This story was originally published in the 2013 June/July issue of Chattanooga Magazine.
To the casual passerby, the building at 302 West Sixth Street may not look all that different; but to anyone venturing through the front door, the developing transformation is instantly noticeable. The four-story, institutional looking brick building that previously housed the St. Barnabas Senior Center is undergoing a complete makeover, in both structure and attitude.
Entering the building, visitors find ℹ Dish T’ Pass Cooking School and Catering Company, the location’s first new tenant. Owners, Amanda Varnell and Sarah Hooper, were searching for a large, commercial kitchen to house their growing business when they happened upon this space. Varnell and Hooper were meeting with one of the building’s owners, John Clarke, about another property when he offhandedly mentioned the St. Barnabas location.
After viewing the St. Barnabas kitchen space, Varnell and Hooper knew immediately that it would be their company’s new home. The business partners also decided that they had better be sure the rest of building was transformed into something fabulous, too. So, Varnell contacted her friend, ℹ Chattanooga Market Executive Director Chris Thomas. Thomas had been contemplating an idea for a new project and the St. Barnabas location seemed to have everything he needed. Thomas and Clarke met right away, along with Varnell and Hooper, to discuss possibilities.
Varnell considers Hooper and herself fortunate to have been part of the first meeting. “At one point, while we were touring the building with flashlights and listening to Chris and John talk, I told Sarah, ‘We are witnessing Chattanooga history in the making here.’ We both knew this project was going to turn into something amazing,” says Varnell.
Along with Dish T’ Pass, the first floor is also home to a large co-working facility from which the entire project derives its name: ℹ Chattanooga WorkSpace. The former senior center dining area is being transformed into an energetic, creative hub featuring rentable desk space, collaborative work areas, mail service, a coffee and refreshment bar, café seating, training rooms, a special events area and a sizeable conference room. WorkSpace tenants receive free Wifi along with other utilities and access to printers, copiers and other business tools. Daily and monthly rental rates are available on the WorkSpace website.
The WorkSpace transformation does not end on the building’s first floor. Artists are quickly filling the sunny ArtSpace studios that occupy the building’s top three floors. From tie-dye masters to fine art painters, each artist’s studio reflects his or her own personality. The camaraderie and creative energy can be felt as soon as the elevator doors open.
Textile Artist Julie Jones occupies one of the large bookend studios on the second floor. She is thankful that this space offers her the opportunity to have all her work areas in one location. “In my former studio, I was so much less efficient. I had to do my dying in one area and then go outside to rinse it and go somewhere else to hang it. Now, my work areas and my washer and dryer are all right here. I can get so much more done, it’s safer and I don’t have to be out in the weather,” says Jones.
As one of the building’s first tenants, Jones is excited about the changes that she’s experienced since moving into her new studio in March.
“The building has come alive! We’re all painting the community walls and really making the common areas our own. Artists are already collaborating on pieces and planning events,” says Jones.
As Jones points out, in their spare time artists are adding their own eclectic, personal touches to the walls in the hallway between studios, transforming the white cinderblock canvas into a unique work of art. “The wall painting is something we never expected and we are so thankful that the artists have started doing it. It just adds to the whole creative atmosphere and makes it so fun,” says Melissa Siragusa, director of marketing and public relations for WorkSpace and the Chattanooga Market as a whole.
Each of the ArtSpace studio floors is equipped with a common lounge area, restroom facilities and a kitchen. Plans for a second-floor shared patio and classrooms are also underway. “This has really been a labor of love for Chris. He’s had no outside funding and no loans. Every step of the way has turned out to be way more challenging than what he originally envisioned. Chris would never say this because he doesn’t ever talk like this, but I feel like this is really a gift to this city. It’s growing and supporting our art community by offering the artists a convenient, safe place to be, for really low rent,” says Siragusa.
Siragusa points out that the art studios are being occupied as soon as they are ready to be rented, without a formal marketing push. “Most of the artists here have heard about the building by word of mouth. It’s a great location, they can afford the rent and they trust Thomas because he has built such a good reputation through his other projects,” says Siragusa.
According to structural artist and photographer Ever Flanigan, the ArtSpace studios are also much more inviting to clients than a residential studio. Flanigan, who previously worked out of his home, has divided his second-floor Studio 5150 into a dedicated workshop and a flexible studio/gallery. “Clients are more likely to want to come here and view a custom piece in this environment than they would be to come to my house,” says Flanigan.
Shortly after moving to Chattanooga from Houston, Ali Kay moved her Positive Space Art Studio into the WorkSpace building in late March. Her happy, beautifully organized studio matches her personality and has been a welcome addition to the mix.
“I’m excited for the opportunity to connect with other creative professionals. I also feel like I get more accomplished, by having a separation between my work and home life. I am hoping and expecting to see this vibrant art community continue to develop. I look forward to seeing even more collaboration between artists on projects and events at the studio,” says Kay.
As with any living entity, Chattanooga WorkSpace is continuing to evolve. This creative movement is exciting for not only the WorkSpace occupants and staff but for the entire community. As the building’s transformation progresses, the innovative energy will continue to grow, touching the lives of more and more individuals—ideally inspiring them to establish their own space to create.
Visit chattanoogaworkspace.com for more information.
Story by Tara Williams
Photography courtesy of Chattanooga Workspace