It was Christmas Eve 2007 when the jolt came that accelerated the Chicago Avenue Fire Arts Center from an ember of an idea into a full-blown project.
A consultant to the center's board called to say that there was another offer pending on the onetime neighborhood movie house just off E. 38th Street and Chicago Avenue S. that the center's core group of six area activists had settled on as the best site for their plans. They envisioned the building as a studio-gallery-classroom complex specializing in art created with the aid of heat, fire and flame.
Reassured by the area's City Council member, Elizabeth Glidden, the center's board entered into a purchase agreement with the owner of Wreck Bros., the auto body shop that had occupied the former Nokomis theater for more than 20 years. Glidden told the group that the city was ready to walk it through the development steps needed to open the doors as a key to helping the intersection turn a corner.
"We figured we were going to jump off a cliff with a parachute and figure out how to open it on the way down," Maren Christenson, one of the six, said recently as they marked the pending purchase with an open house.
Step back for a minute. The corner of 38th and Chicago long has been synonymous with urban blight. Several generations of leadership from adjoining neighborhoods have tackled it with little discernible impact. Then the Central, Bryant, Bancroft and Powderhorn Park neighborhoods -- all of which converge at the intersection -- cooperated on a detailed revitalization plan focused on the area.
The half-dozen people who eventually formed the nonprofit Fire Arts Center all were active in their neighborhoods, live within six blocks of the corner, and came together for that plan. A key to their idea was encouraging the arts as a community development strategy. The concept of a high-visibility arts center emerged from that.
The six bring varied skills to the project. Christenson has a sales and marketing background. Heather Doyle teaches sculptural welding and blacksmithing and does custom work on commission; she's also led local youth in a public arts initiative for the past several summers. Scott Hofer is an attorney. Ryan Knoke has worked in marketing and promotional writing. Victoria Lauing manages arts and culture continuing education programs for Minneapolis Community and Technical College. Montana Scheff is an advertising agency art director.
What they have in common is the ability to look at the hollowed-out theater space and see a place where local artists can rent studio space; people can learn traditional skills through weekend or weekly classes in crafting jewelry, working glass, smithing or welding metals, and related forms; and local youth can express their creativity.
Is there demand? The group's business plan was built on renting four studios in the center during the first year of operation, but it already has 12 letters of intent for its 14 planned studios before rehab of the space has even begun. Besides studios and spaces for classes, the group plans to open up the former lobby area of the theater for gallery use.
The building's history
The building, built in 1917 in the silent-film era, has long had a presence on Chicago. It was bought by the Finkelstein & Rubin theater chain and reopened with a seating capacity of 734 people in 1929. It operated until 1953, closing almost simultaneously with the end of streetcar service on Chicago.
Much of the exterior design that marks the building as a theater has been covered with brick or layered in gray paint. The renovation will remove brick from window openings to open the space up to the street, exposing the former lobby as gallery space. Long-term plans, beyond the current city-assisted $965,000 purchase-rehab, call for refashioning a marquee. "That's about phase four," Knoke admitted.
Small touches of the theater remain, despite 56 years in other hands. Peepholes for projectors and their operator are visible high on a wall inside the building. There's a medallion with a lyre near the onetime screen.
The city purchased the theater, but a resale is pending to the nonprofit Artspace, which will lease it to the center. The biggest hurdle the project had to overcome was the dampening impact of the economic recession on bank lending, according to Tom Nordyke, the project's development and organizational consultant. The final dose of funding came through in the form of $275,000 from the federal economic stimulus program.
Glidden and others say the intersection is already on the upswing, although its reputation as a place that people drive through instead of walk to hasn't yet given way to the changes. The city has invested in security cameras and gunshot-spotting technology in the area, as well as applied regulatory scrutiny to businesses holding city licenses.
The market is responding. A soul-food restaurant just opened on the corner. Across from the future arts center, private investor Mike Stebnitz, a co-partner in the Whittier neighborhood's Azia restaurant, has purchased a two-story commercial building that long has been devoid of retail tenants. He's rehabbed four upstairs apartments, occupies one, and is replacing bricks with glass in the two large storefronts that look out on the avenue.
"I've been watching this particular intersection for the past six years since we opened Azia," Stebnitz said. "I was attracted to it because I felt that it had an urban vibe that was sort of hard to come by in other parts of Minneapolis."
Glidden sees the Fire Arts Center as part of the emergence of a larger arts orientation on Chicago. She traces the neighborhood-created artist housing at 32nd Street, the Pillsbury House Theatre at 35th, public art at the Baha'i Center at 37th, the Urban Arts Academy at 39th, and the dual use of the Parkway Theater at 48th for live shows and movies.
The Fire Arts Center is modeled in part on Franklin Avenue's Northern Clay Center and on a similar fire arts complex in Oakland, Calif. But it's also modeled on the imaginations of those six activists who see the remodeled theater and maybe a coffee shop in one of Stebnitz's storefronts adding foot traffic to the corner.
"They're going to look in from the street and see sparks flying and all kinds of things going on," Knoke said.
Steve Brandt • 612-673-4438