THE GOLD STANDARD: THE NEIGHBORHOOD RALLIES TO SAVE AN OLD BUILDING ON WATERLOO
Architecturally speaking, the so-called “Gold Building” is nothing to write home about. It’s just two storefronts at the street level, and office space along a hallway upstairs: standard stuff of the streetcar era. Hundreds of buildings like this still stand—even a century beyond their heyday—along the commercial corridors of Cleveland.
But the Gold Building, on Waterloo at East 156th Street, had a near-death experience, and it’s 2021 return to useful life is absolutely noteworthy. Vacant, and already boarded up in 2014, it got its name when, as part of Waterloo Arts’ Zoetic Walls project, the urban art crew Hygienic Dress League painted the whole building gold, with the imposing, two-story figure of a gas mask in black. By 2018 it was destined for the wrecking ball. But the building was saved when community outcry held up the process long enough for an unusual developer to come forward and bring it back to life.
The Gold Building is now home to Photocentric Gallery; William Busta Projects; John Farina’s consultancy and his and partner Adam Tully’s gallery, known as Maria Neil Art Project; Leslye Discont Arian’s studio; Don Harvey’s showroom; and Cleveland Acupuncture relocated from Beachwood. Photocentric had opened late in 2019, but all those other businesses opened to the public for the first time in April 2021. It’s Waterloo’s (and the city’s) latest example of the arts’ power to revitalize.
The unusual developer is Michael McBride, who lives nearby in Collinwood and works on affordable housing issues in the Department of Community Development for the city of Cleveland. McBride says, in 2018 a lot of people in the neighborhood—including Northeast Shores Development Corporation—were looking forward to the building’s demolition. Councilman Mike Polensek—who grew up in the neighborhood, and remembers when Jepson’s Drug Store occupied the first floor of that building, and when his grandmother’s doctor had his office upstairs—says he felt that way, too.
“I’ve seen so many of these buildings, so much neglect,” he says.
Conventional wisdom has it that knocking down abandoned buildings eliminates a nuisance that can become a haven for crime, and further that it makes room for new development. In some neighborhoods that might be true. But as Waterloo Arts Executive Director Amy Callahan said, developers for struggling neighborhoods are scarce, and once a commercial building is lost on Waterloo, the likelihood that anything will ever be built in its place is extremely small.
“For that particular building, the problem with demolition had more to do with its position than the building itself,” McBride said. “It acted as a wall in the public space. There’s a concept [in the field of] New Urbanism, that public spaces are defined by buildings, which create a sense of closure.”
To the building’s west, there’s a vacant, rubbled lot (former site of a movie theater) and a parking lot. To the east, it fronts 156th Street, across from Waterloo Arts. If the Gold Building were gone, it would have left the neighborhood’s most prominent corner empty, at the heart of nearly an acre of no-man’s land—a deathly hollow in a neighborhood where walkable density is chief among precious few assets.
“You realize that if the building was gone, the neighborhood would not have the same kind of intimacy,” McBride said. “It was an important building not to lose.”
Additionally, the presence of the building offered the prospect of affordable space for small start-up businesses like Photocentric—and all the rest that have opened their doors upstairs—to begin to build.
So in March 2018, Callahan organized a community meeting at the Beachland Ballroom. McBride, along with Daniel DeAngelo (architect and planner for the city of Akron) and Kyle Reisz (who happens to be the city of Cleveland’s chief city planner) made a presentation about the impact losing the building would have on the neighborhood. Eighty people signed a petition to keep it. Polensek says he thinks at that time the demolition contract had actually been awarded. But the Land Bank agreed to halt the process and allow the neighborhood to put out a request for proposals to redevelop the building. Having been through the Land Bank’s hands, the burden of delinquent taxes had been wiped away.
Still, no one responded. Even with all that community interest, and no back taxes, investors for low-income neighborhoods are scarce. At the last minute, McBride says he put in an application.
Then he reached out to Councilman Mike Polensek, who agreed to take a drive to the West Side to see one of McBride’s earlier projects. He had similarly rescued a building on Lorain Avenue in Ohio City, filling the storefront with a gallery (and eventually Canopy Collective) and dividing space in the back into artist studios. Polensek was impressed.
“I said let’s give the guy a shot,” the councilman said.
So McBride’s proposal was accepted, and he bought the building from the Land Bank in October 2018. As he recalls, Michael Loderstedt and Lori Kella—who had been looking for a place to open a gallery—almost immediately said they wanted to do so in the Gold Building. They live in the neighborhood and were happy to support something close to home. Farina also quickly said he wanted space upstairs.
McBride says, “My marketing theme—it was not necessarily hard requirement—was to lease to artists or arts-related professionals, to get some kind of collective energy there. I told Loderstedt that.” He recalls that it was shortly after the first show at Photocentric that Busta and Harvey also said they wanted space.
Painter Leslye Discont Arian says she moved in because her studio has been in her home, and “it was time.”
“I chose Waterloo to be part of a creative community where people work, live and play. The studio has large windows for excellent natural light, and [even] a community kitchen!” She’s not preparing for any shows at the moment, but plans to use her new space simply to make new work.
With the arrival of Arian and Cleveland Acupuncture, all the upstairs spaces are filled. Three of the six businesses are owned by people who live in the neighborhood. The one remaining space is the second street-level storefront. McBride initially envisioned a restaurant there, but the COVID pandemic has at least delayed that prospect. For the time being, he plans to “white-box” the space, and see what opportunities come along.
With windows and fresh paint where gold plywood and chipboard used to be, the building is transformed. “I can’t tell you what it means to me to see windows in that building again,” Polensek said. “The gas mask guy did not give people a warm and fuzzy feeling.”
Farina says there are plans to hang one of the surviving, gold-painted plywood panels in one of the common areas inside the building, in tribute to its storied past.
Improvements to the property have not been limited to the great indoors. In the spring Loderstedt began working in the lot to the west of the building, generally to make it more pleasant, and specifically to make a seating and performance area there. A wedge-shaped, concrete platform adjacent to the Gold Building’s wall will serve as a floor for seating and a stage. He plans to stretch a nylon fly canopy overhead for shade. He’s installing drainage around the perimeter, where he plans to build planter boxes. Along the sidewalk, screening the garden lot from the street, he intends to plant a row of grapes—pinot noir, specifically. The inaugural event there is planned to be a music and poetry performance emceed by Ray McNiece during the neighborhood’s monthly Walk All Over Waterloo, June 4.
“We’ve had a little increased traffic inside the gallery now that people are getting vaccinated, and I am enthusiastic about that,” Loderstedt said. “I think this outdoor space might help us keep the momentum going in the summer.”
John Farina is currently a member of the Collective Arts Network Board of Directors, and William Busta is an Emeritus member of the Board.
Keeping the Momentum Going This Summer
With all those art businesses open, and COVID perhaps on the run, the Gold Building and all of Waterloo are preparing for the summer.
Maria Neil Art Project: Mssrs. Farina and Tully will exhibit photography by the late Stephen Bivens, a beloved Collinwood resident and photographer who passed away in 2020. It opens June 4 in the Gold Building, with a second part of the exhibition down the street at Six Shooter Coffee.
William Busta Projects: Bill Busta will greet the season with Summer Means Fun, a group show with works by Timothy Callaghan, Kristen Cliffel, Hildur Asgeirsdóttir Jónsson, Lori Kella, Michael Loderstedt, Jessica Pinsky, Bellamy Printz—almost entirely artists of the neighborhood. It will be on view June 4 through July 3.
Deep Dive Art Projects at the Deep End: It is worth noting that one of the artists in Busta’s show—Bellamy Printz—not only lives in North Collinwood, but recently opened Deep Dive, her art consultancy and contract printmaking venture in the space formerly known as Zygote Press’s Ink House. That’s not in the Gold Building, but is diagonally across the 156th-and-Waterloo intersection. She jokes that she and Loderstedt might install a tin-can phone line between the buildings. She plans to open an exhibit of letterpress books and broadsides by Wendy Partridge on June 4, and after that work of Nikki Woods on August 6.
Photocentric: Loderstedt and Kella plan that their current group show, Selections 2021, will evolve in the summer months, by substituting different works by the participating photographers: Bob Aufuldish, Ben Bookout, Delanie Jenkins, Kella, Loderstedt, Clayton Merrill, Lake Newton, Arnold Tunstall, and Vaughn Wascovich. Then, from August 6 to September 18, it will host the photography component of the Waterloo Arts Juried Show.