Thacher is a formidable-looking building at 110 E. 8th Avenue with its pillars of Capitol-era limestone muscling their way down to street level. As the brand new home of Gizmo Pictures and the upcoming Blue Planet Café, the enormous Thacher fits the bill. It’s an adaptable place with a façade that’s been locked into downtown’s identity since the foot traffic featured ladies with parasols and horse-drawn wagons. Thacher is an old, old face in Topeka. But it’s about to get a face-lift.
“It would be a lot easier to build it from the ground up,” said Jeff Carson, one of the building’s new owners and president of Gizmo Pictures, the production company that will take the second (and part of the third) floor. “To have a historical building where there’s limitations on what you can and can’t do, it involves a lot more phone calls.”
There are walls to knock down, there are windows to replace, there’s tuck-pointing, flooring, lighting, plumbing, the whole gamut. Built in 1888 and boasting 25,000 square feet of architectural significance, the Thacher is no simple renovation project. But the efforts of its new guardians will nevertheless produce an unprecedented center for art, food and entertainment that will also house a company that has a unique mindset and a reputation for living on the edge.
Simply put, the hope is that the place will invoke an electric jolt in the scenery of downtown. Jeff lovingly refers to the company’s new acquisition as “The G Spot.”
Jeff took us on a dizzying tour of the building in its pre-renovation phase.
“If you squint your eyes…” he said at least three times.
On the first floor, the café will have a counter, an espresso and deli prep area, a seating area where people will most likely joust for the table at the front by the floor-to-ceiling window with its original stained glass crown.
“It will be a step up from other café environs, just because we have that advantage of the history,” Jeff said.
The tour continued: a lounge area with soft furniture and Wi-Fi throughout. A conference room with a fireplace. The Crane Ballroom, behind the café proper, where events including film screenings, poetry readings, small concerts and recitals will occur far from the cacophony of the café. Local art will adorn the walls. Books by local authors will be on sale. Masseuses will knead, yoga instructors will stretch. The possibilities, Jeff insisted, are endless when the space is seemingly endless.
Linda Carson, Jeff’s wife, paying tenant, fifth generation baker and owner of The Blue Planet Café, wants her clients to feel like they’re stepping into familiar territory.
“It’ll be kind of like going to your crazy aunt’s house. It’ll be more like home,” she said, citing the changing menu and the from-scratch recipes. “Your mom didn’t cook the same thing every day. Here, there will always be little changes.”
Linda said the place already feels like home. Her husband will work upstairs at Gizmo, her sixth generation baker daughters alongside her in the kitchen, her crew made up of family and friends of the family.
“The decision to put a café in was instant,” said Jeff. “Gizmo came first, but it became really clear that it would be a good business move for Gizmo to have a built in tenant it could boss around.”
“He’s funny,” Linda said with an eye-roll.
Blue Planet will feature gluten-free recipes, vegan/vegetarian fare, pastries, luncheon sandwiches, buffalo bierocks and a lot of those “little changes” Linda’s referred to, depending on whim and occasion. When comedian Ron “Tater Salad” White performs at TPAC this August, Linda’s menu will feature five kinds of potato salad. Everything about the Blue Planet Café will be unexpected, from the way a vegan cupcake can taste just as good as its sinful counterpart to the impromptu puppet shows for the café’s youngest diners. It’s all there, plain as day…if you squint.
When we arrived at Gizmo’s main space on the second floor, the dust had just settled from some major demolition. Walls not original to the building were gone except for the framing. Sledgehammers and pickaxes lay around in plaster piles. Architectural salvage like doors and two-by-fours leaned in a corner. All of this was bathed in unadulterated light from immense windows. Here, especially, you get it: the work that Thacher will undergo is extensive.
“We had several safer options down the street,” admitted Greg Ready, co-president of Gizmo Pictures. “This place reflects our personalities more.”
The company outgrew its location at Huntoon and Oakley. At the “G Spot,” they will work in style, with adjacent editing suites, a creative meeting space bathed in natural light (“Look at the light in here,” said Jeff, “isn’t it sick?”), a kitchenette, a recording studio, an upper level production box and a hallway that runs the entire length of the building, “for putting,” said Jeff.
“It’s going to be a sexy thing for Gizmo to have the café nearby. It’s not unknown for cafés to be associated with video production companies in big cities,” said Jeff. “They have espresso machines, masseuses, all these little amenities to pamper their clients. I’m sure there will be some fringe benefits.”
Up yet another flight of stairs, the building’s roughest area awaited. In the back of the top floor, a mish-mash of tools and construction scatter will eventually give way to the production studio “box” and the front, with, again, its charming and tall windows, will eventually be “a kick ass bachelor pad once Greg or I get divorced because of this whole adventure,” joked Jeff. But the dream of a circular bed with a ceiling mirror and a crook neck view of the capitol, although appropriate to the “G Spot” moniker, will more realistically become either a loft space or offices for creative industries.
All the way down at the garden level, the previous owners of Thacher were still running their pawn shop with plans to move out in the near future. It is this space that Jeff likes to talk about the most, because of the neighborhood where he, Greg and the Gizmo staff now find themselves. They envision it becoming a neighborhood grocery store.
“Karen Hiller, our councilperson, has preached to us even before we looked at this building about how downtown needs a grocery store. There are 2,000 people who live downtown and 35,000 people who work downtown,” said Jeff.
And no grocery store, yet. If you talk with Jeff, Greg, Linda, the Gizmo and Blue Planet staffs, you’ll find that they have good imaginations, but also, they are doers with a passion for downtown and a feeling of obligation that, as its newest residents, they must help to revitalize it and make it a better place to work and live.
“The inertia of the momentum that’s going on right now has encouraged us enough to sink our whole futures into downtown,” said Jeff. “I would hope that others see what we’re doing and go, ‘Well, you know what? I’ve been thinking about it and now I have more reason to think about it, because there’s more going on.’”
The Blue Planet will have a soft opening, projected for sometime in June, and a grand opening to follow. Gizmo hopes to move in as soon as renovation on their main floor is complete. The other open pockets of the building will be filled in when the opportunity to do so arises. And then? Well, then the Thacher Building will go on standing solidly on 8th Avenue like it has since 1888. Except it might contain a certain kind of energy that has heretofore never been witnessed in downtown.
“It’s going to be very fun, top to bottom full of life and energy, art and creativity. What more can you ask for?” said Jeff. “People should walk in and feel that, I think, and it will permeate into everyone else’s lives.”