East Austin’s dramatic transformation, the result of a decade of rapid gentrification, is especially apparent on a mile-long stretch of East Sixth Street situated just across Interstate 35 from the city’s notorious nightlife hub. The longtime working-class neighborhood has lately become a dining and nightlife destination for the young and chic. Bungalows have been converted into bars, and empty parking lots have given rise to multi-story mixed-use apartment buildings. Gardner, the second restaurant opened by Andrew Wiseheart and Ben Edgerton of Contigo fame, is a gratifying addition to the mix.
Designed by Austin’s Baldridge Architects and the recipient of much acclaim in terms of design and food, Gardner is the result of a gracefully executed adaptive reuse of an unloved and utilitarian 1960s post office. Gardner occupies the eastern half of the newly reconfigured building. Two other businesses, the Counter Café and a much smaller post office, share the western half.
The original space, with its cacophony of ceiling conditions and carelessly positioned utility connections, was ill-suited to both the elegant, processional dining experience and the spare, Scandinavian-inspired design that Edgerton and Wiseheart envisioned for their second joint venture. Burton Baldridge, AIA, and Brian Bedrosian overcame the challenges to create a space defined by the skillful manipulation of light, views, and a carefully composed material palette. The progression from the street to the interior unfolds gradually, as a series of spaces. The entry is subtly indicated by an inviting canopy and steel-framed storefront. From the vestibule, diners are led to an intimate outdoor patio bar and lounge, a wonderful transformation of a back-of-house space, which was once the post office’s loading dock. The brick wall that once concealed the loading dock has been retained and transformed with cedar cladding charred using the Japanese technique of shou-sugi-ban, which preserves the wood. In this case, it adds a highly distinctive effect, as well: The blackened boards correspond with the dark steel window frames and a stacked oak firewood insert (also framed in steel), yet they also contrast with the existing buff-colored brick and light oak banquettes of the patio. This
juxtaposition of light and dark and handcrafted materials is consistent throughout the space.
The main dining room is a singular interior room bisected by a central spine of built-in oak storage islands. The islands, cantilevered from dark bases, appear to float above the concrete floor, but they are highly practical: They contain the place-settings, which allows wait staff to work from the center of the room to set tables as needed, minimizing traffic from the kitchen. A wood-clad linear skylight adds further definition. This skylight, embedded in a relatively low flat-ceilinged area, creates an intimate dining zone; a more dramatic zone on the opposite side of the space has a higher ceiling, which slopes gently up from the entry. The skylight is deftly placed in the dining room: It not only brings light deep into the interior, but it allows for the resolution of the differing ceiling heights. Through its offset alignment, the skylight also highlights the similarly proportioned opening to the kitchen, which diners can glimpse as part of the carefully choreographed dining experience.
Wherever there are openings, the light always enters the space at an edge, grazing adjacent surfaces and providing oblique views. The design team also uses light fixtures with soft, organic forms over the tables to animate and enliven the space. Linear light fixtures over the storage islands reinforce the strong line created by the millwork. The restrained, natural palette of materials in the dining room creates a calm and subtle feel. It also shifts diners’ focus to the intense greens, yellows, and oranges of the vegetable-centric meals featured on the menu. This, in the end, is the quiet power of the design: Care and craft are abundantly apparent in the material selection and composition of the space, but they are deployed as a skillful backdrop, highlighting instead the culinary artistry and intimate experiences that are at the heart of Gardner’s appeal.
Navvab Taylor, AIA, is an associate at McKinney York Architects.
Originally published in the September/October 2015 issue of Texas Architect.