A Century-old Firehouse Is Transformed into a Fashion-forward Hat Factory

“Being an old fire station, it had a big bathroom and showering area that was lined with marble,” Lee says. “We repurposed all of the marble and the original tile flooring in a new staff kitchen and another new bathroom.

The design team at Skidmore, Owings and Merrill, Chicago, created a space in character with the original architecture but that is also contemporary.

“Thompson was always really interested in doing things in terms of how the building might have looked before,” Lee adds. “He wanted things to be in character with the original architecture but also be contemporary. We tried to take that tack with all the work we did. It has a link to history and the craftsmanship of his product but is very contemporary in terms of a look that is minimal functionalism.”

Well-balanced Workspace

Having once housed large fire engines, the high-bay, two-vehicle garage space proved to be perfect for the machines and manufacturing activity required to create Optimo hats. The other rooms on the side are ideal for parts of the process—buffing, cutting, sewing and trimming—that require a cleaner, dust-free environment.

“It’s a very efficient setup,” Lee says. “We were also able to utilize the beautiful natural light that is coming in from the sidewall into the space. There isn’t really a need for ambient light in the space. They just needed task lighting, which is accomplished by small lights or a simple hoop that lights over a particular machine. It is a well-balanced space and a perfect workshop environment that is really pleasant to work in.”

As with any manufacturing space, particularly one that also has public-facing retail and show element, sound needs to be taken into consideration. In this case, the design team found that some problems have a funny way of solving themselves.

“We were worried about acoustics because we had left the original plaster ceilings and the building has polished concrete floors,” Lee recalls. “A lot of hat molds and hat displays are mounted on custom-made wood racks with cork backs and we found that the hats and cork had a level of acoustical absorption. Together they provide soft materials that sort of line the space. Employees say that when they are in full production, noise is not a problem at all.”

The design phase of the project was completed in fall 2015. Construction on the workshop portion wrapped up in the winter of 2016, and the second-floor studio space was completed in fall 2017. The Optimo team has embraced their new space and Lee is proud to have a happy client.

“We were able to create a design that I thought matched the same pulse that flows through Thompson and his passion for making hats of the highest-quality craftsmanship,” Lee says. “Every component was thoughtful in terms of how it would work, what it would cost, and how it would be right for the workers and could make their jobs easier.”

Hats themselves are an item of expression and function. They keep wind and weather off the wearer’s head and also project an image, personality and feeling. That same principle was applied to this project.

“With everything, there was always an overlay of asking,‘what does it look like?’ We took Thompson’s ethos of craftsmanship and functionality and doing things with a sense of style,” Lee says. “People are drawn to Thompson because he is so passionate about what he does. This isn’t work for him. It is something he believes in, and that is why he is one of the best hat makers in the world.”

Dapper Display

Two rods, spaced about 6 inches apart, are the perfect way to perch a hat. PHOTO: AJ Trela

What is the best way to display hats? Most would think the best solution is to build a shelf. In reality, shelves aren’t the best way to display hats because they collect a great deal of dust. The designers at Skidmore, Owings and Merrill, Chicago, and the Optimo team experimented with different ways to approach this problem and found that two rods, spaced about 6 inches apart, are the perfect way to perch a hat. It allows just enough air to flow around it and doesn’t collect a lot of dust and dirt.

Above and Below

Any retrofit project has challenges related to the original building’s layout and purpose. Sometimes those can be ripe opportunities to do something unique and special. In the case of the Optimo facility in Beverly, Ill., being located in an old firehouse meant there were two large holes in the ceiling where firemen used to slide down poles and into action.

Thick glass was installed in the openings that formerly contained fire poles, creating a connection between the studio space above and the manufacturing space below.

“I remember walking into the place and seeing the fireman’s pole and opening on the second floor down to the first floor,” recalls Brian Lee, FAIA, LEED AP, design partner with Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, Chicago. “We thought, instead of filling those openings, they could be perfect windows from one space to another.”

Thick glass was installed in the openings, and there is now a connection between the studio space above and the manufacturing space below. Workers can look up and see people in the studio space, and when cus- tomers are touring the studio, they can look down and see the product actually being made

Retrofit Team


  • Brian Lee, FAIA, LEED AP, design partner
  • Jaime Velez, FIIDA, ASID, director of Interior Design
  • Jeremy Bouck, senior interior designer
  • Daniel Bell, senior technical designer, associate director
  • Dennis Milam, technical designer
  • Rebecca Delaney, P.E., LEED AP, MEP team leader
  • Michelle Mirrielees, LEED AP BD+C, materials specialist
  • Dickson Whitney III, AIA, project manager

GENERAL CONTRACTOR: Helios Construction Services, Chicago

METALWORK: Bader Art Metal & Fabrication, Chicago

WOODWORK: Carpenter Corey, (630) 809-7229

HARDWOOD FLOORING: Ace Flooring and Restoration, Chicago, (773) 517-6884

The design team utilized natural light throughout the space; task lighting was the only additional lighting needed.

RADIANT HEATING: GRYF Radiant Floor Heating Systems, Arlington Heights, Ill., (847) 867-4714


BRASS FRONT DOORS and Custom Doors: Tim Thompson Designs

PAINT: Benjamin Moore & Co.

GOAL-POST LIGHTING: LEDALITE Linear TruGroove (direct/indirect) from Signify, formerly Philips Lighting

HVAC: Carrier

WINDOW TREATMENTS: Fasara Glass Window Film from 3M

FLOORING: Ace Flooring & Restoration, (773) 517-6884


PHOTOS: Tom Rossiter, unless otherwise noted

About the Author

Allen Barry
Allen Barry writes about architecture and sustainability from Chicago.

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