Anybody who's ever dined at the old Casa restaurant on Fairfield Avenue would be aghast at its current condition.
The once-popular dining spot has been gutted. Remnants of its old character remain, such as the ornate lights in the private dining room, but it's mostly a dusty, hollow shell of its former self. The only thing left of the countless birthdays, anniversaries and graduations celebrated there are the memories.
That's all changing, though, as the new owner, Dan Swartz, works to transform it into an art gallery and headquarters for his nonprofit, Wunderkammer Company.
He hopes to have the space ready for Wunderkammer to move into over the summer, with a grand opening of the gallery in September.
Swartz, 26, graduated from Leo High School in 2004. He attended the University of Saint Francis and IPFW, worked in New York City for awhile, spent some time in China, but eventually returned to Fort Wayne.
Swartz currently works as a contract employee of the Downtown Improvement District, serving as Fort Wayne Cultural District liaison.
“I came back to Fort Wayne for a couple reasons, but mostly because I really love the place,” he said. “So far, I haven't found another place that feels like Fort Wayne. Part of it is that we don't understand how cool we are.”
He cited the public library system, the Karpeles Manuscript Museum, the parks, immigrant populations and “totally awesome companies,” such as 80/20, Sweetwater and Steel Dynamics, as part of Fort Wayne's “coolness.”
Wunderkammer, Swartz explained, “is a German word which literally translates to 'wonder chamber,' but is commonly referred to as 'wonder room' or 'cabinet of curiosities.'” He explained these were the rooms where Renaissance collectors displayed art, fashion, religious and historical relics. They were the precursors to our modern galleries and museums.
“The idea behind Wunderkammer Company is to sort of take a step back and regard all human artifacts and endeavors as being things worthy of study, exhibition and exploration,” he said.
Specifically, he plans art exhibitions and events — performances, lectures, meetings and workshops. He envisions it as a place where artists — painters, singers, entrepreneurs or cultural producers — come together with the audience.
Swartz looked at more than 80 properties and was skeptical of the Casa building at first.
“To be honest, I had seen the space up for sale for about a year and a half thinking that it wouldn't be a good fit at all,” he said. Then his mind began to open up to the building's possibilities.
“By opening the space up and letting some of its architectural strengths breathe a little, the experience of the space is totally different,” he said.
The dynamics of the neighborhood influenced his decision as well. The building's proximity to several schools, neighborhoods such as South Wayne, Oakdale, Illsley and Williams-Woodland intrigued him, as did the area's diversity.
“After spending time in New York City and Beijing, I really need the stimulation of constantly finding someone/something new and interesting,” he said. “With over 100 years of architectural diversity, and being within one mile of residents representing at least a dozen nationalities, I found my spot,” he said.
Casa's influence on the neighborhood also helped form his decision to buy the building.
“This building seemed to be something of a community center as much as a restaurant, with a large percentage of Fort Wayne having lots of memories from graduation, anniversary, etc., dinners having been there,” he said. “I hope to re-create that space, which was a place to feel welcomed.”