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The Shrinking Garden

Kristi Posvar swings her hips through a tight space in an overstuffed warehouse before spotting a planter the color of overcooked peas. "Oh my God, there it is. I was afraid they sold it," she says, sliding her fingertips along the crackled paint finish. "This is one of the last pieces of the things we bought from Mar-a-Lago," she says, referring to the infamous mansion turned club owned by Donald Trump. "My oh my, if this planter could talk."

The outsized flowerpot hides in one of eight warehouses in Adam & Eve's Architectural Salvage in West Palm Beach. Piles of toilets, chandeliers hanging like stalactites, and clumps of birdbaths reminiscent of giant mushroom patches hail from some of South Florida's finest deceased mansions, torn down to make way for condos or waterfront megahomes. Walkways of broken shell meander through a three-acre garden of ceramic and cement.

Running the place with brother and business partner John McCarthy, Posvar has turned it into a community fixture, a junkyard for homeowners who can afford spending $100 on a set of crystal doorknobs instead of buying plastic ones at Home Depot. And it's a place where anyone can pick up remnants from the homes of the superrich. Some of the items sport tags indicating which waterfront mansion they came from. Most Palm Beach County residents can't afford to live in the town that gives the county its name, but thanks to Adam and Eve's, they have been able to buy a concrete cherub that witnessed black-tie parties in Palm Beach.

But soon, such little pieces of Ocean Boulevard opulence will be a bit harder to come by. Adam and Eve have decided to go their separate ways: Due to a recent back injury, McCarthy is leaving the salvage yard for an early retirement. "After you spend a lot of time pulling up patio stones, you have to ask yourself if it's time to move on," he says.

Eve gets to keep the garden (of course), but she isn't interested in running the place alone. Still, the uniquely historical nature of the merchandise here makes this selloff a bit more melancholy than most. Posvar says she's grown fond of many of the items she's collected, especially the odd antiquities that have remained in the yard for years, having never found a suitor. Iron table legs, at $2700 for the set, in one of the warehouses are a good example. "I'm a reluctant seller, but at some point, you have to remind yourself that you bought these things to sell them."

This month, the salvage yard's ten employees began the monumental effort of paring down its holdings. Adam & Eve's remains open only on Saturdays as its best objects are moved into a showroom a few blocks away and the less attractive items are sold at a discount. The new shop will be housed in a 2000-square-foot former fast-food joint on Dixie Highway next to another business Posvar owns selling new garden accessories.

After working as a flight attendant, a real-estate agent, a phone book saleswoman, and a freelance photographer, Posvar, now in her 50s, bought the salvage yard nine years ago. She vowed to expand the business, which hadn't grown much in its 30 years in West Palm's rough neighborhood of Pleasant City. She ran it with a boyfriend until they split up two years later. McCarthy agreed to join her to help run the place. They were used to being together behind a cash register after working at their parents' five-and-dime store while growing up in Syracuse, New York.

They avoided some brother vs. sister spats by splitting the duties: Posvar manages the books, while McCarthy is the boss of the yard's employees and day-to-day operations. Still, family members treat each other more bluntly than partners typically do, they admitted. "You might say something that you wouldn't say to a business partner," Posvar says.

"Rather than saying that the idea is worth considering, you might come out and say it's downright stupid," McCarthy elaborates.

Taking over the business after the 1990s recession, they entered the market at an ideal time, with homes in West Palm's historic downtown neighborhoods getting face-lifts. They found merchandise at auctions and from walk-in customers, but the majority of it they yanked out of houses destined for the wrecking ball. Salvage is laborious work using crowbars and chisels. They learned how to pull out plaster and ceramic after first smashing some by accident. Now, it usually takes them a day and a half for a salvage effort, like the job they did recently at a Manalapan pool house once owned by the Vanderbilts. McCarthy came back with cypress French doors, tiles from the kitchen counters, and unique windows made from the bottoms of green bottles.

Walking through the yard on a recent afternoon, Posvar and McCarthy point out pieces pulled from old homes as if spotting friends at a cocktail party. McCarthy stops at an upside-down piece of wood with iron bars over its openings whose original function isn't readily apparent. "Oh, now this," he says, "this is the original ticket window from the West Palm Beach train station."

On the north side of the yard, split in half by 16th Street, sit piles of fountains made from faux coral rock. Iron gates lie tangled like thorn bushes. On the south side of the yard, rusting claw-foot tubs sit in rows near a collection of sinks that seems to stretch across an acre by itself. Nearby, ceramic toilet-paper holders fill plastic cauldrons in every color of pastel.

The mess may be deceiving: Things here are not Sanford and Son cheap. The piles of cypress doors, brass chandeliers hanging in the main warehouse, and gigantic planters outside run into the thousands of dollars. The British phone booth, standing proud with its fire-engine-red doors, is $8000 or best offer.

Many of the pieces also have signs of wear from sitting outside or being pulled out of an old house. Amid a chest-high pile of old tiles, Bailey Wharton wades through the chaos to find a set without cracks. She has driven an hour and a half from Vero Beach to find antique tile to match her bathroom; she ends up with a trunk full of tiles with teal and orange flowers for $2 each. "It's a good deal if you can find ones without boo-boos," she says, wiping off the dust from a few.

Sweat runs down the lines in McCarthy's face as he pauses to lean on a fountain cascading water down three levels. A thermometer behind him reads a few degrees above 100. Though he's only in his 40s, he says he's ready to give up working in the sun, especially since his car was rear-ended on I-95 in April. He's had a dull ache in his back ever since; even though he knows he shouldn't, he still finds himself lifting doors into customers' trucks. "It's that Protestant work ethic," he cracks.

He says he's planning to spend his retirement visiting the "seven wonders of the world" and taking trips to the Dominican Republic. "You wouldn't believe the things you can find down there," he says, betraying a lingering weakness for secondhand treasures. "They've got doors and bells that are centuries old."

Last week was the first time Adam & Eve's opened only on Saturday. Posvar worried how regular customers would take the news of the scale-back effort: Antiques dealers and contractors make up much of their business. Bill Martin, a West Palm contractor who has a master's degree in art history, says he's spent $30,000 at the salvage yard. He buys cabinets, sinks, and tiles to renovate old houses. "I've heard about them opening only on Saturdays. I guess it just means we'll all be down there on the same day rooting around for stuff."

Posvar promises that she won't be buying as many antiques until she's thinned out her herds of birdbaths. After that, well, she admits her workers might have time to do more salvage work. "It's not easy getting rid of this stuff," Posvar sighs, standing next to the Mar-a-Lago planter.

She proves the point a minute later after leaving the planter and stumbling upon a simple-looking pine cabinet tucked in the corner of the warehouse. She stops midsentence when spotting it. "Being in here, it's like a history lesson. We try to-- Oh my God! There it is!" she exclaims. "It's my filing cabinet. I wondered where it was. Thank God it's not sold." Like the planter, the cabinet doesn't have a price tag. Some of these things are simply not for sale.

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Eric Alan Barton
Contact: Eric Alan Barton

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