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by michael paglia
It’s a story that could be told about any big city that has an art scene. Artists need to find cheap studios close to the center of things, and when they do, ancillary businesses like galleries, design and architecture firms, and even restaurants and bars quickly follow. Denver sports a number of these art-friendly neighborhoods including the Golden Triangle, Santa Fe Drive and LoDo among a raft of others.
One area though is clearly on the ascendancy–it’s RiNo, the official nickname for the River North Art District. It’s an enormous area just north of downtown, encompassing all or part of several neighborhoods. Why it’s happening in RiNo in particular has to do with Denver’s past, and why it’s happening now has to do with Denver’s current role as the art center of the region.
The Railroad, Not the River
The RiNo neighborhoods are diverse but have one thing in common: the railroad. Denver was a railroad city. Gold and silver ore, lumber and the rest, were brought down from the mountains to Denver on narrow-gauge rail lines. But then, those commodities needed to be shipped out. The transcontinental railroad completed in 1869 could not come through Colorado because there was no way over our famous peaks, so civic leaders made the decision to build a spur to the main line at Cheyenne, Wyoming, 100 miles due north. Over time, the railroads built a multiplicity of lines north of downtown and this area is what is now called RiNo. This extensive track system encouraged the development of both commercial and industrial buildings that, owing to fire codes, were predominately constructed of brick or other masonry. The oldest structures date to the late 19th century but most were constructed in the first half of the 20th. Some are, as you might expect, undistinguished in any way, while others are more unexpected, being high quality works of architecture exemplifying various strains of modernism beginning with Arts and Crafts and the Prairie styles, and progressing through to mid-century, Streamline Moderne, and International styles.
Dry Ice Factory
Artist studios and Galleries, Founded by Matt Palmer
With the decline of the railroads after World War II, these neighborhoods likewise began to decline and suddenly there were lots of vacant buildings. RiNo as a place for art can trace its roots back to the ’70s, when artists and the Carson Sapiro Gallery were occupying buildings in the Upper Larimer section. However, it’s only been in the last five years that RiNo has really taken off as an art district. That’s due both to a continuous influx of fresh talent, as well as to the creation of the RiNo organization in the fall of 2005, the brainchild of Tracy Weil and Jill Hadley Hooper, who also designed the group’s distinctive logo.
Tireless promoters of RiNo, Weil and Hooper have definitely put this part of town on the city’s art map. Originally there were only eight members of the group, including Sharon Brown–who coined the inspired slogan, “where art is made”–but within a year there were fifty. Both Weil and Hooper credit art critic Mary Chandler with the initial success of RiNo, because she promoted the first district tour in the winter of 2006 in her column in the now-defunct Rocky Mountain News. At the same time, Weil and Hooper were also creating a powerful on-line presence for the district, and were interested in establishing the RiNo brand, an effort in which they’ve made great strides. Participation in the group swelled with the rapid rise of the area as exemplified by a recent RiNo “Art Safari” that had over one hundred studios and galleries at two dozen separate locations on its schedule.
Topographically, and because of the colliding, intermittent, and disconnected street grids, there emerges three distinct parts of RiNo. These are: the ridge east of the tracks; the rail-yards along Brighton Boulevard in the valley; and the west bank of the Platte River along Ringsby Court. RiNo is essentially only navigable by car, and until you figure out the confusing street patterns, daytime touring is recommended.
Along Broadway from Arapahoe to Blake, and north up Larimer, Walnut and Blake, is the most urban part of RiNo. This neighborhood is built on the brow of a ridge above the rail-yards. In character, the south end resembles nearby LoDo, with handsome historic buildings and a nice assortment of contemporary in-fill projects. Toward 38th Street, the buildings thin out with some open service yards.
Many of the landmarks of RiNo may be found here. Coming out of downtown, you’ll first come across RedLine on Arapahoe, an art center that features subsidized state-of-the-art studio space along with impressive exhibition facilities. Founded by wealthy art donor and artist Laura Merage, RedLine is in a former vacuum-cleaner parts warehouse that was rehabbed into a Neo-Modern gem by the architectural firm Semple Brown Design.
Another distinctive Neo-Modern design houses Plus Gallery, owned by Karen and Ivar Zeile, just a few blocks away on Larimer. Plus, which showcases eclectic contemporary art, is one of the only purpose-built galleries in town, with its handsome minimalist style building by architect Steve Chucovich. The chaste red brick and reflective metal structure that incorporates elements of a historic paint factory is considered a contemporary masterpiece in Denver.
Heading up Walnut–and back down Blake and Larimer–there are many other important players in RiNo. Surely the most significant is the Dry Ice Factory, which was–you guessed it–a dry ice factory. Today, the handsome early modern building, run by founder Matt Palmer, houses some thirty studios. It also includes one of the city’s top co-operatives, Ice Cube Gallery, and recently Rule Gallery relocated there to a ground floor space. Rule, owned by Robin Rule, is a noteworthy contemporary commercial outlet that specializes in the work of established regional talents.
Just a few doors down Walnut is Hinterland, founded by Sabin Aell and Randy Rushton, as a venue for experimental art displays. And a block away on Blake is Pattern Shop Studio, owned by Rex Brown and his wife Sharon, the author of the “where art is made” slogan, and a painter. This handsome Arts and Crafts-style brick building was the former home of Silver Engineering Works, a pattern maker. The Browns turned it into a gallery, studio and residence commissioning top-tier Denver architect David Owen Tryba to oversee what would be an award-winning rehab design.
Though the venues west of the rail-yards are right next to those on the ridge–as the crow flies anyway–there are limited street connections between them. Only where Broadway becomes Brighton Boulevard, or at 38th Street, a dozen blocks to the north, do the two areas directly communicate. Taking the Broadway to Brighton route, you’ll first come to Plinth Gallery, a remarkably handsome rehab and expansion of a once bland existing building. It was commissioned by ceramics artist Jonathan Kaplan and designed by architect David Lynn Wise. Kaplan operates a ceramics gallery in the front, and has his studio in the back, and on the second floor, his living space.
A couple blocks up 36th Street, on an isolated patch of Wazee, is one of the first art-related outfits to have opened in this part of RiNo: Z Wick Place, a rundown brick building with funky accents which is the studio of installation and mosaic artist Susan Wick. Just to the south is the enormous if ramshackle Wazee Union, founded by S. Brian Smith and Neil Adam, with Nick Hughes curating the shows in the gallery. The large painted brick building houses around fifty separate studios, and there’s an annex, back up on the ridge, called Walnut Workshop.
Heading the other way on 36th are two key spots, Weilworks, opened by RiNo founder Weil, and Ironton Studios and Gallery, of which fellow group founder Hooper is a part. Like Plinth, Weilworks is an entirely reconfigured and expanded existing building, which was also designed by architect Wise. There’s a postmodern character to it so that it resembles an urban farmhouse, a feeling enhanced by the extensive vegetable gardens that surround it. It’s a live/work space where Weil mounts shows on the ground floor and in the stair tower. Ironton, directly across Chestnut, is a lightly touched-up metal shop that retains its industrial charm, although the elaborate garden set with sculptures ameliorates the blue-collar connotations of the place. The day-to-day operation of Ironton is left to sculptor Mike Mancarella whose Junoworks operates out of the studios, alongside those of other artists. There is also a serious contemporary art gallery at Ironton run by Hooper.
The River and Beyond
Back down on Brighton, cross at either 31st or 38th to arrive at Ringsby Court where RiNo’s most architecturally ambitious contemporary project has been built: Taxi 2, developed by Mickey Zeppelin, a major real estate investor in RiNo. Dubbed a “landscaper” because of Taxi 2’s five hundred and fifty foot length–it’s like a skyscraper lying on the ground–the building was a product of a starchitect design team that included, among others, Will Bruder and Harry Teague. This chicly styled neo-modern building includes live/work spaces for artists. It’s part of a ten-acre campus that also encompasses the old Yellow Cab headquarters that has been rehabbed as studios, as well as the Fuel Cafe.
Following Ringsby Court to the north onto Washington, you’ll come to 47th; go back across the river, and then north onto National Western Drive and you’ll be at the most far-flung of the RiNo hangouts, the picturesquely named Blue Silo Studios owned by artists/ landlords Reed Weimer and Chandler Romeo. This large, tumbledown brick commercial building was originally a creamery and now provides studio spaces to artists.
RiNo is already an unabashed success in the little over five years it’s been in business. And it won’t have one of the problems many art districts have, which is to be doomed by its own success. The pattern is a familiar one: Artists act as pioneers, turning neglected areas into hot ones, and are thus eventually forced out. But that is not on the agenda for RiNo. Because there’s so much potential for expansion in the form of still-vacant buildings and empty lots, it can get as hot as it wants. So as big a deal as RiNo already is, this may just be the beginning.