Reyner Banham

Stumptown Coffee Roasters -- Authentic to the Last Drop

[caption id="attachment_825" align="alignnone" width="700" caption="Baristas at Work"][/caption] There is a uniformity of intention and attention to detail at Stumptown Coffee Roaster’s 12th Avenue location that is authentic, be it in the manner in which its café and roasting spaces are presented, or in the manner in which their roasted beans are packaged. The 12th Avenue Cafe & Roasting House is both a place of leisure and of work, with both being housed in an environment that encourages an understanding of the company itself as well as the products they produce.

[caption id="attachment_826" align="alignnone" width="700" caption="The Downstairs' Coffee Bar"][/caption]

[caption id="attachment_827" align="alignnone" width="700" caption="The Classic Burlap Coffee Bag"][/caption]

The 12th Avenue entry leads directly to the cafe space, but it was not the most interesting space, which is found beneath the Cafe, on the lower level, which customers are encouraged to explore. The lower level is where the soul of the operation is, it is where the roasters, training room, inventory, packaging and loading dock are located. The lower level is essentially a basement, and is architecturally un-adorned. That is not to say that is without visual splendor. Two pre-World War II coffee bean roasters are the heart of the space, and are constantly attended.  The patina of age -- worn wooden control handles, faded paint, and vintage graphics -- lends them a charm that only time can bestow.

[caption id="attachment_828" align="alignnone" width="700" caption="The Roasting Floor"][/caption]

Surrounding the roasters, are of course bags of coffee. Big, burlap bags of coffee, with the burlap (as I was later to imagine) at least partially informing the aesthetic to the entire operation.  Adjacent to the roasters (and fronted by a bar for customers to sit and take in the action), is a large conference and training room, where the various espresso machines that Stumptown uses to train their baristas in the Stumptown-way are housed. And these machines are beautifully exhibited, akin to museum pieces, being arrayed along a wonderfully textured concrete wall.

[caption id="attachment_829" align="alignnone" width="700" caption="The Many Lives of the Humble Bean"][/caption]

[caption id="attachment_822" align="alignnone" width="700" caption="The Two Pre-War Roasters"][/caption]

[caption id="attachment_833" align="alignnone" width="700" caption="The Barista's Tools as a Work of Art"][/caption]

Upstairs, in the café, the setting is more refined with furnishings that reflect a taste in mid-century modern. The layout and furnishings were designed by Stumptown’s founder Duane Sorenson in collaboration with Bo Concept, an international furniture retailer ( The building is a restored space, whose heritage I was unable to learn, but is a welcome addition to the growing number or restored heritage buildings found on Capitol Hill. The restoration was made possible by the building’s owner, Scott Shapiro( The building’s main over all architectural interest lies in its unadorned seismic bracing, with steel structure and fortified concrete walls, complementing the texture of the exposed hollow clay block walls, a material commonly found in Europe but long out of favor in the US. In addition to the rawness of the space were the bags of roasted beans in front to the main counter. Their plainness reflected that of the unadorned burlap bags of unroasted beans in the basement, the rawness of the architecture, which in turn reflected the authenticity of the Stumptown operation itself – no glossy packaging, no words heralding Stumptown’s environmental and labor practices; a straightforward package, adorned only by a simple card indicating the type of roast and the words “Direct Trade” (Stumptown deals directly with the growers it buys beans from, in order to assure the product they want, hence, Direct Trade).

[caption id="attachment_832" align="alignnone" width="700" caption="Such Restraint -- Nice!"][/caption]

I am reminded of Reyner Banham’s 1986 classic A Concrete Atlantis: U.S. Industrial Building and European Modern Architecture 1900 - 1925. In his masterful tale, Banham examines the grains silos, warehouses, and factories built in the United States in the early 20th Century and the qualities of those buildings that European Modernist architects, such as Gropius, Le Corbusier, and Mendelhson were infatuated with. These buildings, and their functional and structural expression as well as in their simple, unadorned materiality were held as models for the future of architecture, and photographs of Ford automobile plants and General Foods mills were widely published in Europe. Of course, many subsequent architects have had the same infatuation to the extent that an industrial aesthetic emerged, one seeking to leverage the same sort of authenticity sought after by the early Modernists. However, the application of the industrial aesthetic is just that, an aesthetic, an approach based on appearance, and devoid of its original context. In the Pacific Northwest, the so-called “Northwest School of Modernism”, a quasi-industrial and romanticized frontier aesthetic, is applied to all manner of buildings from educational to residential. What oftentimes is lacking in such a design approach is appropriateness, and therefore the authenticity sought by their designers; or, those same qualities sought by those architects written about by Mr. Banham.

I couldn’t help but think that my Stumptown experience taps into my architect-infatuation with the industrial; however, unlike most spaces so inspired, Stumptown’s atmosphere is not an aesthetic, but an over-all approach grounded in their pursuit of the truest tasting coffee they can roast.  Those words on their coffee bags -- Direct Trade – seemed emblematic of my Stumptown experience that day: grower to buyer, no middleman, and little room for interpretation, authentic to the last drop.

[caption id="attachment_830" align="alignnone" width="700" caption="White Seat Covers on Walnut Frame -- Classic Mid-Century"][/caption]