Return of the Artists

A renaissance may be coming to the Warehouse District

The building at 35 E. Toole Ave., which opened in 1928 as a plumbing-supply warehouse, is known for its arched façade—and it will soon become another artists' gallery/studio venue in downtown's Warehouse Arts District.

"The idea is to create a community for this block," says Steven Eye, who will act as the master leaseholder for the building.

For more than 20 years, Eye has operated Solar Culture, a gallery and performance space just west of 35 E. Toole.

For most of that time, the Arizona Department of Transportation (ADOT) owned these two former warehouses, along with three others on the block, and they were leased to a number of different artists by the state on an "as is" basis at attractive rates.

Several months ago, though, local investor Steve Fenton bought most of the buildings from ADOT.

Some downtown artists were upset when Fenton purchased the Solar Culture property, thinking that Eye would perhaps have a hard time staying in the building. But Eye says he and his new landlord have "found a way to work together to move forward to make this a vital area for Tucson."

Eye compliments Fenton for his sympathetic handling of the buildings he now owns along Toole.

"Fenton wants to preserve these structures," Eye says. "He has a history of caring about old buildings."

In an e-mail message, Fenton says that he's excited about the future of the properties.

Solar Culture is currently the only building in use on the block, but the pending re-opening of 35 E. Toole will be a big step toward bringing back a strong artistic presence.

For more than 30 years after its construction, 35 E. Toole was the home of the Crane Company. The plumbing-supply business at one time had a display room in downtown's Santa Rita Hotel, and used the Toole Avenue property as a warehouse for its products.

After the Crane Company left the building around 1960, it went through a number of different uses. The last several years saw a series of nonprofit and quasi-governmental agencies in the structure.

To accommodate these office functions, the once-cavernous plumbing supply warehouse was partially divided into carpeted rooms, some of which are around 150 square feet in size and have windows onto Toole Avenue. Other interior spaces have more than 1,000 square feet and don't provide natural light.

Eye plans to offer the space at very low rental rates—starting at less than $150 month, including some utilities.

"I'm trying to make the space accessible to artists," Eye says. He believes that ADOT's ownership—the state agency owned the property because of a planned roadway extension, but those plans have since been changed—always meant that the area's future was unstable. Now that those properties are in private hands, Eye has already signed up at least 10 tenants who work in a variety of media.

Carolyn King is one of them. Utilizing a large space in the building, she'll be offering mixed-media, paper-making and drawing classes, focusing especially on children and families.

After occupying five spots in the 10-years she's lived in Tucson, including her present Armory Park location, King says she found the new space more attractive because of its better configuration, including a storage closet with existing shelves. Plus, she appreciates the cheap rent.

In addition, King says that there's another reason for her move: "I'm committed to revitalizing downtown, and this building is really downtown."

Eye points out other advantages of 35 E. Toole. There will be a large kitchen and lounge area, while the bathrooms have beautiful sinks. There's even a fenced backyard that provides some secure parking.

The building also has a basement that could be used. Eye will occupy the building's garage, with its enormous rolling metal door, to work on his large metal sculptures.

At the other end of the block is the former Baffert and Leon wholesale grocery warehouse. For years, it was owned by ADOT and was the home to Zee's Mineral Gallery. It now belongs to Patricia and Ron Schwabe of Peach Properties.

"We're wrapping up some structural work," Patricia Schwabe says about the building. "Now, it's a big, open, clean space."

Schwabe says the building will soon be available for rent, and she's hoping for a number of uses, including a gallery and artist studio, and food-related functions on the ground level. Offices are one possibility she mentions for the downstairs area.

On the block just east of 35 E. Toole is another warehouse purchased by the Schwabes from ADOT. Artist David Aguirre says both Dinnerware and the Central Arts Collective galleries should be relocating to this building next month.

Back at 35 E. Toole, King plans to move in by the end of August. That is contingent upon the building's air-conditioning system being restored to a working condition; therefore, the date remains uncertain.

The building at 35 E. Toole will be known as The Arches.

"If 20 to 40 artists come back to this block, it bodes well for the future of the downtown arts corridor," King says.

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