The old firehouse building of Beverly, Chicago in America dates back to 1915. Owned by the city-state it stood at an impressive 7,770 square feet but became derelict in 2008 and was completely stripped of its wiring and plumbing when it finally closed its doors for the use of a newer fire station that had been built nearby.
In 2013, the City Council sold the firehouse to the custom-made hat maker Optimo for just $1. The Chicago born firm was thereby given the go-ahead to create some state of the art headquarters. This was on the condition that they would revitalise the firehouse and bring it back to its original state of grandeur.
Optimo commissioned the global architecture firm SOM to do the job in the same year on the grounds that the firms shared the same interests of craftsmanship, authenticity, and timeless luxury. With an office in Chicago and many links to the city, they were able to create a factory office that would both pay tribute to the history of the building and satisfy the needs of a hatmaker known for its attention to detail.
Having undergone five years of fine-tuning, in 2018 the 103-year-old building can no longer be described as derelict nor decommissioned, and as of its recent completion, it now houses all of Optimo’s design, operations and productions.
On the first floor of the old firehouse, Optimo handcraft their hats with antique equipment. Old machinery has been sourced from all around the world. One of their machines is from 1899 and is ‘so heavy that it bent the winch when it was moved to Beverly’ according to company owner Graham Thompson. SOM have used a variety of materials to maintain the tradition of their hatmaker clients’ practice and to produce what they express as a ‘contemporary workshop with an industrial aesthetic’. Blackened steel, walnut and cork all take pride of place in the workshop to introduce a refined understatement to the interior, and to match its authentic equipment.
At Optimo, each hat is tailored and custom made. So has been their headquarters. Steel casings frame workstations and custom floor to ceiling shelving have been implemented in the space. The restored brick walls have been restored and glazed. Each of these elements works to emphasise the 50-foot height of the former firehouse.
One floor up, a design atelier hosts Optimo’s clients in an expansive studio space. History lies in materials and objects from the past once again where hat-making memorabilia lies on full height steel shelves. These remnants of industrial history add weight to references to the building's past, where for example, there are old fire-pole holes converted into port windows that boast views of the workshop one floor down.
Equally, in the private office that sits adjacent to the atelier, open shelving mirrors the style of the industrial carts on the production floor. The firehouse’s original marble that has been repurposed to finish a kitchen that sits behind the south wall of this office. Brass light fixtures through the private areas of the second floor match the brass of the new and very public front doors of the property. Every square inch of the property marries into the industrial luxe theme it so seems.
Optimo now runs from the old firehouse as the last custom men’s hat maker in Chicago. The niche company employs local residents in Beverly’s community, and have infused it with creativity to support its economic and social status. Although SOM had never designed such a small factory before, they excelled in their rigorous attention to detail. This year they won three awards for their role in the project including a ‘Recognizing Exemplary Design (RED) Award, a Design Excellence Award, and a Citation of Honor Award for their interior architecture. By drawing on a rich industrial past, both SOM and Optimo have been able to play a part in the inventive future of a quiet old community.
Photography by Tom Rossiter courtesy of SOM.