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Building Community

With a clean-lined new loft building designed by El Dorado Inc., a fleet of hip galleries, and a burgeoning creative class, Wichita is anything but plains.

The new outdoor wall mural in progress by artist Seth Depiesse on Main Street.

When six enterprising Wichitans banded together in 2008 to turn an old downtown broom factory into sleek new lofts, they gave themselves a guiding mantra: Don’t scare away the artists.

Downtown Wichita offers a compelling mix of old—such as a weathered concrete sign by the train tracks at the disused Union Station on Douglas Avenue.
The Commerce Arts District, located near the railroad tracks in downtown Wichita, is the heart of the city’s emerging art scene. In recent years, galleries and studios have sprung up alongside gritty manufacturing shops that produce everything from cabinets to urinal cakes. So when the investors began having grand residential visions for the boxy factory, they knew they had to strike the right chord—or risk pushing away the gentrification-averse creative types who give the neighborhood its life.

The investors and architects met with the neighborhood’s artist pioneers to get their thoughts about what kind of development would best suit the community and persuade them they had no desire to be a character-crushing Bigfoot. “We paid close attention to not creating something that would have the arts community saying ‘We’re out of here,’” explains Douglas Stockman of the Kansas City architecture firm El Dorado Inc. “The project definitely cleaned things up, but we were careful to keep a certain rawness. We didn’t want to fix everything.”

One view of the Finn Lofts' southwest corner includes a cut-out rain screen.
They probably couldn’t have even if they had tried. The building, built to make brooms in the 1920s but most recently used as an appliance warehouse, had plenty of rough edges: The floors were battered; there were no operating windows and no heating or air conditioning; a long-ago fire had damaged parts of the building; and what appeared to be a giant box from the outside wasn’t particularly square inside, nor accommodating to the linear demands of modern design.

“It looks like a block, but it’s actually more of a trapezoid,” Stockman jokes. “When we first got the drawings, we thought: There’s not a right angle in this place.” To transform the raw 22,500-square-foot space—previously known simply as the Finn after its former owner—into the livable, sun-filled Finn Lofts, the architects designed a new building inside the shell of an old one. They also added a third floor, which created space for eight two-story penthouse apartments, each with vertiginous light wells that let the sun in. “We used a kind of carving and adding approach,” Stockman explains. Altogether, the building now houses 25 studio, one-bedroom, and two-bedroom apartments, each one configured slightly differently to fit within the building like jigsaw pieces.

A social creature who seems to know everyone, Loft J occupant Jamil Malone has hosted several "alcohol-themed" parties and manages to wedge as many as 20 people into his studio. The gatherings are like gallery openings, with the walls of Malone's apartment displaying a roving selection of locally produced art.
By adding the top floor, covering the exterior in cedar strips, and installing custom windows that mu­ffle the sounds of the nearby railroad tracks, the architects transformed the hulking industrial building into a multitextured, multidimensional structure—something gallery hoppers along South Commerce Street can admire from the curb. With its high wooden ceilings, original floors, and scuffed, exposed brick—in some places still marked with graffiti—the building is a compelling mix of polish and rusticity, with a frontier-meets-urban feel. Stockman clad some of the hallways with old lumber salvaged from the center of the building, some of it blackened by fire and roof tar. “It was really important to us to focus on the common spaces,” says Stockman. “People are going to inhabit their own spaces in their own way, so why not make the common spaces more interesting? For us, it was about creating a complete experience.”

Architect Douglas Stockman says the building's charcoal-and-orange exterior coloring was "intended to reflect the dynamic character of the neighborhood." Here, it provides a festive backdrop to the residents' semi-annual Finn Lofts community party.
The tenants are also the beneficiaries of some unexpected, but very Wichitan, pleasures. Train cars frequently lumber along the tracks behind the building, bearing all kinds of loads, including the occasional fuselage of a Boeing 737, manufactured a few miles away. “It’s our rolling art show,” says Keith Bishop, a Web developer who shares the one-bedroom Loft B with his wife, Melissa.

The crooked old building seems to be adjusting to its new role. “I’ll hear creaking every once in a while,” says Jamil Malone, of Loft J. “Sometimes a piece of brick falls off the wall. I think it’s totally getting used to us, and we’re getting used to it.” The surrounding community is embracing the change, too, albeit cautiously. “The design is beautiful and it complements the area,” says Mitch Willis, artist and proprietor of the Go Away Garage, a gallery and custom motorcycle workshop next door to the Finn. “I guess I would say we’re hopeful.”


Finn Lofts by the Numbers


Address: 430 South Commerce Street, Wichita, Kansas

Lofts: 25

Mixed-use commercial space: 7,680 square feet

Loft size: 560 to 1,300 square feet

Rent: $750 to $1,600

First tenant: July 2010

Construction: 13 months

Total construction budget: $2.9 million

Original square footage: 22,500

Renovated square footage: 30,000

  • finn lofts fisch haus collective portrait

    Wichita Rising

    Surrounded by cattle-flecked plains smack in the middle of America, Wichita generally has a reputation as a sleepy, middle-of-nowhere kind of place—even though it’s Kansas’s biggest city (population 382,000).

  • finn lofts robert vanselow loft r portrait

    Robert Vanselow, Loft R

    “I am the most meticulous, picky person. You can tell,” says Robert Vanselow, motioning around his living room. “This place is showroom ready.”

  • finn lofts jamil malone loft j portrait

    Jamil Malone, Loft J

    “I hated Wichita. It was a Podunk cow-town and there was nothing for me to do here,” says Jamil Malone, a native who left for college thinking he’d never return. “But then I came back and fell in love with the place.” is your online home in the modern world. Join us as we follow our team around the globe on Twitter, Facebook, and Pinterest. Want more? Never miss another word of Dwell with our free iTunes app.


wow...that painting is awesome! and this whole arts district sounds amazing. well done!

If you want to redevelop an area first you need artists, you can get rid of them later...this is how gritty towns like Witchita are doing it...look at San Francisco, NY, and so on..the artists are forced to move on to some other low rent area and make it fashionable..and still no real respect for the arts in America...

Hey, Blocker. The artists were the ones who recognized the value of this area YEARS before the corporate idiots moved in AND they stood their ground to keep their galleries and homes and BEAT the corporate big bucks when the horrible arena was brought in. Wichita (not Witchita) is a great place for the arts. You'd be lucky to live here, buddy.

Lisa although Blocker may have been a bit harsh, he made a point. Many of the new developments in the downtown area are so overpriced that they are out of reach for the real artists of Wichita. The larger metropolitan cities all began with redeveloped lofts, then they moved on to provide them with restaurants, and boutique shops which then ran everyone else out of the neighborhood. The end product you are left with may have been designed by and artists but was made for consumers.

Check out the Finn Lofts' official website for a complete look at this phenomenal loft development in the Wichita downtown area:

It was extremely nice to see Dwell write such a flattering article on Wichita, recognizing the hard work our small arts community has accomplished the last few years. However Doug Stockman's comment where he states that besides his firms recent project here, and a Moshe Safdie building, "there's nothing even remotely progressive" about the city's design scene, was extremely rude, snobbish and ignorant.

It would have been nice to get the opinion of an architect, born, raised, and working in the city of Wichita, and not one who merely drives through it on the way to a site meeting. Wichita might not be on the list of the 10 most progressive cities in America, and I seriously doubt Kansas City would be either, but there are several great buildings around town I believe would be labeled "progressive", even with Mr. Stockman's big Kansas City taste. Asking a local architect, would have also unearthed the fact, Mr. Stockman's project fell outside the boundaries of the "Historic Environs" which are placed on much of downtown. A condition any LOCAL architect knows can be challenging.

The extremely well designed Finn Lofts are a benefit to our growing community, and a beautiful addition to Commerce Street. However, the idea Mr. Stockman blessed us with only the second piece of progressive architecture in the city is a joke.

Well said Eric W. It was a great article about a city that is discovering itself and taking steps to move forward. I too was irate at the comment Doug Stockman from Kansas City based El Dorado made in regards to Wichita. Each city has its own personality which makes it unique. Doug, next time you are passing through look me up and I will spend a few days with you showing you our progressive design scene. Of course you will be required to spend more than a few hours in our town which will probably be something new to you. I am hopeful that anyone looking to do a project in Wichita thinks twice about utilizing a firm that is incapable of seeing the uniqueness of one's site and one's town. It is a great looking project and we are hopeful that it will continue to spark growth in that area so thank you El Dorado for bringing one of your cookie cutter projects to our unprogressive community.

Unfortunately some Wichitans are so used to negative perceptions of their town that they can't even recognize a compliment, in this case by Blocker, when they see it. Thanks to Dwell for noting what we have goin' on. Thanks to Blocker for noting that, yeah, we're gritty and doing it right.

Blocker and Temporary Wichitan ... the artists on Commerce St. own their buildings, so maintaining the gritty urban feel of the area is guaranteed while the property values rise with the redevelopment of the entire city core. A tactic that other artists and communities could replicate with success . . . help the artists purchase buildings and they will remain bringing vibrancy AND increased property values.

Living in a community that embraces art makes it is easy to understand forward thinking building a stronger future for a neighborhood!

I would just have to note that someone included progressive and environs in the same sentence. Much of south downtown is loaded with environs which are very restrictive to the sights of progressive design. I applaud El Dorado for doing something which matches the aspirations to reinvision south Downtown. Don't get me wrong, I like the identity Old Town has, however I don't think Wichita needs Old Town all around. I appreciate the moves made on behalf of the Finn Lofts and the parti of the Intrust Bank Arena, which utilizes different materials to mark the regrowth in Downtown. I appreciate this city way more than any of my peers in Architecture from Wichita do. I wish it the best as I one day look to call the city home.