Improving with age: Visionary restaurateurs, architects and designers work to rejuvenate Asheville’s old buildings

PICTURE PERFECT: Hunter Berry, left, owner of Taco Billy and architect Brent Campbell have a sit-down during the current project to expand Taco Billy’s bar and back patio. Photo courtesy BCA

Architect Robert Todd says one of the things that drew him to Asheville from Mississippi in the fall of 1992 to complete a postgraduate internship was the city’s bounty of art deco architecture and old buildings. “I was always interested in older buildings and adaptive reuse,” he says. “Asheville has a wealth of existing buildings, and I had a sense that they were ripe for reuse.”

Todd points out that two things — fate and effort — have contributed to a dense urban core of older yet viable structures. “For many years Asheville was too poor to tear them down, and there were people who worked to preserve them.” (A tragic exception is the poorly titled urban renewal era, during which the city razed many of its historic Black neighborhoods.)

As Asheville began reimagining itself over the last 20 years, that convergence has resulted in a gold mine for local, independent restaurants and breweries to obtain affordable — if somewhat decrepit — spaces for their ventures along with opportunities for architects and designers to transform them. “We approach it embracing the existing buildings, keeping the components that add character and let new and modern components create a contrast versus replicating the old,” Todd says.

Making dreams real 

Imagination and vision are priceless attributes for restaurateurs, chefs and brewers who dream of opening their own business. Turning dreams into brick-and-mortar facilities that meet regulations, comply with codes, address safety issues while also enchanting the eye and whetting the appetite is the domain of architects and interior designers.

“A big part of what we do is help owners navigate through city permitting and the engineering; getting commercial kitchens to meet building codes in old buildings can be a challenge,” explains architect Brent Campbell of BCA Architecture and Design. Campbell started his firm in 2007 and has since handled local restaurant projects, including Bone and Broth, The Bull and Beggar, Sovereign Remedies, Vortex Doughnuts and Leo’s House of Thirst.

“Doing the draining, plumbing, electrical, exhaust, all the mechanicals and getting equipment in there are the basics and not easy or glamorous,” he says. “All that needs to be done before you get to the fun stuff.”

The first step in planning a restaurant is the kitchen, and Campbell begins by meeting with the owner and/or chef to discuss overall capacity. “Chefs always want a way too big kitchen,” he says with a laugh. “We talk about how much of the square footage is needed for kitchen equipment, food prep, cooking, cold storage and dishwashing, plus restrooms, then how much is left for actual dining? It’s always a push and pull.”

For brewery projects, Todd says he meets with the owner and brewer. “We have become knowledgeable in laying out brewery space, and while everyone has their own preference on the layout, we know the different areas you need to allow for and how much space they take,” he says.

As a lead architect in the firm where he then worked, Todd’s first project in Asheville was the former Two Moons Brew and View on Merrimon Avenue. He later helped the business with its subsequent transition to Asheville Pizza and Brewing when it was purchased by Mike Rangel in December 1998.

Soon after Todd launched his own firm, Red House Architecture, in 2005, Highland Brewing Co. contracted him to design its then-new East Asheville location when the brewery moved from its original spot below Barley’s Taproom downtown. “They were leasing the building initially, and the immediate priority was to create brewing space,” he recalls of Highland’s Old Charlotte Highway facility. “They did not have a tasting room to speak of — I think their first bar was made of stacked pallets.”

Highland has remained a client through multiple expansions of its now sprawling brewery and taproom. So has Rangel, who retained Red House to do Asheville Brewing’s South Slope location in 2004 and most recently, to transform the former Wells Fargo bank building at 75 Coxe Ave. into Rabbit Rabbit, a partnership with The Orange Peel. “Mike’s imagination is just unparalleled,” says Todd, who has also helped bring dreams to life for several other local breweries, including Hi-Wire Brewing, Archetype Brewing, One World Brewing and Burial Beer Co.

A challenge of going into existing buildings is getting the space to work for each individual brewery’s model, he notes. “There are vastly different needs according to what they intend to do and how they plan to sell — if they plan to just do retail on site or distribute,” Todd explains. “With breweries, you try to incorporate as much outdoor space as possible for the tasting room as indoor space will probably be limited.”

The big reveal 

The difficulties presented by old buildings are balanced by their rich rewards. “[They] have these inherent characteristics and elements that reveal themselves,” says Campbell. “You don’t have to fabricate anything; you highlight what is there.”

That was the case for interior designer Sarah Kowalski, hired by chef John Fleer in 2013 to help him transform La Caterina, a longtime Italian restaurant on Pack Square, into Rhubarb. Kowalski knew Fleer, who had served as executive chef at her father’s Canyon Kitchen restaurant in Lonesome Valley in Cashiers and cooked her wedding dinner. “I think my familiarity with John, the way he cooks, his commitment to local food and products helped inform what we did in the space,” she says.

WOODEN IT BE NICE: Red House architect/owner Robert Todd stands in the stairwell of Forestry Camp Restaurant and Bar, a reclamation project he did with Burial Beer to repurpose a 1930s US Forestry Camp. Photo by Wren London

During Rhubarb’s demo phase, Kowalski says the team was delighted to uncover the building’s original mosaic floor tile, wainscoting and a wall mural under the plaster. “We were really lucky,” she recalls. “We were able to utilize the textures we found; we brought in some reclaimed barn wood to tie the areas together. John wanted it simple, unpretentious, tactile and to have room for big family dinners.”

Kowalski has since worked with Fleer on other projects, including The Rhu and Benne on Eagle. The latter, she notes, was more complicated than previous jobs due, in part, to the city’s rigorous historic preservation requirements. Ultimately, the building’s history as a foundry ended up informing some of her design decisions.  “I wanted to bring in more metal to give it an interesting industrial feel,” she says.

Designer Claire Wiese, owner of Rhythm Interiors and Installation, had a different challenge when she was hired by Al Singh to transform the former site of Rezaz  — a beloved longtime restaurant in Biltmore Village — into Singh’s vision for a high-end Indian restaurant, Andaaz Indian Cuisine. “It was his first restaurant and a very fast-moving project,” she says. “He needed to get it open quickly, as most independent restaurant owners do.”

The only thing retained in the large space during the transition was the hardwood floors. The bar was completely relocated, then new furniture, fabrics, tile, statuary and art were ordered with many of the items coming directly from India.

A particular Indian fabric Singh wanted to incorporate — phulkari — was used to cover acoustic panels on the wall to help absorb ambient noise, a crucial and sometimes overlooked challenge in muffling sound-bouncing elements like brick and metal. “Those panels are functional but also add color and richness to the walls,” Wiese points out.

Wiese regularly consulted with Singh and his partners to be sure the design elements she chose were culturally appropriate and met their vision of taking guests on an exotic yet comfortable trip to a foreign land. “Ultimately in restaurants, we create experiences, memories and feelings,” she says.

Same but different 

Taking great care with architecture and aesthetics isn’t just important for one-of-a-kind restaurant concepts. Feelings have guided the design philosophy of Asheville’s iconic Tupelo Honey since it was opened on College Street in December 2000.

“That restaurant really conveyed a point in time in Asheville history,” recalls Christin Prince, senior vice president of marketing, who has lived in Asheville since the 1990s. “It was quaint, homey, welcoming and laid back. All the things Asheville was then and still in most ways is today.”

Over the years, Tupelo Honey has continued to expand its operations and now has nearly 20 locations in 12 states. Though each restaurant is different, says Prince, there are functional needs common to all. “We are still a scratch-made restaurant, so we need really big kitchens with giant prep areas, we need big lines to execute the food in the volume we do,” she says. The front of the house, dining and outdoor seating is not duplicated city to city.

Tupelo Honey is currently working with the Washington, D.C.-based architecture and design firm Street Sense Media, which has done the last three stores and will continue as the business expands further. “I think we have found the perfect blend of vintage and nostalgia, juxtaposed with modern, clean lines,” says Prince. “Each store is familiar but unique to its location.”

Though Asheville restaurant and brewery architects deal almost exclusively with old structures, they say the work never gets old. Todd points to Red House’s 2019 project for Burial Beer, creating Forestry Camp restaurant and bar from an abandoned and crumbling 1930s Civilian Conservation Corps camp (the project won a 2020 Griffin Award from the Preservation Society of Asheville & Buncombe County).

“In the wrong hands, that whole site could have been razed,” he says. “Instead, the original timber and amazing timberwork and craft have been preserved and adapted. It is just a remarkable result that we are very proud to have been a part of.”

Campbell’s work with restaurateur and avid preservationist Drew Wallace in transforming a neglected building on Haywood Road into Leo’s House of Thirst won a 2021 Griffin Award from the PSABC. Currently, his firm is close to completing what he calls “the most complicated project I’ve ever been involved with” — the soon-to-open Harvest Pizzeria Asheville on Banks Avenue.

Campbell’s vision for the project saved a South Slope landmark known locally and tongue in cheek as Three Walls — a shell of a building with three old brick walls and no roof or floor, covered with graffiti and the site of many Instagram posts. “We essentially built a building inside the walls, added a kitchen and a roof deck, and it will be a gigantic crazy pizza place that will seat 200 people,” says Campbell. “It would have been a lot easier to tear those walls down, but no one wanted that.”

Todd, who moved to Asheville for the existing architecture, agrees. “We are creative thinkers here, and we like to work and live differently than other parts of the country,” he says. “There is embedded energy in these old buildings we want to save and pay it forward for the future.”

EDITOR’S NOTE: The story was updated on July 9; Drew Wallace is not involved with the Harvest Pizzeria Asheville project. 

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About Kay West
Kay West was a freelance journalist in Nashville for more than 30 years, contributing writer for the Nashville Scene, StyleBlueprint Nashville, Nashville correspondent for People magazine, author of five books and mother of two happily launched grown-up kids. To kick off 2019 she put Tennessee in her rear view mirror, drove into the mountains of WNC, settled in West Asheville and appreciates that writing offers the opportunity to explore and learn her new home. She looks forward to hiking trails, biking greenways, canoeing rivers, sampling local beer and cheering the Asheville Tourists.

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