After a tremendous amount of success with their first location in Portland, Maine, the owners of Lincoln’s wanted to open a hidden speakeasy bar in downtown Burlington. As much as a hidden bar can seem inaccessible, the owners knew from experience that word would spread quickly. For those who did find the bar, they wanted to create a space that was unpretentious, where locals could have a drink with friends and really connect. Everything on the menu would be $5 and they’d hold events like comedy night and rock, paper, scissor tournaments. They reached out to us to see if we were interested in this project, even though they had a relatively small budget.
In the same way that Lincoln’s wanted to create a bar that was accessible, this job also highlights the way that we’re trying to make good design accessible. Abraham Lincoln, for whom the bar is named, is credited as saying, “If you give me six hours to chop down a tree, I’ll spend four of them sharpening my axe.” In the same vein, we’re very intention about our approach, unconventional as it may be. We started with common materials that are durable and functional, and then figured out how to transform them into something that was interesting and beautiful. The budget in this case didn’t feel limiting, because we took them as an opportunity to push ourselves creatively.
We built custom benches from fir and steel and sped up the weathering process to give them more character. We created the same weathered texture on the bar top, keeping the aesthetic simple and consistent. The front bar is copper panels, complementing the dark wood and creating a visual interest that draws visitors to the counter for a drink. The factory window mirror wall spanning the back bar gives the space authenticity, while also making the room feel twice as big. The mirrors help reflect the low lighting in the space, creating the speakeasy vibe that the owners sought.
More than anything else, it is the entrance that makes or breaks a speakeasy. This is also the element, however, that proved the most difficult to execute at the Portland location. The owners tried to disguise the door to the bar as the entrance to a fancy bank lobby, but once word spread, they had to repeatedly renovate to maintain secrecy. Not wanting to make the same mistake, we took an entirely different approach, and drew inspiration from the building itself. We played up the building’s decline, creating an equally unremarkable space that gives the impression that you’ve accidentally stumbled upon the back of a building, a loading dock or some other utilitarian space. We started by eliminating the standard door proportions, as they are instantly recognizable and difficult to disguise. Instead, we hid the entrance entirely and designed the space so that an entire wall swings out on a button-activated hinge to reveal the staircase leading to the bar. For finishing touches, we repurposed broken fixtures we found in the unfinished basement, like an old loading dock button that customers now frequently mistake as a button to open the door to the bar.
We came up with innovative solutions to cleverly hide the bar entrance in plain sight and help Lincoln’s maintain as much secrecy as possible. Even as word spreads and the location becomes more widely known, finding a way into the bar remains challenging to give customers a fun, speakeasy experience that adds some excitement to typical night out. ∆