It’s a standing testament to the city’s past, a reminder of times when residents driving shiny black roadsters powered their vehicles with 18-cent-per-gallon gasoline and frequented newsstands to learn more about the policies of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
The building originally known as the Atchinson Gulf station on Main Street is a rarity in Southeast Michigan and in Northville’s Historic District; it’s a facility that avoided the wrecking ball at a time when people wanted new buildings – but before people realized that newer didn’t always mean better.
But the building, which is located at 215 Main Street, is about to get another infusion of life from brothers Bill and Mark Evasic, both first-time restaurant owners that have tentatively called their new business “Garage.”
“I thought it was a great building the first time I saw it; I thought it was perfect for our use,” said Bill Evasic. “The great thing about it is that it’s a historical building in a historical community like Northville.”
But returning the 6,000-square foot building to its former glory – it’s had several uses including a service station, car dealership and outdoor landscape and décor outlet since it was built in 1941 – is bound to be a long and painstaking process.
To help them meet that goal, the Evasics have retained the Birmingham-based architectural firm of Ron and Roman, the firm that last year envisioned the aesthetic for LeGeorge, a restaurant downtown.
With the overall concept approved by the Historic District Commission, the Evasics believe the project will begin sometime this spring, once the pair secures final approval from the city. Until then, the brothers and their architects are busily devising ways to return the building to its original state while meeting more modern expectations.
A historic downtown fixture gets a facelift
If a facelift is the process by which a person would turn back the clock in the name of an improved look, then Ron Rea and Roman Bonislawski are the plastic surgeons for this job.
Rea, a designer, and Bonislawski, an architect, are the men charged with the task of re-creating the look of the building that will be Garage.
“We were so excited about this building because you just don’t see this type of structure often,” Bonislawski said. “There’s one in Royal Oak, but it’s been boarded up, and no one knows what’s going to happen to it.”
On the exterior of the building, the unique porcelain tiles that extend around the front of the building will be completely retired. Those tiles, which have been painted several times, will need to be treated delicately for a true restoration to be achieved, Bonislawski said.
“We’re going to try a process that is used on vehicles by which baking soda is sprayed on the tiles,” he said. “We hope that works because the tiles are an important part of the building.”
Also, the architects will uncover and make the most of existing masonry along the building’s west elevation, and new masonry will be added to maximize the functionality of the building. A new, apricot-colored canvas canopy will be added to the building, along with decorative railing near the facility’s entrance. A new door for carry-out orders will be added.
In a nod to the building’s past as a service station, small signs with messages like “Service with a Smile” will be added to the exterior’s building, and – if the Planning Commission allows it – the tall sign often seen at service stations will remain, only with the name of the restaurant on it.
Inside, the building will have a restaurant and a banquet room for small gatherings.
Bonislawski said it’s important to use as much of what is already there to breathe life back into the building.
“Our job is to highlight the architecture of the building the way it is,” he said.
A trip back in time
The restoration of the Gulf station is one of only a handful of projects that qualify as an adaptive re-use of a structure under the historical commission’s guidelines. It’s something the board would like to see more of, said Commissioner Joseph Hoffman.
“I have to say when I saw the drawings of the building, I was really excited about it,” said Hoffman. “I think there’s been a lot of effort put into this project.”
Commissioner John Argenta, who is also an architect, said the project is a rarity.
“This really represents the last of art deco,” he said. “It’s not something we see often in Michigan. If you go to California, you see this type of building all of the time, but not here.”
Bonislawski will be returning to the Planning Commission to discuss to seek approval for the tall sign, which is original but was discovered to be outside of the property line.
“It’s an important part of the building,” he said.
In the meantime, the Evasics – whom also own a machining firm – are finalizing the details of their new venture. Incidentally, the first business the family had was a service station much like the one they seek to renovate now.
“We’re really happy to be in Northville,” said Bill Evasic. “We can’t wait to get the restaurant open; we think it’s going to be a fun place to be.”