The Art of Tenacity: Art House’s new campus is a study in perseverence and collaboration
Under a century-old sweetgum tree on Cleveland’s West Side, newly-planted clumps of ornamental grasses sway in the wind. Birds swoop between bushes ringing two bioswales that dip away from each other, creating a natural land bridge. This swath of green interrupts the march of apartment buildings, schools, and old homes near the intersection of Denison Avenue and Pearl Road in the Brooklyn Centre neighborhood.
Welcome to the new campus of Art House, the community arts center that has been working toward this moment for nearly two decades.
Art House began in 1999, the collective vision of a group of artists (including Diane Shoemaker, Sheryl Hoffman, Kerri Whitehouse, and Cheryl Kauffman Carter), many of whom had moved into the Old Brooklyn neighborhood in the early 1990s. As they met weekly to discuss art and opportunities in Cleveland, their conversations centered around the lack of arts and recreation resources in their neighborhood. With support from councilperson Merle Gordon and funding from the Community Partnership for Arts and Culture (precursor to Cuyahoga Arts and Culture), they purchased a 1940s brick-faced Quonset hut that had been a window repair shop.
“We went from renting meeting space to incorporating as a 501c3, buying a building, and starting a full slate of arts programming with the public school across the street within the first two years,” says Shoemaker. The rapid rise happened through support from all levels: city, county, and state governments; assistance from foundations; and expertise and drive from working artists. Art House’s founding board was packed with experienced artists, fundraisers, and administrators.
Two historic houses became part of Art House’s property. Wirth House, a Queen Anne-style house that was the home of the last postmaster of Brooklyn Centre, was part of the original purchase; another, less ornate frame house was purchased a few years later. Both were part of the Brooklyn Centre Historic District listed on the National Register of Historic Places and were fiercely loved by neighborhood preservationists.
By 2004, Art House planned to renovate both houses for office and gallery space. However, Wirth House was riddled with problems, from deep foundation cracks to collapsed ceilings, all cost-prohibitive for the nonprofit to repair. So for more than a decade, Art House worked to find a buyer for the properties. At the same time, they met with members of the Brooklyn Centre Historical Society and concerned neighbors about the future of the houses, and went regularly before the Cleveland Landmarks Commission and the Historic Preservation Society to request permission for demolition.
“Because Art House is in a National Historic District, we needed to have a Section 106 review, which is a historic and environmental review that looks at the historic impact of the property,” notes Adam Stalder, Art House’s current board vice president and Brooklyn Centre resident. An Art House committee worked diligently with the community development corporation and several contractors, and held community meetings to review results—which showed the numbers just weren’t there for preservation. According to estimates from five different engineering/architecture firms, it would cost between $500,000 and $1 million just to renovate, and no buyers were interested in the properties, year after year. Finally, after this due diligence review, the Cleveland Landmarks Commission approved demolition in 2015.
Then internal leadership and staff shifts at Art House sidelined the project for four more years. Finally, in 2019 with help from the Cuyahoga Land Bank, both houses came down. And both space and opportunities opened up.
“This was a chance to transform the nature of Denison Avenue,” says Laila Voss, Art House’s current executive director. “During our strategic planning process in 2017, we worked with the Cleveland Urban Design Collaborative on how to best use the area left by the demolition of the houses. Their vision of environmental stewardship, backed by research, energized the board around a unified idea of what this kind of space could provide.”
The goal was to create an accessible greenspace for both arts programming and environmental education, improve the entrance to Art House, and showcase public art along Denison Avenue. The cost? About $500,000.
Heady, big ideas for a smaller arts nonprofit, indeed. So Art House reached out to larger, more experienced partners: Bob Gardin, the executive director of Big Creek Connects, connected Art House with Tom Evans of AECOM, who helped Art House apply for a $250,000 environmental design grant from the Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District (NEORSD). Research by AECOM provided data showing that the proposed microenvironment would capture over 200,000 gallons of stormwater annually. West Creek Conservancy provided grant administration and oversight. And while Art House’s first proposal to NEORSD was denied in 2020, their second was awarded, in 2021.
Art House then held community café meetings and asked residents and friends to imagine what might be possible in the newly-opened space. Their creations—maquettes of pipe cleaners and popsicle sticks—helped inform how Phase 2 of the Creative Garden could integrate with the Green Infrastructure project.
Now, in the summer of 2023, the first half of this campus renovation is complete. Art House itself is now more visible from the street, its wide walkway welcoming visitors. French drains direct stormwater into two bioswales planted with flowers and grasses that are attractive to pollinators, offer color year-round, and can be used in art projects.
Hector Castellanos-Lara’s Gateway, completed in 2022 as a Creative Fusion: The Art of Democracy project, enhances the side of the Art House building. Currently, Brinsley Tyrrell is working on metal fencing that faces Denison Avenue, and Art House is developing budgets and RFPs for other Creative Garden projects.
“Besides beautifying the campus and making us more visible in a straightforward, physical way, this opens up the opportunity to expand and enrich programming we are already doing,” says Voss, and current programming is robust. Thirty to forty artists are employed each year in Art House’s Urban Bright program in 33 elementary, middle, and high schools, reaching about 3,000 youth yearly. Art House artists provide programs for seniors in collaboration with the Benjamin Rose Institute on Aging and Cleveland Sight Center, workshops at Cleveland Public Library branches, and, of course, classes in ceramics, painting, and art exploration for children, adults, and families at Art House’s Quonset hut.
“Our job is making art accessible through free programming,” says Voss. “It’s important to make as many art experiences available to all people. This campus renovation opens up possibilities—to collaborate and partner with local nature groups, other community groups, and provide space for performances—we don’t know all that it could bring! And that’s a good thing.”