At the corner of West Seventh and Jefferson in Tremont there's a warren of 15 brick buildings that date back to pre-Civil War times. Together they form the Union Gospel Press building, now a residential complex called Tremont Place Lofts.
The oldest building of the bunch was erected around 1850, and in the lowest level of that structure — beneath four floors of residents — is where you'll find Will Hollingsworth, pacing the freshly poured concrete floors of his soon-to-open bar, the Spotted Owl. Just weeks before, those very floors were little more than clumps of ancient dust and dirt, remnants from another era.
Will Hollingsworth isn't the first person to set his sights on this odd and magical space, but he's the first to get something done. All told the space is roughly 2,200 square feet, but it's broken up by beefy 3-foot brick columns that support the structure above, and the low-slung ceilings make it feel smaller than its true dimensions.
"When you look at this space, it's not a square box that is easily manipulated," explains Jeffrey Eizember, whose firm (ARC)form is overseeing the construction. "You have to be able to look through the convoluted nature of the space to make it what you want."
Not only was Hollingsworth able to see past the space's idiosyncrasies, but it was precisely those idiosyncrasies that immediately caught his attention, consumed his thoughts and propelled him forward.
"The moment I came down here I said, This is the space," Hollingsworth recalls. "I saw the ghosts of this place immediately and I've been trusting my gut ever since."
He's had to rely on that gut trust for a good long while as this brick-lined dream has been three years in the making. Together with his partners at (ARC)form and his architect Richard Lalli, Hollingsworth has been inching toward the day that he'll finally get to open the bar of his dreams.
"I'm not a patient man, but I wanted this to be the kind of place that stands the test of time," he says. "I want to create something singular."
In an age of fads, gimmicks and themes, when modern-day forty-niners rush to stake claims on the few remaining storefronts in Ohio City and Tremont, Hollingsworth is an exception. For starters, the place will seat no more than 40 guests, at a generously proportioned bar, in booths and at tables. With a staff of eight, Spotted Owl will have an unheard of customer-to-staff ratio of five to one. "I didn't want it to be asses-to-elbows," he says. "I want this to be a nice place to hold a conversation."
When they're done with it, the 160-year-old interior will be a study in light, mood and texture. Exposed brick walls envelop the space, their pocked, craggy texture illuminated by surgically placed spots. Most of the horizontal surfaces – the bar, tables, high-tops – are built from hefty old-growth tulip poplar boards salvaged from a decommissioned barn. The poured concrete floors will be stained a deep midnight blue.
"Simple is elegant, but simple is hard to do," notes Eizember. "When you get all the little details right they just sort of fade away."
Details often overlooked by hurried contractors – like where to install electrical boxes and run the conduit – were given the same weight as what cocktails would make the final cut. Rather than hide such utilitarian elements, the Spotted Owl celebrates them. "Simple, elegant, functional," is the mantra here.
Hollingsworth's goal from inception was to build a neighborhood bar with no pretension – something that would be complementary to the restaurants in Tremont. Hollingsworth abhors labels like mixology and craft cocktails, instead aiming simply to do good work.
"In Portland, where I'm from, bar culture kind of shirked those pigeon holes – it's just about doing it right," he explains. "The bars that make it are the ones that don't act like a big deal but have a workman-like focus on the details."
Guests can expect a concise menu of a dozen cocktails priced from $8 to $12. A very small wine list might offer one red, one white and one sparkling by the glass, along with a small listing of fine bottles. Again going against the grain, the five beer taps here will stick to a fixed collection of staples instead of chasing the next hot craft. Snacks will include jars of sweet-hot pickles, pitted Greek olives, some house trail mix.
But guests won't be seeking out the Spotted Owl to eat. They'll do so to hole up in a dim cave to get tipsy with somebody whose company they treasure. That's Hollingsworth's main objective, after all.
"I love providing a space for people to enjoy themselves and to enjoy each other, to make memories and to fall in love," Hollingsworth says. "To provide the four walls for that to happen I think is a really noble endeavor."
Look for The Spotted Owl to open in late winter.