Architect recycles warehouse into new live/work space

TRAVERSE CITY – Ken and Joan Richmond are keen on recycling, be it cans, plastics, newspapers, particularly old buildings. So when the opportunity came to renovate an old warehouse to create four live/work studios for area artists, they were more than intrigued by the idea.

Located on 14th street near the railroad tracks, the building was once a busy warehouse that had three raised loading docks for loading rail cars, as well as one street level one. Rail cars visited it on a constant basis and for a long time, it had a purpose.

But that was many years ago. Long since abandoned, Ken Richmond is convinced that most people probably drove by the building with the opinion that it should be torn down. But it is just that type of thinking that he is trying to change. And so he and Joan created Fish Studios, and with it, gave to the old warehouse a purpose once again.

Richmond, an architect for over 25 years, first caught sight of the warehouse when he was working with The Dance Studio, located across the street from Fish Studios, on the plans for their building.

"I always liked it and admired it," he said of the old warehouse. "I liked the location, it was just a well-built, nice, older building. And it was different."

Operating under the LLC of Fish Properties, he and Joan bought the building they had so long admired, and began work on its extreme makeover.

To transform the building, the Richmonds took advantage of its character and maintained, as much as possible, hints of its earlier existence. All of the loading dock doors, for example, were replaced with large windows and now serve as entrances for each of the four studios. Instead of covering the roof, which in its original form bore no insulation, the Richmonds kept it as is and constructed on top of it a second roof so as to keep the large wooden timbers of the original roof exposed. And instead of carpeting over the concrete floors, they left them as is, allowing the inhabitants of each studio to do with their unit's floor as they pleased.

"It wasn't about developing square footage," Ken Richmond said. "It was about trying to make dynamic space out of what we had to work with."

And so he did. But it wasn't just the act of turning something that was old into something new again that intrigued the Richmonds. In the old warehouse, rather, they saw something else, something that was not yet common in the Grand Traverse area and something for which they felt there was great need: mixed-use spaces in which individuals could live and work.

Within the walls of the old warehouse, the Richmonds developed four separate studios. Each studio was designed to allow the owner the opportunity to live and work in the same space. Though no two are alike, each unit is equipped with a bathroom and cooking facilities, as well as space for living quarters, if so desired. The rest, in terms of design and decor, was left up to the individual.

"It was important to me to design space that artistic people would embrace," Ken Richmond said. "I didn't want it to be precious "nice, but not precious. I wanted to make it a living, working kind of place."

Now, four separate businesses call Fish Studios "home," some of them literally: Priceless Photography, Sound/Design, Glenn Wolff Studio and Amy Yee Design. Two of the occupants, Amy Yee of Amy Yee Design, and Beth Price of Priceless Photography, have made Fish Studios a full-time home, as well as a full-time location out of which they conduct their work.

"I think the live/work aspect, for an artist particularly, is appealing," said Yee, a graphic designer who has been in the advertising field for over 23 years. "It's kind of a necessity, at least I know it is for me."

Yee previously worked out of her condominium as well as a small office downtown; however, she much prefers her new environment.

"It felt strange to bring clients into my home; it did not feel very businesslike. There's something about being here that feels absolutely right," she said.

Yee's eye for design and detail is reflected in her new space. Instead of covering up the concrete floors with carpeting, for example, Yee painted it herself in a rust color, giving it a "terra cotta feel." On the lower half of the walls she applied a mustard color paint which she also used to accent the entire wall surrounding the large, glass storefront that was once the loading dock door. Before Yee moved in, the Richmonds installed large corrugated metal sliding doors to section off a storage area for Yee, which hints at the building's former life.

Photographer Beth Price is the other permanent live-in resident of Fish Studios. Her work/live space also reflects her artistic side with tangerine-colored walls and a turquoise blue floor. Because her new home is also her photography studio, Price installed a photographer's wall in her unit to serve as the backdrop for in-studio shots. Like Yee, Price formerly worked out of her home, and until now, had no formal studio setting.

Sound/Design's Dave Elmgren has taken a different approach, utilizing the space entirely for business. Sound/Design specializes in audio/visual systems and home theaters for new homes, as well as individual components for existing homes. The business was formerly located in Suttons Bay in a 160 square-foot office. Because Elmgren works primarily with builders and architects, his previous location was inconvenient for meeting with anyone not working in Leelanau County, much less provide ample room for a showroom. All this has changed for Elmgren; his new showroom is set up much like the interior of one's home.

As for artist and musician Glenn Wolff, the use of his unit in Fish Studios falls somewhat in the middle of the four. An illustrator and fine artist, Wolff primarily utilizes his space for his art studio and as a gallery for his work. But when he's burning the midnight oil, as artists tend to do, he may utilize the studio's living capabilities. Wolff is also the bassist for the Neptune Quartet, which often practices at the new studio.

Wolff, a friend of the Richmonds, was one of the first tenants to agree to move into Fish Studios, long before renovation had begun on the old warehouse.

"I was kind of scared," he admitted. "It was such an ugly, boring building. But I said I would because I think Ken is a visionary. I have never seen anything of his that I haven't liked. He can take something and see in it something that I cannot."

For Wolff, the recycled element of Fish Studios also really appealed to him.

"When you take existing building stock and recycle it, it's a really good thing," he said. Wolff compares the new nature of the building to the artist-laden SoHo district in New York City, where he once had a loft. New York's SoHo, according to Wolff, was once a series of old garment industry and storage buildings, but now is composed of several artist galleries and boutiques, many of which are also live/work setups. It is for this reason that he and his counterparts nicknamed their new home the "CoHo District" of Traverse City, playing on the Fish Studios' name.

For the Richmonds, they are certain that if there were more opportunities for people to live and work this way, they would.

"It's not for everybody. It's alternative; it's not main stream Traverse City business stuff. But there's definitely a need for them," Ken stated.

The couple also believes it's good for Traverse City, not just because they made an old building new again, but because this type of mixed-use living promotes a more lively, more viable community.

"We like the idea that we can live closer together, more densely, and still have a good quality of life," Ken stated. "It's a convergence of good things." BN