On the outside, the Hamline Playground Recreation Center looks pretty much as it has since 1940 — clean modern lines, Kasota limestone facing, a cornerstone that still identifies it as a Works Progress Administration project.
Inside is a different story: loud splashes of color, large wall cutouts and mosaics. Lots of mosaics.
Welcome to Mosaic On A Stick, Lori Greene’s nine-year-old art enterprise that moved this spring from a nearby storefront to the vacant Hamline Park landmark at the corner of Snelling and Lafond Avenues.
“It’s beautiful. It’s stone. It’s such classic-looking architecture, and I liked how it was on this funny angle to the street,” Greene said of the new home for her studio/art shop/classroom/gallery business.
Area residents also are happy that the rec center, designed by legendary St. Paul architect Clarence (Cap) Wigington, is no longer empty.
The Hamline Midway Coalition District Council occupied the building for years before moving because the group didn’t need all the space.
When Greene heard it was for lease from the city, she didn’t have to look to know she’d bid. “I’m sure I was screaming and jumping.”
She had some hoops to jump through first. The entire park, not just the building, had to be rezoned retail to enable Greene to sell art goods there, and she had to enlist an architect and a lawyer to firm up her plans.
She signed a five-year lease with options for two extensions.
“People are amazed by what she’s been able to do in terms of opening up the space, and the color and the light she’s been able to bring there,” said Michael Jon Olson, the Hamline Midway Coalition executive director. “It helps the long-term prospects for that building being saved, and I think it will work out for her to be in a good location for the business as well.”
Donna Trethewey, a former Ramsey County family and juvenile court referee who has visited Greene’s studio for eight years, said she loved “those bright colors, and the light that comes in is so lovely. And it’s fun to be in a historic building.”
Greene, who grew up in the Twin Cities, started doing mosaics at the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore.
She began working with beads and soon was dumpster-diving for broken pieces of china, glass, anything that might fit together to form an image.
“You can make a mosaic out of anything,” she said.
Since then she has had a New York show, won a Bush Artist grant and created a number of public murals. She’s working now on a commission from a restaurant in Dubai for four large mosaics and also on a project for the Riverview library.
She opened her first Snelling Avenue studio in 2004 and named it Mosaic On A Stick as a tip of the hat to the nearby State Fairgrounds. But she takes the moniker seriously: Anyone can stop in, select a wood cutout of a star or heart or puppy mounted on a stick and glue some pieces on it — for free.
After moving into the Hamline Park building in March, Greene took apart its dark cramped interior — opening up walls, slapping on paint and tearing up the carpet to showcase the maple floors.
She reused old doors as studio tables and has applied for a city grant to restore the original ceiling and install a mosaic sculpture outside.
Greene, an African-American whose father left Mississippi for Minnesota in 1964 and recruited students to register black voters, is thrilled that her new home was designed by Wigington, the country’s first black municipal architect.
Wigington designed more than 50 St. Paul buildings, including schools, fire stations, the Highland Park water tower and Roy Wilkins Auditorium.
“I know he didn’t necessarily have all these colors in mind,” Greene said. “But my goal is to get the building back to being a community space.”
That was Wigington’s goal too, she said.