Old-school Slows serves up nods to Pontiac’s past
The restaurant and Flagstar Strand Theatre turned science lab tables into bar counters and bleachers into shelves
Pontiac --Pontiac Central High School alumni might have flashbacks to gym and science classes when they dine at the new Slows Bar BQ here.
A recognizable piece of decor is the gym scoreboard — its electronic digits still flickering — hanging above the bar. The original wood bleachers are now shelves for liquor bottles. And the black bar countertop? It was constructed from old science lab tables. The cabinets below— where bargoers’ feet dangle — bear torn labels indicating where to store “funnels” and “beakers.”
Those were left purposely, architect Brian Gill said, “so that anyone who went to Pontiac Central, they may sit down at the bar and notice that and they’ll make the connection.”
Gill wanted to incorporate test tubes and lab apparatuses from the 1970s, but those treasures from the high school that closed in 2009 are in storage until he and Slows Bar BQ owner Phil Cooley can find a proper place.
“You never know. (They could be) vases for plants or something,” Cooley said, laughing.
Owner Phil Cooley, architect Brian Gill describe how they worked remnants of the former Pontiac Central High School into the design of the restaurant. Todd McInturf
Gill, owner of Pontiac-based TDG Architects, designed Cooley’s first Oakland County Slows location, which opened last month, as well as the Flagstar Strand Theatre for the Performing Arts, which reopened in January.
The theater’s two bars feature the same science lab counters and bleacher shelves. A stately wooden door connecting the theater foyer to Charlene’s Theater Bar also was constructed from the stands.
Gill had toured the defunct high school, bought by a private owner, and learned its contents would be tossed. Knowing Cooley had a passion for finding new uses for relics, he pitched the idea of repurposing parts of the school for the restaurant. Cooley was all for it.
“It’s beautiful material, but for us, it’s the story, the history,” said Cooley, sitting at a lab table-turned-bar counter. “We really want to celebrate Pontiac the same way that we celebrated Corktown in Detroit.”
In 2005, Cooley opened Slows on a sparse section of Michigan Avenue. He turned an abandoned building “inside out,” he said, describing collapsed structures he repurposed for furniture and surfaces. Now that building is packed at lunch and dinner time, and the stretch of Michigan Avenue is bustling with other restaurants and shops.
“I see Pontiac as a similar kind of opportunity with strong, great bones; strong, great community; and need,” said Cooley, listing necessities like restaurants and housing.
In the 1990s, Cooley frequented the nearby Crofoot and other Pontiac venues for entertainment and dining.
“Pontiac is a place that we visited very similarly to the way we were introduced to Detroit,” said the 39-year-old, who lives in Detroit with his wife and infant. “I went down there for food and for night life ... and that’s the same thing here.”
Strand Theatre President and CEO Bill Lee said the restoration of the 1921 theater, closed since the mid-1990s, and the addition of Slows — a $20 million joint project that started in 2014 — has drawn visitors to downtown Pontiac.
“(We want) to use our businesses as a catalyst for the redevelopment of downtown Pontiac,” said Lee, reclining in the last row of the 900-seat theater.
Already, between the lunchgoers and theater patrons, he’s seen an uptick in foot traffic on Saginaw Street.
“Slowly but surely, we’re getting there,” he said. “It’s all part of a process, and a year from now, it will be really fantastic to see how far we’ve come.”
As for the decor, this isn’t the first time Cooley has worked school remnants into one of his restaurants. Gold Cash Gold in Corktown, for instance, repurposed the gym floor of Detroit’s abandoned Hosmer Elementary School into the main dining room floor.
“We all saw Cass Tech get destroyed,” said Cooley, referring to the former school building demolished in 2011, “and so many relics and so much history just thrown in a landfill, so hopefully we can reverse that trend — and not just emotionally, but physically. There was so much value lost there.”
That won’t happen with Pontiac Central.
Slows Bar BQ general manager Rob Stone said a few customers have recognized the scoreboard. Once they discovered where it originated, they got “really excited,” he said.
“It’s brought back memories for them,” he said. “They remembered some of this stuff, and they were really happy it got reused.”
Sipping beers and cocktails on a surface they perhaps lit Bunsen burners on is a bonus.
“They weren’t of drinking age at that time,” Stone said, “so they get to do something that otherwise would have been not cool.”
Rachel Sussbauer, 31, celebrated the first day in her new Pontiac office last week with pulled pork and macaroni and cheese at Slows. She didn’t realize her plate sat on a Pontiac Central lab table, or her feet rubbed against cabinets until being told, but she supported the idea to reuse local materials.
“I’ve seen restaurants with pictures of the high school teams,” she said, “but never using materials from the building.”