Russ Bauer has some unusual advice for people who stumble into his business.
“Don’t even think about buying the first time,” Bauer says. “It’s too mind-boggling.”
Whether you’re hunting for an antique door, a McDonald’s drive-through or even a firetruck, it’s probably tucked somewhere amid the orderly chaos of Bauer Brothers, the state’s largest building materials salvage yard. The nondescript, 93,000-square-foot north Minneapolis warehouses are packed with the detritus from myriad renovations and demolitions across the Twin Cities.
Labyrinthine aisles are lined with the essential elements of urban life, now awaiting new homes after being yanked out of their original contexts.
There’s the cell door from a jail (“We’ve been in several,” Bauer says), the downtown YMCA’s old sauna machine, the “A.D. 1959” cornerstone from Hennepin County’s old Highway Department building in Hopkins, and waiting-area seats from the airport. It took five men to haul in two large projectors that came from Northrop Auditorium’s renovation, along with hundreds of seats.
Shoppers can take home the air siren from Minneapolis’ Marshall-University High School, lockers from the Dorothy Day Center or a massive chandelier from a mansion on the St. Croix River. There’s even a 1957 firetruck from the city of Ely.
“It seems to get bigger every year,” Bauer says. “I keep saying I don’t want to get bigger, but how do you not?”
For contractors and remodelers, the highlight is endless rows of housing materials like old doors, windows and floorboards. One hall gleams white with antique bathtubs and sinks, while another is bedecked with multicolored radiators.
“Bauer Brothers is the greatest unknown urban ecology aspect of the Twin Cities,” says Bob Roscoe, a local preservationist. “Because all that stuff would be going to landfill. All that stuff came from Earth’s resources to make, and it can be reused.”
That’s what happened to the redwood benches that once adorned the amphitheater at the Minnesota Zoo when they were replaced several years ago. Many became raw material for a conference room table at Huot Construction’s new South St. Paul offices, which also boast industrial-style windows and old doors purchased from Bauer Brothers.
Bauer Brothers was founded nearly 60 years ago when Russ’ parents, Herman and Annabelle Bauer, turned their St. Paul farm into a salvage yard. St. Paul condemned the property in the mid-1990s and the business moved near the rail yards in southeast Minneapolis. They moved again in 1999 to their current location.
Russ, 78, and his brothers took over the business in the 1970s, and many family members still work there. Office manager Katie Coutley, Russ Bauer’s granddaughter, remembers childhood adventures exploring “the yard.”
“We climbed on everything,” Coutley says.
The business also caters to set decorators. Metal prison toilets are rented out for photo shoots. The makers of the Minnesota-centric film “Grumpy Old Men” picked up a number of items, including a fish house. The band 98 Degrees used an oil barrel from Bauer during a concert, to emulate a fire on the streets of New York. “Where else would you find that?” asks Melissa John, who works in the warehouse and does marketing work for the firm.
Some buyers have sentimental motivations. Salvaged stained glass windows from a Catholic church in St. Louis Park, each with the month written in Latin, have been gobbled up by parishioners.
Low prices for scrap metal are bringing more material in the door these days, Bauer says. “You can always scrap stuff if it’s iron, but right now the prices are so terrible,” Bauer says.
For now, the yard is Minnesota’s hidden gem. But perhaps not for long. HGTV star Nicole Curtis has featured it on her show “Rehab Addict.” And it made an impression on Los Angeles prop stylist and set designer Kate Martindale when she visited recently looking for “lived in” items.
“I freaked out when I was there. I was like ‘Oh my God, I wish I could ship a million things back to Los Angeles,’ ” Martindale says.