Wheeler Kearns Architects

Wheeler Kearns Architects

Chicago, IL


Common Pantry

For over five decades, Common Pantry, Chicago's longest-running food pantry, operated out of a rented basement within the Epiphany United Church of Christ in the North Center neighborhood. Committed to addressing the emergency needs of the local community by providing healthy food, kinship, and support to overcome poverty-related challenges, the organization's dedicated staff, alongside valued volunteers, infuse compassion into every service they offer. Notably, Common Pantry has served weekly meals to its clientele, forming a bond by breaking bread and fellowship.  

In response to the heightened demand triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic, Common Pantry took a bold step, acquiring a one-story, 6,252-square-foot building on Lincoln Avenue, just two blocks from its previous location. Placing a food pantry along a prominent commercial corridor, an unconventional choice, garnered widespread acceptance from the community. This new location is a powerful symbol of the organization's unwavering commitment to serving and supporting its neighbors. 

With its proximity to public transit lines, ADA accessibility, and high visibility on a major thoroughfare, the building offered an ideal opportunity for Common Pantry to meet increased demand and enhance the quality of its services. From food distribution to weekly meal service, food education, and social service programming, the vision was clear – to create a welcoming and uplifting space that fully aligned with their mission. A previously paved service court was a true gift, becoming a protected exterior courtyard for dining and events that most pantries could only dream of.  

Once a nightclub, laundromat, and, most recently, a restaurant, the building underwent a remarkable transformation. The design aimed to "do a lot with a little" in the spirit of the budget. Daylight and transparency were the key drivers. Existing storefront windows were retained while new accessible glazed entries front and rear entries bring daylight through from the street to the courtyard. 75% percent of the interior was gutted, and 25% percent was strategically retained and renovated. Existing benches were creatively reused, refinished, and replicated to maximize seating and surfaces for food sorting. The multi-functioning fellowship hall received new LVT tile flooring, while a durable green epoxy over concrete in the pantry is designed to withstand high traffic and heavy boxes. The building's roof was insulated and perforated by solar tubes to bring daylight into deeper spaces and complement the new lighting systems.  

The result is a brightly lit, vibrant, and welcoming space where the community can access fresh food, social services, nutrition counseling, and cooking classes. The design incorporates trauma-informed principles, evident in the glass entry vestibule that provides sightlines into the space, leading to a friendly face at the reception and intake area. Clients are then directed to the "fellowship hall," a spacious multi-functional space that acts as a waiting room, sorting/packing space, event venue, and dining area for the weekly meal service that supports an average of 80-100 individuals per week. 

Surrounded by large street-facing windows, interior plants, and playful green custom-design wallpaper, the fellowship hall is the project's emotional center. Sound-absorbing Tectum wood fiber ceiling panels and a dynamic shift in ceiling plane accentuate the communal space, complemented by soft globe light fixtures. Elevating the sense of community, a neon "I am your neighbor" sign proudly amplifies the organization's identity and reinforces a sense of community. Shaker-inspired chair rails quickly adapt the space for its diverse functions, eliminating the necessity for a dedicated chair storage room. The palette of cool gray trim and wainscoting complement the floors and custom graphics, while plants add a touch of nature and privacy from the street. A commercial kitchen, open and visible through a peek-through window, doubles as a demonstration area for teaching, cooking, nutrition, and other educational events. Further enriching the experience, a glass storefront down the hall invites clients to enjoy a renovated courtyard—a protected public space offering respite.  

The pantry is thoughtfully designed to support the flow of a client-choice food distribution model, where clients select their groceries with guidance from personal shoppers. While filled to capacity with boxes and food supplies, the layout is optimized for efficiency, strategically placing refrigeration units along the periphery and a more open center for distribution. Even here, the design aims to bring joy and uplift clients navigating challenging circumstances. Bright white counters, branded playful wallpaper complemented by the green floor finish, and solar tubes that carry daylight in from above enhance the overall experience for those seeking support. 

Common Pantry's transformative new home of heart and soul is a testament to compassion, empathy, and resourcefulness. From the bright, welcoming entry to the unexpected delight of the rear courtyard, the project creates an environment where clients experience a profound sense of dignity, comfort, and belonging. The design is pivotal in elevating an individual's well-being and fostering a brighter outlook on their journey to overcoming life challenges. 

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Status: Built
Location: Chicago, IL, US
Firm Role: Architect
Additional Credits: Construction Manager: Bulley & Andrews

Structural Engineer: Enspect Engineering

MEP Engineer: Primera

Landscape Architect: Mckay

Food Service Consultant: Edge Associates

Photographer: Tom Harris Architectural Photography