If you’ve ever passed by 549 West Utica, you probably never noticed the structure. The good news is that this nondescript building has been purchased by Frits Abell, who has been making his mark in the Five Points neighborhood for some time now. Now that mark will be even more indelible, as the building begins its transformational journey towards becoming the home of Extra Extra.
As much as the business sounds exciting, I was particularly interested in learning what Frits, the owners of Extra Extra, and architect Seth Amman (Arch&Type) had in store for the building.
“Looking at the building over the years, it’s fascinating to see how often the structure has changed,” Amman pointed out. “But what is most important is the 1886 classic store, and the traditional shop front, which is currently an amazing mess.”
Amman told me that, more than anything else, the team felt that it was important to work with the unusual angles that you only find with these types of old buildings. “That was the big motivation,” he said. “We knew that we had to bring the big picture windows back, in order to retain and accentuate the sharp angles. We took cues from the historic image – the building is nestled right in a little pocket, barely noticeable… hidden among a wall of buildings. But it also somehow stands out proud because of that acute angle. It naturally has its chest puffed out a bit.”
Since the interior of the building was totally gutted over the years, there was not a lot to play around with. At the same time, the possibilities were endless. Amman told me that the big motivation was a sense of correcting – taking those weird proportions and turning them into assets. “We’re adding pilasters around the storefront windows (similar to the historic look), while enhancing the depth and recess of the picture windows, which will allow plenty of natural light to flood the restaurant. We will also be creating some wide bench seating that will be tucked in under the inset windows. The Green Code required a large percentage of transparency – we pushed that to an even greater level. The storefront will be like a billboard, broadcasting what the business is. The angles will lead the eyes to move past the facade, further into the building, almost like an optical illusion. It’s like peeking around the corner, when you’re actually looking at the outside wall. It’s intriguing – such a fun project to work on.”
Looking at the pre-rendering (lead image – tweaks are being made), I could see exactly what Amman was describing. The sharp angle on the far right was like an arrow drawing the eye inward. What could have looked cramped, turned out to be illuminating and inviting.
According to Amman, a first order of business was to address the way that the building would interact with the street, and the neighborhood. “We wanted it to speak to a time when people were not so concerned about cars,” Amman reflected. “We aimed to enhance the walking neighborhood, with person-centered activity. Frits is a good curator for businesses, and the owners of Extra Extra are equitable people. Architecture is 98% about people… taking into account who exists in the community and being inclusive. It’s all about the human connection.”
Amman was quick to point out that one of the biggest success stories on the West Side is the number of small developers who are taking these “masked” buildings and creating little jewels in the neighborhood. “These are way-stations of urban life,” he noted. “A little example of what could be. There are nodes that trickle out from the Five Points intersection, which create enjoyable walking experiences. Back in the day, these storefronts were everywhere.”
He’s right. If you take a walk around the West Side, Old First Ward, East Side, etc., you will come across plenty of these boarded up storefront buildings. Typically, all that remains is the pilaster columns that jut out from the boarded up windows. We must remember that, unlike today, not all commercial businesses were found on streets like Elmwood and Hertel. Small shops proliferated throughout the city, making it convenient for people to pick up groceries and sundries, without driving across town. At this point, we are far removed from that, but it doesn’t mean that we can’t get back to the basics.
Once open, Extra Extra will contribute to the public realm, in ways that should be considered “every day practices.” A place to sit and enjoy an ice cream or a slice of pizza. A spot to park a bike. A “pushed in” entranceway to duck out of the rain. An inviting place to eat and drink that adds to the Five Points legacy as a harmonious, community-driven destination that is accommodating to everyone.
Until this point, you might not have ever noticed 549 West Utica, with its tragic hodgepodge of shingles, boards, off-center and minuscule windows. However, it won’t be long until you won’t be able to miss it.