IOWA CITY — Less than six months after purchasing two historic houses from the city of Iowa City in August, arts nonprofit Public Space One is almost ready to welcome the public into their new homes.
It has been a whirlwind few months, director John Engelbrecht said, as the organization raised around $100,000 in a capital campaign, moved out of its old home in the basement of the Wesley Center, renovated two houses at 225 and 229 N. Gilbert St., and for good measure took on a merger with Iowa City’s Public Access Television (PATV) organization.
All of this has been met with enthusiasm from community members and supporters, Engelbrecht said, which he hopes is a portent for a good start to the nonprofit’s new chapter.
“It’s been great. We felt like we were taking a big risk; we had this idea we could do something different, and the support we got ... we were just so pleased about how it was received,” he said.
Public Space One, which was founded in 2002, includes the Iowa City Press Co-op, which focuses on print making arts, and the Center for Afrofuturist Studies, which hosts visiting artists of color, as well as public art exhibitions and art studios.
The organization has never owned its own space before, and had been housed in the Wesley Center since 2012. Engelbrecht said the board started searching for a place to purchase in the summer of 2018. “Rent was really crazy downtown,” he said. “We wanted to start building equity for the organization.”
Moving meant extensive renovations
The two houses they took over needed a lot of work. One, 225 N. Gilbert, was last used as a rental house and basically had to be gutted.
“It was in really rough shape. It was hard to believe people lived here,” Engelbrecht said.
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Public Space One board member and artist Thomas Agran has volunteered as the general contractor for the renovations, with a team of other volunteers chipping in to help with the non-technical tasks. Contractors were hired for other work.
They took out walls to open up the main room, revealing a brick chimney that had been enclosed in a wall, and replaced stairs to the attic with a drop-down ladder, which added yet more space. To support the heavy letterpress equipment, they put steel bracing and extra wood bracing into the floor. Just one of their pieces of equipment, a Vandercook letterpress, is more than 1,200 pounds. They widened doors and are renovating bathroom to be wheelchair accessible and are having ramps built outside to meet ADA requirements.
The house also has spaces for another workshop room and a classroom, which is something they didn’t have dedicated space for previously. The former Press-Cop space was much smaller and could be very cramped, Press Co-op program coordinator Emily Jalinsky said. The program averages around 30 members, and she hopes that will go up.
“We’re hoping with more space, membership will increase,” she said.
Another benefit is no longer being in a basement.
“We’re so excited about the natural light,” Public Space One program director Kalmia Strong said.
The second house, which is next door, includes gallery space for public art exhibitions and a reading and archive room for the Center for Afrofuturist Studies, with four rooms for private studio space on the second floor.
City assistance, donations made the move possible
The city had purchased to two houses on North Gilbert Street from Mercy Hospital and included them in its UniverCity program, which seeks to refurbish houses in the city’s core neighborhoods. Normally the city takes on the renovations, but in this case, they instead allocated $116,000, or $58,000 per house, to Public Space One, with the understanding the nonprofit would undertake the restoration work. The nonprofit used about $80,000 of that money for down payment assistance, which left around $30,000 for renovations. The rest of the renovation costs have been covered by a Kickstarter that brought in almost $40,000 and sponsorships, for a total of around $108,000.
Having those donations came in assured them they made the right choice, Engelbrecht said.
“If we wouldn’t have gotten the responses we got from the community, I think it would be scary, like, ‘What did we do?’,” he said.
225 N. Gilbert was built in 1903, and 229 N. Gilbert was built in 1897, both by the same family. As part of the sale, the city designated the two properties as Iowa City Historic Landmarks.
“I’m really happy we’re able to preserve them,” Engelbrecht said. “I like that way of doing things instead of just tearing things down.”
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The house at 229 was most recently a residence for nuns and was in better shape. Inside, stained glass transom windows, original light fixtures and polished woodwork now act as backdrops for a modern art exhibition set up in the space.
“It’s a new challenge to program an old house as an art space,” he said. “Hopefully it just gets artists to think about space in a different way.”
Though the staff are waiting for bathroom renovations and the outside ramps to be complete before hosting open gallery hours, the house has had a few events like the exhibit opening, and people can make an appointment to see the art. From Feb. 7 to 15, they will welcome visitors in for an annual art auction.
“We’re ready to be open,” Engelbrecht said.
He also hopes the location, in Iowa City’s Northside neighborhood, will bring the organization increased exposure. The two adjacent properties present the potential for things like outdoor art installations or a community garden, plus simply being in their own street-level space.
“We’ve talked about needing more visibility for the whole eight years we were in the Wesley Center. This is what visibility actually is,” he said.
Organization will launch new initiative, Media Arts Co-op, in 2020
The final change for Public Space One would be the nonprofit’s biggest news in other years. In October, they merged with PATV, as the Iowa City public access television station was going defunct after losing funding from cable franchise fees.
“Our missions align in a lot of ways,” Engelbrecht said. “We thought, ‘What if we had a media center for artists who work with video and sound?”
Public Space One is taking over PATV’s office space at 206 Lafayette St. and acquiring PATV’s equipment. Together, the two groups are forming a new organization, Media Arts Co-op, which is slated to launch in early 2020, with an open house on Feb. 29. It will operate similar to the Press Co-op, with members able to access equipment and video and podcast studio space. It will not have a television broadcast, but Engelbrecht hopes they can create a digital home for the media in the future.
“This year has been absolutely nuts for us, but all in a good way,” Engelbrecht said. “It’s been like drinking from a fire hose.”
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