In this article
Let’s Start with an Apology
We may already be too late – and for that, we wholeheartedly apologize. You see, we’ve noticed something odd about our People of Marquette; a trend, if you will – something that we, despite our best intentions, didn’t catch in time. We should have seen it with Nick & Marina, but regrettably, we missed it. We thought we saw something out of the corner of our eyes with Jacquie & Vanessa, but we dismissed it. Unfortunately, it wasn’t until our most recent sit-down with Aaron Leppanen & Gabriela Anker, the freshest victims of this celebrated series, that we finally understood it – people are straight-up addicted to Marquette.
We had you there for a second, didn’t we? All in good fun, but – we’re also a smidge serious. There is something strange about Marquette; something in the clean air that we breathe, and the annoyingly incredible-tasting beer that we drink. It’s in our veins and quietly taking hold of our very lives. It’s much too late for us, we’ve been taking hits off the ‘ol Superior drip since the beginning – if you take our meaning – and it’s certainly too late for Aaron & Gabriela; their combined portfolio of local work & investments runs deeper than most of the mines you’ll find around here. Our real fear though, reader, is that it’s probably too late for you too. We understand the role we’ve played in perpetuating this utterly wholesome dependence, so please do accept our sincerest of apologies… but… you know… since we’re here –
Beneath the Bedrock
“I grew up in Marquette just outside of County Road 550”, Aaron began, “I went to high school here in Marquette & started my undergraduate pre architecture program here at Northern”. Going as far in his undergraduate education as was possible at NMU at the time, Aaron ultimately finished his degree through the University of Michigan in 2002. Before his move to Ann Arbor, however, Aaron took advantage of an opportunity to further explore his architectural curiosities in Italy for a short time, which – as we’ll soon discover – became the first of several exponentially exciting moves for Aaron over the next decade. Following his graduation from U of M, wasting no time at all, Aaron leaped at the chance to study architecture even further by moving to Los Angeles & completing his Master’s degree in 2006 at The Southern California Institute of Architecture, saying “[it was] a great environment to study architecture… East and West Coast schools have access to some really amazing professors and educators… [SCI-Arc] is considered one of the top tier schools for architecture”.
Aaron was not alone by the end of his educational career, he came to share his accomplishments alongside his future life partner, Gabriela (Gabby) after the two fatefully met while simultaneously forging their careers at SCI-Arc. “I was born and raised in Quito, Ecuador”, Gabby explained, “my family’s down there, my brothers are down there… I ended up going to college in the states. I moved to New York and lived there for a couple of years with my brothers, then moved to Los Angeles for grad school. I met Aaron and [we] stayed there for about 10 years”. Taking some time to further describe her upbringing in Quito, Gabby made sure to highlight exactly why she loves the most about her home country, saying “in Ecuador, we have the Galapagos Islands, the jungle… it’s a really small country but offers a variety of different things. There’s the rainforest, and just by traveling just a little bit down the mountains, you can see drastic changes in behavior and color… it’s a fun place. [Quito] feels really small, I have that same feeling here in Marquette”, Gabby continued, teasing the move that would eventually bring their small family to Northern Michigan, “everyone knows each other… it’s a community-oriented place. There’s amazing weather, and it’s in the middle of the world, but it’s kind of Fall all year long. We live in the mountains, we have really impressive snow-topped volcanoes… you really do see a lot of lakes and nature around you. The families and communities and people are so welcoming… when you go through high school [you’ve spent] 12 years in the same school, so you really grow with the same people and youngsters all your life. They all become an extension of your family”
“My background is in Judaism”, Gabby made sure to add about her family’s rich cultural history, “my grandfathers came from Germany during the war, came from a small community that’s Jewish.” Turning her attention to Aaron, she went on to describe for us exactly which aspects of her husband’s individual upbringing she believes to be so fundamental to his character, “he comes from a family of carpentry. His grandfather built a house, his brother built a house… I think that’s clear in the way [Aaron] sees things. For me, I grew up in a factory, my family has owned a metal factory for the last 50 years and it’s the same thing… people made things by hand… it comes into our DNA – metal or wood – and how we can work with and maneuver those materials”. “In third-world countries, you have people that do that”, she explained, referring to the ongoing Leppanen family tradition of building their houses by hand, “that’s not a part of the everyday life… the idea that [Aaron’s father] was able to put [the family cabin] together by himself… it’s an admirable story”.
“Being around that, even though [the build] lasted much longer than it was supposed to, it really contributed to an appreciation for a material side of things”, Aaron chimed in, reflecting on where his own interest in architecture originated from, “that whole process of taking down a tree and preparing it to be livable is really incredible to watch even at a young age… gathering material from the land, how it’s harvested, built, put together, the amount of time… the warmth of the final product and the overall feeling of being in a house that just happened to be log – but it could have been stone or concrete – the passion of going through that entire process to get to that result, even 42 years later you walk in and feel a sense of home”. “Being in Marquette, you understand the culture”, Gabby added, “people like doing things themselves and they’re so proud doing it. I think it’s impressive that people are really proud of those things… it’s pretty cool”.
History in the Making
Being featured as ‘People of Marquette’, and from what we’ve heard from this incredible couple so far, it’s clear that Aaron & Gabby eventually find their way into our humble Northern region and go on to make a meaningful impact within our local communities. Before we skip ahead to that chapter, however, it’s important to discuss even more of their journey. Specifically, where they went after their time in Los Angeles. “I was able to be a project manager at a Holocaust museum”, Aaron mentioned, trying to explain why both Gabby and himself stayed in Los Angeles for so long, “it was unforgettable and ‘once in a lifetime’. We had planned on leaving LA, but once I got into that museum – working closely with the clients and local community, which included a lot of survivors and working with international Holocaust museums – being able to connect to the local community and learn how to expand their presence… we did end up staying there for a long time. It was fantastic”. “We had a brief stint in Dubai”, he went on, explaining what finally pulled them away from the coastal city, “we were hired as part of an architectural team to help design 300 artificial islands off the coast. We were part of the team that did the master planning. Those kinds of international experiences really shaped us”.
While their hard work continued to add interesting & fulfilling projects to their collective portfolio, eventually Gabby & Aaron considered another change – but for a different kind of reason. They wanted to build a family life together, have children, but also establish a conjoined, physical office somewhere so that they could continue to do the work that was important to them. “Quito won out for a number of reasons”, Aaron began, finally revealing that their next 10-year chapter would take place in Gabby’s own hometown. “I didn’t know Spanish”, Aaron joked, “so there was an adjustment there. I was able to pick it up rather quickly… Gabby and her family took me in as one of their own, it made that transition – at times – very easy”. “His Spanish is amazing”, Gabby impressed, “he took an intense course and did really well”. Laughing now, Gabby found an opportunity to poke some fun at her husband, saying “he did not do his homework. I kept doing it [for him]”, all the while admitting just how amazed she was in his ability to become fluent in the native language. “I know a lot of Americans that live in Ecuador that can’t speak as well as he can… it’s really impressive”. “Moving to a new country, it’s hard”, Aaron commented, now being able to share in the same fascinating adventure that Gabby undertook when she first moved to the United States – but exactly the opposite. “Everybody’s kind of new in LA”, he went on, comparing his experiences between the two cities, “it’s easier to find your group of people and everyone’s kind of going through a similar process. In Quito, everyone has sort of already formed these groups. It was harder to work and socialize… it’s been challenging”. “When we moved to Quito we started our business in 2010… we’ve been, since then, international architects”, he finished.
Leppanen Anker Arquitectura, their Quito-based architecture company, has been spending the last 3 years opening up a secondary satellite location in Marquette – one of the reasons for the family’s move into the U.P. “It’s not easy to tell you the specific kind of architecture that we do”, Gabby began while describing their company, “we analyze and understand what the client needs, so our portfolio is really broad. We give the option for creative alternatives. I believe even if it’s not contemporary and more traditional, there’s space for design as well. We’re looking for creative solutions and to be creative about it”. “We were able to get a lot of projects out there”, she recalled about their time in Quito, “it became an international hub for us”. “We’ve done a number of different projects”, Aaron added, “we’ve done a ground-up university in the rainforest, we’ve done single-family residential homes, offices… here [in Marquette] we’ve been doing a range of services from full-on architectural design to rendering, to 3D modeling, to working on master planning”.
“Quito is at 9,300 feet (elevation), right at the equator. 78, 80 degrees max. It doesn’t get below 55, green year-round, the weather is phenomenal… the sun rises at 6 am every day, and sets at 6 pm every day of the year”, Aaron said while comparing Quito’s typical climate to that of Marquette’s, before simply admitting “I love the four seasons [here]. I missed them”. Briefly mentioning the COVID-19 pandemic and the role that it played in their journey into Marquette, Gabby added that “we learned we can be anywhere and do anything” – a familiar saying shared amongst most of Marquette’s returnees over the last few years. “As a goal, we would like to be back and forth”, she went on, further stressing the need for their children to be able to feel at home in both Quito and Marquette. “We wanted our family to know our history and culture in the U.P.”, Aaron added, saying that “it was important to us as parents”. “[The kids] have been spending time in the U.P. from the time they were born”, he went on, saying how the family has really been getting into hiking up here during the summers, mentioning places like Sugarloaf and Echo Lake as a few favorites. “This year is going to be the first winter [for the whole family]”, Aaron admitted, citing some of the international travel issues that have arisen from the ongoing pandemic. Normally traveling back and forth quite a bit between their two homes, the family is firmly rooted in Marquette for the time being, clearly taking advantage of their ability to manage both offices remotely, all the while stressing how important it is for their two children to have stability in school. “We thought it would be a challenge going from Spanish/Ecuadorian culture to the U.P., but [the kids] are doing great”, Aaron finished.
From their shared professional experiences with architecture and residential buildings, the couple is able to easily recognize the various housing issues that Marquette has been facing lately. “Prices are skyrocketing and people are building things just to have things”, Gabby began, pointing out that the solution isn’t necessarily “about building things fast or quick or to do container-style housing”. “There’s a uniqueness in the Marquette people”, she went on, “they use their wood and stone, and that needs to be empowered… there’s opportunity here to create collaboration and create better architecture for the city… that’s the thing that really interests me… we’re trying to see how we can help make something affordable but build the city and community back”. “Marquette has really deep architectural history & roots for the midwest”, Aaron said while emphasizing Gabby’s point, “that’s something that should really be built upon… I think the interesting thing for us is we aren’t always looking to take the lead. We’re willing to come in as collaborators and work with people in a lot of different ways”. “Some of the new housing that’s coming up, these ‘cookie-cutter boxes’, we don’t always want a copy-paste housing situation… we want to live in a house that feels like it’s ours”, Aaron went on, “people are looking at different ideas more than ever before and it’s exciting for us”.
Phil’s 550 – Respecting the Foundations
“Phil’s 550 has been around for 50-60 years”, Aaron recalled about one of his all-time favorite Marquette businesses, “my grandfather used to go there when it was [called] Lucy’s – just a beer store that was just tucked into a residential neighborhood – in the 80’s superstar Phil bought it with his wife Deb and they turned it into a whole thing”. Phil’s 550, for those who are perhaps unfamiliar, is a legendary party store located just north of Marquette along County Road 550. Made regionally famous through no small amount of effort by Phil & Deb Pearce, the local landmark – as well as all those who’ve ever visited – went through a period of deep mourning when Phil himself passed away in early 2018. “He started accumulating junk from the entire U.P. and stacked it behind the property… there were some good finds”, Aaron continued, “[Phil & Deb] lived there for a number of years, there was a great following and a cool culture out there. They invited college students to live out in the back yard in tents and trailers”.
“One day Aaron comes to me and tells me, ‘I’m going to buy a beer store’”, Gabby recalled about the time she first heard about Phil’s 550 going up for sale. “I was like, ‘it’s a little store, what’s the big deal with Phil’s 550?’”, she joked, now fully understanding just how iconic the party store continues to be to this day. “I got a call at like midnight from my business partner”, Aaron explained, “he said, ‘Phil’s is going up for sale’. I had gone there since I was a kid, and we were worried someone from out of town was going to take it. We had to wait, we weren’t the first offer, but they called us and asked if we were still interested”. Promising the community that they would keep as much of the original store as in-tact as possible, Phil’s 550 officially reopened under Aaron’s co-ownership in May of 2019.
With Aaron’s deep ties to the area, alongside Marquette’s growing outdoor adventure-based tourism happening all along County Road 550, Aaron & Gabby both find their part-ownership of the small business to be a wonderfully fulfilling experience. “Everybody stops by and buys a weird Phil’s shirt”, Aaron laughed, “we keep it just a little bit more than what it was – buying a little bit of paint here and there”. “The sign has been awesome”, he went on, referring to the original Phil’s 550 sign that always features a fun & hilarious quote. A few of our locals here in Marquette might be surprised to learn that Aaron & Gabby actually have an old Rolodex that Phil himself kept of all of his original quotes. “Every once in a while we sprinkle in some new ones”, Aaron admitted, “but we have all of Phil’s original ideas and we pull them out and match them with some of the seasons… it’s been fun to be back up here and be a part of that”. “We still see Deb”, he finished, a testament of their dedication to the store, “we just saw her yesterday”.
Thinking now of how the culture in Marquette has been influenced by returning residents and newcomers alike, Aaron admits that – for him – he’s noticed that “the Marquette culture is slowly changing”, adding – “There’s a little bit of complexity with how younger generations are coming into Marquette and how they see it – versus the generation that’s grown up here. Phil’s, for example, is a fantastic place because it’s quirky. It embodies the Yooper spirit and the people around Marquette – those places need to remain. They’re fun, they give life to the place, it’s one of the small differences that makes Marquette unique and keeps [it] from taking itself too seriously”. “Phil used to have his friends over every Friday night to have a beer”, he went on, “that’s something we always appreciate about [Phil’s 550] and Marquette. It doesn’t matter where you’re coming from or what you’re doing. It’s being there with family and connecting”. “There’s an environment here that you can’t break”, Gabby added, affirming her trust in Marquette; “like anywhere, it’s going to change a little bit – but it’s embedded”.
And there you have it, another solid entry in our ongoing series featuring the very best of the best right here in Marquette. We don’t have an official hotline for any City of Marquette-based addictions or anything to send you to, but what we can do is continue to tell incredible stories about our incredible town and its residents. Make sure to hop on over to Phil’s 550 for a beer & their latest fun quote, and check out Leppanen Anker Arquitectura to catch a quick glimpse at the epic architectural skill that Aaron and Gabriela are excitedly bringing to our region.
Aaron and Gabriela are Making it Marquette. Have you?