It took Matt Nardella and Laura Cripe, co-founders of Moss Design in Chicago, two years to find the right building for the home and office they envisioned. They discovered it in what many would consider an unlikely spot—a defunct grocery store in Logan Square.
“We wanted a live-work situation that had room for leasable spaces we could use to offset the mortgage,” Nardella, an architect, says. When they found this building, a large structure that had been a grocery since it was constructed near the beginning of the 20th century, they knew their vision could become real.
When the doors opened in 1915, it was a small corner market and butcher. Later, in 1950, an addition was added to the original building. The first name is lost to time, but when it ceased operations five years ago, the moniker was straightforward: Logan Certified. “At the end, I think they were selling more liquor than anything,” says Cripe, who works on Moss Design marketing and business development.
The project began with a massive clean up on aisle 10, so to speak. “There hadn’t been a lot of maintenance happening in the several decades of business,” says Nardella. “What had been done was more like ‘Band-aid’ work.”
Cripe remembers a horrible smell coming from the coolers and freezers that came with the building. “The former owners left a surprising amount behind,” she says. “They even left the ATM—but there was no money in it.”
The couple had a bold vision: They decided to carve out the center of the building to create a courtyard that would allow natural light to enter the structure’s core. They added a second story (it is now a residential rental unit) to the oldest part of the building.
Now, the front part of the building is home to their design office and commercial tenant (an interior design and lighting showroom called Studio 6F). The back part of the building is dedicated to their living space. “You could say it’s business in the front and party in the back,” deadpans Cripe.
Although they no longer sell food and drink, the couple worked hard to retain certain parts of the building left over from its grocery store days. The old sign is still out front and they plan to restore it to its former glory. The metal and brick facades are still intact. Inside, layers of old plaster and paint were removed to reveal more old brick—and its patchwork nature shows where coolers and other food-related elements once stood.
“We wanted a building we could adaptively reuse,” Nardella says. “We like to maintain the existing character of a building while modernizing it for livability. We like to do this because, not only is it an environmentally friendly thing to do, we think the juxtaposition makes architecture interesting. Some developers would have made this a vanilla box, but we wanted to let the structure tell its story.”
While the building does relate its history, the couple wrote some new chapters as well. In their personal home, they divided the space by adding what amounts to a giant wooden box that serves as a master suite.
“We knew we wanted to have wood doors that separated the bedroom from the living room, so we created an entire wood wall,” says Nardella. “It acts as an accent wall in the living space and keeps it from being entirely drywall, concrete, and glass.” Cripe adds, “The wood adds warmth to the space.”
By leaving the rest of the area open, the couple allowed themselves room to gather with their friends. “Not only is it an ideal commute to work, it’s a great space for entertaining,” says Cripe. “We like to have people over, and we laid out the space to make it easy to move around comfortably during parties.”
The courtyard gives the old building something that’s a bit of a rarity in the Windy City: easy access to the outdoors. “Many of the buildings in Chicago have living spaces that are four or five feet above the yard—if they have a yard,” says Nardella. “After attending school in California, we realized that there was something lacking here, and we decided to try and get living spaces closer to grade.”
The new, centrally located courtyard means the couple can walk directly outside (in fact, their most common commute route is across the open air space). “Of course, there are a few months out of the year we can’t use the outdoor space,” says Nardella. “But we make use of it the majority of the time.”
The project pushed them to take on new roles. Both of them acted as the developers, Cripe obtained a real estate license to help find and negotiate the purchase of the building and later to rent out the apartment and commercial spaces, and the couple served as the general contractors.
“We had more control over this project than we generally do,” says Nardella. “We are lucky to work with thoughtful developers, and we are proud of that work. In this project, we were able to do for ourselves what we’ve done for clients. We were able to preserve something that was worth saving, and in doing so, we kept a bit of the history of this city.”