On the Job with Tall Cotton Supply
Jim Morgan spends his days tearing apart buildings. He runs Tall Cotton Supply, a company that keeps a low profile, but is known and respected widely in the design-build community for providing incredible reclaimed materials. The wood, tile and paneling he’s pulled from barns, houses and any number of other structures, have taken on a new lives in countless restaurants and homes all over New York and beyond.
Even though Morgan saves all this great material from the landfill, there’s a tinge of heartache in this work. The structures that Morgan salvages from are often beautiful and still have a lot of life left in them (no one knows this more than him). But in a city where development is king, old structures don’t stand much of a chance.
Morgan invited me to come take pictures of a church in Chelsea he was working on recently. It is (was?) an incredibe structure, built strong with marble, Italian tile and enough old wood to fill your favorite restaurant a dozen times over. Soon though it will be leveled. The arches, organ pipes and yellow stain glass will be trucked off to a landfill, and a hotel will rise from its nave.
Can you start at the beginning. How long has Tall Cotton been around for?
The actual business of Tall Cotton has been around for eight or nine years. I mean how far back do you want to go?
Well you told me how you got started, but I kind of forget.
I can put it on a bumper sticker if you want.
Ok, yeah do it.
My pops started the business in the late 70s early 80s. So I came up in it in that way, but he did exclusively large dimensional beam salvage, like wood salvage. And he had a sawmill and he would mill it into flooring. So he did predominately that stuff. I mean he hustled junk and antiques as well, but his main business was milling salvaged larged dimensional beams into flooring and that was down in Louisiana.
Every summer I’d work for him, weekends and after school. I’d pull nails for him. It just gets in you that way, or me, I guess. And then I fucked off for a few years. I apprenticed under a leathersmith for two years. Bartended for a bunch of years. All the while if I ever needed money. I’d go and find a barn or a house or something and tear it down and sell all the materials to my dad wholesale.
Ohh. Ok, Right on.
And, so fast forward to moving up to New York. My ex wanted to go back to school so she got into to FIT. I was at a leathersmith shop and I dug doing the leather work, but it was all day every day inside. It was rough.
The finished product was beautiful and I loved it. I took great satisfaction having created this stuff. I spent two years doing it. I did a lot of it and I got pretty good at it, but I just couldn't sit inside all day and do the same thing day in and day out.
So I said fuck it, I’ll move to New York with you. I didn’t know what I what going to do. I had no idea. I didn’t have a job lined up or anything. So I started going back down to Virginia because I didn’t have any money, and I started tearing barns down for my pop. I spent maybe two years taking some barns apart and then coming back up here. I’d go down there for two or three months and make some money and then come back up here…
And spend it all?
Yeah (laughs) and then I’d come back up here for two or three months and spend it all, and not work and you know do whatever. But it was a great time to get to learn the city. I had the freedom.
That was like early 2000s?
Yeah that was 2002 and 2003 (phone rings, Jim ignores it) when I was up here but going down there for work. Sometimes only a month. Sometimes a couple weeks. Sometimes three months. I probably did 7 or 8 barns in that time. And so that was pretty much me like me really doing it for real on my own for the first time.
You can answer that don’t worry about it.
No it’s two separate things, I don’t want to do it. And so anyways I came up here and I didn’t know what I was doing and I started driving around and I started realizing Brooklyn was being torn down. Every corner, there was a demo site.
2003, 2004, 2005. Every corner there was a demo site.
Yeah so my dad’s business was growing, as were all businesses in the early 2000s. Everyone was booming. My pops business was up to a massive scale. Huge. Huge mill. Tons of dudes working for him. I met all these demolition contractors, and I started working all these deals with them and would buy tractor trailer loads of beams…
Here. And ship them down to my pops. And I’d sell them to him a lot cheaper then he could buy them anywhere else.
Because he used to rely on the brokers. And the brokers charge astronomical prices for stuff. So I could still sell it to my pops for a lot cheaper than brokers, and still make good money, because I was buying them off the demo site for a song.
So you were just cutting out the middleman basically.
I became the middleman. Well. The demolition contractor and me and my pop was the end user. And then during the same time, I started working with a guy named Paul at Moon River. And Moon River specialized in antiques.
I remember that, the shop that closed down recently?
Yeah. He sold his building, and yeah I worked in the warehouse side and I would buy a lot of antiques for the company and I would restore a lot of antiques, because while flipping truckloads of beams was good, it wasn’t necessarily consistent, and I loved doing it. I loved working there back then.
So I was there for like four years, and then in ‘08, right before the market crashed I opened Tall Cotton Supply, or maybe it was ‘07. Whatever it was it was, right before the market crashed, I took out a big lease on a big warehouse and I had tons of overhead. I had dudes working for me. It went big you know? And I just started hustling this stuff.
Still down south? or locally?
Well what I was doing was, I started traveling everywhere. I started going places and buying flooring, and beadboard and paneling. Stuff like that. And still all the while buying materials for my pop as well.
But what happened was, when the market crashed, when the market tanked everyone wanted their cash to work for them. Because what little cash everyone had left over, they weren’t trusting the banks and they weren't trusting Wall Street or whatever.
So they turned it into cash. If you notice, right around ‘07, ‘08, ‘09 there was a huge restaurant and bar boom in the city. And that was because everyone wanted to put their money in something tangible.
So business was good for you then?
While everyone else was fucking dying in the weeds, we seemed to prosper. I don’t like to say it like it’s some sort of badge of honor, but it was an interesting situation, and it was also that style was taking off. That old wood style, or whatever you want to call it, it was taking off and it was what we were doing anyway.
That’s what I wanted to ask you about that sort of style. You had the right timing. I think there was a combination of factors. You were kind of supplying the materials for this style that was going crazy around here.
Yeah. It went bananas quick. It was just right timing. I didn’t reinvent any wheel. It’s just how you polish the turd you know. It’s just the spin you put on it, and it just so happened it worked well with a lot of interiors.
How has it changed since then? I know we talked a little bit before about how you can’t find the stuff you were finding then, or as easily at least. So you’ve mentioned to me the tile. You focus on tiles a lot now.
Yeah there’s a couple factors. You try to stay ahead of the curve as best you can. I hate to say that. It’s just like anything else, any trend or fashion. Whatever's hot is hot for a little while and then it starts to become...like a dress is always a dress. It’s got arm holes, a bottom a neck hole. I’m not trying to dumb it down, but that’s what it is. And you can shine that turd however you see fit. I started seeing everyone coming around with barn board, grey wood and stuff like that and it’s like “ok there’s a lot of other people doing that so I don’t need to supply that stuff.” So what else am I going to supply?
It just became what it became. Every restaurant had old wood and then it started getting, and this is where I may make some enemies, then it started getting silly. People started using palettes as wall treatments, and pallet wood for tables, and you know reclaimed OSHA planks from scaffolding and that was kind of where I was like ehhh. That’s like the easy way to get it. Anybody can get their hands on a pallet. Anybody can get their hands on a used OSHA plank. Anybody can get that stuff.
The reason I enjoy what I do is because it’s difficult to get to. And not everyone has access to it. I like that. That’s the part of the business that I still get off on. I get to go find the hidden treasures. And then I get to sell it to people who are really excited because they have something that not everyone else has.
Enter all the tile. Tile is such a difficult material to remove out of a building. To take it apart is really really hard. You have to be patient, and so I’ve been really getting of on tile, enamel, other surfaces, sheet surfaces that you just can’t get.
Who are your clients now? Is it still restaurants?
I’ve definitely been doing more residential recently. I still do restaurants. It’s not like it used to be. The other thing that I’m a big proponent of is, it used to be crazy, like every surface had to be covered in old wood in a restaurant. The tables were old wood. The walls were old wood. The ceiling was old wood. Now don’t get me wrong, I was making money and I was happy about it, but it just became this thing. So I’m very happy to see people using some restraint now and incorporating other design elements while still using some reclaimed materials and more contemporary materials mixed in with this stuff.
You know cleaner surfaces never would have sold five years ago. Everyone wanted an old surface with the original patina. I’ve really been happy seeing people use clean milled surfaces.
We’ve talked about how both you and I have been around New York for a while and we’ve seen so much change. And I feel like with you, the work you do, there’s almost this bittersweetness to the work you do, and that you feel lucky you get to pull this stuff out and keep it so it doesn’t end up in a dumpster, but you’re also sort of like, I don’t want to say helping gentrification but you’re part of this change in the city that is...Do you know what I’m trying to say?
Absolutely man. There’s this dichotomy that I deal with on a daily basis. I am that guy in so many ways. I have people on Instagram or people just walking down the street if I’m working at a jobsite who are like, “What are doing? Why are you tearing that down?” It’s like I’m not the bad guy here! I’m trying to preserve the material, find them a new home. And then on the other side of that...look at all the condos around here. Yeah I am a part of the gentrification.
I’m also a part of salvaging the materials. I never approached the business from a green standpoint, like a I’m-saving-these-materials-from-going-into-the-dumpsters. I do it more for like a respect for the materials and finding them the right home. I just love the materials. and when you love them, you just do what you got to do...
No. I get it. I know you a little bit and it’s almost like you have an obsession.
Yeah...but I don’t think it’s an unhealthy obsession.
No, I don’t either.
I don’t think I’m some sort of weird creepy hoarder.
No! No! No! That’s not what I mean.
I mean I think it’s a like an obsession with good intent. It’s not just to make money and it’s not just to hoard stuff. It’s to make a living and help people have awesome surfaces for the house or for their restaurant. It’s very simple..in my mind!
Totally. It is! That’s cool. That’s basically all I wanted to ask you.
That’s it. That’s... totally it. Thank you so much for letting me…
Yeah. You’re the first person I’ve ever done this with and I don’t feel like I’m very articulate sometimes, but I’m happy I gave you the information.
I appreciate it. I really appreciate it.
Of course man.