LOGAN SQUARE — A 120-year-old metal finishing warehouse on Logan Square’s Armitage Avenue that was spared from the wrecking ball is now a vibrant food prop styling studio, thanks to its new owner and Ald. Daniel La Spata (1st).
The transformation started in 2019, when food prop stylist Johanna Lowe bought two neighboring properties on Armitage Avenue near Richmond Street from longtime owner Al Meijer of AAA Metal Finishing. When Lowe first toured the 7,000-square-foot property, Meijer had already accepted another offer from a developer who wanted to tear down the buildings and build condos in their place.
“It’s a tried and true story: Someone who saw no value in the existing building wanted to demolish it for new residential with zero affordable” units, Ald. Daniel La Spata (1st) said.
It seemed the buildings were headed for the wrecking ball, but La Spata stepped in and rejected the developer’s zoning change request, and the deal fell apart. Lowe was next in line.
Because of the alderman’s stance, Lowe was able to buy the old buildings and completely transform them into Parchment Studio, a high-end food prop styling studio with bow truss ceilings and original details, including furniture from Meijer’s metal finishing company.
The adaptive reuse project is an example of how so-called aldermanic prerogative — the power alderpeople have to block zoning decisions in their wards — can benefit neighborhoods if used correctly, Lowe and La Spata said.
The warehouse is mainly being used for food prop styling sessions. But Lowe is also looking to rent out the space to TV and film production companies, as well as other creatives who need a large studio for their projects.
“When you’re willing to say no and wait, you do end up with better projects,” La Spata said.
Originally from London, Lowe has worked in food prop styling in Chicago for nearly 15 years. Her most recent clients include baker Mindy Segal and Murray Bros. Caddyshack, a restaurant in Rosemont.
Before setting up shop in Logan Square, Lowe rented a studio in Bucktown. She wanted to make her mark on the Logan Square studio, so she enlisted the architecture firm Via Chicago to bring her vision to life. Then the pandemic hit, which significantly delayed the project and made an already anxiety-ridden process much more stressful, Lowe said. Crews weren’t able to start construction until spring 2020, and Lowe was forced to rethink some design elements.
“I had to cut costs because I was nervous about future income,” she said. “Where I might have spent on lighting fixtures and things like that, I got very economical.”
Despite the challenges, construction wrapped up earlier this year. Today, the old metal finishing warehouse is a meticulously designed studio with a full-service kitchen and a kitchen prop room, as well as cozy seating areas.
A lover of old materials, Lowe incorporated Meijer’s decades-old metalworking furniture into the design. The kitchen islands are made with sideboards from Meijer’s office, and Meijer’s shelving is in the prop room. Lowe also used metal cladding on the front facade as a nod to Meijer’s business.
“I think it’s just a marvelous thing to recognize the value of something beyond the cosmetic nature of it,” she said. “If it’s got good bones, then revive it. There’s so much waste in the building industry.
“There are stories to tell with old buildings, whereas with new builds, there’s no history.”
Built at the turn of the century, the two Logan Square buildings were home to an auto repair shop in the early 1900s, Lowe said. Meijer took over the buildings in the 1960s and went on to run his metal finishing company there for more than 50 years.
At AAA Metal Finishing, Meijer made small metal parts for regular customers and walk-ins using large pieces of equipment like a 23-foot-long lathe, which is used to hone metal.
“He was up every morning with his blue shirt that said Al on it, at work all day,” Lowe said.
Over the years, business dwindled to the point where Meijer decided to sell the property and retire, Lowe said.
La Spata said this project should serve as a model for other parts of the 1st Ward and neighborhoods across the city.
“It’s the kind of story that we really want to replicate up and down our commercial corridors, a real respect for what these buildings are,” he said.
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