Update August 29th, 2018:
Original Article: August 10th, 2018
On any given night, joyous sounds of laughter and music, punctuated by clinking glasses and the unusual tempo of a hammer against a nail, erupt from The Hall. Located in Des Moines, Iowa, The Hall is a bar and restaurant, and one of three companies—The Hall, The Distillery and The Kitchen—that make up The Foundry.
Originally meant to house boxcars, the large industrial space provided irregular design challenges. Having stood for over a century, the building’s owners wanted to keep this piece of Midwestern history alive, but the massive footprint wasn’t necessarily a selling point to tenants.
A rare glimpse of The Hall when it's quiet.
At the same time, restaurateurs Nick and Lynn Kuhn had a challenge of their own. Over the last year since becoming a 501(c)(3), they have worked tirelessly to create the Justice League of Food in their community, which provides training and food to those experiencing homelessness.
The result is The Kitchen, which is currently being built next to The Hall.
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However, as anyone who has worked with a nonprofit can tell you, the hardest part can often be maintaining reliable funding. This is where the idea for The Hall first began.
“Ironically enough, The Hall was the afterthought,” said Nick. “We were first engaged with this building and the landlord over our desire to build that shared kitchen. We had an opportunity to commit to the entire building, which we did. Then we pieced it all together: we realized that The Hall becomes the revenue platform for the nonprofit.”
“Most people think this was our first thought,” he continued. “No, it was an afterthought. A great afterthought, but nonetheless, an afterthought.”
Building Out a Piece of History
When taking on the challenge of The Foundry, architect Evan Shaw, AIA, of INVISION, said that the goal was to allow the history of the building to inform the design decisions. “The building is a historic building, so [we didn’t] try too hard, and let it be what it is,” Shaw said. “It’s imperfect—it’s over 100 years old—so we let it continue to be imperfect. At the same time, this was a foundry after it was a railroad maintenance building, so we worked off the industrial and transportation aesthetic, and worked that into the detailing.”
The result was allowing the original brick and steel to become the foundation of the design. Wall paneling was left raw so that its natural blue patina added subtle detailing. A floor-to-ceiling glass wall was constructed between The Hall and The Distillery so patrons could watch spirits being made while enjoying a pint in the beer hall, adding to the transparent authenticity of the space. A shipping container was refurbished to become a walk-in refrigerator through which the beer taps were installed.
But the Kuhns wanted to push that connection to the building’s history even further. Each of the banquet tables, which Lynn insisted on and designed to be less wide than average to allow better conversations, are made of recycled boxcar floors.
“The whole goal was for people to have conversations,” Lynn explained. “We’re trying to build community here. The tables are the most important piece of that in my mind. We knew we wanted narrow tables so you could sit close and have conversations. We knew we didn’t want to go with the typical 30- or 36-inch width, so those tables are 24-inches wide and they’re made out of cargo planks. It’s very old wood, these are the floorboards of railcars and cargo cars.”
What’s more: while renovating The Foundry, old railroads were found under the flooring. The Kuhns and Shaw wanted to highlight this happy accident by leaving it exposed near the bar. The opening is covered with glass and lit by LEDs so visitors can admire this piece of history.
Tying to Present Day
Special measures were made to ensure that The Hall linked back to the building’s history through the materials and exposed structure, as well as a mural in the foyer created in dedication to those who lived along the tracks. But it still needed to be a working space for food and beverage service, as well as the many community events that are hosted there.
Working with a craftsman out of Denver, Scott Bennett, owner of Housefish, designed the food counter and host stand, including punching The Hall’s logo into the sides of each, the walnut tabletops, and the contemporary seats and bar-height stools. The contemporary white seating doesn’t detract from the space, but Lynn pointed out that they’re often the sources of questions from visitors who are looking for similar designs. More intimate convening spaces exist of Midcentury Modernist furniture, and the back patio is made up of a mixture of banquet tables and lounge seating.
Pendant lighting was also added along tracks installed in the grooves of the ceiling, masking them. “We needed to find a way to get good and interesting light coverage over such a tall volume,” Shaw explained. “We didn’t think any sort of up-lighting would be a good idea because we have all of the shiny metal.” Hanging at differing heights along the sloped ceiling, the small pendant lights provide a calming aura when natural light isn’t available through the windows.
The space also needed to be created to reconfigure. While The Kitchen is being built, up to five food trucks at a time are parked out front, each of which are handpicked by the Kuhns. When asked why they chose to go with food trucks rather than a brick-and-mortar kitchen, Lynn noted with a laugh, “We have one of those too, but we wanted to try something different!”
Nick added, “We have 11 trucks operating out of here right now. They’re on a 10-week rotation that doesn’t repeat for 10 weeks, so we are literally a different restaurant every day of the week. From the customer experience, we really wanted to provide more diversity in the menu, and you can’t do that if you own one kitchen with one menu. You can do that if you have access to multiple kitchens and multiple menus. Also, all these trucks are here because they were helping us with food service in the shelters. They’re all here by special invite. It’s not a coincidence that they’re the most successful trucks. The most charitable trucks tend to be the most successful trucks.”
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To accommodate the rotating schedule, patrons order food off of a tablet in the front of the restaurant or via app that can be downloaded to their phones. Because of the technology available, food can be ordered from one or all of the food trucks on a single order. Once submitted, the customer’s name appears on a jumbo flat screen over the bar where it will inform them when their order is ready to be picked up.
Because the space and menu changes over time and patrons can expect food to come later from The Kitchen, it was important that the food bar be able to transition. Instead of a stationary countertop, Bennett created several bar carts specially made for The Hall that are outfitted with casters. Depending on the event or whether food is available, the carts can be moved and reconfigured.
Similarly, the tables—although massive—can be moved or reconfigured. This comes in handy when the space is being used for one of many community events, including a bingo night and beer-and-hymn night when local interfaith churches meet to sing in fellowship.
On Sept. 1, 2018, they will be hosting what’s hoped to be the world’s largest rock-paper-scissors competition as a fundraiser for The Kitchen.