POSTED ON JANUARY 9, 2013:
Vacant Spaces transformed by entrepreneurial dreams
HEATH SHARP • PHOTO TAKEN AT CAP – EASTGATE
620 S. Cincinnati Ave.
Before taking on the risk of opening a second restaurant, Libby Auld first made a trip to the library.
Earlier, the restaurateur and her husband Jeremy had spent about five months scouting buildings to possibly serve as a home for a new venture. A trained chef with big-time culinary experience in Chicago, Libby Auld's first restaurant, Eloté, has become a downtown fixture in Tulsa since opening in 2008, with enough success to make expansion seem like a good idea.
In their search, a long-vacant building near the corner of South Cincinnati Avenue and East 6th Street seemed like a stretch to house a restaurant. For roughly three decades, it had been a bank -- and then it was nothing, a vacant, mostly concrete-and-glass box set back from the street, a potential candidate for demolition.
But it had some style that eventually made it appealing to the couple. The building has an iconic, mid-century modern style, appropriate since it was constructed in the late 1950s -- wavy rooflines and overhangs, with concrete lattice shielding very prominent windows. Then there was a nifty wrinkle of having a separate room and large patio space on the upper level.
"From the outside, it doesn't look like much," said Auld, seated at a table overlooking the main dining area. She added: "When you're inside of it, you see how the shapes, how the architecture all fits together."
When she and her husband signed the lease to renovate the space, Auld made sure to study the historical record at the library, particularly the photography in what's known as the Beryl Ford Collection, which spotlighted the era of the bank's heyday.
"I did that as soon as we got the space, because I'm not a designer. Nor could I afford a designer," Auld said. She found a rich history of the structure, including some photographs.
A failed nightclub venture never opened in the building, but remnants of that attempted renovation remained, like a stage and sheetrock covering up some of the older interior.
The decision was made to rip away all vestiges of that effort.
"My husband had planned on doing a lot of the demolition, which would have saved us a lot of money, but about a week before we were supposed to start he ruptured his Achilles tendon," Auld said.
That slowed the pace considerably, but the decision was made to embrace the warm, walnut wood on many of the walls -- though other questions remained.
"I knew that I wanted to keep it original to the architecture, but I didn't really know how to do that," Auld said.
The delays related to the structure itself turned out to ultimately be a silver lining. The building's concrete sturdiness made installing a sprinkler system a real chore, Auld said.
"The space was meant so that it couldn't be robbed. So it's incredibly hard to change anything around here," Auld said, noting that it wasn't easy to install a needed vent system for the cooking area. She credited contractors with finding a way to get things done.
Still, the plan to open by Mayfest quickly fell by the wayside, as the renovations wound up taking about six months to complete.
With the extra time, Auld put together the furnishings in a way that remains true to mod roots of the building.
"I'm actually really thankful it took as long as it did," Auld said. Decisions that might have been made in relative haste instead were made after consultations with friends in the architecture world and after looking closely at period pieces from the era.
"All these chairs are what you could have seen in this space," Auld said, referring to the classic, rounded shapes of the dining chairs.
Conventional wisdom would call for square tables, which are easier to place together when large groups want to be seated together. Auld ultimately favored form over function, however.
"I called my furniture guy and said switch to round, I want round. I'm sure he thought I was crazy," said Auld.
Other pieces of the architecture take on a new function. The former bank counter now serves as the base for the restaurant's bar, pretty much an ideal length for its new use.
"We got kind of lucky on that," Auld said. She credited contractors with assisting in taking her vision and turning it into reality. "All the walnut is original, but some of it we took and we built a hostess stand out of it. Some of it we took and lined a wall that wasn't lined with it before," Auld said, describing how modern regulations that allow access for the disabled further required changes to the building's restrooms, for example.
A functioning elevator is part of the building, but the Aulds also installed a spiral staircase in the main dining area to ensure greater access to both building levels.
The restaurant opened in early September, and Auld said she appreciates not only the look of the structure, but also its intelligent design. Despite all the glass, the shade provided by the structure keeps it cool, she said.
New Hope. The Riverwalk in Jenks was recently purchased by the Creek Nation, which hopes to revive the ailing shopping and dining center.
"I would love to talk to the designers, though I'm sure they've passed away by now ... A lot of it was really smart, how it was designed," Auld said. Her only complaint thus far is a tendency for noise to become slightly cacophonous during the restaurant's peak hours; the possibility of some kind of soundproofing is being considered, she said.
She said the restaurant has been busy, but knows the test comes with time.
"Anytime you do something new and different in Tulsa, people are going to flock to that. It's just in a year, can we keep them coming back?" she said.
Whatever the future holds, recreating the past has been much appreciated. Plenty of people in Tulsa remember when The Vault really was the place to cash a check or apply for a loan, Auld said.
"At lunchtime we definitely have a crowd that was alive and well in the late 50s, early 60s, and they love, they just love the place," Auld said. While most restaurants at the time were either simple diners or luxurious spots, Auld said the feedback is that people's homes might have been decorated in a similar style.
As far as the food, it's described by Auld as an American bistro with plenty of affordable, basic options like grilled cheese and soup, alongside slightly more extravagant entrées. The upper level room, dubbed the Tom Tom Room, offers up a bar and nightlife atmosphere, open late but also during regular restaurant hours. In another nod to the past, it was named in honor of the Central High School yearbook, whose staff would sometimes travel to the bank from the former school site now occupied by Public Service Company of Oklahoma.
"We didn't really know how it would work," Auld said. But the Tom Tom Room has become a popular gathering spot, not so very different from when it was first built.
"It's neat to run into people who are really informed about modern architecture, 'cause they've had their eye on this building for years and years and years," Auld said. "And some are very critical of the way I did things, and some are just very thankful that we salvaged it: they're like, 'We're glad this didn't get bulldozed to become another high-rise parking lot.'"
Bold Hair Studio
727 W. Orleans St., Broken Arrow
From the beginning, Brandy Breedlove knew what she wanted.
The hair stylist has about two decades of experience, but needed a change.
"I just got tired of working for somebody else," Breedlove said. Her realization didn't come suddenly, as she said she had been dreaming about her own studio for about six years.
Then, while attending LifeChurch.tv, Breedlove heard a sermon about "bold prayer" -- and it sparked her to take action that eventually resulted in her opening Bold Hair Studio in Broken Arrow.
Brought to Completion. The Guthrie Green in the Brady Arts District opened in September and is already a lively part of a burgeoning area.
It wasn't easy to begin what turned out to be an impressive overhaul of a strip center space, however.
"The first place I went was the Small Business Administration offices at NSU [Northeastern State University] and they kind of got me started on the right foot, thank goodness," Breedlove said.
Scouring the city for the perfect site, she found it a tough proposition.
"It probably took me a good two months, and I was like, looking every single day," Breedlove said. The site where she set up Bold Hair Salon "is actually my third choice," she said.
"I was worried about it being in an older shopping center in an older part of Broken Arrow," Breedlove said. Perhaps the closest landmark is a Hobby Lobby store, but her timing may be good, as she said she's spotted some nearby commercial development.
But aside from location, the space itself seemed to present both opportunity and a tremendous challenge.
"The condition of the place was kind of scary, because it hadn't been occupied for eight years. It was a liquor store before, and I had a very nervous feeling," recalled Breedlove. "I wasn't sure if it was a nervous good or a nervous bad feeling."
Photographs from before the salon's October opening show a drab space with a bland concrete floor and a drop ceiling featuring rectangular, florescent lights straight out of any nondescript office.
"As soon as we signed our lease, we dug right in. We started tearing down walls," Breedlove said. Her husband, Josh, did the demolition work.
"He worked his job during the day and stayed up here, worked through the night. We worked around the clock to get ready," Breedlove said.
Her experience in the industry gave her a clear and precise vision of how exactly she wanted to transform the space -- and why it was important.
"I absolutely think it's very vital for it to look good. The place I worked before, I've had people come in and say, 'Well, they really need to paint in here ... people just tell you what they think," Breedlove said. "I wanted to make sure that when you walked in my door, you got a 'wow' factor."
From floor to ceiling, pretty much every inch of the space was altered in some way.
"I knew what I wanted ... I had it all planned out in my head. I knew I wanted a light-colored wall, a black colored ceiling," Breedlove said.
Work also had to be done to ensure the building could support the plumbing and electrical needs at each station. Breedlove's brother, Leon Goff, an electrician, also made a major contribution to the project, she said.
"You could see progress every day. Something was happening every single day in here," she said.
Not that there weren't unpleasant surprises.
"I had no idea I was going to have to pay $2,000 to have an air conditioning unit that looked cute because my ceilings were exposed now," Breedlove said. But the result is both functional and stylish, with the long silver tube looking sleek against the black ceiling.
Almost everything that's part of the décor was custom built, including the rounded front counter, which has a block of purple jutting up to serve as a counter.
"I would say to anybody that was going to do something like this, if you think it's going to cost you $40,000 to remodel a building, it's really going to cost you about $15,000 more than that."
Once, inspiration struck late at night. Breedlove explained that she decided she wanted to have a wavy outline to the facade masking the salon's break room in the rear of the salon. She said a contractor scoffed at the idea, but that people appreciated the look when the rear wall was painted purple to set off the contrast.
The goal was always to create a "more relaxed, fun and energetic" atmosphere than other salon environments. Her business model includes offering hair styling, manicures and pedicures, and facial waxing, among other options, with men and children welcome.
The finishing touches continue at the modern-looking salon, with warehouse lights added this month to go with sleek track lighting.
The work may be similar to her past job, but being in a new environment makes all the difference.
"I mean, it makes me want to cry every time I see it. It's beautiful to me," Breedlove said.
2446 E. 11th St.
Dr. Morad El-Raheb is an internist. But as a budding property developer, he knows both the exterior and interior are important when renovating an older building.
Beware the Glass Houses. The Broken Arrow PAC combines modern architecture with a deep passion for local arts.
He's working on getting 918 Coffee open sometime in the spring. He said he hopes will become a favored hangout for University of Tulsa students.
On the same block, he began by purchasing a building next door, which now contains a couple of apartments and his office on the bottom floor.
The 918 Coffee building most recently housed an auto shop, but El-Raheb said it was built in the 1920s and started as a gas station.
"Apparently the reason why they stopped using gas, the GIs ... from, I guess like the Arkansas, Fort Smith area, come spend the weekend," El-Raheb said. But when the weekend ended and money was low, too often the soldiers used the pumps and then sped away without paying, El-Raheb said, explaining that the local history came from the previous owner.
"Our main purpose is to kind of keep the original building. We really didn't want to disturb any of the original part of the building," El-Raheb said.
With a cottage on one side and what once were garage bays on the other, the distinctive structure has taken on a bit of a sleek appearance, and El-Raheb said he plans to add neon to make the structure stand out even more on this section of Route 66.
Now a Tulsa resident for more than 20 years, El-Raheb said he's been impressed by redevelopment along the East 11th Street corridor.
That will continue with El-Raheb's coffeehouse project. Inside, concrete blocks that form the structure's original walls will likely be repainted. While El-Raheb said he replaced a leaky metal roof, he's making sure the renovations will still feature the original metal beams that run across the open space.
Everything Old Is New Again. New businesses are cropping up in these century-old buildings along Broken Arrow’s Main Street.
Older touches also include the original window frames in the cottage section of the structure, now featuring recently installed double-pane windows. Stowed away is an ancient door that El-Raheb restored and plans to use at the coffee shop's entrance.
"This took a lot of work. 'Cause it had like six coats of paint, so we stripped it all, sanded it, sealed it," El-Raheb said.
It still takes some imagination to consider what the interior will look like, but one touch is borrowed straight from the building's past.
"When I bought this building, they had these toolboxes that were used from the '40s, so I took them, they've been redone -- actually they're all done now," El-Raheb said, explaining that he plans on using them as condiment stations. "They look amazing," he said.
Opening another coffee shop in a crowded business environment may (or may not) be a sound business decision, but it's also a passion of El-Raheb's, who said he wants to elevate the quality of coffee in Tulsa, talking enthusiastically about working with a Denver-based roaster.
"I like excellent coffee," he said, adding that he plans to spend plenty of time at the coffee shop once it opens.
Just behind the coffee shop is another renovation project that will open even sooner. Tulsa Wood Arts, a venture offering woodworking classes for beginners and those with some experience, is housed in a building that El-Raheb purchased early last year. The structure dates back to the 1940s; most recently, it housed an auto body shop, he said.
Again, El-Raheb is following his own passions.
"I stared taking woodworking classes, but the only school available was near Pryor ... I thought there was a big need for something like that in the Tulsa area," he said. The workshop has new equipment and remains a work in progress, though classes are set to begin this month.
With the coffee shop, El-Raheb said he wants to keep late hours, until around midnight, and open early in the morning. Along with coffee, El-Raheb said he wants to offer sandwiches and snacks -- and make it a spot where people who live in the neighborhood can enjoy some ice cream in the summer.
The projects are very different, but El-Raheb said he puts a lot of emphasis on making sure they look good to people passing by and in the neighborhood.
"It is important to look good. It's very important," El-Raheb said.
He described an earlier effort to remodel a residential property at East Fourth Street and South Delaware Avenue. Once neighbors saw the improvement, there were improvements made in some of the nearby homes, El-Raheb said.
"When people see good, nice things, then they try to have nice things and improve ... that's the opposite of when you have a boarded house, the whole value of the neighborhood drops," he said. "It is important to have pride in what you're doing and I think that's what'll translate to similar effect to other people in the area."
Home Away From Home. The Campbell Hotel is yet another renovated structure housing a new venture.
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