Lofty Change

Until a few months ago, newlyweds Chase and Kathleen Hendrix had ties mainly to Milwaukee and Chicago.

She worked in Milwaukee. They lived, and he worked, in Chicago.

Today, the 27-year-olds live on the edge of Downtown Racine, and Chase is trying to build more business in Racine and Kenosha.

What drew them to the center of Racine were the Mitchell Wagon Factory Lofts at 815 Eight St. The apartments, built by Madison-based Gorman & Co., are now fully finished and about 70 percent rented. The $14.8 million project is large, impressive and shows how creatively a former industrial building can be brought back to vitality.

Gorman & Co. of Madison does more new construction than conversions of historic buildings. But it now has completed two historic renovations here, and the latest is a stunner.

Gorman is the same company that also created the Belle Harbor Loft Apartments from the vacant Olson Auto Supply building at 134 Main St. That means the company now has two finished products at opposite ends of Downtown.

The 250,000-square-foot Mitchell Wagon Factory lies just outside of Downtown and immediately southwest of the Racine Fire Department. It is marketed primarily as artist live-work apartments.

The loft apartments range in size from 1,082 square feet for the smallest, a one-bedroom, to 2,900 square feet for the largest three-bedroom unit. All have 14-foot ceilings or higher, and many have the building’s original skylights of the large, slanted, industrial style.

In the case of Chase and Kathleen Hendrix, Mitchell did what developers expected: It pulled them from outside the Racine area. Chase owns the Chicago advertising agency Adaptive Easel. Kathleen teaches kindergarten in Milwaukee’s inner city.

Chase said they had been looking for a place to live between Chicago and Milwaukee. They found the Mitchell lofts through a news story.

“We were one of the first to look and sign a lease,” he said. They took the largest apartment in the building, he said: a three-level, eye-popping apartment of about 2,900 square feet. They both live there and do their artwork, which includes painting and making furniture and functional art.

The biggest reason they adopted the Mitchell lofts, Chase said, was the living space itself.

“I was used to living in a loft space,” he said. His previous one was larger, at about 4,000 square feet, but twice as expensive at $2,500 per month. “And it was not near the quality of this place.”

Hendrix said the building’s history, and being among other artists and professionals, were also big lures for them.

Mayor Gary Becker has been a huge fan of the Mitchell Wagon Factory project since the beginning. He visited often – so often that the small army of

construction workers assumed he was just another drywall-installer or other tradesman.

“Those things are incredibly well-done,” Becker said of the 100 loft apartments at Mitchell Wagon. “If I was looking for a place to rent, I would be over there.”

Like the movies Mitchell also drew Ray Zirkle, a photographer, from Pleasant Prairie to Racine, where some of his work was already being displayed at Uniquely Northern of Manitowish Water.

“The idea of the building with darkroom, gallery … it just all kind of fell into place,” he said.

Zirkle said the biggest draw was “the ability to get in with a group of people and have contact with this type of community that I never had before.”

Other factors were the artist amenities and that fact that he has “a great apartment.” Zirkle’s apartment includes a massive, old elevator shaft converted to a walk-up extra bedroom.

Tom Capp, director of real estate development for Madison-based Gorman & Co., explained the genesis of Mitchell Wagon Factory. One factor was that Gorman & Co. had had a good experience with its first Racine development, the Belle Harbor apartments.

In addition, “We had just done our first artist loft development, on the south side of Milwaukee,” Capp continued.

“I had had my eye on this (former Mitchell) building for a while. But it was too big for Racine.” The vast former factory could have accommodated about 300 standard-size apartments, he said.

It was less centrally located than other buildings, and seemingly harder to justify for residences. However, although the Milwaukee lofts had been a success, “I had one regret about that one,” Capp said. The units are small, about 600-700 square feet.

“But I really thought, wouldn’t it be great to have real space, so any kind of artist can live and work there? … Why not build lofts that are like the lofts that you see in the movies?” Capp also figured there was logic to building the complex just a couple of blocks from Downtown’s Sixth Street, with its emphasis on art and galleries.

So, by turning an underused warehouse into artist lofts, “We just solved two things,” Capp concluded. “It was off the beaten track, and it was too big.”

Gorman considers Mitchell Wagon Factory to be “live-work lofts for the creative class.” The building policies are geared to promote that, Capp said. “People living in the building will be putting their art up everywhere. Every hallway will have art on it.”

Gorman built in gallery space for artists to display their work, a pottery studio with wheel and kiln, a dark room and classroom area – in addition to the more general amenities such as movie theater and exercise room.

The package seems to be working. Although Gorman cannot restrict the building to artists and doesn’t expect it to fill up with them immediately, 22 of the first 69 tenants, or nearly one-third, are artists.

“I can see that number, especially while we’re selling the remaining units, increasing,” said Gorman Leasing Manager Andy Kliscz.

Debra Vanness, 49, who hails originally from northcentral Iowa, now finds herself a resident at Mitchell Wagon. She also owns a home on Charles Street in Racine, but other family members were living with her.

“I have wanted a loft apartment ever since I graduated from high school,” Vanness said. “I like big, open spaces.” hers has two bedrooms and 2,389 square feet.

Several of her carefully detailed paintings now hang on a wall of a gallery at the Mitchell lofts. Vanness not only plans to resume her painting, which has been on hiatus for a few years, but make use of the basement pottery studio at Mitchell.

One more intriguing aspect of the Mitchell lofts is that Gorman & Co. – now with an impeccable track record with its two local developments – probably is not finished in Racine.

Capp, the company’s point man on finding new projects, said, “We’re doing updated market studies (in Racine) – we have them going right now – focusing on Downtown.”

He added, “I’d like to develop something as soon as possible, which I hope is 2005.”