One Family's DIY Approach to Converting a Warehouse Into a Buzzing Coffee Shop
The knocking on the front door begins hours before Mural City Coffee Company opens for the day. It’s a balmy morning in downtown Dothan, Alabama, a city known largely for its proximity to nearby Fort Rucker, a training center for United States Army aviators. The agriculture-minded may also know Dothan as the global epicenter of peanut farming (credit the soil and climate), a fact that is celebrated each fall when the city hosts the weeklong National Peanut Festival.
The first raps on the glass door, part of the expansive storefront facing South Foster Street, come around 8 a.m. “Sorry, we’re still in our soft opening,” Zachary Swan, the company’s roaster and all-around coffee guru, tells a disappointed young couple. “Come back at 2:30.” Later, two gray-haired ladies park in front of the three-story brick building before learning they’re still a bit early. “What are we going to do for an hour downtown?” the driver asks her companion before turning on the ignition and rolling off.
The anticipation surrounding Mural City, which officially opened the week after Thanksgiving in 2018, has not been limited to this day alone. “I had a girl yesterday say, ‘I don’t want to sound too weird, but I have been waiting for this for two years,’” says Destiny Hosmer, Zach’s girlfriend and the founder of Mural City’s tea program.
If this all sounds a bit overblown for the opening of a coffee shop, it helps to understand the unlikely story of the building’s transformation. The 1920s structure has gone from an agricultural supply company to a defunct electronics store with a leaky roof to a coffee-and-tea emporium that rivals anything in San Francisco, New York, or Seattle.
It also helps to understand what this building and shop could mean both as a community hub for this city of nearly 70,000 and as a catalyst for Dothan’s efforts to revitalize a long-neglected downtown by focusing on the city’s history and architecture. “I think we are right on the cusp,” says Gina Swan, who, along with husband Darrin, son Zach, and Hosmer, has given this building a second life. “To us, it appears that something has been sparked."
The roots of Mural City Coffee Company—a name taken from Dothan’s myriad wall-sized murals depicting historic events and prominent people in the area—can be traced to places as disparate as Iowa and Germany. Unlike many other historic preservation projects of this size, the transformation of the building into a vibrant spot for locals to drink coffee and tea, hold meetings, display art, and host poetry readings was one family’s do-it-yourself labor of love.
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But to hear the family recount the two-year odyssey of rehabbing a vacant 1923 building while sitting in what has become a gleaming and attractive space is to quickly realize that few people would have been up for such a daunting task. To grasp how the Swans were able to almost single-handedly rehab the building requires going back to Darrin’s youth.
His family owned C&C Construction in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. And from the time he was 14 years old, Darrin’s summer vacations were spent working, learning how to build and fix things. “I never knew where my brothers went away for the summer,” he recalls. “Then my mom was like, OK, pack your bags. A week after school got out, all the boys in my family went to work construction to learn a skill.”
It was just the beginning. Darrin’s education about how to construct and fix buildings (and just about everything else) only deepened and expanded as he grew into adulthood. After joining the U.S. Army, he worked as an electrician, a diesel-engine mechanic, an aviation safety officer, and an Apache helicopter pilot. Darrin met and married fellow soldier Gina, who brought her own background as an Army electronics technician—repairing night-vision devices, chemical-detection equipment, and other specialized items—to the union.
Naturally, Zach had little choice but to become adept at repair projects. Darrin and Gina were stationed in Germany in the 1990s, but after he was born they moved back to the U.S. They were eventually transferred to Fort Rucker and bought a non-historic Enterprise, Alabama, house that needed plenty of work. Zach was expected to help. “Zach has grown up working on projects,” says Gina, laughing. “We have photos of him at 3 or 4 years old with an apron on and driving screws. The skills we learned on that house have been used here.”
Importantly, the Swans’ pre-Dothan travels also ignited twin passions for history and cafe culture. When they worked at U.S. Army Garrison Baumholder in western Germany, the couple lived close to downtown Baumholder in an apartment that was once the morgue of a World War II–era women’s hospital. When they weren’t working, they spent their time visiting cathedrals, searching for antiques, and enjoying the relaxed and inviting ambience of European cafes. “We would walk miles to go to one coffee shop, where you’d get coffee in a [china] cup and on a plate and could spend as long as you wanted just sitting and talking,” remembers Darrin.
The idea that a cafe should be a venue for personal connections took deep root in the Swans. And after more than 20 years of living in Dothan, they knew it was something other residents craved, as well. “A lot of military people come in here and say, ‘Finally,’” he says. “They have been all over the world, to Paris and Chicago and New York and Seattle. Why can’t they get the same experience here?”
Creating that experience in an abandoned building filled with decades-old electronics, boxes of packing peanuts, and baby pools to catch leaks required all the passion and skills the Swans had accumulated over time.
It also necessitated some not-inconsequential risk. In order to fund the renovation of the building, the Swans had to sell their house. They also had to convince a bank to fund their efforts. Pitches to local banks fell flat (one banker told them he just didn’t understand coffee well enough) until they met with Charles D. Harper, who had worked with the couple on a vacation rental property they once operated. “We have experience with the Swans, and that goes a long way,” says Harper, CEO and president at The Commercial Bank of Ozark. “They were good enough to take the time to answer what I needed to help me see their vision.”
It was a vision, frankly, that the couple didn’t share when they first saw the 15,000-square-foot building in 2016. Singletary & Whiddon, the farm-supply store, had evolved into the Carmichael electronics store and warehouse. The robust redbrick facade is still adorned with the mostly vertical, red-and-white neon sign that says “Carmichael Wholesale.” (The midcentury sign is sufficiently coveted that someone attempted to remove it after the Swans bought the building.) During the 1970s or ’80s, glass doors and storefront windows were added so that pedestrians could peek in and see the wares at Carmichael’s. In the late 1990s, the company went out of business, and the building became vacant.
Though the exterior showed plenty of promise, Darrin and Gina, who have been together 26 years and have simpatico views about the value and potential of historic buildings, saw very different futures inside. Not only was the roof leaking and the building filled with junk, but some of the wooden floorboards were damaged from years of water exposure, and the plumbing was in bad shape. “I saw the big dumpster in the back being loaded. She saw exactly this,” says Darrin, gesturing toward the finished product of their labors. But he also knew his wife well enough to trust her instincts.
So they bought the building, which is a contributing structure to Dothan’s Main Street Commercial District, listed on the National Register of Historic Places. They got to work removing all the trash, a necessary precursor to the real task of refurbishing and repurposing the building for its new life. Everything they did was guided by a simple philosophy. “First and foremost was halting the damage to the building and correcting that damage,” says Gina. “Second was preserving the way this building was originally built.”
“We don’t want the easiest; we are going for aesthetics and what it would have been like in the past.”Darrin Swan
They soon realized that achieving those goals meant doing most of the work themselves. Initially, the Swans brought in contractors to bid on different jobs, like cleaning the wood floors. One contractor suggested using a pressure washer, which would have cleaned the floors but also damaged them. Instead, the family did research into preserving old floors using a gentler process called soda blasting. “It’s basically sandblasting using baking soda. Baking soda breaks into very fine particulates when it hits. Instead of damaging the wood, it knocks the dust off as the baking soda particles explode,” says Darrin.
Armed with that information, Zach spent six months soda blasting every piece of wood in the building—learning about halfway through that wearing goggles and a full body suit would help prevent skin rashes. Another contractor said it would cost $12,000 to sand the floors, a take-it-or-leave-it estimate that didn’t allow for preserving old ruts, paint splatters, and other markings. Instead, the Swans purchased a used sander and did it themselves. “We wanted control over it,” says Gina. “We did just enough to get rid of the gray dirt, so at the entrances to each floor to the lift, you can see where wagon wheels rutted out the floors. We didn’t want anyone sanding those away.”
The lift she mentions is a 1923 wooden Otis freight elevator that still has its original motor. The family uses it “all day, every day,” she says. The building’s exposed post-and-beam structure was another element that hadn’t been changed at all.
Architect Jason Schmidt and mechanical engineer Ed Locke helped the Swans obtain building permits, research building codes, and work with the local historic preservation committee. Even when they had to rely on the work of subcontractors, Darrin and Gina insisted on control over how the building was treated. New plumbing was needed, and they required that the contractor use materials appropriate to the era in places where the pipes were exposed. “We wanted copper pipes, and they were like, ‘It’s easiest to put up PVC,’” recalls Darrin. “We don’t want the easiest; we are going for aesthetics and what it would have been like in the past.”
Even though the Swans removed some of the existing building materials, they tried hard to salvage and repurpose. For example, they took out some of the floors on the second level to usher in more natural light, and incorporated that wood into an elevated seating area at the front of the coffee shop. Other reclaimed wood was used to construct the bakery case, the cabinets holding Mural City Coffee merchandise, and shelving in the tea bar. While the tin first-floor ceiling was beautiful, it obscured water damage, so they pried it out carefully and reused some of it on a second-floor wall. Other tin tiles were supplied to a cafe across the street in exchange for free meals.
It wasn’t just materials that were repurposed to give the building its eclectic and historic look. A Singletary & Whiddon vault has been transformed into a surprisingly cozy reading room. The thick, black door emblazoned with the company’s name remains, and the exposed brick on the inside of the vault is now bathed in soft light and lined with inviting bookshelves and cushy seats.
When they had to look outside the building for furnishings, the Swans prioritized vintage items. For instance, a 1950s-era card catalogue from the University of Georgia now holds information about the teas served at the shop. All the cups and carafes are midcentury, and the circa-1950 bullet trash cans now emblazoned with the Mural City logo were salvaged from the University of Iowa by one of Darrin’s cousins.
Continuous searches for furnishings and special touches to add to the shop eventually helped the Swans land an almost forgotten piece of Dothan history. While searching Craigslist for storage containers, Darrin stumbled across—and purchased—a Dothan city bus from the 1940s or ’50s. The city hasn’t had bus service for many decades, and the old vehicle had been used as an RV, though it had been left to deteriorate long enough that it was home to a mummified squirrel.
Eventually the bus will be turned into outdoor seating, but even in its dilapidated state, it has already generated plenty of goodwill. “When we had the tow truck bring it here, another guy followed it and got out and he started crying. He said he used to ride the bus to get ice cream as a kid and thought someone from out of town had bought it,” recalls Darrin. “Since then other people have come and brought their families because they wanted to have three generations on the bus.”
The pull of history is obviously strong in Dothan. Still, downtown’s impressive stock of historic buildings has been largely neglected, a fact that the Swans hope to change. It starts by encouraging a loyal following and plenty of foot traffic at Mural City. Serving handcrafted coffees and teas is just one way to accomplish that. “The Specialty Coffee Association offers certifications, and we want to become a place in the Southeast to get those,” says Zach. “And we want to do intro-level classes, so if you know nothing and get to test eight different coffees you can see the difference between a wash process or a honey process.”
There will be plenty of other reasons for people to visit. The second floor has a conference room that the Swans plan to make available to area organizations. Local artists will be able to display their works on the walls and at gatherings they host on the second floor. To encourage this use of the space, the Swans don’t charge artists any commission for the works they sell at the shop.
The family hopes that the hub of activity and enthusiasm they create at Mural City will spill over to the surrounding downtown area. It’s not just wishful thinking. The E.R. Porter Hardware building around the corner, built in 1889, was refurbished last year and reopened as a local history museum. The historic Frith building across the street is being slowly rehabbed to house Blue Moon Cafe, a Cajun restaurant currently located a few doors down from Mural City. The Southeast Alabama Community Theatre group recently bought a nearby Art Deco building to use as offices and storage, and will also build a new 700-seat theater.
There’s an ambitious downtown renovation plan underway called the Highway 84 East Corridor Plan. Currently, the six-lane Highway 84 runs east from downtown toward Southeast Health and the Alabama College of Osteopathic Medicine. “The hope is to take two of the six lanes and make bike and walking trails out to the college,” says Darrin, who is a member of the town’s planning commission. Public art will be displayed along the trails, and a 230-unit apartment complex near the hospital is planned.
It’s all part of a larger effort to bring people downtown to live, work, and play. And if the scene that develops at Mural City each day once the doors open is any indication, there’s a real chance of success. A line typically stretches from the counter to the front door, and the crowd is as eclectic as its surroundings. The day I visit the coffee shop, there are plenty of young medical students, but the older ladies who had driven off earlier return and occupy a table. Couples and young families also arrive and gaze around at the art on the walls and the vintage furnishings. Nobody seems in a hurry. It’s just what the Swans want, and it’s exactly what Gina envisioned even before the first baby pool was removed from the building. “People don’t want to leave,” she says. “That is how this building makes you feel.”
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Chris Warren is a freelance writer in Little Rock, Arkansas, and a frequent contributor to Preservation.