Patsy Stephens describes Orcas Island, one of the San Juan Islands off the coast of Washington state, as a place where no one locks their front door. That’s why, when the historic Orcas Island Artworks caught fire as a result of suspected arson in July 2013, it sent shock waves through the small, tight-knit Orcas Island community of Olga.
“It’s a pretty amazing place, and then this really makes you wonder,” Stephens, a 35-year resident of the community, says of the suspicious circumstances surrounding the fire. Stephens serves on the Olga Strawberry Council board, responsible for preserving and overseeing use of the Olga Artworks, a 77-year-old former strawberry barreling plant.
The large wooden warehouse-style building, measuring 30 by 80 feet and constructed with a heavy timber frame, is home to gallery space for a collective of 45 artists; Café Olga, a beloved local restaurant; and gallery space for one other independent artist.
“There are so few historic buildings on the island, it’s this very special treasure,” she says, explaining that Orcas Island was, at one time, home to bumper crops of the Marshall strawberry, a specific type of berry renowned for its juiciness and delicate, sun-ripened flavor.
The barreling plant was originally ordered as a kit from Olympia and brought over on a barge. It served its original purpose until the start of WWII, and served stints as a local storage facility and restaurant before being re-purposed as an arts incubator in 1981. The dual attractions of handmade art and lunch at Café Olga make it a popular destination for tourists and locals alike.
Stephens explains that about a third of the building was destroyed in the July 19 fire, and the rest suffered extensive smoke and water damage. So far, insurance has covered stabilization of the building, but the full extent of the damage is still being assessed. No suspects have been arrested for arson thus far, and the fire is still under investigation by both federal and local agencies.
The Strawberry Council is committed to restoring the building and making sure that the artists who were displaced by the fire will be able to return to their space. Restoration work is scheduled to begin by Valentine’s Day, and the project will hopefully be completed by the end of June or early July.
Stephens stresses the importance of the Orcas Island Artworks to the community of Olga, and to the livelihoods of the artists who use the space to sell their handmade work. The Council will aim to raise whatever restoration fees insurance doesn't cover via donations.
Stephens also hopes to incorporate and display more historical aspects of the barreling plant into the restored building after its completion, including an old scale used to weigh strawberries and stencils for labeling barrels. Eventually, too, she hopes to re-establish the heritage Marshall strawberry on Orcas Island.
She also mentions that community support has been widespread and "incredible."
"There's a lot of relief that we're going to restore it," she says. "It's pretty exciting."
The National Trust for Historic Preservation works to save America's historic places. Join us today to help protect the places that matter to you.