A magnet for artists

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July 18, 2011
By: Michelle Bruch
Michelle Bruch
California building celebrates 20 years of serving artists in NE

Two decades ago, a taxi driver and a real estate worker used a shoestring budget to convert an old grain mill into artist studios. At the time, they weren’t sure whether they would find enough artists to fill it up.

Now in its 20th anniversary at 2205 California St. NE, the California building is full and artists sit on a deep waiting list to rent a studio.

“I would have thought this story was over 10 years ago, and it just continues to grow,” said John Kremer, who operates the building with Jennifer Young.

At the moment, Kremer said Young handles all the leasing and he simply drinks coffee and reads the paper. But they have plenty to keep them busy. They recently helped curate new outdoor sculptures to sprinkle along 13th Avenue. And they partnered with Franconia to build a new sculpture park outside the Casket Arts building they own at 681 17th Ave. NE.

“We think it can expand and give a permanent visual presence to the arts district,” Kremer said.

The owners also recently launched a drawing slam with kids. After repeatedly watching juveniles throw rocks through the California building windows, the tenants decided to do something more than call the police. So on June 11, they extended an open invitation to kids and teens to come inside, meet the artists, and collaborate with them in a free drawing slam. Their artwork went up in the lobby.

“Maybe some of them will gravitate toward the arts, who knows?” Kremer said. “We’re inviting them in so they can see who we are and see that we’re good neighbors.”

The California building was one of the first studios in Northeast dedicated to artists. Kremer had artist friends in the Warehouse District, and when the construction of Target Center started gentrifying Downtown, he knew they would need a new home.

At the same time, Young was temporarily managing the California building, which was in bankruptcy.

“The bank wasn’t going to bail it out on taxes, so it would have been torn down,” Kremer said.

Kremer and Young met at a Mayslack’s poetry reading, and they decided a few months later to seize the opportunity to buy the building.

“We had long conversations about A: Could we do it? and B: Would there be enough artists to fill the spaces?” Young said.

The building was originally a small mill that was bought out by General Mills. As the building changed hands over time, it manufactured everything from batteries during war time to appliances during peace time. When Kremer and Young came into the property, the building was largely empty, with a few artists and a handful of other tenants.

“We had zero money,” Kremer said. “We did everything for years, A to Z. … It was just a mad scramble.”

To hear the owners tell it, the Polish neighborhood wasn’t overly welcoming. The building was surrounded by widows with yards as neat as a pin, whose husbands once worked in the factories. Kremer said the homeowners didn’t quite know what to make of their new neighbors.

“[The artists] were people with different political views, different hair lengths, different clothes, and they didn’t have jobs,” Kremer said. “We were not welcomed at all.”

He recalls one woman who was mystified when tenants threw china plates out the windows.

When Art-A-Whirl launched in the mid-90s, Kremer hoped it would help dispel some of the gossip that swirled around the building.

“Let’s just open the doors once a year and let people see that these are just nice, regular people, and there is no cannibalism,” he said.

Longtime California tenants include Florence Hill, an 82-year-old painter who hosts a drawing co-op with nude models every Sunday afternoon. Aldo Moroni is a fixture in the basement, where he creates sculpture with a focus on cityscapes and history.

Photographer Dani Werner and painter David Rathman have rented studios for a decade. They crossed paths in the hallways, and over coffee in the building’s café, they discussed Rathman’s New York shows and fell in love. They now have two sons: “California building heirs,” they call them.

Werner said she has the “best landlords ever.”

“They could have sold the building for tons of money,” she said. “It’s really kind of them to provide tons of space for artists in Northeast without being exploitative.”

Hill said she’s also appreciative — she worked in four other studios where roofs leaked, studios weren’t heated on weekends, and landlords broke leases with artists to make room for bigger tenants.

“If we didn’t have the mission that we did, we would easily rent the space to architects, designers, all kinds of businesses. I get the requests all the time,” Young said.

During the economic crisis a couple of years ago, Young said a few vacancies made them worry they might be forced to open up spaces to non-artists. But she said the openings were soon filled, and the waiting list is deep again.

The studios have mid-level prices, Young said. She tries to keep rates affordable by skipping amenities artists usually don’t need, such as sanded floors, new airtight windows and extra polish.

“Artists might deal with a little bit of leakiness, so long as they have sunshine coming in the window,” Young said.

Kremer said their business plan works because of tenant loyalty.

“Plenty of artists have been here 10, 15 or 20 years,” he said. “That’s a sustainable model that changes the math of raising the rents every two years.”

When a Northeast casket factory closed in 2005 at 681 17th Ave. NE, Kremer and Young decided to buy the building and carriage house to build more studios. They needed to pay a higher price to beat out condo developers, but they loved the building’s 1890s graffiti and casket-wood floors.

“The building just sang,” Kremer said.

Some naysayers warned that artist studio demand had already been sapped. But the Casket Arts building’s new space filled up in just six months, with more than 100 artists working there.

By this time, Kremer and Young had become a larger presence in the Northeast community. They acquired the Oddfellows building (where Bulldog is today) and the Garland building (home to the Ginger Hop Restaurant). They spent a few months working with a potential developer of the Hollywood Theater, although the project eventually fell apart. Young worked on the neighborhood association board and helped create a community garden near the California building.

The couple also worked as the fee developer to finalize the renovation of the Ritz Theater.

“The city owned it, and I got tired of it just sitting there and nothing happening,” Kremer said. “When there is the broken tooth in the smile, the smile’s not very good.”

Kremer and Young are not artists themselves, in the traditional sense. But they consider building management to be their craft.

“It has sort of become social sculpting, and it becomes a form of art,” Kremer said. “You’re building a whole neighborhood; you’re building a whole culture.”

Contributing writer Michelle Bruch covers Northeast for the Journal. Reach her at michellebruch82@gmail.com.