If you visit Uncommon Grounds in Saratoga Springs with any regular frequency, you may perhaps encounter Charlie Hoffman. Charlie is a delightful and kind-hearted gentleman who can be seen sipping a mix of our Hazelnut and whatever Fair Trade/Organic coffee is on-tap for the day while laughing with friends and telling stories. Come to find out that Charlie is quite an accomplished architect, having worked in the Saratoga County / Adirondack region for nearly twenty years. Of exceptional note is the beautiful job he did with designing the expansion and remodel of our Saratoga Springs store in 2006. We recently sat down with Charlie over a cup of coffee to pick his brain about architecture and life.
Uncommon Grounds (UG): How long have you had your business in Saratoga Springs?
Charlie (CH): Well, I started when I was licensed back in 1979 and I practiced on Long Island. I moved up here about 20 years ago. I used to work at a firm across the street for a few years and then I went out on my own.
UG: So you’ve been coming into Uncommon Grounds since we opened?
CH: Yeah, I’ve been coming in here since it opened; since day one. Back when it was the skinny, dark little hallway. It had good coffee and it was a great place to hang out.
UG: Awesome! That is devotion, thank you! So then you went from working for the other architecture firm to opening your own business a couple years in?
CH: After about 4 years, when the bottom fell out of the economy (back) then; anybody who wasn’t a part of the hierarchy was let go. I was probably one of the higher paid associates in the firm, but not a partner of it. You could see the handwriting on the wall. Basically, I was moonlighting doing a little additions on the side and it just became my first real job. That’s what you do as an architect, once you’re licensed if you’re not working for somebody you just start working for yourself. So I started out of my house, then I picked up a partner and we worked out of his garage. Then we got an “office” office. Since then I’ve been on Division Street for 15 years.
UG: How did working on the Uncommon Grounds expansion/remodel in 2006 come about?
CH: Dan (Murphy, owner) came up to me one day, we were sitting on the patio as we always do at lunchtime and he said “Charlie, you’re an architect right?” and I said, “Yeah!” and he said, “I think I might need you.” So I spoke to him and he said he was going to take over the travel agency space next door. I was excited about it but I was also subject all my peers who hang out here and their criticisms – “Oh you better not screw this up!.” I’ve got to deal with these guys every day who are going to say, “What did you do to this place?”
UG: How much of the design was us pestering you to do this or that and how much of it was your ideas?
CH: Like any project, Dan laid down the parameters; “We’re going to take over this space, keep the service area intact, etc”. For me, the challenge was how do you take an intimate coffeeshop that you love, more than double the space and not make it a cafeteria. So it was really just creating these spaces, like this arched central area, the back room – I wanted to keep that little green room. That was kind of it. Dan and I sat in my office with a tape measure to determine the proper height that the dividing wall should be. I wanted it to be low enough to separate the space but high enough that someone sitting next to it would have a certain amount of privacy.
UG: Well, I must say that the effect the remodel has had on our store and our customers has been dramatically positive. The spaces you mentioned have been crucial to maintaining a cozy feeling, yet still affording plenty of different environments for people to work and interact.
CH: I had a good sense for me (as a customer). I know the things that bugged me coming in here; one of them was is that we were always fighting for window space and the roaster took up prime real estate. Although the roaster was a feature when the store first opened; I said, “Dan let’s move it to a nice little section in the back and it will still be featured but it’s not going to occupy prime seating.” So now you’ve got all these additional window seats in front.
UG: One of our favorite things about the remodel was the expanded view of Broadway that opened up. It’s really gorgeous in the morning as the sun comes up. Did you have any problems working with the entrance or the frontside of the store?
CH: The challenge of the exterior for me was that this building is made up of what looked like three distinct spaces. When the expansion happened, the brick pilaster was not there and it just leaked into the next space and I wanted it look like the two storefronts were always part of the same thing. It was the continuous awning and adding the brick pilaster, painting it all and then adding the new sign.
UG: Do you have any long-term plans for your business? We heard somewhere that you are practicing in the Virgin Islands?
CH: I have a client in Saratoga who owns a hotel in St. Thomas and I’ve done some work for him down there. So that’s what precipitated me adding “Virgin Islands” to the “locations practicing list” on my website. I try to vacation there every year with my family, but it would be nice to get down there to work and play on a more regular basis.
UG: Do you have a building or piece of work you are most proud of?
CH: That’s hard to say. I like to do something special with every project. I guess one of my favorite buildings is the Adirondack Trust building on South Broadway. That was my first big building. I did that when I worked for another firm but it was my design. That’s still one of my favorite buildings.
UG: Wow! Yeah, that’s a landmark building!
CH: Being an architect is exciting for me because you get to create these things, and you get to drive by and walk in. It’s really good if it comes out really nice and if it’s bad you’ve got to live with it. I do mostly residential work and working for homeowners is exciting because they’re really into it, the builder is really into it and it’s this big team project. You’re affecting people’s lives in a positive way.
Check out Charlie Hoffman Architects online at CHoffmanArchitects.com, visit him at his office at 6 Franklin Square (entrance around the corner on Division St.) in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. or visit him at his “other” office on the patio at Uncommon Grounds.