A rare doorknob cast with a buffalo head as well as the door plate designed with American Indian motifs was found in the bottom of box lot at a Virginia auction January 2013.
This historic hardware has been traced back to the U.S. Department of Interior building that was built at the start of President Roosevelt’s New Deal in 1935-36 when these special architectural elements that were made exclusively for the offices of the Secretary of the Interior and a few other important officials.
The Buffalo doorknob and door plate are now scheduled to be auctioned again, this time on line, at AntiquesYes.com, beginning April 30, 2013.
“Maybe only one other example of this doorknob has been seen in the market,” says Web Wilson, author of "Antique Hardware Price Guide" and proprietor of AntiquesYes.com. “Given the economic conditions in the 1930s it was quite unusual that custom door hardware was ordered on new construction, especially considering this was a Government building.”
“Over the years, such buildings underwent many changes,” Wilson continues, “and for a long time it was not unusual that doors and windows were simply thrown out during renovations. In this case, fortunately, someone cared enough to salvage the hardware—and make a future collector very happy!”
The Department of the Interior was established in 1849 when Zachary Taylor was President, but only received its own dedicated building when Secretary of the Interior Harold L. Ickes convinced President Roosevelt of the need. Ickes was at the same time also leading the Public Works Administration (similar but different from the WPA), and he made certain that the work of many prominent American artists was included in the plans for the interior decoration and design.
"This hardware was ordered from RussWin of New Britain CT.." Wilson explains, "and it is doubtful the actual designer will ever be recognized. However, Secretary Ickes was a huge supporter of American Indian art and he also selected a buffalo to be featured on the Department of the Interior Seal, so it is likely he earns some credit here."
Waddy Butler Wood was chosen as architect and Secretary Ickes was deeply involved in all aspects of the building design that included moveable steel office partitions, a fire sprinkler system, a central vacuum system—and the first large scale office air conditioning system. Other employee amenities included a gym, a soda fountain, an art gallery, a museum, and an Indian Arts and Crafts shop.
Ickes included more PWA artwork here than in any other government building, and he was closely involved with every detail of every commission. In fact, his official portrait shows him next to the blueprints for the building.
Some of the PWA artwork that can be seen today includes murals depicting The Negro's Contribution in the Social and Cultural Development of America by Millard Sheets, Indian and Soldier by Maynard Dixon, and a mural project commissioned to Ansel Adams in 1941 but never installed until 2010,
Wilson notes that “the buffalo doorknob represents the story of the great American West—both the good and the bad—and as such has great collector appeal.” And as for a price estimate, he says “this time this doorknob won’t be buried in a box lot and we expect the opening bid to be in the range of $500, with lots of action to follow.”