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Art meets architecture in Bellevue

By Richard Byrne Reilly
Thursday, November 22, 2007

Graphic artist Jesse Hambley found what he was looking for less than five miles from Pittsburgh.

Looking to create a clubhouse where artists and like-minded creative people could gather and work, he found a three-story former department store in Bellevue that fit the bill. The space was ideal: large rooms easily converted to darkrooms and photo studios. High ceilings and plenty of light. An extra bonus was that the property owner was eager to work with Hambley and his vision, which he called Creative TreeHouse.

“I started it because I saw a need for it. The hope was to establish a place for people to get together and collaborate. Especially for people who couldn’t afford to have their own studio,” said Hambley, 24.

Hambley’s vision took off. Today, Creative TreeHouse has 30 members — graphic artists like Hambley, students and photographers — who pay a $25-a-month membership fee. Many members are from the city, and their membership gives them access to facilities to paint, develop photos and enjoy coffee. Hambley hosts one event per month, such as art openings and concerts, and has used viral advertising on Craigslist and MySpace to great advantage.

“It’s just going to keep growing,” Hambley said. “You don’t have to deal with a lot of the issues like you do in the city, like parking. It’s not as busy. It costs me 25 cents to park for 1 1/2 hours.”
Hambley isn’t alone. City dwellers and those from out of state are increasingly seeking and finding old factories, warehouses and row houses to fix up and turn into artist work places. The value comes in cheap rents and preserving the fading architectural grandeur of a region still struggling to define itself after the steel mills closed in the early 1980s, said Braddock Mayor John Fetterman.

“There is definitely a market and interest for live-and-work spaces where rents and prices are a consideration. That’s what’s driving the flight to these neighborhoods outside Pittsburgh. The post-industrial ascetic is desirable to people,” Fetterman said.

Fetterman has emerged as a regional champion of preserving former factories and their conversion to artist spaces. Fetterman, armed with a master’s degree from Harvard, bought a former warehouse in 2003 for $2,000 and turned it into his home. The upper floors contain his living spaces while he turned the lower portions into a gallery.

Lured by cheap rents and word of mouth, artists have begun moving to Braddock from Brooklyn, N.Y., Portland, Ore., and other American cities, Fetterman said. There are currently about 40 artist work spaces in his town.

Fetterman says the area’s preoccupation with destroying old buildings could hurt the region long-term. On the upside, he says buildings can be bought and fixed up for a fraction of the prices of other major cities. Preserving the area’s architectural heritage is crucial and helps drive the influx of artists looking for the next new thing.

“The trade-off is you get your own space and get to do your own thing and you can easily get to and from Pittsburgh. Why should the county pay good money to destroy these buildings when you can pay a small sum and create your own live-and-work space? It is the harbinger of all grassroot economic development,” Fetterman says.

Artists are trying to produce the same momentum in Homestead, but believe the Waterfront stores and restaurants detract from their desire to work anonymously, Fetterman said.

Those seeking to create artistic havens need to do their homework. Jane Misutka and her husband purchased an old Franciscan friary on three acres in Ben Avon in 2004 with the idea to attract musicians and artists. Initially, a few musicians showed up, and later, the old friary housed four Hurricane Katrina refugee families. Ultimately, the plan didn’t work out.

“We bought the house as a weekend retreat. I wanted it to be used and not have it torn down,” Misutka said, who has since put the structure on the market.

Collaboration is the key to making the live/work spaces thrive, Hambley said.

“This is very much a group effort. The idea is to keep costs low,” he said.

Richard Byrne Reilly can be reached at or 412-380-5625.

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