Spencer's Art House is an experimental rehabilitation project in Flint, Michigan's historic neighborhood, Carriage Town. Using reclaimed materials, the long-vacant 120-year-old building is being reenvisioned as an alternative space for architects, designers, artists, and engineers to produce innovative work and demonstrate Flint's potential for rebirth.
This campaign will let us get over the last hurdles needed to fully stabilize the structure and secure the building from the elements by rebuilding one of the exterior walls and repairing windows. It will prep the exterior for paint by replacing missing siding. And it will insure our progress to let us begin utilizing and finishing the interior of the building and continue hosting bigger and better events for the community. We've already hosted a number of musicians, painters, performers, chefs, and poets to bring the space to life. This fall and winter we'll continue hosting a diverse range of artists to improve and activate the space by filling it with music, food, and installations.
The city of Flint has experienced a number of transformations - from a modest logging village, to the birthplace of General Motors (then dubbed as the most desirable city in America to live in), and then through the decline of the auto industry, and all of the struggle that resulted. But over the past several years Flint has proven that it’s not finished. Major investments revitalizing downtown as well as grassroots efforts across the city have begun to redefine Flint as a place of resourcefulness and opportunity. Spencer’s Art House follows in the wake of this success, aiming to become a symbol and catalyst in restoring its surrounding neighborhood.
The name of the project is a tribute to the building’s history as a funeral home (House of Spencer Mortuary) and its influential previous owner: J. Merrill Spencer. Among many other things, Mr. Spencer was an entrepreneur, educator, classmate of Martin Luther King Jr and a leading civil rights activist who made pivotal social change in Flint.
After the funeral home closed in the 1990s, the building fell into vacancy and disrepair. Windows were broken. The foundation crumbled. The roof caved in. The neighborhood around it began to unravel as well, until only a handful of occupied homes remained on Spencer’s block.
Last year, two architects with a knack for optimism and resourcefulness arrived at Spencer's and began considering a future made possible by material reuse. The house is being renovated almost entirely with reclaimed materials salvaged from vacant houses, construction debris, and other sources of waste. This helps keep our material costs low, reduces impact on the environment, connects us to the history of places around us, and inspires creativity in our redesigning of the spaces. A typical renovation would cost roughly $300,000. We’re looking to do it with less than ⅓ of that. We look for opportunity within chaos, and are often able to reinvent the situation to create exciting new elements.
Spencer’s Art House will become a cooperative artist and community space. Apartments on the second floor will host a range of artists, urbanists, and creative thinkers, while the first floor will be used to host workshops, classes, exhibitions, small performances, and other community programs.
We’ve made substantial progress already, just with a few modest grants and a lot of donated sweat from both our team and the community. Though there’s a lot of work ahead, we’ve already been able to:
- remove and clean up a collapsing floor
- pour a new concrete footing and build a new foundation wall
- repair and reglaze 50 original windows
- remove the 11,000 sqft broken asphalt parking lot to make way for new landscaping
- install an outdoor projection screen and stage canopy
- expose and repair the original brick foundation
- clean, board, and beautify the adjacent building with a mural
- build an outdoor community brick oven
- roof trusses to support new roof designed, built, and approved by a licensed engineer
- begin installing a 2,000 gallon rainwater collection system
- deconstruct the large addition on the back of the house
- install new hardwood siding around the base of the house
- create a detailed set of architectural and design drawings
The building, itself a canvas, will continue to transform, creating a model for recovering abandoned structures which is physically, financially, and socially accessible.
This work is by the hands of many. By working with community members, local artists and builders, and an at-risk youth program, a sense of ownership is given. It makes for a diverse series of ideas and uses which further encourage inventiveness and cooperation. The project has become as much about interaction as physical improvements. This summer we were able to hire four students from Metro Flint Youth Build - an at-risk youth program which also teaches building skills - to work directly with our seasoned builders and make their mark on the building. We’ve also worked with church groups, a number of artists, local universities, and even strangers just passing by and wanting to contribute.
As Spencer’s continues to grow, we invite the community to enjoy the fruits of their labor. We’ve already hosted a number of community events: art exhibitions, puppet shows, concerts, potlucks, and film screenings - all contributing to a still-growing momentum for the project. These events spark creativity, support, and hope in the community and breath life into a space that just months ago was a prominent eyesore in the neighborhood.
To keep things going will require some investment: for the time of our building crew, hardware and other materials that can't be salvaged, and the help of local artists. Your donations will allow us to rebuild the northern wall, which is the last significant structural issue left. They'll also allow us to continue sealing up the building: fixing the last of the windows, patching the roof, extending our building insurance for the next year, and produce the public events which are essential in keeping life in the building.
- $2200 - production costs for public events at Spencer’s, including fees for performers, technicians, food, and artist installations
- $3500 - materials and labor to rebuild the wall and flat roof (the last big hurdle to make the building structurally sound!)
- $3000 - building insurance for a year to keep our investments safe
- $600 - labor to replace the remaining missing windows
- $1000 - time and materials for one of our artists to design and build collages for the two large 50”x60” windows on the front of the house
- $800 - installation of a finish floor made from old solid hardwood doors, plus materials (hardware, cement)
$900 - siding repair
The Spencer’s project has the potential to have significant and lasting impact on this neighborhood, but stabilizing and beautifying the building is just the beginning. The process is a long one, and eventually will require more funding to make the space fully functional.
Any additional funding beyond our goal of $12,000 will go toward landscaping, fruit trees and other edible vegetation, siding repair that will prepare us to paint next spring, more public event productions, and a number of planned interior finishes that will bring the project even closer to completion.
An array of rewards made by the core Spencer's team and in the spirit of material reuse are available. Many of these will be made from pieces of Spencer's itself, will be part of a permanent installation in the building, or even include an extended stay in the renovated space!
Spencer's is a model of community inclusion, financially accessible and ecologically friendly renovation, and opportunity to create new and exciting types of spaces and interactions. So please help the project continue to grow.
Risks and challenges
As with any full scale built work, there are a number of hurdles. We’re lucky to have an all-star team of architects, builders, engineers, and artistic producers who have been hard at work making sure these issues are minimized.
A full permit drawing set is being reviewed by the City’s building department as we speak. We’ve consulted with engineers on what structural improvements need to happen, who have also approved custom-made roof trusses made from scrap wood. We’re securing building insurance as soon as this campaign is funded. And we have a committed team of masons, carpenters, and contractors ready to get the job done.Learn about accountability on Kickstarter
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