Voices of Garver Feed Mill

Garver Feed Mill building
Photograph by © The Kubala Washatko Architects

The Garver Feed Mill, off of Fair Oaks by Olbrich Botanical Gardens, recently underwent a rebirth after being slated for worm condos. Restoring a significant dilapidated structure is rarely a cost-effective measure, but in the eyes of those privy to history, it can sometimes be worth it. This leaves the design team with a challenge: find a way to preserve the historical integrity of the building while telling its story and making the space functional outside its original design.

“The biggest challenge was making a strong connection amongst all of the second-floor spaces—on the other side of the atrium walls—to the heart space,” says Adam Voltz of The Kubala Washatko Architects, the Cedarburg-based firm responsible for Garver Feed Mill’s redesign. “There was no shared second-floor access for any of the tenant spaces, and in some cases, there wasn’t a floor. There were a couple of ships ladders and crawlspaces people could get into, but there was no common connection.” A lot of parts of the original layout are vestiges of what made sense when the feed mill was a sugar-beet-processing facility and then when it was Garver Feed & Supply.

Adam and his team envisioned the next chapter of the space as “this collective of makers and wellness-minded folks.” To create a sense of connection between all tenants while encouraging patrons to navigate the space, “This mezzanine was added in a way that preserves the whole character of the room.” The second-floor catwalk isn’t just an intuitive way to explore the space, its elevated position amongst iron truss work, exposed ductwork, and wood ceiling joists provides a vantage to imagine what work on the floor looked like over the decades.

Some of those past decades involved the years after Garver Feed & Supply closed, in 1997. The abandoned building became refuge for all sorts of people, including graffiti artists. “We didn’t want to erase history in the process of restoration,” says Adam. “We wanted to hold on to it as much as we could then add the next layer. … There is some [graffiti] here that we left intentionally for the Kosha space.” I was fortunate enough to climb around the building during its remodel, and some of the graffiti art was done in hard-to-reach spaces. Now, after what Adam calls a “very careful editing process” to determine each piece’s value, those remaining works of graffiti are on display and much more accessible.

Part of the charm of navigating Garver lies in the flow when transitioning between spaces, which includes a courtyard. Adam says, “We took every opportunity that we could to create real defined outdoor spaces, like outdoor rooms. While it’s unfortunate that a part of the building burned in 2001, it leaves us with this outdoor room with masonry walls on three sides and a view of the green space.” A steel-and-wood trellis defines an outdoor seating area where, being so close to Olbrich Gardens, the greenery feels relevant to the entire space and beyond.

To further siphon in the outdoors and reduce Garver’s carbon footprint, “We added a series of skylights to balance out the light in this space,” says Adam. I imagine when the facility was a feed mill, the only natural light in the factory came from large multipane windows on the building’s south side. With the skylights, natural light comes into the space in a more even fashion regardless of the time of year. “In the summer, when the sun is high, you have direct light on the floor by Ian’s.”

Going full circle, skylights also speak to the state of the building before the team took to its restoration. There were holes in the ceiling, a tree growing on the roof, and roots creeping along mortar joints in the brickwork. The telling of that story with natural light delivers a contemporary aesthetic. The point isn’t that everyone will hear the story, but that it’s there to be heard by anyone who wants to listen.

Often, historic voices in a space fade to echoes over time, but Adam and his team have worked to incorporate them into a new voice. “Light the space, show off what remains intact, and then just add a sparkle to soften it up.” Not every old space needs to be a curated museum. When those who know the story share it through design, nuance and reason become escorts. As a result, instead of giving a lecture, Garver Feed Mill provides an experience.

Kyle Jacobson is the senior copy editor and writer for Home Elements & Concepts.

Photographs by © The Kubala Washatko Architects.

Garver Feed Mill
3241 Garver Green
Madison, WI 53704

For more on the history and rebirth of Garver Feed Mill, check out the July/August 2019 issue of Madison Essentials, our sister publication, at madisonessentials.com