Antiques, her iconic storefront on South Elm, Wells had a 12,000-square-foot space, comprising three buildings, she used as a warehouse on Gate City Boulevard. The buildings were filled to the rafters.
“It wasn’t a place where you’d shop,” Burke says. “But Randy and I had visited many times. There were endless shapes, colors, textures in that dingy warehouse. Jumbled, stacked, and patterned Americana was everywhere.”
There was an astonishing collection of items from industrial America in the 1800s, sleek modern designs from the 1950s, rustic hand tools, children’s toys, carnival artifacts. And powerfully, there was volume.
“It’s one experience to see a Bakelite radio,” Burke says. “It’s altogether a different experience to see 20 of them together on a shelf. Or scores of wooden wagons stacked on each other. Or an entire wall of metal ice chests.”
For five days, Burke and Campbell made photographs in the space.
“We followed two rules,” Burke says. “First, we photographed using ambient light. Nothing was artificially lit. Second, we moved nothing. The photographs show things just as we found them.”
Like archaeologists exploring a crypt, Burke and Campbell looked for themes and meaning in a place crammed with evidence of bygone times. They did so with the knowledge it was a place that would soon vanish altogether.
They photographed chair backs by the hundreds, bicycles and metal wagons by the score. They photographed picture frames, tools, wooden duck decoys, suitcases, mantels, chairs made of horseshoes, bins, store glass, bedposts, oscillating fans, toys, telephones, a metal lawn chair mounted with bicycle wheels, huge metal urns, crowns festooned with costume jewels, toasters, chandeliers of every material and size, tiny angel sculptures. They photographed the artful. The industrial. The clever and the clumsy. The whimsical. The sincere.
They photographed what Burke calls, “American material culture.”
Burke and Campbell made hundreds of photos over those five days. They edited and reedited. And in the end, they presented their friend with a book of photographs. It’s entitled, Mary Wells’ Warehouse of Things.
Remember, when Burke speaks of “things,” he speaks with reverence. h
Ross Howell Jr. is at work on an article about Steven Burke and Randy Campbell’s collection of more than 1,200 American Folk Art buildings for the winter issue of Seasons.