Cracked walls, unlevelled floors and virtually no assistance from the landlord – this is not what you expect to get when you pay the rent. Unless you are an artist who lives or works in the 619 Western building in Pioneer Square.
Built as a multi-purpose warehouse in 1910 at the corner of Western Avenue and Yesler Way, the building has collected over the century serious structural flaws. Cracks are as wide as a tennis ball; the building’s east face leans forward and its foundation is slowly dissolving into the earth. When converted into an all-arts building in 1981, the deal was simple: owners would do minimal to no upkeep, and in return, artists would get cheap rent.
Visual artist Edd Cox, 63, was one of the first to move in. “We cleaned the space up, built walls, and put a new toilet in,” Cox says. “That’s the way every floor in 619 was done: not to code; just by people pooling their cash and building a little bit more.”
“There was a lot of hammering, a lot of sawdust, and this construction energy going on,” he remembers. “It took us three years to get everything finished.” And by “finished” he means having access to hot water.
Since 1981, Cox hasn’t lived anywhere else. His studio is a two-room space at the southeast corner of the building’s fifth floor. The bigger room, facing south is the living room, office and painting studio. The smaller area, facing east, is the kitchen and bedroom. Paintings, tapestry and 2-D mixed-media art fill the space’s few walls, while ceramic sculptures and pottery lie on tables. The bathroom – which has a toilet, a shower and a double-utility sink – is outside of his apartment, part of the floor’s common area.
The building doesn’t have central heating – portable heaters are Cox’s source of warmth. To do his laundry, Cox has to take the bus to Capitol Hill, but he doesn’t mind. “It’s my great achievement for the day.”
In spite of the lack of amenities, Cox has a view only luxury downtown condos offer. From the eight-foot-tall windows of his studio, he can see the Smith Tower, the Pioneer Square Pergola and Elliott Bay (although obstructed by the Alaskan Way Viaduct). From these same windows he used to amuse himself watching the homeless sleep in the station wagon he used to own and use its roof as a dance floor. “If I could just record it,” he muses.
On first Thursdays, when Pioneer Square holds its art walk, Cox opens his studio to all visitors. In addition to this monthly appointment, Cox’s place has been the great room for artist gatherings, meetings and carouses.
On a New Year Eve in the late 1980’s, Cox threw a party in his studio. “Three other parties were happening in the building and all of a sudden, the parties started to mix and 30 more people would arrive.”
Letting in uninvited guests was part of the game, but he didn’t expect that one of the gatecrashers would be a one-year-old crying baby.
“My friend comes up in her high heels with this little boy in diapers and says, ‘I heard this crying, went downstairs and saw this little boy at the door’.” They later found out that the baby was the son of one of the partygoers on the floor below, who thought it was okay to leave his son in the hallway while having a couple of drinks inside.
The party continued until after midnight when all guests were drunk, and to move from one space to the other meant walking over the people who passed out. “There was so much beer I actually surfed… I slid over the floor to get a drink at the bar,” he says.
In all parties Cox has had in his place, guests (invited or not) inevitably mingle with multi-thousand-dollar-worth works of art hanging on the walls. “You’re not in control, but I’ve never had any real damage,” he says.
Although social gatherings have been part of the essence of Cox’s studio, it was the more intimate events that captured his fondest memories.
“When you fall in love, it changes everything; magnifies everything.” Cox is talking about the love of his life, a physician assistant named Susan who he met at a friend’s party. He was about 46 years old when a common friend took Susan to his studio for the first time. “As they were leaving and saying goodbye, I took Susan by the waist and kissed her.” Cox and Susan kept their relationship for 14 years. They broke up a few years ago.
“Every time I fall in love in my studio it helps my art; it helps me dealing with the people in the building; it helps my teaching.”
But Cox won’t be able to fall in love in his studio any more. Because the building won’t withstand the commotion of the Alaskan Way Viaduct replacement project, all artists living and working in the building will have to leave by March 2012.
“One thing that stuck to my mind was that I had to leave; I had to pack up,” Cox says about the moment he heard the news. “I just went out, and on the first ‘For Lease’ sign I saw, I phoned them up and met the next day with a real-estate agent.”
The Washington State Department of Transportation announced on March 3rd a proposal to spare 619 Western from demolition. The former plan had been to tear the building down, but the City Council, historic preservation groups and the community of artists strongly opposed it. Even with the decision to retrofit the property, the building needs to be vacant by next spring.
As Cox and the other 90 plus tenants of 619 Western plan their departure, the building slowly changes its mood. “It’s still there, but there’s a shadow growing taller,” Cox says. “We feel like we’re saying goodbye to each other, we’re breaking up. We have a distance to go, and every day we get closer to that destination.”
Cox will enjoy the view from his windows until his lease expires on December 31st. “When I’m working at my computer, I can look at the winding clouds, the seagulls, the buildings turning golden in the sunset. I’ve had 30 years of beautiful sky, and that’s a miracle.”
Update: Although Cox still lives in 619 Western, he recently moved his studio to another Pioneer Square location (313B 1st Ave S). From 6:00 to 8:30pm today, gallery visitors will be able watch a performance by Oleaje Flamenco.