Written by Christine Madrid French
Transitions, the process of changing from one state to another, seem to define the condition of many downtown neighborhoods in 2010. The tidal up-and-down economy of the last 20 years has left scores of empty buildings in its wake, marked by empty windows and falling cornices. What can preservationists and their communities do with these historic structures, while waiting for new ideas, new businesses, and new prospects? I recently stumbled upon a successful collaboration that is keeping one prominent piece of our city - San Francisco - alive while we crawl through the down cycle.
The 1912 Colombo Building, across the street from the Transamerica Pyramid, is certainly something special. Also known as the Drexler-Colombo Building, the structure is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and as a San Francisco Landmark in the Jackson Square Historic District (142 acres containing some of the oldest commercial buildings in the city). The building has stood its ground against numerous threats to its existence, and now represents an urban line-in-the-sand where the low scale North Beach neighborhood meets the skyscraping Financial District.
I kept passing the building, both driving and walking, and finally decided to investigate the reason for the Alice-in-Wonderland-scale plywood playing cards inserted in the string of display windows. Christopher Farris, an energetic forty-something artist, is the mind behind this guerrilla art exhibit. His “Space Between” gallery occupies the corner of the building, a key commercial spot that remained empty until building owner Luigi Barassi invited him to set up shop.
Barassi has a specific agenda for the future of the building. He wants to retain the integrity of the “envelope,” and attract tenants that can work within the parameters of an historic structure. In the meantime, the artist and the businessman have an informal arrangement – no rent—and Farris moves in and out when the renovation team needs access to the building. His art works well within the medium of a deconstructed space, one that complements his photographs and sculptures of those “little things, quiet things” that, once observed, challenge the mind to question the intersections of nature and the city, the permanent and the passing through, and the endless processes of decay and rebirth. Papers disintegrated on the sidewalk, bird footprints entombed in old concrete, and rusted-out rebar are a few of his chosen subjects.
Farris started as an artist by building things out of the ubiquitous metal scraps that spontaneously collect in the desert. On the Nevada ranch where he grew up, under the eye of his “cowboy dad,” he was attracted to the ruined buildings erupting from clusters of cottonwood trees and edging the alfalfa fields. Each structural remnant became his personal “clubhouse,” a subject for interpretation with “plenty of space to do what you want and be who you want.”
In a way, he has found the same environment for experimentation in San Francisco, with Barassi’s blessing. His occupation of an under-utilized urban building draws our attention to a resource that captures and expresses the history of the neighborhood. He has held a few shows since last February, attended by dozens of people, and participates in organized “art walks” by opening the building for visitors. Yet, more than that, this team (business + art) has effectively regenerated a broken-down corner and created a bridge connecting two prosperous downtown areas.
A search for “Artists” and “Vacant Buildings” brings up many other noteworthy efforts with the same goal in mind. Community Visual Restoration Project, funded in part by a grant from the Pepsi Refresh Project, worked in Minneapolis to benefit both property owners and creative residents of the city by increasing foot traffic at vacant sites, promoting available rental opportunities in the spaces, and creating revenue for businesses located nearby each installation. Filling empty window spaces with art is emerging as a legitimate venue for artists nationwide and as well as in Britain and Ireland.
Occupying vacant buildings with artists and artworks is not a new idea, perhaps, but triangulating the business owner, the artist, and the preservationist is less widely utilized. Here is an opportunity, however, to keep a building on the preservationist “watch list” from falling into dereliction. Providing people with the opportunity to interact with an historic building through the third-party of creative arts can reveal hidden potentials and benefit everyone involved.
Christine Madrid French is the director of the Modernism + Recent Past program at the National Trust for Historic Preservation.