Words by Allison Paige | Photos by Lauryn Hottinger
Rob Barrett of Barrett Made renovates and reenvisions Portland’s Public Works.
Rob Barrett, the founder of the design-and-build company Barrett Made, grew up off Ocean Avenue in Portland with a single mother whom he credits for giving him such a great work ethic.
“The only way she could keep me out of her hair was to give me jobs to do,” Barrett laughs. “I was working as early as I possibly could. I always had a project going.”
This principle, instilled early, has clearly served him in good stead. “I love to work!” declares Barrett. And it shows.
After college and a stint with Casco Bay Lines, Barrett founded his construction company, Barrett Made, in 2015, specializing in full-service design-build residential and commercial construction, including architecture and custom millwork. Starting in an office above his home shop, he quickly moved to a workshop on Union Wharf. But the company outgrew that space as well, and in the spring of 2018, a unique opportunity came up: The Portland Public Works was for sale. Barrett made a bid for it and won.
“I grew up in Portland,” remarks Barrett. “I’ve always wanted to own a piece of it.”
Just a few blocks from the center of downtown, adjacent to the ever-popular Bayside Bowl, is the former Portland Public Works, where you once might have requested a street opening permit or paid your storm water bill. Last year, Barrett Made reinvented this municipal building as its workshop, office, and The Public Works, a space Barrett calls “a collaborative workspace for Portland’s creative entrepreneurs, freelancers, and small businesses.”
Explains Barrett, “I wanted to create a space that was complementary to Barrett Made but also allowed other people to pursue their careers and grow their businesses. When the building came on the market, I was super excited because I had this idea that we would really cultivate a creative hub in Portland. And it’s already happening.”
After purchasing the building in April, Barrett wasted no time, working around the clock. Renovations began in June, and by September they were open for business. The space is just under 14,000 square feet, with 8,000 of it devoted to the coworking environment, workshops, and an event space. Barrett Made’s workshop and office are adjacent. Acorn Engineering rents a portion of the building as well.
The Public Works offers several configurations: open studios—carrel-style desks rented monthly in the open office environment—floating workstations, and private studios.
The building has high-speed Internet and Wi-Fi, a furnished common area, conference room, copy station, private telephone booth, and fully equipped kitchenette with free coffee and tea. It offers 24/7 secured access, parking, an outdoor workspace, and a bike rack.
Setting it apart from most other coworking spaces in the city, the private offices, available in two-year leases with a six-month minimum, are tabula rasa, ready for the client’s own customization. Barrett and his director of operations and business development, Maureen Littlefield, hope to attract those willing to commit to the space and the neighborhood, a goal that seems will be easily realized. Last July, prior to launching, they had already signed five leases.
“We’re the next step, from working from home to being in a collaborative space,” says Littlefield. “We wanted to create a place where people could build on each other’s businesses.”
Woodworker Adam Rogers and photographer Winky Lewis occupy the workshops, while on the mezzanine level are the offices of Pinch Me Planning, James McCain Garden Designs, Heidi Lachapelle Interiors, and the Portland branch of auction house Grogan & Company. The open studios include music booker Bloom Arts & Events, digital PR specialist Katie Wolitarsky, and photographer Natalya DeSena. “When everyone’s here, it’s a really good energy,” says Littlefield.
The event space, wired for sound, lit by vintage pendant lamps, offers between 1,000 and 2,600 square feet of flexible, multipurpose space, with a bar, rentable furniture, and retractable doors that lead to the outdoor patio. Since opening, it has hosted classes, parties, a gallery, and two weddings.
During renovation, Barrett Made updated with an eye to widen and brighten, taking down a number of interior walls and restoring windows that had been bricked in. The original loading bays were fitted with retractable glass doors to maximize light and open the space up in good weather.
Barrett shares that a handwritten deed from 1836 showed one of the property lines as being 40 feet from the high-water mark of Back Cove. When the floor was dug up for new plumbing, it revealed a foundation of oyster shells.
“So, just think, waterfront property in 1836!” laughs Barrett.
“Can we market it as that?” Littlefield quips.
The decor is simple, sleek, and modern, befitting the building’s industrial roots. As much as possible, original details were preserved. The brick walls were pressure-washed and painted only halfway up to display their original patina. The cement floors, original to the space, were resealed but kept their variegated texture. A conference room situated in the former boiler room retains original pipes for added character. Additionally, the wooden ceiling beams and joists of the 20-foot ceilings remain exposed.
Outside, the exterior sports new cedar panels and a freshly drawn logo by Better Letter Hand Painted Signs. “The Public Works” is painted bright yellow on red brick in the graphic, historic style one can still spy on many of Portland’s old buildings. Littlefield says this was an intentional choice, to connect the building with its heritage to the city at large.
Barrett is excited to contribute to the neighborhood and help invigorate this corner of Portland.
“This was a unique opportunity to get in on the ground floor of a resurgence of West Bayside,” he says, adding that the name of the burgeoning neighborhood is still catching on. “We were thinking ‘WeBay,’” Barrett jokes.
“It’s Portland,” says Littlefield. “It’s still a small-town feel, but people are doing really big things and succeeding at them.”
There is an interesting continuity in seeing a municipal building that once played a humble yet necessary role in the daily workings of the city transformed into a space where another sort of industry is being produced—that of builders, entrepreneurs, creatives, and artisans. While the work may differ, Barrett has created a space that’s just as essential to Portland’s dynamism. For a local boy who started out mowing lawns, it’s no small achievement.
Barrett sums it up simply: “It’s a dream come true.”