Out of decay, Norfolk’s art scene rises

by MIKE HIXENBAUGH
Distinction Magazine

(Rich-Joseph Facun / Distinction Magazine)

(Rich-Joseph Facun / Distinction Magazine)

For the better part of two weeks in the late winter of 1963, workers marched and waved signs outside the red-brick building at the corner of 25th and Fawn streets.

David Pender’s Daylight Bakery had been churning out fresh baked goods for nearly 40 years by then. The little Norfolk plant was built in 1923 to produce bread for dozens of neighborhood markets that bore the Pender name.

Before suburban strip plazas and cul-de-sac housing developments, corner grocery stores were a staple of American society – places where housewives shopped daily while exchanging recipes and gossip, or where children could pop in after school to buy penny candy or pickles.

That time was fading fast by 1963, when the local bakers union staged a walkout. The bakers were demanding a pay raise, in part to compensate for difficult working conditions. The old factory was too small – its equipment too old – to keep up with the demands of modern supermarkets. Workers labored long hours through intense heat inside a building that lacked proper ventilation.

The union bosses eventually struck a deal, ensuring a 19-cent raise spread over three years. But even as workers returned, it seemed that the building’s best days had passed.

By the end of the year, suburbanization had sucked the life out of Pender’s old bakery.

Fifty years later – thanks to a spunky businesswoman and a surprising group of local artists – something new is rising at 2501 Fawn Street.

***

Weeds were growing up the walls and through the windows when Martin Ashley pulled off Church Street and up to the crumbling brick building. Ashley, a metal artist, had been searching for a place in Norfolk where he could ply his craft and thought this might be it.
Trash and used drug needles littered the parking lot. Some windows were boarded over. Inside, pigeons nested in the rafters.

That was 2005 – and the scene was an improvement from just a few years earlier, when Norfolk antique dealer Lana Wolcott purchased the building with grand plans of transforming it into a hub for artists. Given the building’s sad state, it was no surprise that not everyone shared her vision. Of nine people who responded to her advertisement, only Ashley followed through and signed a lease.

“I guess I could see the potential in the place,” says Ashley, a Seattle native who had moved to Norfolk that year to be close to family. “I need a lot of space to do the type of work that I do. That’s one thing the building had. There was lots of space.”

And character.

The place was filled with little quirks hinting at its original purpose. Salt crystals covered a section of brick wall near the spot where an industrial mixer once hummed. The old elevator once used to move ingredients up to the second floor still worked but had been red-tagged by the city as a safety hazard. And from the street, when the sun hit it just right, you could still read David Pender’s name on the side of the building.

Ashley was charmed: “You could tell there was something more to this place. It had a story.”

Indeed. The story begins in 1923, when David Pender’s name first appeared on the brick in fresh white paint the day the bakery opened. Two decades had passed since the middle-school dropout from Tarboro, North Carolina, scratched together a few hundred dollars to open a grocery store at the corner of Market Street and Monticello Avenue. From those humble roots, he turned the David Pender Grocery Company into a regional chain, with stores in dozens of neighborhoods across southern Tidewater.

The new bakery at Fawn Street was part of a series of shrewd business moves designed to wipe out competition.

The strategy worked.

Pender’s stores became a cultural touchstone of sorts. According to newspaper clippings from the time, they were places where neighbors met for coffee or where women “exchanged gossip along with chatter about the price of beans.” The chain grew to hundreds of stores in four states.

By the late 1940s, though, something had changed. Shopping habits had shifted, along with housing preferences. Norfolk and Portsmouth residents were moving into modern subdivisions outside city limits. For many, walking to a corner market was no longer part of the daily routine.

One by one, Pender’s neighborhood markets were closed. Eight months after the workers resolved the labor dispute in 1963, Colonial Stores – the national chain that had sprung from Pender’s company – replaced the old bakery at Fawn Street with a modern, “fully-automated” factory in a sprawling Norfolk industrial park on the outskirts of town. The baking equipment was pulled out of the plant and sold for scrap. The lights were flipped off, the windows boarded, the doors chained.

And for much of four decades, the old bakery was forgotten.

***

Time and neglect had taken their toll by 2002, when Lana Wolcott agreed to buy the building for $210,000. Her friends called her crazy – by her own estimate, the building was “a total dump; to call it a blank hole would have been too kind.” But the antique dealer saw potential – as antique dealers do. Plus, she had already purchased the adjacent warehouse that would later house the Five Points Community Farm Market.

“There are so many cool old buildings in this city just withering away,” Wolcott says, sitting behind a desk at her 21st Street antique shop. “There are many possibilities; it just takes a big idea and someone who’s a little nuts to make it happen.”

This sort of story isn’t unique to Norfolk. Shuttered factories and warehouses dot the post-industrial urban landscape. Every now and again, a visionary with some cash steps forward to redeem one of these relics. The plan usually involves artists.

Like in Nashville, where in 1986 an investor scooped up the old Marathon car factory and turned the campus of buildings into workspaces for artists. Marathon Village, as it came to be known, was a trendy arts and retail district by the time Martin Ashley opened a metal-working studio there two decades later.

“Working there was great, because you were surrounded by talented people doing incredible work,” says Ashley, a jack-of-all trades who became a metal artist after years working in the Washington logging industry. “It was a great atmosphere. There’s something about the raw, industrial feel of an old building.”

Perhaps that’s why he agreed to lease space from Wolcott, despite some significant concerns. For starters, the building had no power. He had to run extension cords from the future farm market to power his heavy-duty welding equipment. The building had no functioning bathrooms. The roof leaked. “It was kind of a mess,” Ashley says.

In exchange for discounted rent, he worked to get the place in shape. He lined up contractors to build walls separating his studio space from the rest of the first-floor warehouse. He used his welding skills to build a new metal casing for the old elevator cables, bringing it up to code. He got rid of three large trees growing in the parking lot and the rats that lived beneath them. He tore down a rusting chain-link fence and built an ornamental iron fence to replace it. He got rid of the pigeons and the weeds.

More than a year passed before Norfolk sculptor Kevin Gallup responded to one of Wolcott’s ads. The man responsible for creating the mold for Norfolk’s iconic mermaid statues was searching for an industrial space where he could legally fire his kiln. Soon he caught his new landlord’s vision. He put his engineering degree to use and helped Ashley make improvements.

“People have this idea that there are no creative or artistic people in Hampton Roads,” said Gallup, who moved to Norfolk in the 1970s. “We’ve always had artists, but we’ve never really had a central location where artists can make and display their work” that’s also big enough to house kilns and large pieces of work. “I felt like this had the potential to be that place.”

Wolcott soon adopted a new mantra: If you restore it, they will come.

Once the cobwebs were cleared, the walls scrubbed and the windows cleaned, more serious artists started showing up. There was the nationally renowned abstract painter. Then came the glass artist from North Carolina. Then the classically trained painter-turned-paper sculptor.

Now more than a dozen artists rent space at Fawn Street, including a photographer, a music producer, video production teams and a graphic designer.

Upstairs, Angelo Mesisco’s studio is full of large canvases covered with splashes of rich color. The painter – and downtown Norfolk salon owner – has developed a following in international art circles. His abstract paintings and figurative portraits are on display in private collections in London, Paris and New York.

Across the hall, photographer Matt Eich is working on an exhibition titled The Seven Cities, a gallery documenting life in the region where he grew up, from an emotional homecoming on a pier at Norfolk Naval Station to costumed re-enactors in Colonial Williamsburg.

A room over, Victoria Farr has carved out a niche making elaborate paper sculptures. Regulars at Cafe Stella are likely familiar with her work. She shares her small studio with her boyfriend, Alan Jelercic, who makes whimsical illustrations. The couple opened the doors at Fawn Street to the public in March and invited local artists to set up tables – a rare chance for artists to sell their work directly to the public.

“There hasn’t really been an opportunity to do that in Hampton Roads,” says Jelercic, who grew up in Virginia Beach. “The suburbs have a way of hiding art. It’s not that there aren’t artists, because there are, but by virtue of suburban design, there is no true public space for artists to share their work.”

Fawn Street has also opened up new opportunities for collaboration. Downstairs, sculptor Diana Caramat is working with Ashley to create a large outdoor piece to display outside Operation Smile’s new headquarters in Virginia Beach. It involves a series of 15-foot steel arches connected to a platform over a walkway.

“It’s hard to believe how far we’ve come from a couple years ago,” says Ashley, standing beneath one of the arches in his workshop. “The quality of people who have opened studios here has surpassed what I ever imagined.”

Wolcott is so encouraged by the activity at Fawn Street that she is already eyeing another nearby warehouse in which she hopes to open a center where residents can recycle and repurpose household items.

“If anyone has any doubt that there are talented people in this city, they need only to take a walk through” the studios at Fawn Street, says Wolcott, who lived in Greenwich Village during the 1970s when it was still the center of New York’s art universe. She sees flashes of that potential in her tenants. “I think some of these people should be completely rich and famous.”

***

None of them has ever heard of David Pender.

Glass artist Avery Shaffer scoured Norfolk for an old building in which to open a studio when he arrived here from Greensboro a few years ago. He had fallen in love with the parts of town that don’t usually show up in marketing brochures.

He knew immediately that the former bakery at Fawn Street was the spot for him.

“I think there’s a resurgence of art and culture in this city,” Shaffer says, sitting in his studio, surrounded by translucent paintings and bowls made from pieces of scrap glass. A room over, in a section of the building where dough once sat to rise near large windows, he and his partner, an associate art director at the Virginia Stage Com­pany, are making the space a studio apartment.

“Norfolk is such a rich historical town, and the more that we can work together to showcase the past, the more we will feel a connection to it,” Shaffer says. “Sometimes I drive around here, and I can feel lost in the strip-mall kind of world, and when I’m in a space like this or when I go near the docks out by the water and in the industrial areas of Norfolk, I feel more of a connected spirit.”

Shaffer points to large pane-glass windows. He notes the 20-foot ceilings, the industrial concrete floor, the old red-brick walls that stood through the Great Depression but almost collapsed under the pressure of urban decay.

It’s all strangely beautiful.

“Art for me is about finding beauty in all that is around us,” Shaffer says. “When I’m in a building like this, I feel a connection to the past. … I feel like I’m part of a grand story.”

Bill Inge and Troy Valos of the Norfolk Public Library’s Sargeant Memorial Collection helped research this article.

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