Rebirth of the Garver Feed Mill

Photo by Garver Feed Mill

Early on, I jokingly warned our team about the east side’s reputation for “full-contact democracy.” David Baum repeated it often since, but in fact there turned out to be solid, widespread neighborhood support for this concept for Garver’s rebirth. I’m delighted to see the whole site nearing completion after 20-plus years of neighborhood dreaming and working. –Lou Host-Jablonski, AIA, Design Coalition

“There are still so many people that don’t know where the Garver Feed Mill is,” says Adam Nagy of Ian’s Pizza.

Vanessa Tortolano of NessAlla Kombucha adds, “But then the people that do know about it are like, ‘Ah, yeah, we’ve been around there. I broke in there once with a friend.’”

Nic Mink of Sitka Salmon says a resident told him, “In the ‘40s, I muskrat hunted there.”

In case you haven’t heard, the Garver Feed Mill, an old sugar beet processing plant behind Olbrich Botanical Gardens built in 1906, is getting one heck of a makeover. The building itself was on the brink of edifice extinction. Walls about to come down. Extensive water damage leading to a tree taking hold on the roof and its roots following the mortar joints in the brickwork. Its inevitable demolition was curtailed when the community chose Baum Revision to give Garver Feed Mill new life.

On the request for proposal, Bryant Moroder of Baum Revision says, “Throughout the entire project, we received about as much support from the community as any project in Madison. From as far back as the committee selection process, when 150 residents showed up to say we want this project, the enthusiasm exploded on social media from people in the neighborhood and beyond who cannot wait to get into the building and interact with tenant businesses.”

So what’s the plan? Come fall of this year, the east side of Madison will have a new foodie destination ripe for events and rounding out a day on the bike trail or at Olbrich. The building will be keeping some of the graffiti and all of the charm with its new residents: Ian’s Pizza, NessAlla Kombucha, Sitka Salmon Shares, Calliope Ice Cream, Underground Catering, Kosa wellness spa, and Briar Loft boutique floral.

Bryant says, “You guys could’ve very easily moved to some industrial place in the middle of nowhere and called it a day.” Which would be fine, but aside from the incredible opportunity Garver Feed Mill provides in terms of history and location, the reason these businesses are choosing this space for their next venture is summed up nicely by Nic. “We’re all value-based businesses, which means we take into consideration things beyond just making money.” Because of Sitka Salmon’s new location, Nic will be able to do bike deliveries to the 500 members located within three miles of the Garver Feed Mill, putting the things he and his employees value in pole position. Further exhibiting sustainability practices, NessAlla Kombucha thought out an energy-efficient way to utilize the heat coming off their refrigeration to preheat the on-demand water heater.

Photograph provided by Garver Feed Mill

Taking a step back from the enormity of the work being done to revive Garver Feed Mill and understanding the implications of its future, it isn’t too hard to see that these businesses are taking advantage of an opportunity to amplify their beliefs to a wider audience than just the east side of Madison. Bryant says, “There’s all these spaces, and that creates opportunities for engagement and education. For NessAlla Kombucha to start their brewery tours again. We were talking about doing big Friday night fish fry, but sort of the Sitka version of it. For many of our tenants, it’s all about facilitating these experiences.” And each of the tenants have something to say about what encapsulates the identity of Madison and much of Wisconsin.

“You’re making an investment in the community,” says Nic. “You look at making investments for many different reasons, and as a business, you should be mindful that your investments do much more than make money. Investments transform communities. They can get people to think about how they live differently and, for us, investing in things that don’t degrade the environment and allow us to work with natural resources a little bit more thoughtfully. … We see it as a comprehensive investment into the world we want to see. I don’t want to run a business in a Quonset hut in a nearby city. … I don’t want to facilitate that. I want to facilitate this. Our members want to facilitate this. Our fishermen want to facilitate community-tight places like this. And I’m sure that’s why we’re all here.”

Then there’s the history of the place and what it means to so many different people for so many different reasons. From the aforementioned muskrat hunter and other anecdotes to the stories of what happened when the factory was in use, including a molasses spill whose severity might be bordering “tall-tale territory,” according to Vanessa. There was even a span of a few years when an artist had taken up residency in one part of the building. The space itself might not be ancient, but you’d be hard pressed to find its equivalent.

It’s the new stories, however, that really interest Bryant as Baum Revision sets the stage for the next chapter of Garver Feed Mill. “To be successful as a project,” Bryant says, “we need to move beyond our audience and bring this to the broader world. What we’re focused on is trying to create that platform. … I think the memories the people are going to take from this building for the next 100-plus years are going to be really cool.” Right now, that element of opportunity, exciting as it is overwhelming, is evident to everyone who will be filling out those pages. With ideas aplenty and the impetus to meet those ends, Garver Feed Mill gives Madison a new voice to speak of sustainability and tapping into a community’s potential to make a more widespread impact.

Look for…

February-April 2020 issue of Home Elements & Concepts , our sister publication, to see a full photo display of the finished space.

Kyle Jacobson is a copy editor for Madison Essentials, and a writer and beer enthusiast (sometimes all at once) living in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin.


3241 Garver Green
Madison, WI 53704