Taylor Harrison found creative refuge in the old Roberts Shoes building at the corner of Lake Street and Chicago Avenue. She started making music there a year ago, recorded an EP and practiced in her studio above the corner five nights a week.
Now Harrison must plot her next move as a semitrailer truck on Tuesday backed a huge yellow barrier down Lake Street on Tuesday to prepare to demolish the fire-ravaged brick building. It held thousands of dollars’ worth of equipment, supplies, artwork and laptops full of art, music and video — the creative output of dozens who flocked to the vibrant, low-rent hub for artists and musicians.
Harrison lost close to $6,000 in equipment in Sunday’s fire and, most devastating, hard drives that contained a half-finished album and backup files of her music.
“Pretty much all of my musical history is gone, which really is the hardest thing to deal with,” Harrison said. “Everyone’s just really feeling heartache for their creative loss, which I think is contributing to the big sad feeling in the city over the loss of the building.”
The building at 730-740 E. Lake St. was the home of Robert Pirsig when he wrote “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” in the 1970s and housed arts organizations such as the In the Heart of the Beast theater. In recent years it had become a rare affordable option for artists or musicians looking for a studio — available 24 hours a day with a community of artists who supported each other, often sharing units and pooling the money for rent.
City records show that inspectors have found code deficiencies in the building, built more than a century ago. In March, city inspectors identified 10 violations, including having an illegal bedroom, electrical disrepair and fire extinguishers in need of service. All the violations were resolved by April 26, according to city records.
The no-frills nature of the property is what kept it affordable.
“Artists have spaces in buildings that maybe are older,” Harrison said. “The nicer, perfect, ideal options are there for people who have money for them.”
Harrison said building owner Mark Simons was welcoming to her as a musician who needed space to practice, and René D. Thompson, the building’s caretaker, was always quick to address her concerns when they arose.
Minneapolis Assistant Fire Chief Bryan Tyner said early indications were that the fire started in the building’s boiler room, though the cause is still under investigation. The roof collapsed in the blaze. No one was hurt.
Casey Lambert, a freelance illustrator, video producer and graphic designer, lost five years of artwork, his laptop, a couple of tablets and eight years’ worth of video on hard drives in the fire, all told about $4,000 worth of equipment and materials. He had leased a space with two others, each chipping in about $200 a month for rent.
“It was one of the last few spaces in the city that an artist could afford. That’s one of the reasons there were so many artists there,” Lambert said. “It’s one of the reasons that I sustained my business practice and could focus on being creative instead of spending all my money on rent.”
His equipment was not insured — he said he couldn’t afford insurance — and he expects few other artists there had insurance. Several GoFundMe pages have been created to raise money for artists displaced by the fire.
“It’s just a devastating loss for me individually, but also for so many other people,” Lambert said. “I have this monetary burden now, but people lost their homes and their pets.”
Lambert said he did not know how many people lived in the building, but he assumed it was several more than just Thompson, the caretaker.
“It’s a place where everybody’s just in and out, and it’s 24 hours,” he said.
As a sun shower spattered Lake Street Tuesday — which was closed from Park Avenue to Chicago Avenue — a worker used a skid loader to clear the alley west of the building as Michael Reese stood across the street from what was once his store, Michael’s Hip Hop Shop.
“It kind of threw me off balance, man,” said Reese, who has operated the clothing store there since 1991. “That’s the hardest thing, getting rid of something you’ve had so long. You see your dream just go whoosh. Gone.”
He said he had to go meet his wife, and he walked away.