Century-old artist haven succumbs to luxury apartment craze

City Pages /May 18 2016

 by Kristoffer Tigue

 Micah Ailie picks up the dark, wooden pawn and examines it briefly before setting it gently back on the chess board. The metal rings on his fingers make a soft click against the lacquered wood finish, just audible amid the buzz of the bar patrons.

"We started this game a couple days ago," he smirks, holding up two tattooed fingers to signal the bartender.

Ailie is tall and broad-shouldered, with a lumberjack's beard and the rolled-up sleeves on a flannel shirt to match. Intricately patterned and elaborately shaded tattoos cover each arm, adorned in bracelets. He's at once laid back and magnetic. Everyone seems to know him.

The bartender reminds Ailie that he has a $90 unpaid tab running, but gives him the shot of Jameson anyway. "I know you're good," the bartender assures him.

For years Ailie has been a fixture at the Devil's Advocate, a bar located on the northwest side of the historic Handicraft Guild Building on South 10th Street and Marquette Avenue in downtown Minneapolis. It's where Ailie recently ran a small art gallery and oddities store on the third floor, and where he hosted a dozen artists in a collective studio on the second.

The building was built in 1907 for a group of women artists and craft workers who called themselves the Handicraft Guild. At a time when women were still fighting for their right to vote — and the idea of art was just beginning to move beyond painting and sculpting — the women ran a popular arts and crafts school. The building would later fold into the art education department of the University of Minnesota.

"This place has been an institution for so many artists in the past," Ailie says. "Musicians, potters, sculptors, painters, violin makers, craft workers."

But last summer the Handicraft Guild Building owners told Ailie he had two months to vacate the property.

Developers would be tearing down the east wing to erect new luxury apartments. The historic side, where Ailie's studio spaces resided, would be renovated to house the new apartments' fitness center, a café, and possibly an upscale restaurant.

The development displaced dozens of artists, not to mention a successful gallery, a screen printing studio, and a violin repair shop that had been around for more than 50 years.

For Ailie and many others there, the move seemed like the end of an era — not just for them, but for an iconic building that once held a century-long reign cultivating the Twin Cities arts scene.

A renaissance

When James Patrick first moved his music studio into a basement space beneath the Handicraft Guild Building in 2008, it was mostly a place to throw parties. So he didn't mind that the room was little more than a windowless cement square. Or that he had to bar the back door with a two-by-four to keep it closed at night. Or that extension cords ran down the stairs to the lamps, since there was no overhead lighting.

Four years later, when he and his wife, Jade, founded Gamut Gallery on the floor above, the list of defects had become a running joke.

"For three years we went to the bathroom in a fucking biffy," James Patrick says, referring to the portable bathrooms usually found at construction sites.

"Nothing like peeing when it's 30 degrees below zero," laughs gallery co-founder Cassie Garner. They had to fix anything that broke on their own dime. It was part of the deal when they moved in, James says. If the owners could skip upkeep, the rent would stay low.

At first the gallery felt like a vanity project, Jade says. There was simply too much work to get it in shape for exhibits. It would cost more than it would bring in.

"The building was falling apart," she says. "Only because we wanted it that bad did we stay."

But Gamut would soon become one of the more successful galleries in Minneapolis, hosting high-profile exhibits and grossing up to $15,000 in sales on its best nights.

"As far as I know, we are probably the gallery in town selling the most," Jade says. "At least number of sales, for sure."

They became the city's "everyman's gallery," Jade says, collaborating closely with unknown and well-known artists alike. The goal was to never push prices beyond $1,000 apiece to keep it accessible.

It felt like a renaissance, James says, and the momentum just kept growing. "The culture was really alive there."

Erin Sayer, founder of Cult Status Gallery, says word quickly spread about the cool shows Gamut was throwing. Its owners were heavily involved in the arts community, allowing them to put on impressive, collaborative shows with a variety of artists from around the city.

"They have such a tight ship over there," Sayer says. "They've got so many talented people working together. I was really impressed."

For almost four years Sayer ran Cult Status on and off at two different Minneapolis locations. She threw in the towel last year. The hardest part was running a one-woman show.

Gamut, by comparison, was able to draw incredible support from the arts community, she says, providing a steady gang of volunteers to help with shows and promotion. "I was really jealous that they had an awesome crew of people who were doing such a great job together."

Painter and illustrator Matt Wells says Gamut is one of the few remaining galleries that raises up lesser-known local artists. By welcoming emerging artists into popular shows, he says, Gamut gave exposure to fledgling creatives who likely would never have seen their work alongside that of respected artists.

That's a big deal to Wells. Without recognition, artists can't sell much, and most of the other Twin Cities spaces that brought exposure to emerging talent had closed. "To some extent, I think galleries like Gamut are the last of those left."

Wells is among the beneficiaries. Now that he's ready to launch his first solo show, he's hoping to do it at Gamut.

But last summer, the Patricks were served notice that they'd have to vacate the building. They considered calling it quits. Their fans convinced them to persevere. In November, they re-opened at 10th Street and Chicago Avenue, just six blocks from Handicraft.

Count Sayer among the pleased. The gallery has acted as a stepping stone for artists who couldn't get into better-established places. "It would have been really sad to see them close," she says. "There's just so much energy that they bring to the community, and without them there would be a big hole."

A unique history

Surrounded by towering office complexes and expansive corporate headquarters, the Handicraft Guild Building is an anachronism — a window to a time when Minneapolis was still paved with cobblestone and the horse and carriage was a means to get around town, not a novelty.

The century-old building stands just three stories tall with a reddish-brown brick foundation and lighter limestone detail. The storefronts that wrap around 10th Street and Marquette Avenue are mostly empty now, save a few old signs hanging above the large, vacant windows that once housed a screen printing business, a fashion magazine, and a hair and nail salon.

Minneapolis City Council Member Lisa Goodman says that old buildings like Handicraft help make downtown unique. They were built for foot traffic and give the city character. But most structures from that era have already fallen, despite attempts to save them.

"The blocks that Target's headquarters are on also had a number of smaller-scale, independent, retail-oriented type stores," Goodman says. "And those were being summarily demolished one at a time in the name of progress."

Goodman is one of the main reasons Handicraft won't be torn down entirely. She was the lead author of the bill the city passed back in 1998 to preserve the building when its former owner wanted to demolish it and build a shopping mall.

The owner sued and the case went all the way to the Minnesota Supreme Court, which ruled that only half the building met historic preservation requirements. The original building was built as an art center and school with the east wing added in 1914, but the courts ruled only the original building qualified for preservation.

"We view it as one building," Goodman says. "Technically speaking, it's two buildings."

Seven years after the school was built, it had become so popular that a second wing was added. What's notable, says Denis Gardner, a historian with the National Register of Historic Places, is the building's testament to Minnesota's reputation as a progressive state, built at a time when women weren't even allowed to vote.

"It's one of the small number of national register-eligible properties or national register properties that actually speaks to women," he says. "Here, women started it, which is pretty impressive.... Minneapolis was ahead of the curve when compared to other parts of the country."

Though Handicraft has yet to be recognized as a historic landmark, Gardner says it would easily become so if the current owner decided to sign on. "This is important because of art, because of art education."

Handicraft co-owner John Ordway says he likely won't register the building nationally, since it would limit options for redeveloping the property. Under current city ordinance, his company can tear down the east wing and renovate the inside of the original building, so long as it preserves the outside appearance.

Under a national designation they'd have less freedom, Ordway says, making the building an economic burden.

Goodman wishes the city held more regard for history, renovating historic buildings the way St. Paul does. But last year the city council approved owner Pratt Ordway Properties' plan to redevelop Handicraft as new apartments.

"That's all about money," Goodman says. "And I guess that's always what it boils down to."

'A natural tension'

As the recession let up, Minneapolis saw a surge of new luxury housing developments in once predominately cheap areas of the city, says Beth Elliot, a city planner.

Now places like the North Loop, Dinkytown, and Uptown are seeing new high-density housing as more people move from suburbs to city.

"They want to live around public transportation and to be around fun things to do," Elliot says.

Over the last ten years, Scott Parkin of Verve Realty has seen clients who once would have lived in Edina or Minnetonka now search in downtown Minneapolis instead. "Downtown is relatively safe in the residential areas.... It's sexy with new finishes and logical spaces," Parkin says. "It's a good thing. We've created [a new] market."

According to a recent Minneapolis Downtown Council report, downtown has gained more than 8,000 residents since 2006 — a 25 percent population increase.

Such progress is of little comfort to poet Christopher Shillock, who had been living in Handicraft since 1987.

"I had been diagnosed with lung cancer and I was going through radiation and chemotherapy at the same time I had to leave the building," he says. "My life kind of fell apart."

The building was never zoned to house people, Shillock says. So he never told management of his living arrangements because the rent was so cheap — only $300 a month.

Mike Etoll, another artist, also secretly lived in the Handicraft until about 1988. He says he only paid $150 split between him and his girlfriend for the space they rented, where he dabbled in everything from prop-making to painting, to playing music.

But the building proved a financial burden to Pratt Ordway, says Ben Shardlow, who managed the Handicraft. Therein lies the problem.

"There's a natural tension between the artists and regulations," he says, "between trying to reinvest in a building that needs investments without changing the economics of people involved. It's a story that's told everywhere, over and over again."

Ordway says renovation would have cost more than $10 million for a building too small to make that money back in rent.

He hopes to begin construction this year on the 18-story apartment complex.

'A hotbed for the arts'

Robert Black fell in love with Dahl Violin Shop when he was a teenager in the 1970s. "You couldn't keep me out," he says. "It was the old feel of the place. The smell of the wood. The old man making violins there. It was a very magical place."

His dad brought him there to get a job and keep him out of trouble. Though he knew nothing about violins, Black couldn't get enough of the place. So when the owner died in 1973, he jumped on the opportunity to buy, though he was only 18.

The shop had passed through multiple generations, though Black isn't sure how many. "Some of the photos on the wall go back to the 1880s."

He ran the repair shop out of Handicraft for 42 years, and was told to vacate last October. Different owners had talked about redeveloping over the years, so he always knew he'd eventually have to leave. But it still wasn't easy.

"It hurt," he says. "But what do you do?"

The shop, just down the street from Orchestra Hall, served major musicians passing through, including Bob Dylan's fiddle player. Now Black is operating out of his small home in Robbinsdale. He's trying to stay positive, but knows it'll never be the same, since the building meant so much to so many people.

Bikini Kill playing at the Handicraft Guild

For Shillock, Handicraft was an incubator for Minneapolis' vibrant music scene. In the '80s and '90s, he threw raging parties featuring bands from the city's anarchist punk scene. He performed his poetry and created zines with other artists.

Etoll says around that time the building attracted "radicals"who lived on the fringes of society, and because management never checked up on them they were free to do as they pleased.

"There were always strange things people were doing," Etoll says. "I'd like to move back into a place just like that again... being able to do whatever you want."

That's what allowed them to shoot a music video for Twin Cities shock-rock band Impaler on the roof of the building one night in 1987. The place became so popular in the underground music scene, he says, that Paul Cook and Steve Jones from the Sex Pistols even showed up for a barbecue there once.

Wells says up to the very end, the artists at the Handicraft operated under complete freedom, which was part of what made the place so special.

"It was pretty wild," he says. "It was like the Wild West in that space."

James Patrick says Gamut owes much of its success to Handicraft. The cheap rent and prime location created a "hotbed for the arts" and helped put his gallery on the map.

Some might see the Handicraft's demise as another triumph of gentrification over independent creativity. Jade Patrick is not among them. She knew the end would inevitably come. "I feel really good about almost all of the shows we threw at the last space and it just fills me with excitement over what's to come."

As for Ailie, he's still looking for Minneapolis' next renaissance — a place where artists are gathering and inspiring one another like they did at the Handicraft.

"In order to thrive as an artist we should collaborate, or at least be around other artists," he says. "The people that were involved definitely became like a family, and even if you weren't dialed in with it, you got inspired."

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