A former factory now filled with artists, entrepreneurs, educators and a wealth of creative talent is injecting life and curiosity into the transformational Franklinton neighborhood.
It's a rainy Wednesday afternoon in February, and 400 West Rich is quiet except for the music blaring from Michael Halliday's studio. His fingertips are stained bluish-purple from the large, abstract expressionist painting hung on the far wall. He's been painting big since he was a freshman at Ohio State—working small is torture for him—which is why he requested this studio, abutting the biggest wall in the building. He was among the first wave of artists to rent space in this 98,000-square-foot building in Franklinton, arriving in November 2011. A sign proclaims: “Michael J. Halliday: Prolific years in Columbus, 2011–Now.”
All Halliday ever wanted to be was a painter. He blew a big chance once, he says, and then didn't paint for more than a dozen years because he thought his career was over. He picked it up again while living in California, and it was a lifesaver during a dark period. His baritone voice trembles and his lip quivers. He moved back to Columbus in 2011, and it's been the best time of his life for making art.
He loves the northern light coming in through the sawtooth windows, even on this dreary day. There's no air conditioning and the space could be a little bigger, but this is probably the best place he's ever had. His rent is fairly nominal, and he hopes the ongoing development of East Franklinton doesn't drive it up. “Hopefully we won't get priced out here,” he says. “That would be my only concern.”
These days, art has become like decoration, and he thinks it's got to be more than that. Places like 400 help educate the public, so the more of them, the better. People need to have a reference point for abstract expressionism—to appreciate the history, to grasp his work, to understand him.
“So this is good here,” Halliday says. “This is really good.”
Originally erected in 1910, 400 West Rich isn't even really one building. It's a wedge-shaped Frankenstein of several structures and additions—and at least one contraction—conglomerated under various roofs, all stitched together between Town and Rich streets in Franklinton. It's best known as the former home to the D.A. Ebinger Sanitary Manufacturing Co., or EBCO, which produced toilets, urinals, humidifiers and the first refrigerated drinking fountains. It was later home to Sweden Freezer, a maker of ice cream machines, as well as a Taco Bell and a Pizza Hut.
When Urban Smart Growth founder Lance Robbins first toured the area on a trip from Los Angeles, around the time the Franklinton Floodwall was completed in 2004, he says he realized it was only a matter of time before the downtrodden neighborhood turned the corner. In 2009, he bought 400 West Rich from Robert Eickholt, the owner of a glassblowing studio in the building.
Starting in July of 2011, when 400 first welcomed a handful of artists like Halliday to rent bare-bones studios, the dilapidated manufacturing facility slowly started to transform into the cultural hub of East Franklinton, inspiring curiosity and wonder from the public along the way. The building became a scene all its own—rock shows, parties, special events and freewheeling farmers markets. Now, with the building established and the neighborhood developing around it, Urban Smart Growth's local vice president of development, Chris Sherman, and 400's art events coordinator, Richard “Chuck” Willes, agreed to show us around to see what's transpired inside one of the most creative spaces in the city.
The building is daunting, a dizzying warren of hallways and vast open spaces where startup-friendly offices give way to rows of half-framed studios and post-industrial-chic event spaces. As disorienting and segmented as it seems today, it was worse initially, says Jim Sweeney, sitting in a conference room in the co-working space upstairs. At the time the project was beginning, he was the head of the Franklinton Development Association, now run by Jack Storey.
“Did you ever play the video game ‘Doom' back in the day?” Sweeney asks, referring to the seminal first-person-shooter that required players to fight their way out of a ravaged Martian marine base. “It was like that, without the killing. You know, the place was just incredible.”
It was in disrepair, Sherman says, standing in a corridor overlooking a courtyard. They had to fix the roof—a never-ending project—and they poured money into upgrading the fire-safety systems. There was a tree growing through the building, and a menagerie of animals had made the place their home. On cue, two birds flutter around a corner of the ceiling. The birds stayed, Sherman deadpans.
Sitting in his office, Tim Lai laughs while recalling the early tribulations, like an injury that's funny after the pain disappears. He and his wife, Eliza Ho, were among the first tenants to arrive, just before Christmas 2011. Their small first-floor studio had no natural light because the windows had been boarded up, so Lai told Sherman he'd rent if they removed the boards. But the summer sun cooked the studio through the west-facing glass. In the colder months, the only warmth came from an inadequate wall heater. “And we literally can see our breath in the winter,” Lai says, laughing again at the memory.
More than six years later, Lai and Ho are still tenants, now in what Sherman has dubbed the “creative office space” on the second floor. Their current office is three times larger than the original studio, and it has AC. Together they run their firm, Tim Lai Architect, which designs interiors for dining and drinking establishments like The Crest and Hoof Hearted Brewing, as well as other local businesses. Lai and Ho originally sought out 400 for the same reasons many of its tenants do: cheap space and a place to work outside their house among other creative types.
“It feels a little bit more official, a little bit more like a business,” says Nikos Rutkowski, of renting space rather than working from home. From a messy, faux-gory studio, he and Miranda Stansbury design, sculpt, mold and cast all manner of terrifying masks, figures and props for haunted houses and theme parks. Both have day jobs—Rutkowski does building maintenance for 400—and hone their craft in the off hours.
In the last five years, the unfinished areas around their studio have been parceled and swallowed up as demand for space grew. Something was happening and people wanted to be a part of it. All of 400 is now built out, filled with 101 artist studios, four music studios, 17 offices and 3,500 square feet of co-working space.
Willes and Sherman lead the way through the building's byzantine first floor. Sherman is here constantly—he lives on the block—and serves as the building's roving oracle: no desk, no computer, just a phone to communicate and occasionally troll friends and adversaries on Facebook. Willes is an old soul who greets everyone at 400 as if they're long-lost friends. His art is origami, but he hasn't had a chance to do much lately. This building is a beast, he says. It eats his time.
They walk through the Promenade Gallery, where Mikey Thomas and his merry band of trapeze artists typically perform. They take a left across from a human-sized, steel-and-spandex seahorse guarding the door to sculptor Tonya Marie's studio. Down the hallway lies the Ohio Art League's X Space, a gallery and events venue. Sherman looks through a window in a garage door at the building's south end. Across Rich Street, the River and Rich mixed-use project is coming along rapidly on the site where the troubled Riverside Bradley projects once stood. “Yeah, the view's changed outside these windows,” he says.
Set to open this summer, the River and Rich development will create street-level retail, a parking garage and more than 200 residential units. The neighborhood's development, once painfully slow, has finally gained momentum. In addition to River and Rich, the Out of Town apartments are slated to open in September, BrewDog's new taproom is set for an April unveiling, and Kaufman Development's mixed-use Gravity project is well underway on Broad Street. And those are just a few.
The plan was always that 400 West Rich—along with the Idea Foundry makerspace and the Glass Axis studio nearby—would bring vitality back to a declining area, says Sweeney, who recently started a new development consultancy, Sweeney & Associates, which specializes in planning creative communities. “Art is very democratic,” he says. “Art and creativity are able to be embraced by everybody up and down the economic spectrum, and so it can be a convening point for people.”
As the exterior landscape changes, Seth Moherman also has witnessed the building's internal evolution. The television and video editor worked at 400 for about a year early on, making a documentary about ComFest in a studio that eventually became offices and bathrooms for Strongwater, the building's restaurant, bar and event space on its northern end. He left to live in New York for several years before returning last August to edit a forthcoming Animal Planet show called Extinct or Alive. He was shocked at the building's development in the interim. The factory had grown up—he compares his first stint to being in the Wild West—especially with the host of tech startups and small businesses in offices near his current location.
Still, he can't help but look back fondly on the days when 400 felt more like a bombed-out warehouse, when he walked around alone late at night in the middle of this weird and desolate space.
The STEAM Factory is in the attic, where EBCO used to store its urinals. “Yeah, we have an illustrious beginning,” Charlene Brenner says wryly. The Factory's project coordinator wants to get some old EBCO advertising lithographs framed and hung in the space's restrooms, a nod to the building's lavatory history.
STEAM's bright and airy attic headquarters were completed in December 2015, though its connection to 400 traces to the building's 2012 celebration of Festivus—the Seinfeld-inspired Christmas alternative. Founded by Ohio State professors Roman Holowinsky, Jim Fowler and Arnab Nandi, the organization began as an informal group for new faculty members and eventually became an interdisciplinary university network that encourages collaborative research. (“STEAM” stands for science, technology, engineering, arts and humanities and mathematics.) After that Festivus event, the professors began setting up tables at 400's farmers markets to explain their work to the public—pop-up science, Brenner explains.
“Even though Ohio State is such a large entity, there is often still a huge divide between what's happening if you're involved at the university and you're outside of it,” she says. Brenner is the only full-time staff member for a collective that boasts170 active members spanning 90 departments and 40 colleges, centers and institutes. It's Ohio State condensed into a loft. This year, it will host a high school girls' summer math camp and a linguistic fellowship for underrepresented college students, as well as a workshop series to help artists develop business plans.
The programming is important, Brenner says, but many faculty members are equally passionate about using the STEAM Factory as a place to gather and exchange ideas, and as a platform to tell people about their work, particularly during the monthly Franklinton Fridays art hops, when a dozen or so neighborhood venues open their doors to the community.Faculty members conduct hands-on demos and hold micro lectures for anywhere between 200 and 600 people.
Artists and entrepreneurs alike tout the value of Franklinton Fridays, which began four years ago at 400 and have spread throughout the neighborhood. The events are a good example of the building's organic development, Willes says. They were started by artist tenants Tona Pearson, Donna McCarty-Estep, Rin Musick and Pat Nolan to bring people in to see the building for themselves, and hopefully to sell some work. “To me it seems that the buyers, the people visiting us, they like that connection between the art and the artist,” Willes says. “They like to see where it came from, maybe get a taste of the person that made it.”
The popularity of the art hops has ushered in a transition, as more artists and makers now use their spaces as galleries, places to meet clients or de facto storefronts rather than just places to create. That never would have happened early on, Rutkowksi says with a laugh. The staff and the tenants continue to develop programming to bring visitors to the area and in the doors; 400 offers printmaking and ceramics classes, Movement Activities aerial dance classes, a Bob Ross-inspired painting class and group ukulele sessions, in addition to the Urban Scrawl festival and a constant stream of weddings and private parties.
As Franklinton Fridays and other events have grown more popular and 400 has gained prominence, it has created more exposure for the artists who call the building home, Michael Bush says. His current studio is tucked back in the least accessible area of the building, called the Tombs, where he makes large-scale mixed-media abstracts. He loves 400 and loves being sequestered away from distractions.
Bush has been renting space since December 2011, after coming from Junctionview Studios in Grandview. That complex served as a spiritual predecessor of sorts for 400. At the outset, Sherman took Robbins there to show him his vision of what the Franklinton building could become. By the time 400 opened, Junctionview was on the chopping block to make way for the Grandview Yard mixed-use development, Sherman says, and many artists were looking for a place to move. The timing worked in 400's favor.
“I think 400 West Rich has filled not only some of that void,” Sherman says, “but it's also helped sort of continue what a project like that can look like in a city like Columbus.”
Meghan Hopkins Sokorai assesses the new letterpress printer sitting in her studio on the first floor. It just arrived this morning, and it's huge. After outgrowing her home studio, she began renting a larger space in 400 last July to run her printing and graphic design company, And Here We Are. She works at 400 four days a week now. She enjoys her new space and likes being a part of this artistic community.
Sokorai started her company in the Williamsburg neighborhood in Brooklyn six years ago, and she left in part because studio spaces were getting harder and harder to come by with all the development in the area. “I came from Williamsburg, and when I first moved there it actually was a bunch of scrappy artists living in lofts, and when I left it was pretend that,” she says. They kept the vibe, she continues, but that's all. Artists could no longer afford it.
She's concerned about the same thing happening here, but she's doesn't think it's a foregone conclusion. Many artists share her cautious optimism, or they say they think the developing neighborhood will only improve 400 West Rich. For the time being, the consensus seems to be that rents are reasonable and affordable.
Robbins says they haven't increased artists' rents even though they probably could. “We don't want to force the artists out. That's what usually happens,” he continues, adding that 400 provides character to the area. “We've got enough real estate that benefits from that character to see that character as an asset.” It may not show up in the company's bottom line, he says, “but it's reflected in everything around it.”
He also says Urban Smart Growth is in the final stages of loan approval to build 136 apartments on Lucas Street across from 400, dubbed the Lucas Lofts, as well as four other sites awaiting development. As East Franklinton continues to change, the tenants in 400 likely will follow suit. In just the last year and a half, Sherman has noticed an increased demand for office space, to the point that it's bleeding into the arts side. There are more graphic designers, entrepreneurs and tech companies than ever before. “It's not just paintbrushes and sawdust anymore,” he says.
But he also screens tenants to make sure it doesn't skew too heavily in any direction. After a rush of photographers came in, he issued a moratorium on accepting any more for a while. The building will continue to change because it's never been static, more a ball of clay than a finished sculpture.
While the rooftops around them near completion, Sherman and Willes are encouraged by the River and Rich developers' commitment to the artists and residents. “I've actually been surprised to see how much they've considered the neighborhood and the people in it,” Willes says. “They've gone out of their way to assemble people to talk about the neighborhood, their presence here and how they might be a part of the neighborhood, rather than the new place jumping up.”
Sherman says the developers have hired local fabricators to make signage and produce finishes for River and Rich. The first retail tenant will be the ROY G BIV Gallery for Emerging Artists, a longtime staple of the Short North. Sweeney and Brenner both say the Franklinton neighborhood has benefited from the timing of the evolution of the Short North. As it shifted from an arts district to an entertainment district and rents crept higher, artists packed up and headed west.
“Artists get it as well as anybody. They understand the way the economy works and real estate works,” Sweeney says. “I think they would like it to slow down a little bit.”
Judy Rush is obsessed with fiber. Everything is fiber—road beds, bridges, buildings. Cooperation among fibers creates strength, movement and beauty. She approaches it from a feminine perspective, as fabric to swaddle and comfort. She teaches textile science at the Columbus College of Art & Design and makes all kinds of creations—little yarn dolls and big colorful bowls that look like eggs cracked in half.
Rush has been renting space since 2013, though she's spent the last year at Chromedge, 400's sister facility across Lucas Street that offers another 26 studios and a photo lab. It's more polished—brighter lights, taller walls, a better roof. Still, there are problems. The Chromedge sewer line was damaged this week, and the building's drain backed up. Sherman speculates it may have been due to the line collapsing or “the woes of construction in the area.”
Asked if the changing neighborhood will affect 400 West Rich and Chromedge, Rush cuts to the core. “You mean the gentrification of Franklinton?”
She started a business in the Short North 30 years ago. She's been here before. “I think it's natural. I think it's normal,” she says. “I don't think it's anything you can do to stop it. I don't know that you want to stop it.” This is what artists do, she continues. They go into poor and underdeveloped areas and add flavor, and then others attracted by that flavor come in and change it with their money and their big-box toys.
Rush is ambivalent about what happens next. On one hand, she feels like this place is different, and after talking with people who have worked for Robbins, she thinks 400 has a better chance of being here 10 years from now than anything else. That makes her happy. On the other hand, she's been around a long time and knows how these things usually play out. When it's her time to pack her stuff and move, that's what she'll do.
“We are the change. We are here. We are making the change. We've started it,” Rush says. “When the artist moves into the area, the change is occurring and that's it. You can't stop that.”