All Aboard For Heltzer
Michael Heltzer maintains boats and builds furniture on the banks of the Chicago River
Lisa Skolnik -- Interior Design, 11/1/2002 12:00:00 AM
Manufacturing more than 6,000 pieces of indoor and outdoor furniture a year would definitely be a full-time job for most people. But Michael Heltzer is the consummate entrepreneur—and an anointed Young Turk of the high-end furniture industry since winning his first Roscoe Award in 1992. A white-shoe lawyer turned designer, he chose not to dismantle the Ravenswood Boatyard when he bought the century-old facility on the Chicago River's North Branch. Instead, he runs his furniture company, Heltzer, and the boatyard simultaneously.
The 60,000-square-foot boatyard, the last marina on this leg of the river, was the subject of fierce negotiations between Heltzer and residential developers. "The greenery of the riverbanks was the first thing I saw, and I decided on the spot to buy the place," he says. Aside from the semi-wild surroundings inhabited by beavers, river turtles, and foxes, beguiling factors included enormous interior spans for maneuvering boats.
Heltzer and McBride Kelley Baurer principal Bill McBride, an architect who lived in the bungalow next door, spent six months redesigning four of the compound's interconnected structures, built from the 1880s to the 1950s. (The fifth, unsalvageable, was demolished.) All have new roofs, state-of-the-art mechanical and electrical systems, and gleaming aluminum overhead dock doors. The street-front facade's picture windows have been replaced with the same hand-rubbed stainless-steel panels that Heltzer uses for his furniture, and frosted-glass windows have been installed above.
Inside, the place is now as sleek and subtly sumptuous as Heltzer's designs in wood, glass, and stainless steel. But unlike his line, the renovation was very economical. "I had the luxury of moving my equipment in first, so I could build out the interiors myself," he explains. "We've always been very versatile and maintained close control over production. We tinker with our projects until we perfect them. That's what I've done here."
The sweeping space has allowed Heltzer to improve and expand operations and experiment with materials and techniques. The most efficient upgrade was the most elementary: He immediately put in the single-level production lines that his former premises, a three-story converted candy factory, couldn't accommodate. "Because we had the opportunity to streamline all our operations on one floor, we spent a lot of time developing a plan to yield maximum productivity," he says. This involved bringing in computerized equipment and expanding the finishing department with two important additions: an environmentally safe sandblasting room and a humidity-controlled wood-finishing room.
The offices, originally on the street side, moved out back to make the most of the river. Besides installing a green-tinged slate floor that relates to the water better than the lustrous refinished concrete in the rest of the complex would, he developed a plan to let light into what had been the darkest part of the interior. First he installed glass in the place of a 30-foot-long section of exterior brick wall. Then he designed and fabricated a stainless-steel and glass-panel system to split the interior into alcoves without sacrificing openness. In high-traffic zones skirting production areas, he "papered" walls with corrugated steel panels—visually appealing, low-maintenance, and light-reflective.
"Aesthetics—taking advantage of the site and developing the riverfront—were significant to us," he says. That goes equally for outside, where a 40-foot-long, 20-foot-wide deck furnished with Heltzer's minimal stainless-steel outdoor furniture stands ready to entertain friends and family. He and his wife, Elizabeth, have hosted a number of political fund-raisers and functions for parents from their children's schools. For a neighbor's 50th-birthday last summer, the jazz band played on a dock aflicker with votive candles.
Next up, Heltzer and local advocates are planning a riverfront sculpture garden. For the moment, though, the showstopper is unquestionably the 125 boats he maintains and stores. A boatyard mechanic services the motors, but Heltzer often takes a hands-on approach to the fun stuff, namely hoisting those 16,000-pounders out of the water with cranes and forklifts and getting his older two children to wash down boats with him on weekends. His design and manufacturing capabilities allow him to do boat restorations and refurbishments in-house, and his craftsmen move back and forth between the two separate businesses. "There's really nothing that doesn't interest me, from a can opener to boats and planes," says Heltzer. "My objective is to make any product more efficient and visually appealing."