Home

Muses of brick and mortar

Columbia turns creative in multiplying the magic of the North Village arts district.

By Lindsey Howald
Originally published in the Columbia Daily Tribune, August 2, 2009

In Greek times, you could always recognize one of the nine Muses. These deities, said to divinely inspire creativity in the arts, carried around a writing tablet, lyre, tragic mask, or scrolls, tipping people off to their purpose. Today it’s a little more complicated. Modern-day muses aren’t nearly so easy to spot.

One of Columbia’s, for example, isn’t known for playing an instrument or even attending poetry readings. He’s a commercial real estate developer. A businessman. But John Ott, recognizable by the Alley A Realty signs leaning in windows all over the North Village arts district — as the area around Walnut and Orr streets downtown is increasingly known — has acquired a knack for envisioning the kind of space artists need for painting, playing, dancing, singing, filming and writing.

Although foot traffic consisted mostly of construction workers all summer, the area will soon be flooded with artists and art lovers frequenting the new Artlandish Gallery, North Village Art Studios and others coming to dwell in the old warehouses Ott has retooled into artful residential and commercial space.

From the vantage point of his driver’s seat one sweltering day in June, Ott waved a hand at the quiet Ameren UE building on the north end of Orr Street. It might be dark and isolated now, but Ott sees a bustle of activity. “That could be the anchor for the arts district,” he said. “You could do an art market, an antique market,” or “it could be one of the spots for … outdoor music events and activities like that. It’s a gathering spot, basically, for that part of the city.”

When he looks at the handful of old warehouses, many of which are empty or under heavy renovation, Ott tends to forget himself and starts talking in the present tense. That’s because he just doesn’t see the same neighborhood we do. Beneath this developer’s hand a formerly industrial area is taking shape into a real arts district: Ott already sees sculptures on every corner.

THE THREE MUSKEETERS OF OPPORTUNITY

But Ott can’t take credit for the idea to build an arts district in Columbia. In fact, the downtown real estate giant is following in the footsteps of two other so-called muses who took a chance on this formerly sparse part of downtown years ago. One is Mark Timberlake, a mild-mannered engineer known to wander art museums for hours, and the second is Brian Pape, a New York and Columbia-based architect who likes eco-friendly spaces and painstakingly preserved historic buildings.

That makes three of them, then: a dynamo developer, risk-taking engineer and green architect. They’re the kind of guys who would recoil at the idea of sauntering onstage for an open mic night. But they’re masters of their own worlds; this much is obvious from the way they walk downtown and wave familiarly to nearly everyone they meet on the sidewalk.

They are traffickers in community; yes, community is what Ott, Pape and Timberlake are all about. And together the three of them have sketched out a skeleton for an arts district that spans College Avenue to Tenth Street, then ranges from Walnut Street all the way up north to Fay Street, where Pape’s historic Mule Barn occasionally echoes with the sounds of the black box theater inside it.

ORR STREET AREA PUTS DOWN ROOTS

Northern downtown wasn’t always a spot for artists and bohemians. Far from it, in fact. The area used to be bisected by train tracks, which brought lumber, material goods, food and livestock into the old Wabash Railroad Station and Freight House, which is now the main hub for Columbia Transit. The brick warehouses surrounding the station were used mostly for storage. After the cargo loads dwindled in the middle of the 20th century, what to do with the area was anyone’s guess. A few businesses moved in, attracted to the cheap rent, and artist types would sell their wares. But a community was still far off.

Timberlake, who grew up in Columbia, only dimly remembers the area. “It was just a dirty, warehouse-y, industrial kind of area,” he said. “No one ever came over here.”

Then 1101 E. Walnut St. fell into his hands. He thought it would be a good investment to have a piece of property downtown but couldn’t figure out what to do with it.

Not long after, when he purchased the old Watkins Roofing building next door, he encountered the same mental block. He started spending his lunch breaks standing on the corner of Walnut and Orr streets, hands on hips, staring up at these old brick buildings sitting stubbornly at the helm of a depressing street lined with other crumbling old buildings. What am I going to do? he thought. No muse responded to his invocation, and he would make his way back to the office without even a small spark of inspiration.

Eventually Timberlake called Carrie Gartner, director of the Columbia Special Business District. He asked her what she thought a good use for that neighborhood might be, crossing his fingers that she knew something he didn’t.

She responded immediately with a list of names: Kim Parker. Susan Taylor-Glasgow. Marie Hunter. Along with several others, these were the members of the North Village Art Team, a brave but small group of artists who hoped the area, where many of them already lived or worked, might blossom with a vibrant and more organized arts scene.

After asking their thoughts over a pie at Shakespeare’s, Timberlake — bolstered by their enthusiasm — started eyeing the old roofing warehouse at 106 Orr Street with a new vision of building an urban, glass-walled art studio and community space. If everything utterly failed, he thought he might be able to use the place as a storage facility.

But it didn’t fail. By the grand opening of Orr St. Studios in January 2007, an artist had committed to every room.

ACTORS, DANCERS AND DOERS

Ken Greene, who owns Monarch Jewelry on Orr Street, calls the recent surge of arts in the area a “tonier, more bohemian version” of the late 1970s, when a handful of artistic-type shops moved in, drawn by the cheap rent.

“We’re bubbling, we’re effervescent,” he said of recent developments that have brought in even more creativity. “A lot of the artists like how you get energy from other artists.” It’s like “at art school, when you’re painting next to somebody and you get excited and get challenged. … It’s really kind of enriching.”

Timberlake was the one who took the first leap. Orr Street Studios and his adjoining Orr Street Warehouse, which houses Sven’s Kafé and Gallery and the Missouri Contemporary Ballet rehearsal studio, are big players in the local arts scene now. Inspired by the engineer’s vision, Ott — who owned a number of downtown properties already — walked onto the scene. The two have since collaborated, even getting a group of University of Missouri graduate business students to research — based mostly on other urban art districts — what Columbia is capable of.

“It’s a little more complicated than just saying, ‘Let’s designate this as an art area and everything will fall into place,’ ” Pape said. “You have to have some artistic energies and activities going on before you start thinking about it as an arts district. And then it takes some pioneering.”

Pape’s claim to North Village fame is the Mule Barn, the renovated historic building that used to be a mule-skinner’s barn and meatpacking company. It sits at the northernmost reach of the unofficial boundary of the arts district, on Fay Street. There, Pape sponsors LR Hults to put on edgy plays until the director raises enough money to make the barn the official space for his theater company, Theatre NXS. With 20,000 square feet of space to work with, however, Pape says a blend of commercial businesses and artist studios will also come to dwell.

UP IN THE AIR? NO PROBLEM

In any given setting, the artist is known as the risk taker, the one willing to put things on the line to do what he or she believes in. That Ott, Timberlake and Pape also possess this quality has earned them the respect of local artists.

“I think John Ott is totally fearless,” remarked Lisa Bartlett, owner of Artlandish Gallery. It is housed in one of Ott’s buildings, the old Engagement Ring Center next to Ernie’s Café. She laughed. “I was mentioning what we should do for our grand opening, and just off the top of my head I said, ‘Let’s do a hot air balloon that’s tethered, and then people could get in, and go up and drop paint balloons onto this big canvas!’ ”

Ott didn’t bat an eye. Without missing a beat, he replied, “Well, I don’t know about a hot air balloon, but what about a cherry picker?”