Q&A: Strongwater’s Kris Howell

By Columbus Alive
From the August 22, 2013 edition

Art-scene regular Kris Howell is the guy steering the ship of one of the city’s most-anticipated fall projects — the Strongwater Food and Spirits bar, restaurant and event space in Franklinton’s 400 West Rich. The event space made its debut at Urban Scrawl and the 2,500-square-foot bar/dining space will open sometime in the coming months.

Howell and his creative team are busting ass to make Strongwater a place for 21st century ideas — like potential hydroponic-garden window projects conceived with members of the soon-to-be-neighbors of the Columbus Idea Foundry — while respecting and drawing inspiration from the building’s humble, historical roots.

This is a project that has been in the making for a couple years. This old lobby made kind of a perfect bar, especially in connection with the event space and we had a billion different ideas about the layout. It was going to be a small music bar where rock bands played all the time. In the end we decided [we] just needed to let the space speak for itself.

We went through 10 million names. That’s, like, the hardest thing to do. My boss wanted to call it The Manhattan Project because they extruded uranium bars in the building across the street but we figured that was insensitive. I was looking through alcohol’s wikipedia, following it down the rabbit hole and I came across the term “strongwater,” which is an archaic term for alcohol and it just kind of clicked. There’s the flood history of the neighborhood, the fact that this building was based in changing the water flow of sanitary pipes, water fountains, dehumidifiers — it’s all very water based.

I have a whole room — we call it the relic room — just old weird things that I found cleaning out this place. I found the hand-drawn architectural plans specifically for [the room where the bar and restaurant will be], pencil drawings that show everything — how this receptionist desk was built into the wall, what all the wood is, what the electrical layout is.

The strangest thing we’ve found? This probably isn’t something you want to put in there, but there were some pretty heinous porn mags.

The most interesting thing I’ve found was a box of applications from the early 1940s. There are lots of really politically and socially relevant subtleties in them. One of the application versions has two boxes [to check]; one of them says “white,” one of them says “colored.” Things that obviously are fundamentally different now. You could go and look at their address and figure out where did people live that were applying here. Type it into Google Maps and it goes to a parking lot. Rose and her husband Merle lived at this parking lot 70 years [ago]. I nerded out on it on ancestry.com just to figure out where some of these people ended up.

History makes the building more interesting. There are ghosts of whole other lives of people that have lived and died in a whole other era and used this building for totally different purposes, a fundamentally different culture that’s flipped a bunch of different times. It makes you realize that you’re just one guy in a particular time or place.

Right now you have to know somebody or come to the farmers market to see the place or schedule a specific tour [to see 400 West Rich]. A bar and event space means someone can just pop in, chat up the bartender or whoever it may be, an artist or a tenant that’s here, chat about what’s going on. That just increases the ability to collaborate and expand and increase ideas and make it a better place.

My favorite thing about this project:I really liked that the people work around, both the artists here and the people that work in construction — just everybody involved wants to be here. It’s not like, “Oh, another day.” It is like that sometimes, but this is a great time to be here. It’ll end; I just appreciate it.

Photo by Meghan Ralston