June 25, 2008

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Art City Column: New Riverwest Building, Same Ol’ Down-Home Alterra Feel

By Art City, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

Jun. 25--Riverwest is a virgin no more.

The longtime affordable home to many of the city's artists, musicians and creatives has experienced its first true act of gentrification.

That it's the guys from Alterra Coffee Roasters who have brought an unprecedented act of urban renewal to the rough-and-tumble neighborhood makes it kind of sweet, though. The homegrown bean roasters have made a genuine commitment with their $3.7 million commercial development.

Their new headquarters, cafe, roasting facility and bakery, which celebrates its grand opening today with a ribbon cutting at 5:30 p.m., wears its Midwestern values on its sleeve: honesty, hard work and good, strong coffee.

It's so honest, in fact, that it accomplishes a rare feat. It's a new construction mimicking old, reclaimed architecture. And it doesn't feel like a lie.

Few things are more annoying than a faux grittiness, the "loft" condos that suburbanites buy for their 1950s New York feel, for instance. And yet Alterra's raw, gnarly aesthetic is, in fact, pure theater. It is put on, staged -- but authentic nonetheless.

In truth, Alterra's owners, brothers Ward and Lincoln Fowler and Paul Miller, started out trying to salvage a decrepit building. They bought the long-vacant brownfield property at 3400 N. Humboldt Ave. from the Redevelopment Authority in 2003 with every hope of resurrecting a concrete block building with funky smoke stacks.

But when years of design attempts went nowhere, they were forced to clean up the contaminated site and raze the blocky eyesore, ensuring that 90% of the materials were recycled to be true to their values.

Faced with the challenge of creating a signature site from the ground up, they hired Kubala Washatko Architects of Cedarburg, which recently won worldwide acclaim for designing what's been given the highest green rating of any building on the planet, the Aldo Leopold Legacy Center in Baraboo.

The new 24,000-square-foot Alterra building, at 2999 N. Humboldt Ave., faces north, greeting commuters on their way into the city, a perfect posture for a coffee shop.

Like Alterra coffee itself, the building's materials have a tough, as-is, from-the-earth feel, including weather-worn woods, rusted steel beams, smooth and textured concrete, handmade bricks, corrugated steel and the unfinished, back side of plywood planks.

The "Alterra look" was established in collaboration with Alterra's artists Joe and Janice Niedzialkowski.

With the look of several distinct buildings cobbled together, the U-shaped Alterra building feels as if it belongs right where it is and, perhaps, has always been there. It also features two retail spaces, one occupied by a yarn shop, Loop, and the other vacant.

The sawtooth roofline echoes the silhouette of old, nearby factories and features high, north-facing clearstory windows that flood the warehouse with natural, free light.

The lines of the jagged roof are carried into a sophisticated, triangle-within-triangle, exposed-beam overhang outside. Short flanks of cedar are tucked into the interlocking steel girders, which will "silver out" and reflect southern light back down into the open space.

Outside, textures come in extremes -- from a hardscape of rocks to native plantings growing a little wild.

The exterior concrete walls were cast on site and tilted into place. The leftover seams leave a jigsaw puzzle of geometric shapes visible. The concrete is both smooth and textured, where wood planks were laid down in the setting concrete to add roughness.

Concord grape vines (the only non-native plantings) promise to quickly shoot up and create a leafy-in-the-summer, woody-in-the-winter canopy over the honey-hued, purposely low-grade cedar patio immediately off the cafe.

Inside, the cafe space is framed overhead by giant beams recycled from a Kohl's Food store and a latticework of thin and stout exposed steel beams. Large, industrial windows gather natural light. And plywood, nailed to the walls, is purposely given a worn, singed patina, not unlike the burlap bags that bring coffee from distant points to the Alterra plant.

The floor is a patchwork of polished, gray and green concrete blocks, set off from each other with slim grooves.

Tables and work stations look like stained and burned workshop relics. Some were recycled from Milwaukee Tech High School.

Two strings of bar stools -- one looking out on the street, the other out onto the drama of bean roasting -- and cozy clusters of cafe seating in between, reflect the company's inward-outward ethic.

The hunter green German roaster made in 1932 is just now taking center stage in the large, open warehouse, lined with rough plywood and industrial windows recycled from the old Ford factory, now the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee's Kenilworth Building on Prospect Ave.

It completes the scene and the space. It brings the sights, smells and sounds of coffee making together with the experience and enjoyment of a good cup o' joe.

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