FIRST PERSON | CARLO MIDDIONE
When my wife Lisa and I decided in 1981 to open Vivande as a European takeaway with food, pantry items and a small cafe, we scoured neighborhoods to find the right feel.
Laurel Village was great, rents reasonable, lots of free parking — but no storage space. In all, not bad. But what we wanted to do simply did not fit. West Portal was a maybe. Chestnut Street: uh, uh. Union: not for us. And so forth.
One day while driving around we spotted a long, narrow building on Fillmore that had been most recently used as a campaign office — who knows for whom; in the end aren’t all campaigns the same? — and before that, a rug cleaning store. We found the landlord and looked at the space, which was so dark we had to use flashlights. It was a quirky layout, deep, only 19 feet wide at the widest place. But it spoke to us.
We grappled with the terms the landlord pushed on us. We bargained back and forth, each trying to do the right thing for the other, but warily watching our butts. Finally, we struck a deal and agreed on our almighty rent: $1 a square foot.
We knew the look and feel we wanted and set about constructing the place. We had architects who were wonderful, thoughtful folks, and who agreed that less was more. And that’s just what we did: less.
One unfortunate incident led to a great addition to our project. A workman rammed a wheelbarrow into the plaster wall, knocking out a piece bigger than a pie plate. At first I was angry. Then I calmed down and we decided to fix the damage, which meant making the hole bigger before repairs could commence. We kept finding more brick as we went along, and finally we started tearing out the plaster to see what we had.
It turned out the entire north wall was brick — old, irregular brick, with a trough chipped out where a gas or water line once ran. We love our brick wall, and no designer or craftsman could have made such a look on purpose.