The Art And Articulation Contained Within Front Street
By J.T. Ryder
The red river brick monolithic structures sit straddling East Second Street with Front Street, intersecting through the middle of what has become known colloquially as the Front Street artists’ lofts. Simultaneously daunting and
inviting, the buildings have housed some of the area’s most recognized and prolific artists alongside brick and mortar businesses like machine shops, roofing companies, heating and air conditioning services and even small manufacturing ventures.
It was through sheer curiosity that I recently found myself in the office of the Front Street Building Co., speaking with its building manager, Morty Epstein, about the history and future of the site. Epstein is an affable character that will intimidate most with his cantankerous nature and booming voice upon first meeting. Still, after he began to speak about the history of the property, it certainly became evident how much of his life he has dedicated to Front Street to make it a viable real estate venture in addition to a haven for the arts and businesses that ply their trade within these walls.
Epstein first addressed the inception of the buildings and their original purposes.
“They were built at different times,” he said. “Front Street North and South, they were built from 1885 and 1922. The Annex was built between 1914 and 1916. The back part was the first concrete building in Dayton, in 1916. That thing is so overbuilt that you could add three more stories with no problem. You could go in there, tear off the roof and start going. Front Street North and South was International
Envelope, which was a division of International Paper and before that it was the Mercantile Corp-oration, starting around 1908. All of the stamped envelopes, the ones that were embossed, were printed here for at least 50 years. They lost their contract and my father-in-law bought it in November of 1965 and I came in March of ‘66.”
Henry Schenck, assistant building manager, was also on hand. When questioned about Front Street creating a mecca for artists, Schenck’s selflessly detailed answer was slightly surprising.
“I don’t care what the percentage is, and I’m not going to go into that, but I think it is really important that you always keep artists coming in,” he said. “I was just telling Morty a couple of days ago that they had an article in
Business Weekly, or one of those magazines, where they took 10 cities that were about to go under and they were trying to find a defining factor. It was found that they had given up on the arts in all 10 cities. So, I just told Morty it’s nothing against any business because they are just as important as art, but you want to keep the artists in here, too. It’s just a very good thing to keep the Front Street thing alive. For example, I think that places like The Digital Fringe…I think they had opportunities to do different things, but they like being around the artists.”
With the Dayton City Paper art director and photographer in tow, Epstein and Schenck took us on a tour of the whole property. Their conversation wandered between telling us little bits of information about the history of the buildings and their tenants to talking among themselves, discussing various maintenance schedules and future projects. They first took us through the Annex, where Bill Foreman has his pottery
studio and where Althea Harper once designed clothes before moving her operation to New York after being a runner-up on Project Runway. On the second floor of the Annex, we met Geneva Duncan, a
vibrantly beautifully young entrepreneur. Duncan was moving from her previous space to one that was at least twice as large. She excitedly gave me a tour of what was to be to be her new venture: Pole
“First and foremost, we are going to be doing the Pole Xtreme, which is a signature aerobics/core training that we have designed which is also really fun,” she said. “That’s the main thing, but we’re also going to have self defense classes, for which we’re going to bring someone from the outside in to teach and incorporate that. We’re going to do nutritional classes. We’re definitely going to do hip-hop classes and we’re going to have Zumba classes. We’ve got all kinds of fun stuff.”
Duncan also addressed how she stumbled upon Front Street as a place to start her business.
“Actually, I turned down the wrong street one day, and I was like, ‘What is this place?’ I always like the ‘warehouse look,’ so I pulled over and asked this guy, ‘Hey! What is this place?’ and he said, ‘You’re in the warehouse district and this is Front Street.’ I thought to myself, ‘Wow!’ and I never forgot this place. So, long story short, I ended up moving out of town, came back and said, ‘You know what? I want to go check out that place over there again.’ I actually got a hold of the owner, Morty, and he said that they had some places available. I still had it in my head, though, that I was going to have some kind of venture somewhere in this building. I just couldn’t get over the fact that it was cleanest warehouse I had ever seen…and that’s how that happened.”
As Duncan proceeded to describe the other tenants, it was telling that she particularly referred to other businesses and artists in the buildings as “neighbors.”
“Of course, I’ve instantly gotten friendly with the neighbors downstairs and across the hall. The gentleman who works in the hydraulics shop said that his wife has always wanted to take this type of class. Then the people across the street, Jane over at Digital Fringe, are the ones who are going to do my banners. Of course Joe, the photographer in the other building, will do the promotional pictures.”
It was apparent that working relationships at Front Street developed as friendships. “I really haven’t had to go out or venture out far or pick up a Yellow Pages or a phone for anything,” Duncan said.
Since Digital Fringe had been mentioned several times by various people, I knew I should speak with its president Jane McCoy, who has been a Front Street tenant since 1999.
McCoy seemed to represent a kind of bridge between the strictly artistic community and the entrepreneurs. After lecturing me about the correct French pronunciation of Dutoit Street (pronounced dew-twa) as opposed to how many Daytonians pronounce it, which is much like a person with a speech impediment pronouncing Detroit, she answered my question about symbiotic relationships developing between the artists and the businesses. In addition to receiving business either directly or through referrals from the artists, she said they were all “intertwined” as she would refer her clients to the artists and other businesses located in the complex. She proceeded to mention the history of the building, as everyone did. It seems like everyone is ensnared by the extensive history of the building while all the while adding to it.
“About four years ago, we had some guys knock on the door who used to work in the envelope factory and they were telling me all kinds of stories,” McCoy said. “Like one guy, he met his wife here and he brought her back and I think she was mesmerized, kind of like, ‘I can’t believe we used to work here.’ She was just talking about going up and down the stairs every day and how everybody, men and women, had great looking legs from walking up and down the stairs.”
Epstein and Schenck’s tour went on, taking us into the main building. We walked down a large corridor that had large wooden patterns and molds from the old Platt Foundry affixed to the walls, taking the mundane and transforming it into a historically textured piece of art. We walked past the site where the Zoot Theatre Company creates their extravagant puppetry. I momentarily marveled at the back half of a car, sans frame, engine and transmission that was propped against the wall, as if the front half would be seen poking out from the floor below. Graffiti and impromptu artwork festooned the hallways, elevator shafts and exterior walls: a vibrant reminder of the art that was all around us, hidden behind locked doors. Throughout the whole 220,000 square foot footprint of the combined structures, it was astounding to think of the miles and miles of plumbing, electrical wiring and sprinkler system with thousands of sprinkler heads jutting down from the ceiling. It was an epic feat of maintenance and a testament to Epstein and Schenck’s care for the building and what it represents.
Next, I visited The Tap Factor, Christopher Erk’s tap dancing studio. As the young aspiring dancers duplicated the steps that Erk had shown them, a train went by outside. The thrumming of the steel wheels against the metal tracks resonated throughout the building with its own cadence that became a strangely syncopated rhythm that acted as a back beat to the young dancers’ routines. After the session was over, Erk, a former member of the renowned tap troupe Tap Dogs, spoke briefly about his impression of the building and its inhabitants.
“This is the kind of place where people walk in and they’re like, ‘Oh! Cool!’ It could be taken other ways, though. I mean, this is an old building and there are a lot of funky things in the hallways and you never know what you’re going to come across,” he said, chuckling. “The elevators are kind of crazy and there’s graffiti in areas that you may never have been to before. I think that when people come here, they feel like they are participating in something cool. It’s not just some run of the mill strip mall. It’s got an interesting appeal to it.”
As for his own studio and any collaborative effort between him and other tenants, Erk said, “I love having a place I can come to at like 12 o’clock at night and tap dance and turn the music on. The people here are so friendly. I’ve never once felt like, ‘Oh no! Tap dancing!’ They actually like it and, from what I hear, people like that we have people coming up here and tap dancing. It’s a positive thing for the building and it’s really not all that disruptive. Mike Elsass (proprietor of the Color of Energy Gallery) is across the way and we’ve already combined and had some painting sessions where we painted our portable tap floors in the styles and the color of energy. Honestly, we’re just really friendly with everyone around.”
On the way back to the third floor elevator, I met artist Scott Gibbs, whom the Montgomery County Arts and Cultural District designated as a “Master Painter.” Entering his studio requires you to pass through a small confined area, crammed full of materials and books until you enter into the vast studio proper. It is a methodically chaotic sanctuary, where everything is in an orderly disarray which, with the vibrant colors and depth of textures, becomes a work of abstract art in itself: a fractal trace of Gibbs’ psyche. “For me, creativity is romantic,” he said. “I mean, if I look back at it, it’s a purely romantic notion. It’s funny to say that you have a romantic idea of your profession when your profession is considered romantic, but I’m very fantasy oriented about being an artist. The sabbatical that I’ve established for myself in my little enclave is totally suitable to my nature. I get to be a romantic in the studio; I get to be in a warehouse that has another history that I’ve incorporated myself into…I’m very symbiotic with this environment here.”
As I commented on the view of the downtown Dayton skyline, Gibbs said, “It’s really quite gorgeous. That’s a gift to me. I’ve had options to leave the building, which I was really leaning toward, but when I thought about what I was leaving…Plus I had already downsized from two studios to one and the idea of me moving this stuff and being comfortable in my next work environment…I think I’m too old to need to do that. Also, I couldn’t justify that I would be gaining more to justify leaving this.”
For more information about Front Street, located at 1000 E. Second St.,
contact Morty Epstein at (937) 478-7006.
Photos by Todd White, Photo of grafitti wall art by J.T. Ryder
Reach DCP freelance writer J.T. Ryder at email@example.com