Making castoffs into a home

Two artists find their furnishings in trash cans, tossed near train tracks, and for sale on eBay.

Dean Hartung and Ellen Hutchinson in the living room of their 1889-vintage home in Mount Airy. Found household items and furnishings fill their rooms not only with singular pieces, but with stories of discovery. (Ron Tarver / Staff Photographer)

For the unadventurous among us, home decorating is accomplished in stores and by mail: A couch is on sale at this department store; matching wall sconces (weren't we lucky!) are featured in that catalog.

And then there are people like Ellen Hutchinson and Dean Hartung, a long-married couple and both exhibiting artists, who have furnished and restored their East Mount Airy twin in the spirit of Indiana Jones.

Like that fictional archaeologist, the couple have often found treasure - buried in trash cans, tossed near railroad tracks, and, of course, up for sale on that modern-day auction block, eBay.

But what might make the unadventurous among us really spit nails: the fact that Hutchinson and Hartung can turn someone else's castoffs into remarkable home decor.

"It's amazing what people throw away here," says Hartung, 53, a mural artist.

True. And what's delightful is that their finds - solid oak tables, a glass-painted portrait, Mercer tiles, a baby grand piano (oh, yes) - fill their rooms not only with singular pieces, but with stories of discovery.

A case in point - the French-style doors on their backyard shed.

"I saw the doors in a junk shop," says Hutchinson, 60, a still-life painter whose work is on display at the Gross McCleaf gallery in Philadelphia, as is Hartung's. "I thought it would be great to build a shed around that."

Hutchinson found the Mercer tiles now installed in front of the shed while she was looking out the window of a Center City-bound train. She noted the location, and she and Hartung returned later to pick them up.

Hartung found the shed's siding in a Dumpster at a construction site.

The couple consider their home, and their community, a real find, as well.

They met in art school in Maine in the late 1970s, then settled in Brooklyn, Hutchinson's hometown. But she and Hartung, who hails from Ravenna, Ohio, found Brooklyn too expensive and too cramped for an artistic life.

What they could afford, Hartung says, was either too small or "burned-out shells."

So 20-plus years ago, the couple came to Philadelphia for a friend's art show and took a tour of Mount Airy. It was love at first sight: big, roomy houses, relatively deep backyards, and parking.

They bought an 1889-vintage Victorian-style twin and set about restoring, collecting, and decorating. The southern pine floors were stripped, as was the foot-plus-deep paneling on the stairs.

Then the Dumpster diving, flea-market hunting, and junk-shop exploring began. It wasn't new for them - they had learned early to love the adventure of it.

As a child, Hutchinson says, she saw her mother decorate their summer home with finds from the Salvation Army and flea markets. And when the couple were in Maine oh-so-many years ago, they spent countless hours poking around at flea markets.

"You get into the habit," she says.

"All I need to see is a little bit of turned-out wood" in a trash pile, he says, and "I jump in."

When he jumps, Hartung is not looking for anything in particular. "We grab, and then we decide," he says.

In the house, there's a new story every few inches.

The baby grand in the living room? Hutchinson wanted to learn to play the piano, so they searched the want ads and found it for sale, painted with a fruitwood finish. Not for the faint of heart, but fine for Ellen and Dean.

Stripped of its paint, the wood restored to its original beauty, the piano now occupies prime real estate.

Nearby are the wall sconces he found on the street - they didn't need to be restored and look like they belong in the house.

Off the kitchen is a newly renovated bathroom. The stained glass in its lone window? One of Hutchinson's trash finds.

Of course, the couple didn't find everything. They bought the etched glass in the double doors leading from the vestibule into the hall. Above the doors, stained glass assembled by a glass worker from the couple's design fills the transom. The kitchen has a tin ceiling, cherry cabinets, and a modern island.

But then there's the breakfast nook. Once a shed, the couple had it enclosed with windows all around, beadboard paneling, and a chair rail. They eat at the oak table Hartung rescued from a Dumpster, its legs painted but the top remarkably restored.

They love looking at the birds in the morning. "We have breakfast here," says Hutchinson. "We couldn't have this in Brooklyn."

In a large room on the second floor is Hutchinson's studio; on the third is Hartung's.

At one time, the third floor was a separate apartment. The ceiling has been taken down to expose the beams. Hartung built a staircase - each tread halved, with one sitting higher than the other - to reach the storage area above. Wrought-iron gates enclosing the area were found on eBay, like the French doors leading into the space.

So we just have to ask: What do these two put out for their trash pickups?

Says Hutchinson, "Not too much, I can tell you."

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