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Independent readers know by now that the paper has moved its Durham office to someplace called the Venable.

Eyes on the prizery 

Durham's Venable is a palimpsest of urban evolution

Sculptor Jeff Goll on the roof of the Venable Building

Photo by Derek Anderson

Sculptor Jeff Goll on the roof of the Venable Building

Independent readers know by now that the paper has moved its Durham office to someplace called the Venable. Those who have followed visual art in Durham for a while will know of that place as a funky warehouse complex on the ragged southeastern edge of downtown, and may think of it still as the studio home of some of Durham's most adventurous artists. But those inhabitants have moved on—some neither willingly nor happily—and another of the Bull City's brick souvenirs of its tobacco past is in the middle of a developer's makeover. Its ramshackle industrial charms are a thing of the past; it looks like what it will become, a cool office building well-sited for the new information economy.

Is this another chapter in the ongoing story of gentrification, of artists leading the way to a new view of old places, then being pushed off the overlook by the monied hordes following behind? Yes, but it is also a deeper story of the flow and ebb of different parts of the economy, and a reminder that in a capital economy, those without must go with the flow, while those with guide its direction.

The Venable Tobacco Company's complex at Roxboro and Pettigrew streets has a complicated history that begins with the post-Civil War shift in the tobacco business toward the beautiful golden brightleaf tobacco grown in North Carolina, and away from the darker cured leaf that had been brought to market in the dominant brokering towns of Richmond and Petersburg, Va. As Durham grew into the capital of the tobacco industry, Virginians formed brokerage and processing houses here, leaving that aspect of the industry to wither in Virginia. The building that now houses the Independent was a 1930s replacement for an earlier "prizery," or pressing house, where leaf was graded, re-dried and pressed into the hogsheads where it would age in the adjoining warehouse along Roxboro Street. The Venable Prizery was still in use for tobacco operations when the complex was bought by the West Brothers Trucking Company in the early 1980s. The Wests partitioned the Prizery, and advertised it as a business incubator, with inexpensive office space for small or start-up companies.

Mostly, they got artists, although some small businesses did locate there. Artists, more willing than most to be too cold or too hot, were drawn by the modest rents for generous spaces with high ceilings and great light. It was a place with a history of demanding and careful process carried out to exacting standards, and their own work, with its arcane processes, seemed to honor that past, even as it shouted out a new paradigm. They appreciated the powerful simplicity of the building's construction, the ease with which heavy materials could be brought into the building and moved on the freight elevator—and the perfume of coffee from the Broad Street Coffee Roasters operation on the ground floor. But they were also attracted by the site's untended state: It was as if a secret sanctuary, invisible to most passersby, had been discovered among the weeds and abandoned industrial relics and hobo camps, down the eroded gravel drive that conveniently debouched into Roxboro Street. Soon an exciting, diverse group of working artists, including Andrea Mai Lekberg, Jeff Goll, David Solow, Muriel Ehrman-Mandel, Laura Ames Riley, Mary Rudisill, Betty Haskins and others, put the Venable on the Triangle's cultural map. According to Sherri Wood, who worked in her Venable studio for 10 years, "It was never anything like Artspace"—referring to the open-to-the-public spaces of the Raleigh studio building. "It was funky and low-key, private. But there was good community, and we did hang out."

The workers in this art factory didn't stop to think of their gain in working space as reflecting the ebb of a different industry or others' loss of work place—or that one day their use of the building would be as outmoded as a tobacco hogshead.

They certainly didn't think that the building was "under-utilized," as they say in the development game. What? With painters, sculptors, photographers, videographers, fabric artists, installation artists and ceramists all making, making, making, day and night? From a cultural point of view, that was all very well, but those artists weren't providing much return on capital, paying rents of about $6 per square foot—rents that never went up. It didn't occur to the artists that, as downtown Durham ever so slowly awakened from its long nap, and a growing population exerted its many pressures on land and roads, the Venable Prizery was bound to soon look like a prize indeed to someone with another new view of an old place, and cash at his command.

click to enlarge Durham developer Andy Rothschild, of Scientific Properties, inside the Venable Building - PHOTO BY DEREK ANDERSON

That person turned out to be a lean young man in a sharp blue suit, with courteous manners and a luminous intelligence. Andy Rothschild decided during his medical residency that medicine wasn't really the career for him after all. "I had a lot of interests in design and architecture. I thought these would be hobbies, but as I got older, I thought—maybe they don't have to be hobbies."

When his wife, who is a physician now teaching at UNC, became pregnant and wanted to return to Durham to be near her family, Rothschild went to work for her family's custom home-building company, Bluestone Builders. One day he read an article about the shortage of lab space in this area for young bio-tech companies and began to wonder if this was something he could do something about, a way to combine his understanding of life sciences with his passion for architecture and urban redevelopment. Although he hardly seems risk-averse, Rothschild is a careful and thorough thinker. Only after studying the needs and requirements of bio-tech for six months did he form Scientific Properties and look for a building to rehab, choosing the old Clark and Sorrel building on Foster Street, across from the downtown YMCA. The immediate success of this venture allowed him to purchase the Venable in 2002, with the intention of turning its buildings into a biotech campus.

Although no one had to leave before 2005, Rothschild's purchase of the Venable sent shock waves through the artistic community immediately, as people struggled to find suitable spaces at prices they could pay. Even though she is now settled in a comparable space, artist Sherri Wood still speaks with some bitterness of having been "evicted" through no wrong-doing of her own. She's all about process in her work, but she can't quite summon Rothschild's sang-froid. "The market is doing its thing," he says. "If you can stand back far enough, you see an organic process. Downtown Durham was booming ... then it wasn't ... now it is. Some people benefit more than others."

Rothschild may not fully comprehend how completely many artists lack the resources to deal with a move, or upfitting a new studio, but he's not, in fact, cold-blooded. "Sherri called me and unleashed her fury about no one being able to find affordable space—and that's what made the 401 Foster Street arts space happen." He took a long lease on the building next to his Biotechnology Center and figured out a way to rent part of it at subsidized rates to working artists (the remainder houses Branch Gallery and the Piedmont restaurant).

Although the deal didn't work for many artists (spaces were too small, dollars per square foot too high), it did for documentary maker and former Venable artist Kenny Dalsheimer. Along with partner Dave Wofford, Dalsheimer formed the Bull City Arts Collaborative LLC there to house Groove Productions and Horse and Buggy Press, as well as some other artists. "The Venable was one of the last truly affordable studio spaces left in Durham," Dalsheimer says, but "I prefer this location, because it is more in the center." This new use of the building required evicting the filmmakers who'd been there for years, but Rothschild shrugs this off: "401 now does more for the community, for the street," he says. "There was one creative company there and now there are many."

Documentary filmmaker Kenny Dalsheimer worked on the third floor of the Venable building. - PHOTO BY DEREK ANDERSON
  • Photo by Derek Anderson
  • Documentary filmmaker Kenny Dalsheimer worked on the third floor of the Venable building.

It is hard to appreciate that philosophy when you are the one being sacrificed to the greater good, and the argument over the rights of individuals versus the needs of the community will go on forever. Wood remains suspicious, uncertain that the greater good is being served. "Will it be affordable for artists 10 years from now, or is this a way to fill empty space and make it valuable? I never felt like I got a good answer on that about 401." When asked whether she's thought of buying her own property, maybe starting an artist's co-op, her shoulders slump a little. "I'd love to think about buying, but I don't have anything to put into that. A lot of artists don't have any capital. I'd like to see the people with the capital dedicate just one space for an artist." And Dalsheimer notes that "there's a need for developers to come up with partnership models and possible spaces for the 'creative class.'"

Says Rothschild: "Nobody has the right to any of this," noting that the market may price him out of downtown, just as it has the former Venable artists. But that won't happen anytime soon, if at all. Partly due to Wood's catalyzing fury in the organic process of change, Scientific Properties is now beginning to redevelop the sprawling Golden Belt factory campus in East Durham into a wide variety of artists' spaces. "It's not usually in a for-profit developer's mind," he says, dryly, "to solve a problem like what do artists need." Clearly he wouldn't undertake this project if he didn't believe he could achieve a healthy return on capital investment—but his undertaking it for this purpose shows just as clearly that it is possible for capital to have a cultural conscience.

"In the way that the game is played now," says Dalsheimer, "it may be impossible to keep things affordable. But there are enough smart people to figure it out—if there is an overarching vision, a more democratic vision." That would be good not just for artists, but for the whole community.

  • Independent readers know by now that the paper has moved its Durham office to someplace called the Venable.

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