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Fargo: The Art of The Café

It was back in January of 2009 when I first wrote about a corner market store that was in the midst of getting a much deserved makeover (see here). At the time, owner of the property, Giles Kavanagh, knew one thing for sure. He knew that he wanted to restore the corner into a productive, functioning neighborhood anchor that would pay homage to innovative architecture and design, in order to create an operable commercial space like no other. Basically, Giles wanted to follow in the footsteps of Buffalonians who had built this city with ingenuity and pride, while at the same time leaving his own mark so that people would be able to rethink what it means to rebuild, restore and recreate Buffalo.

In doing so, Giles retained the design and architectural services of Stephanie Davidson, Georg Rafailidis and Davidson Rafailidis. I met up with German-born Georg Rafailidis who is an Assistant Professor at the School of Architecture and Planning (University at Buffalo) in order to get a sense of what was unfolding at the corner of Jersey and Fargo. What I learned has forever altered my thinking when it comes to building a simple, clever, green, efficient, modern and inspiration build-out. When it comes to setting the bar for design standards, the owner-builder team is one of a kind.

To start, the architects replaced the existing windows with a system that opens in an accordion manner, meaning that the entire facade of the building (on both corners) can open up to the elements, allowing the interior to act as if it was protected by simple roof canopy. There is virtually no buffer between the inside and the outside of the building. There might be similar examples of this open-air patio feature in Buffalo, but not nearly to this extreme. Visitors to the space will be able to sit on the window sills, opting to hang legs over the edge in either direction. The windows unfold effortlessly. They are as heat efficient when closed (completely sealed with no drafts), as they are cool efficient when open (cross breezes keep the air constantly flowing). The positioning away from the sun ensures a comfortable visit during the summer, and skylights will soon be added in order to capture as much natural lighting as possible. “First, I wanted something beautiful, unapologetically alluring, and not cutesy,” Giles told me. “Second, I wanted it to be designed to use little energy. The team’s design is masterful in that regard, as well as others. I think we all hate air conditioning equally. Georg, being used to more temperate European climates, felt we should have a space that changes from a cozy hearth-warmed place in winter to little more than a covered patio in summer.”

As for the heating elements in the building, radiant heat floors have been installed… as a back-up heat source. The main heating unit is a German-engineered stove that is stoked each morning for one hour. The heat generated during that one-hour time is enough to heat the building for up to 24-hours! If the room temperature ever drops below a certain designated point, the radiant heat floors kick in… genius! The lack of exposed mechanicals such as boilers and ductwork means that the interior space is mostly unobscured – clean, open and breathtaking (in more ways than one). “I didn’t want the place to be grubby,” said Giles. “Like the friendly college town coffee shops everyone knows, with cat hair piled up in the corners. The neighborhood already has a ton of beautiful 120 year old buildings, but it has also waited a long time for something new and fresh, so I figured a touch of sleek glam, though an approachable glam, would be a welcome change.”

From the windows, to the floor, to the mechanicals… the design experience is proving to be one that is essentially so simple that most people won’t even know what’s going on behind the scenes. The only way that something like this comes to fruition is when you have a building owner who is in-tune with the neighborhood and the architect. “I thought long and hard about whether to remove the 1930s/40s add-on, and restore the late 1800s building to its original state,” Giles stated. “I chose not to, mainly because I felt the neighborhood was ripe for a place to gather. I really did not have a specific design in mind. I basically figured I would just muddy the design brilliance of my architects if I asked them to do much more than this: “Build me something beautiful.” They had lived in Aachen and Berlin, Germany. I have lived in various places in Germany and Austria, so we shared a desire to see a grand but modern café, like what you’d see there.”

To top it off, the design team came up with a completely unique overhead lighting system that is perfect for use with a historic tin ceiling. The lighting is attached by using magnets that secure to the ceiling. From season to season, the lighting can be repositioned depending on where light is needed most. In the winter the lights can be placed closer to the front windows to attract visitors, and in the summer the lights can be brought further into the building… or moved around to shine on a visiting poet or a dining table that has been added.

As for the overall dining concept, Giles told me the he is in the midst of talking to potential operators and is “Hoping to put out clean, local food, with a simple menu, divided between “I am feeling poor” to “I am feeling less poor.” No one should go broke for lunch at Fargo, especially given that we hope to see students patronize the place. I hope this sparks others to put in another 5-10 local food places, small and intimate in scale, serving authentic, clean food, wine, tea, coffee spots, with a wide ethnic variety in the Fargo Estates and Niagara Street area. What would be better than to pop around on a bicycle, maybe one rented on the spot in the neighborhood, and spend an afternoon eating and drinking at every corner in the district?”

What is also remarkable about this “café” is that it lends itself to all sorts of uses. “Without much work it could be transformed into a concert venue, an office, or a meeting space,” Georg told me. “That’s what I teach to my students – create designs that can be manipulated down the road, to suit other uses. Otherwise a building can be too limiting.” And don’t think that a specialized build-out like this is beyond affordable. “What you see here is design simplicity,” he added. “You put the money into the windows and the stove and you let the history of the building tell the rest of the story. No expensive flooring or drywall, or other needless things that can drive up the cost of a project. Then you have all of the money saving, energy-efficient devices that will actually recoup your investment in the future.”

In order to install the (until now unfamiliar to The City) German engineered clean burning stove unit (emits only CO2) that heats the space and the “kachelofen” warming bench, the design team researched NYS codes in order to present the idea to inspectors who actually ended up loving the concept. Georg told me that in combination with the wood burning stove, a Chinese “kang” is also being incorporated into the heating system. The kang is an ancient all-in-on heating system for cooking, sitting, sleeping, which heats horizontally and and vents vertically. The kang is attached to the cooking or heating system, which retains excess heat and transfers it to a heat retention bench that then releases the heat into the room throughout the course of the day.

Yup… all of this forward thinking, ancient energy-efficient engineering is being implemented into the building. The hope is that these “rediscovered” efficiencies can be seen (or not seen) for what they are, and that they will inspire others to rethink what it means to create architectural goodness right here in Buffalo.

If this architectural train of thought appeals to you, and you’ve got a project on the back-burner that needs some design inspiration, feel free to contact Georg and his design team at:



Photography is by Florian Holzherr

Written by queenseyes


Newell Nussbaumer is 'queenseyes' - Eyes of the Queen City and Founder of Buffalo Rising. Co-founder Elmwood Avenue Festival of the Arts. Co-founder Powder Keg Festival that built the world's largest ice maze (Guinness Book of World Records). Instigator behind Emerald Beach at the Erie Basin Marina. Co-created Flurrious! winter festival. Co-creator of Rusty Chain Beer. Instigator behind Saturday Artisan Market (SAM) at Canalside, Buffalo Porchfest, and Paint vs. Paint. Founder of The Peddler retro and vintage market on Elmwood. Instigator behind Liberty Hound @ Canalside. Throws The Witches Ball at Statler City, the Hertel Alley Street Art Festival, and The Flutterby Festival.

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