‘It’s Not Just a Job.’

John O’Brien on the stairway of the Golden Ox, which he painstakingly renovated several years ago. At left is his favorite place, what he calls “my mafia table,” which affords a view of the restaurant’s front door. (photo by Jim Barcus)

Passion drives John O’Brien’s Hammer Out Design

“I’ve always loved this area,” John O’Brien says as he rounds a corner inside the Livestock Exchange building in Kansas City’s Stockyards District.

O’Brien is showing off the makeover he and his Hammer Out Design team gave the Golden Ox restaurant a few years back.

“We had to deconstruct it,” he explains. “We saved every board and door, so we could make it look like we hadn’t done anything.”

“It’s not about us. We try to honor the space and let the experience speak for itself.”

Pulling the well-worn steakhouse smoothly into the 21st century was especially important for O’Brien. Paul Robinson, co-founder of the Kansas City-based Gilbert-Robinson restaurant chain, had been the Ox’s first manager.

In 1979, Robinson hired an 18-year-old from Arizona, O’Brien, to help build out and update scores of Houlihan’s, Annie’s Santa Fe and other Gilbert-Robinson brands around the country.

O’Brien originally came to town to study at the Kansas City Art Institute. In 1989, he opened the Dolphin Gallery on 39th Street, calling upon a skill he’d also been trained in — framing.

“I’ve always wanted places where people can experience each other, tell stories and listen to different opinions.”

John O’Brien
Earl’s Premier at 651 E. 59th Street, which O’Brien designed for his friend Todd Schulte,
is one of Hammer Out’s latest projects. (photo Jim Barcus)

That same year, “Mr. & Mrs. Bridge” was filmed in and around Kansas City. O’Brien helped the movie’s set designers find vintage furnishings for the “lived-in” look the production required.

In 1993, the Dolphin moved to 19th and Baltimore. From there, O’Brien and Jim Leedy catalyzed a wave of art and commerce in an area that hadn’t seen either for a very long time. Shops, nightspots and events like First Fridays made the newly christened Crossroads Arts District a popular destination.

“I’ve always wanted places where people can experience each other, tell stories and listen to different opinions,” he says.

The Dolphin’s next incarnation played that same role inside an even larger space in the West Bottoms. Once again, an influx of artists and entrepreneurs began breathing life into another of the city’s oldest neighborhoods.

But in 2013, O’Brien mounted the final exhibition at the Dolphin Gallery. (The space is now occupied by Haw Contemporary gallery, and a frame shop run by many of O’Brien’s former employees still operates there.) Sadness at the Dolphin’s passing was matched by surprise at O’Brien’s next destination — Independence.

That’s where Hammer Out Design, with its focus on restaurant, office and home design, is based today.

O’Brien designed the Nighthawk bar in the basement of Hotel Kansas City at 1228 Baltimore Ave.
(photo by Hammer Out Design)

Hammer Out Design

“A space doesn’t define me. A building doesn’t define me,” O’Brien points out. “But I need space for my books and my tools . . . and space to be able to think about things.”

And to gather up a cadre of collaborators, like Christine Dietze, without whom, he says, the Golden Ox renovation “would not have been possible.” O’Brien and Dietze have continued working together for clients as varied as developers SomeraRoad and Kansas City PBS.

For a recent project, the Nighthawk bar in the basement of Hotel Kansas City, he enlisted audio wizard Randy Wolf, music maven Chuck Haddix and photo finder extraordinaire Bruce Bettinger.

Whether it’s using the shapes and colors from a wall of liquor bottles, or cleverly placed pieces and pictures that speak to the city’s past, O’Brien aims to “shape a narrative” for every space.

Through cleverly placed pictures and posters, O’Brien shaped a narrative for the Nighthawk,
aided by photo finder extraordinaire Bruce Bettinger. (photo by Hammer Out Design)

Justin Gainan has been an integral part of the crew for almost 20 years. A 2004 graduate of the Art Institute, Gainan came to the Dolphin to ask for a job. “I said I’d push a broom or whatever,” he laughs.

Soon he was helping O’Brien craft the down-home décor at Harry’s Country Club in the River Market. That meant hauling and hammering as well as drawing things up.

“John’s mentality is you’ve just gotta do it. You have to go forward,” Gainan says. “There’s not always a clear plan.”

O’Brien agrees and describes the trust that’s developed between them. “Justin and I can talk through a language of our own,” he says. “We can be on the phone and talk about something like the color of the molding, see what’s wrong and solve the problem. Paul Robinson was like that.”

Harry Murphy remembers how impressed he’d been by O’Brien’s work at the long defunct City Tavern. Murphy is convinced that both of his restaurants — the honky-tonking Country Club and the more formal Brown & Loe — owe part of their success to the “comfortable” confines O’Brien has crafted for them.

“He’s got a great eye, and he’ll go the nth degree to get the job done,” Murphy says with admiration. “I marvel at what he can do.”

Whether it’s using the shapes and colors from a wall of liquor bottles, or cleverly placed pieces and pictures that speak to the city’s past, O’Brien aims to “shape a narrative” for every space.

That requires a deep inventory of doorknobs and latches, lamps, mirrors, signs, old menus . . . you get the idea.

“We’re good at finding things,” he says, noting that he’s been dumpster diving since elementary school. “You have to figure out what you need to get. You have to have your eyes open. But there’s so much out in the world. Sometimes you plant a seed, and there it is in front of you.”

“It sounds kind of existential,” Gainan admits. “But it does happen a lot.”

Gathering materials is one thing. Getting them to play well together is another. At the end of a 12 to 14-hour workday, the Hammer Out team often sits down for a late-night beer — for more than just recreation. It’s a way to review the design choices they’ve made from a user’s POV.

In such a moment, O’Brien might ask, “What color should that light bulb be?” or “Should we have a reflection there?”

“John loves reflections,” Gainan shoots back.

There is a cinematic quality to much of O’Brien’s work. He likens it to building movie sets. He checks back periodically to see what tweaks are needed as people use and move through his spaces.

Wes Gartner, who co-owns the Golden Ox and Voltaire across the street, says until the Ox’s big renovation he only knew O’Brien as “a legend in the business.” Now he proudly calls him a friend.

In 2020, as the pandemic throttled the live music scene, Gartner hatched the idea of a small outdoor venue with the Record Bar’s Steve Tulipana. He also mentioned the idea to O’Brien. In remarkably short order, a stage and the accompanying infrastructure for Lemonade Park sprang up in a lot behind Voltaire.

“When you get John involved, things turn out to be 10 times bigger than you expected,” Gartner says. “He was a lifesaver. It was a great community effort.”

Entertainment and food bring people together. So can the workplace.

O’Brien now has several office spaces on his resume, most notably, the headquarters of AREA Real Estate Advisors in the Board of Trade building near the Country Club Plaza.

Tim Schaffer, the company’s president, says O’Brien’s stripped-down modernist approach fits perfectly with the structure’s 1960s-era architecture.

So much so that Hammer Out was hired to add the finishing touches on Lightwell, the new version of the old City Center Square.

Schaffer calls O’Brien a “master builder.” It’s a term from centuries back referring to someone with both architectural knowledge and construction knowhow — someone who can solve funding issues and work around the political snags.

“He’s unique,” states Schaffer. And as a result, “he gets to choose the things he wants to work on.”

Making Something Special

Recently that’s included shaping a space at 59th & Holmes for his friend Todd Schulte’s new dining venture, Earl’s Premier. And though he’d vowed he’d never work in St. Louis again, O’Brien has spent considerable time expanding a restaurant and brewpub there.

He’s also rehabbed an old bank building in the Flint Hills, helped design a home on the West Side and hashed out the best ways to reboot Fred P. Ott’s on the Plaza. Yet another reminder of his days with Gilbert-Robinson.

“I never look for a job just to make money,” O’Brien emphasizes. “We want to get paid, but we want to make something special. Passion is what we’re looking for. If clients aren’t passionate about what they’re trying to accomplish, that’s a flag for me.”

Gainan says it’s not uncommon for clients (as well as architects and builders) to hunker down inside their own “silos.”

But that’s not the Hammer Out way. Neither is holding your tongue when something seems amiss.

Or as O’Brien puts it, “We’re really good at being honest with clients.”

Harry Murphy can vouch for that. “It’s what I like about working with him,” he says. “John always has 10 good reasons why you should do what he’s suggested.”

“Transparency” is what Schaffer calls it. He’s impressed with the way O’Brien can guide a group of stakeholders toward consensus, “and then work 24/7 till it’s done.”

He also says Kansas City’s development community is well-acquainted with O’Brien’s track record in the Crossroads and West Bottoms.

Dreams for a Downtown Music District

Brown & Loe owner Harry Murphy believes part of the restaurant’s success derives from O’Brien’s “comfortable” design of the space. (Hammer Out Design)

That track record means that O’Brien’s next notion to reshape downtown might find some receptive ears.

This one revolves around music, and a five-block stretch of Baltimore Avenue from the President Hotel at 14th St. to the stately New York Life building on 9th St.

O’Brien says he’s identified 15 spaces along it as prime candidates for reinvention, and he’s already talked with some of the owners.

His goal? To put live music in as many of them as feasible.

“It’s a really beautiful street,” he says. “And Baltimore is where all the power of the hotels and tourism is. Music is so important . . . and our musicians need to make money!”

With the Drum Room holding down the south end and Nighthawk taking flight in the next block, his rough sketch already seems less, well, sketchy. O’Brien has even stumbled upon a bar, the Haberdashery in the old Muehlebach Hotel, which has been sealed up “like a time capsule” from the 1920s.

He’s taken meetings on the topic with hoteliers and downtown power brokers, the owner of the Green Lady Lounge, and even the new director of the Kansas City Public Library.

Touting “an authentic music street” to complement the Power & Light District is exactly the kind of story he loves to tell.

“Sometimes people think what we do looks super easy. But you’re literally dreaming about it 24 hours a day,” he insists. It’s like making a film that you’re imagining and dreaming about. It’s not just a job. It’s something beyond that.”

CategoriesPerforming Visual
Randy Mason

Randy Mason is best known for his work in public television, but he’s also covered Kansas City arts and artists in print and on the radio for more than three decades.

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