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.
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."
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.
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."
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."
Address: 430 South Commerce Street, Wichita, Kansas
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
As a reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Georgina Gustin writes about food-related issues, among other topics. Her travels for "Plains Gold" took her to Kansas city, at the western edge of Missouri. She was informed there that Kansas City is often considered the country's easternmost Western city, while St. Louis is considered the westernmost Eastern city. She is not sure if this is apt. What she does know, however, is that K.C. has some dang good barbecue.