In the Chicago metropolitan, Jody Murphy, owner of Murco Recycling, has created a lucrative business out of going into homes slated to be torn down, and auctioning off the contents to homeowners.

But these Bob Vila wannabes aren’t interested in the furniture. These homeowners come, tools in hand, to take apart built-in cabinetry, unhook appliances, sinks, faucets, and fixtures, and pull up hardwood floors, board by board.

Windows are pulled out of walls, brick and stone pavers are dug up out of the yard, and doors, hinges and moldings are pulled out and taken away. Even bushes and flower bulbs are dug up. Before the sun sets, Murphy has presided over a massive recycling effort that she says saves the best of these old (or relatively new) homes.

It’s a new take on an old game. For thousands of years, civilizations have been built one on top of another, with new societies plundering relics of the past. But in Rome, Italy, the recycling of building materials may exceed that of any other society, before or since.

In the early years of the Roman empire, some 2,500 years ago, the Romans used Etruscan building materials and slave labor to construct Rome. In addition to the Roman Forum, which was the central meeting place for Rome, and many temples, some 40,000 slaves built the marble-sheathed Colosseum in just eight years.

The roman baths were enormous structures, with massive arches over 100 feet tall, hot, warm and cold baths, swimming pools, gymnasiums, changing facilities, steam rooms, and reading rooms. Built of Roman brick (a thinner, longer brick that is commonly used today), the walls were covered with frescos, the ceilings crowned with carved marble reliefs and moldings, and the floors were laid with intricate tile mosaics.

After the fall of Rome, some 1,200 years later, the Catholic church recycled roman building materials. When marble was needed to build a castle, palace or church, someone was dispatched to the Colosseum to pull down a piece of marble, brick, mosaic, stone paver or statue and haul it off to the new building site.

As one tour guide put it, part of the Vatican was built with marble originally carved for the Roman empire.

During the Medieval era, 700 years ago, the recycling program intensified. As new areas of the city were developed, dirt and rubbish were deposited over the ruins of the Roman Forum, effectively burying it. That permitted 14th and 15th century Romans to build on top of the ruins, using columns and building walls as support for their houses and palaces.

For example, the Arch of Constantine and was one of the last great monuments constructed in ancient Rome. In medieval times, a nobleman felt it would make an excellent foundation, and built his house right on top.

Some Roman structures survived relatively intact. Buildings like the Pantheon, which was the world’s largest freestanding dome until the 1960s, and the Roman Senate, were accepted by the Church and became Catholic houses of worship. But most became part of other structures, which in turn provided support for the next generation of housing and churches.

Today, when walking through the streets of Rome, it is common to see churches and houses built out of Roman ruins. For example, medieval houses were constructed above the Teatro di Marcello, a beautiful structure of symmetrical arches constructed 2,000 years ago.

According to Fodor’s Exploring Rome, the marble-clad Teatro was plundered of its stone in the 4th Century to repair nearby Tiber river bridges. Rome’s leading families then built fortresses above the Teatro — and leased shops on the first floor until 1932. Their descendants live there today.

As the locals like to say, “Nothing was ever taken away from Rome. All of the beautiful decorations and building materials were just moved from one location to another. Now, we’re just trying to figure out where everything ended up.”

Published: Feb 19, 2001