Artists’ Lofts Find Nationwide Audience

Racine – Expectations that the spacious artists’ lofts being developed in the old Mitchell Wagon Factory building would be a regional draw appear to have been underestimated.

Not only is the project attracting potential residents from Milwaukee, Chicago and Racine, but there also have been inquiries from as far east as New York and as far west as Arizona, said Daniel J. Ashbeck, property manager for the new apartment complex.

With loft space ranging in size from 1,082 to 2,967 square feet and monthly rental costs from $600 to $1,200 – good deals in many markets – it’s not surprising that it might appeal to artists across the country.

Gorman & Company Inc. of Madison is spending about $15 million to redevelop the massive brick structure at 815 8th St., built in the early 1800s for the Mitchell Wagon Co. and then used by Mitchell Motors Co. It most recently was used as a warehouse for things such as antique cars.

A total of 100 units will be created in the 250,000-square-foot building when it is completed at the end of the summer. Ashbeck said 32 units likely will be ready to be occupied at the end of the month. There are five floors in the building, including a mezzanine and a lower level.

This is the second major project undertaken by Gorman in Racine. The company combined a historic renovation of a 90-year-old auto supply building with a new structure for the Belle Harbor apartment complex featuring 78 units in downtown Racine.

“Redeveloping a historic structure is more expensive than starting over and building new,” said Tom Capp, executive vice president at Gorman.

But, Capp added, the richness that such redevelopment brings to a community is priceless.

In the case of the Mitchell Wagon Factory, the apartments are expected to attract artists and to build on an already rich art community.

To add to the attraction, the apartments will be more affordable as the result of housing credits.

“A lot of artists don’t have high incomes by choice,” Capp said. “But they bring a tremendous vitality to an area and are harbingers of even better things to come.”

Ashbeck, who will live in the complex, also is an artist. He’s looking forward to displaying his oils and pastels in the building and living around other artists.

A similar experiment with artists is working well in Milwaukee.

Gorman purchased the eight-story former home of Kunzelmann-Esser Furniture Co., a century-old Mitchell St. landmark in Milwaukee, and converted it into 67 loft apartments/work studios for artists, Capp said.

At the former Mitchell Wagon building, not only are the living areas spacious for people to mix their art with living, but the building will feature amenities tailored to artists. There will be potter’s wheels and a kiln, a woodworking shop, a darkroom and several art galleries for people living in the building to use. A room will be available for artists to conduct classes or to hold business meetings.

A cyber cafe, movie theater with studio seating and fitness center will appeal to artists and non-artists alike.

Every apartment has a washer and dryer, track lighting and intercom access, and central heat and air conditioning is controlled in each unit. Cats and most dogs will be allowed.

The building will have controlled-access underground and secure street-level parking.

Because the building is listed on the National Historic Register, Gorman’s construction team is paying special attention to restoring the authentic look of the exterior and highlighting the features of the interior. Inside the building are exposed brick and timbers, along with the periodic appearance of authentic loading dock doors.

Judy Sullivan, project manager, said the firm is looking for Mitchell Wagon Co. items to display in what will be a historic gallery in the building. It already has a small Mitchell farm wagon and a scale dating back 100 years for display. Sullivan said she also hopes to find a place for a trough-like sink with 20 faucets that was found in the building.

On the 8th St. side, exposed railroad tracks will remain, but the underground tunnel that used to link the building to the Police Department is closed off and contains some of the utilities.

Henry Mitchell bought the property in 1857 and built quite an expansive complex before the company closed in about 1922, according to Richard Ammann, archivist at the Racine Heritage Museum.

“It’s always nice to see buildings reused instead of removed,” Ammann said.

At a Mitchell family reunion last year, relatives of Henry Mitchell were in Racine looking at the former factory sites, Ammann said.

“They were happy to see the building was still being used and a plan to create the apartments,” Ammann said.