A former Fishtown pickle factory is now a family's art/live space

Few might imagine that space carved from the 19th-century former home of a pickle factory would turn out to be the ideal place for Jaime Alvarez to raise a family and go about his art-photography business.

But those 4,000 square feet in Fishtown are just where Alvarez and wife Leah Shepperd now thrive, along with their infant son, a large St. Bernard named Seamus, and two indistinguishable orange cats named Chester and Lester.

"I have been told by all the neighbors that this was a pickle factory . . . but I can't find documentation of anything except the neon-sign factory that was here more recently," says Alvarez, a man with a need for honesty. "The pickle factory is more fun to contemplate, so everyone - including our family - still calls it that."

Alvarez says he noticed the solid, three-story, redbrick building about four years ago by "just walking" through Fishtown, a neighborhood he says he has loved since graduating from Cranbrook Academy of Art near Detroit.

The structure, with its 15-foot-high arched lightwood door, stands out on a narrow street of smaller houses. On a recent morning, Alvarez opens the door to the approximately 1,000-square-foot ground-floor expanse that is his workshop and studio, a space filled with photo equipment and machinery.

On the top two levels are the main living spaces. Up some red-oak stairs, Shepperd and 3-month-old Jose Alan Joaquin Alvarez Shepperd greet a visitor.

On the second floor, there are no walls between the kitchen/dining room and the living room. An island made of reclaimed pinewood from a bowling alley houses a sleek metal sink and hosts casual meals. (It's easy to visualize pickle jars being hauled up by the large elevator pulley suspended above the island. The elevator itself was converted to a pantry.)

The island also serves to cut off view of the stainless-steel stove, the refrigerator, and other kitchen equipment from the other half of the room, which is filled with books and a display of about 15 framed paintings and photographs.

Most of the artwork was created by members of a community artists cooperative Alvarez participated in a few years ago - each member would pay $500 and receive six pieces from the other participants.

Yet Alvarez's favorite piece of art was not part of the sale: a large painting by an unknown artist that depicts an elderly man with sun-bronzed skin wearing a straw hat, holding a cigarette, and smiling. That painting was left to Alvarez by his grandmother because, he said, he had loved it as a child.

The gallery wall forms a focus for the large living room, which has 11-foot ceilings. Red-oak flooring, its planks set on the diagonal, warmly complement the abundance of green plants Shepperd takes pride in nurturing.

Architect Jeremy Avellino of Bright Common Architecture and Design, which specializes in sustainable architecture, adapted the structure to residential use. He designed removal of a rear portion of the building and its replacement with heavier material, and topped the area with an atrium Alvarez says lets in light and results in low utility bills.

Avellino, whose design also created an outdoor deck and a second living/sitting room on the third floor, said, "This warehouse was turned into a live-work studio for a fine-arts photographer and his family respecting its industrial origins." Indeed, exposed brick walls still can be found throughout the building.

New energy systems "reduced greenhouse-gas emissions and made the house efficient to operate," Avellino says.

Shepperd, who has a master's degree in health sciences, says she and her husband try to work to protect the environment, and she likes the fact that "the house has a low carbon footprint."

She certainly appreciates the energy efficiency now built into their home, but she adds, "I think all our plants also help lower the carbon footprint."