By Meghan Hall
As infill projects become increasingly common in Seattle’s current era of rapid development, the maintenance and transformation of historic buildings throughout the City has become not only more pertinent but also important. More than ever, architects, designers and property owners are seeking to highlight the historic character of their buildings while infusing them with a contemporary flare to appeal to the modern consumer. When chef Mitch Mayers began working on the concept for a new restaurant in Ballard, he collaborated closely with Seattle-based Graham Baba Architects in an effort to update the existing space located at 5309 22nd Ave. NW but retain the building’s original charm.
The restaurant, called Sawyer, is meant to be a playful and casual, but refined space. The design team sought to incorporate the building’s raw bones into the design as much as possible while decorating the space with more modern finishes. Even the restaurant’s name is an ode to the building’s history as a sawmill and Ballard’s greater heritage as a regional hub for lumber mills during the late nineteenth century. The building lived at 5309 22nd Ave. was originally built in 1927 and was formerly occupied by a barbecue joint, Kickin’ Boot, which closed its doors in 2017 after five years in operation.
“We tried to keep the existing character,” said Ross Eckert, the project architect and an associate at Graham Baba. “It’s got a good contrast between the new design elements we added and the existing architecture.”
According to Eckert, the layout of the 4,700 square foot space was driven by Mayers insistence that function needed to take precedence over aesthetic. The design team sought to keep the space open and airy but also allow for a comfortable degree of privacy for diners; Graham Baba and Mayers used this concept to develop the overall layout of the space.
“With Sawyer, it was such a big space that we didn’t want to fill it with a sea of tables and chairs,” explained Eckert. “You have to let the function of the space drive the design decisions.”
Drawing on a desire to create a more personal environment in the restaurant’s expansive space, plus-sized booths were included throughout the main dining room to create what Eckert called “niche spaces” and “rooms within rooms.” Banquettes were also placed under the restaurant’s windows to create additional seating areas and produce a more intimate effect.
“Mitch mentioned when we first started the concept of inclusion, but not seclusion,” continued Eckert. “We did not want to create a space that was so refined it was unapproachable.”
The design relocated the restaurant’s original bar and opened up the kitchen — which serves up modern American fare such as pork belly animal style burgers and spiced apple crisps — to the main dining room. The bar is finished with a solid ash top and cement tiles. A fifteen-foot stainless steel chef’s island was also added from which customers can view meals prepared.
“Restaurant owners want to open up the kitchen,” said Eckert of how Sawyer fits into the greater design trends sweeping through restaurants today. “They want the making of the food to be front and center, and they want to show people the craft behind their food.”
The space also features floor-to-ceiling industrial-style windows, a full bar and an all-seasons patio, which is accessible through roll-up doors. The walls were painted off-white or were whitewashed to produce a more contemporary feel, and a variety of lighting fixtures sourced from local artists were selected to provide lighting for the space.
The building’s original fir wood floors and ceiling were cleaned up and left raw in order to emphasize the space’s history; the wood’s natural age and patina provides a rough contrast to the modern accents that finish up the space.
“When you walked in, before it was just kind of an empty space,” said Eckert. “But the ceiling has this rich, dark character.”
The design team also kept some of the existing brick installed by the previous tenant. Natural stones and tiles, as well as butcher block were incorporated into the restaurant. The design team focused on a more natural and simple materials palette for the space.
“The notion of a farmhouse was a bit in the driver’s seat, with the old kind of character, the home-like vibe and the kitchen in your house,” said Eckert. “We tried to let the materials do the talking.”
The effect of the team’s design choices was to emphasize the building’s continuing place in Ballard and its evolving purpose.
Like so many construction projects to date, budget and time constraints impacted the team’s design choices and encouraged them to source many of their materials locally. According to Eckert, opening up and exposing the kitchen added to the cost, because the space now had to be aesthetically appealing in addition to highly functional. However, the decision to keep many of the building’s raw bones intact allowed the design team to cut costs and work within a tight budget. Eckert says that buildout took roughly three months, and that the team was excited with the results.
“We’ve had a lot of good, positive, feedback,” said Eckert. “People are feeling like it is a good addition to Ballard.”