David beat Goliath and ate well, too
You may have missed it last week, but David slayed Goliath on the streets of Natchez.
This time the young lad didn’t use a rock and a sling shot to topple the giant. All it took was a simple brick box, a couple of plate glass windows, good customer service — and people.
On Feb. 27, Guy Bass and David Browning moved their popular restaurant Cotton Alley Café from the center of Commerce Street to the 200 block of Main Street.
Known for a string of restaurants with reputations for good food and customer service, Guy and David once again worked magic transforming a bland brick building with small slits for windows into an airy, light-filled space.
The restaurateurs literally knocked a hole in the floor of their new building into the basement to create a restaurant that is as contemporary as it is traditional.
The most impressive aspect of the building is not the interior — which is indeed fresh and new — but in how one small building can make a positive difference on a street.
Nearly ten years ago, when the City of Natchez set out to transform an entire city block into a convention center, one of the biggest concerns was how such a massive building would affect downtown Natchez.
Convention centers are notorious for killing a street with their tall solid walls and few windows and doors. All one has to do is travel to large cities like New Orleans and small cities like Vicksburg to see how empty and lifeless the areas surrounding conventions really are.
Recognizing these concerns, the Natchez Convention Center was designed to look like a contemporary interpretation of a small town streetscape along the north side of Main Street. The block-long building was cut up into sections that looked like small storefronts. Large expanses of windows were divided into small units and brick and stucco were used throughout.
Those efforts did minimize the scale of the large building, but ended up adding little life to the street.
Why? Well for one thing, the convention center did not bring with it the one thing that makes streets livable — people. With few doors and a building that is occupied on an irregular basis, this block of Main Street has been empty more times than not over the last ten years.
A cluster of low-traffic offices, the closure of Molasses Flats Antiques and the move of New Covenant Presbyterian Church’s to Homochitto Street didn’t help either.
Originally, the convention center was conceived to have retail spaces opening onto Main Street, but those plans were killed over concerns that new retail would only hurt existing downtown businesses. As a result an entire section of Main Street was left lifeless.
Two weeks ago new life sprung forth on Main Street. Two new windows in an unassuming building did in two weeks what the behemoth convention center could not do in ten years.
With customers regularly swinging by for lunch and dinner and a couple of café tables out front, the small restaurant has added life to what was lifeless. A golden glow that has been missing for years now pours from the restaurant’s windows. Laughter and casual conversations echo along the street as sated customers return to their cars.
As an architect, I know how tempting it is to think that good design is all about make a building beautiful. But a pretty building can be just as lifeless as an ugly one if it doesn’t add people to the street. Good design is not just about the look, but about making buildings and cities that work.
The Cotton Alley Café’s David versus the Natchez Convention Center’s Goliath shows how true that is.
Ben Hillyer is the design editor of The Natchez Democrat. He can be reached at 601-445-3540 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.