Blending art and history at new ArtEAST building

It doesn't look like much right now, but in a few weeks, the vacant Lewis Hardware store building at 95 Front Street will transform into the new home for artEAST.

Karen Abel reviewing plans for the new artEAST store and studio.

Karen Abel reviewing plans for the new artEAST store and studio.

It doesn’t look like much right now, but in a few weeks, the vacant Lewis Hardware store building at 95 Front Street will transform into the new home for artEAST.

Well, transform may not be the right word. It is true that by the end of October artEAST, a community gathering place for artists and art enthusiasts, will occupy the 3,250 square-foot building. And it’s true that they will remodel a bit, adding handicap-accessible bathrooms and a modern HVAC system. What they won’t do is lose the essence of the iconic Issaquah building.

“We plan to preserve the spirit and history of the building as much as possible,” said artEAST Executive Director Karen Abel. “We’re keeping the floors. We’ll clean them up a bit, but we want to retain the ghosts of the store counters.”

And there are ghosts of purchases past throughout the space, though a casual visitor might miss some of the more unique elements. Abel points to small, numbered brass nails along the floor that were used to measure lengths of chain. Those will be staying. A little further along, by the door that leads to the basement, the floor bears witness to decades of paint mixing. Somehow they’ll incorporate the splatters into the building decor.

The goal of these preservation efforts is to “honor and celebrate what the place meant to the community.”

Reminders of what the building meant to the community abound. Even during straightforward business dealings, the subject of Lewis Hardware and its last owner may be discussed. On Wednesday, as Abel signed the lease agreement, the notary public who witnessed the transaction made sure to relate her memories of Steve White, the last owner of the store. She talked about how “Steve always knew how to find obscure parts and could identify mysterious hardware components. If you had a problem, he’d even come over to your house.”

To move or not to move

When they were thinking about moving to the bigger space, artEAST went to the community to try and gauge how much support there was for the expansion. They held a preliminary fund drive and raised $20,000 in 10 days from artEAST and community members.

“Individuals were saying, ‘Yeah, we believe in this. Go forward,'” Abel said.

A dramatic move like this is quite ambitious for a relatively young organization like artEAST, which formed only a few short years ago. Most non-profits have been established for at least a decade before they attempt a big expansion, but Abel feels that the community wants this growth.

“We recognize it as a community asset. What will keep it going is grassroots support,” she said. “It’s an interesting time for arts organizations. We can’t expect government and foundation support. We need to look to the groups who are part of the arts. It creates a healthier organization.”

And fundraising is going to be high on the priority list for Abel and the other members of artEAST. Now that they’ve signed the big lease, they will be talking to corporations and businesses about sponsorship, as well as applying for funding through granting agencies and foundations.

“We’ve already received support from the Sammamish Arts Council,” she said. “We have a lot of participants that come from Sammamish, as well as Maple Valley, Preston, Fall City and North Bend.

A tour of the new space

Walking through the glass front door, flanked on either side by bumped-out display windows, the artEAST visitor will immediately step into the gallery and retail area. This will be the new home for UP Front, the artist co-operative store that showcases artworks from local artists.

“Since it’s a co-op gallery and there are monthly exhibits, the art will change all the time,” said Abel. She even mused that they might be able to feature artist demonstrations somewhere in the front two-thirds of the building.

The back third of the building, on the yellow linoleum floor, will be for more art displays, workshops, meetings and classes. For example, a local drawing group meets regularly at artEAST, and they will likely hold their sessions in that area.

Just past the lemon-colored floor are the rustic, unfinished slats of the back room. Many people used to enter the hardware store through the back door, as it was the easiest access fro the rear parking lot. The new art center will keep the unfinished studs and beams, and continue to welcome patrons and visitors via the original back door.

ArtEAST is now working on permitting and remodeling for the new space. While she doesn’t have firm dates for the move, Abel hopes that the center will inhabit their new space in time for a grand opening on October 29 and 30. More information about artEAST is available on their website.

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