Skip to main content

Richard H. Driehaus Foundation Award for Architectural Excellence, 3rd Place: Wheeler Kearns Architects, for Mather Café Plus

Creatively meeting the twin challenges of re-employing empty space on a retail corridor while providing traditional senior services in a non-traditional way earned Wheeler Kearns Architects first place in this year’s competition for the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation Award for Architectural Excellence in Community Design.

Their solution — the creation of Mather Café Plus — is a multi- faceted senior- service center placed in the context of a working café. The café, a development of Mather Lifeways, an Evanston-based foundation dedicated to bringing vitality and development opportunities to senior citizens throughout the Chicago area, occupies a renovated storefront in Chicago’s Galewood Park, an area that has a very high population of low and moderate- income seniors.

The 6,000- square- foot facility houses the working café (regulars call it "Starbucks for Seniors") and a series of rooms and lounges where "senior services" — from computer classes to exercise classes to traditional social services — are offered. While the programs are unique, it is the quality of the design that attracts young and old from the neighborhood each day and drew the attention of the awards committee.

Wheeler Kearns has paid extraordinary attention to detail. The café is ablaze with color and light. A geometric arrangement of vibrant ceiling panels, walls, light fixtures and an open- to- view country- style kitchen blend together, forming a fun and stimulating environment. Wood- fiber clouds hover over the café tables. The tables are created from glass covered "memory boxes" in which area seniors have placed personal memorabilia that is now shared by all who enter. The café’s sturdy and attractive wood floor also serves as a dance floor for special occasions.

Side rooms and lounges have been designed for the varied and changing needs of their users — conference rooms become computer labs, lounges the perfect place for exercise as well as conversation. Equally important, Wheeler Kearns’ design allows for duplication. The model café can be easily replicated in other settings, making build- out easy and affordable in other neighborhood locations (in fact, there already is a second Mather Café in Norwood Park). Mather Café is a striking example of the new urban architecture that transforms needed facilities into gems that anchor both lives and communities.