As of 2014, the town of Volland, Kansas, had a population of two. The near ghost town is also home to a two-story brick building that a Kansas City couple thought would make an excellent place for a gallery and artist retreat. The job of designing an unexpected space in an unsuspecting town fell to Kansas City–based el dorado inc. The collapsed roof and floors, paired with solid brick walls and limestone foundations, meant that el dorado had an empty shell to fill as it pleased.
Built in 1913 by the Kratzer brothers as a mercantile, a post office, and space for the town’s two telephones, the building was the cultural hub of the surrounding community—which was much larger then. The Dust Bowl, the Depression, and World War II all took their toll on the area and its population, and the Kratzer Brothers Mercantile closed in 1971 when co-owner (and one of the brothers) Otto Kratzer passed away.
Forty-five years later, the building has been given new life. Once again a place of gathering and community, the Volland General Store is a flexible gallery and event space with a small artist’s retreat and living quarters. A credit to the clients’ programmatic foresight and el dorado’s simple yet rich space, the Volland General Store has already been used for a photography gallery, rural electrical cooperative board meetings, corporate retreats, and a handful of ice cream socials.
From the exterior, very little has changed from what the building may have looked like 100 years ago. A simple storefront looks out over a small pad of paving and some scruffy grass. A muted gray, used throughout the project, adds to the unassuming quality, and no signage is legible from the outside.
However, the interior is a different story. By not rebuilding the second story, el dorado was able to take full advantage of two stories of windows to produce a tall, bright space for events and shows. Plaster was stripped from the walls, exposing the brick shell, while a new, carefully detailed steel structure was added to reinforce the entire building. Because el dorado has its own metal-fabricating shop in its office, it was able to have a great deal of control over this aspect of the project. Understanding that the framework would be one of the main features of the space, the firm fabricated the connections to be as clean as possible. The steel work, painted the same gray as the storefront, is also the framework for the gallery lighting. This clean, restrained touch of the front of the interior space is set in contrast to the back of the space, which is dominated by a large white mass.
This two-story block, offset on all sides from the existing building, holds the structure´s utility programs and living space. The lower level mass includes a service space for staging, catering, and show prep, as well as the public restrooms. The upper level is a studio-size apartment complete with kitchenette and bath. The simple unit takes advantage of the large original window openings and borrows additional light from the gallery space. When occupied, the apartment also increases the town’s population by nearly 50 percent, a statistic few housing projects can claim.