The Haunted Old INS Building Becomes a New Art Space
The bars and cages have been dismantled and stacked in the basement. The solitary-confinement chambers are empty, except one, which holds a blanket and a bottle of honey.
Down the middle of a hallway runs a thick yellow line, leading to two pairs of handprints on the wall where you'd put your hands to be frisked if you were an immigrant about to be booked for detainment and, possibly, deported. One floor up, blue scalloped valances hang over the window where American citizens were sworn in. Another level up, the former dormitory rooms have no beds, only leftover writings: words scratched into arched windows, chipped away from painted pipes, scrawled on tile walls. Nobody is removing the writings now, and nobody, it seems, ever did—the graffiti in the "rec" yards was done in the melted tar at hand and hovers in ghostly layers. From 1932 until 2004, family and country names were conflated in this neoclassical building, so the lingering signatures are of two types, personal and national: "SRI LANKA," "SERGIO," "NIGERIA," "LURCH '01," "INDIA," "LUCKY R.," "CHINA," "NICK," "IRAN." Now, as the building is reborn, it has a new name: INSCAPE.
Perching like an oversize villa at the southernmost point of downtown, facing north back into the city, the old INS station (Immigration and Naturalization Services) sat empty for four years. Because it's on the National Register of Historic Places and because it was built in the lead-and-asbestos-happy 1930s, it's a complicated renovation job if what you're looking for is upscale office space. But that's what a group of 10 area investors led by MRJ Constructors planned to create when they bought the building in April 2008 for $4.4 million, with projected additional renovation costs of about $8.6 million, current project manager Sam Farrazaino explained. The original plan was for an office building with historical flair. A placard in the lobby displays the fancy finishes the developers intended, but that was the 2008 plan—these days, downtown is groaning with unoccupied office space and hardly needs more. The fancy finishes have been abandoned. Farrazaino, who got involved about three months ago, has a new plan: to make this an arts center. Artists and artisans don't need (or want) fancy finishes. Rather than $13 million, the total budget now, including the purchase price, is $7 million.
"I looked at this building from the outside for 15 years," Farrazaino says, pointing to the antique green radiators with red tags on them. The tags mean they need fixing. The developers are working with Wing Luke Museum on a historical display, along with a library of reference books, for the lobby. The bars that once covered the windows will be hung as trellises for ivy.
INSCAPE had its first open house on June 13, and tenants have begun to move in. (These are work spaces, not live/work spaces.) Artist Julia Haack has a studio in the basement, as does a digital design collective. A writer has already claimed a small, well-lit office overlooking the ghostly old rec yards. The other day, a drummer was testing the sound to see whether his band could rent. Two dancers from UMAMI Performance sat on the floor in the swearing-in room, working on a site-specific performance called Home | Bodies, centered around the idea of home, for another open house in August, after which the mechanized minigolf of Smash Putt! will take up residence in the building until its official grand opening in October.
About the name: INSCAPE. It brings to mind escape. It doesn't paper over the past, calling out the INS by name. And "inscape" is a real word, albeit a rarely used one. It means the essential quality of a thing, and it was coined by a poet, the Victorian Gerard Manley Hopkins ("Poetry," he wrote, "is in fact speech employed to carry the inscape of speech for the inscape's sake"). Since this building fairly throbs with essence, the name works. Having found a proper name, Farrazaino has passed his first test both as landlord/visionary/frontman for the investors and as champion for artist spaces.
Farrazaino is a friendly man who's been developing buildings for artists for the last 15 years and would really like to get back to making his own sculptures one of these days.
"Sam is everything you'd want in a landlord, except cheap rent," says artist Susanna Bluhm, who has a studio in Farrazaino's Equinox Studios in Georgetown, his refurbished old building where 55 artists and artisans rent work space. "He is a genuinely good person, conscientious, and responsive to any problems that arise. He works incredibly hard to keep the studios working well and takes pride in his work. He is honest about the longevity of different studio buildings around town—something that artists should be aware of so that they're not signing leases on buildings that are slated for demolition or a change of hands. This is in contrast to some other landlords in town who may charge less, but may be neglectful of the building or may be assholes if problems arise. All that said, Sam does raise the rent steadily, which I wish weren't the case. If I could find a studio similar to mine that was cheaper, I'd have to think hard about moving."
The cost per square foot per month at INSCAPE will range from $1 to $1.50 depending on the type of space, Farrazaino says. A quick survey on Facebook, which yielded responses from 14 Seattle artists, suggested that $1 is about average and $1.50 might be possible in another economy but not in this one. Haack wrote, "Talk to the landlord—negotiate, negotiate, negotiate! I am paying LESS than $1sf. This building has been advertised and listed for at least a year—why are more of you not getting a tour???"
The tour will make you want it. It's almost as if Alcatraz were opening up to become artist studios—not quite, since this place has what Farrazaino calls a "bipolar" history of swearing-in and kicking-out, celebration and imprisonment. But prisoners did include a notorious gangster in the 1930s: Alvin "Creepy" Karpis, a Canadian. And just looking at the still-intact visitation chambers, the heavy machinery in cherry condition in the attic, the safe where bars of gold were held when the assay office occupied the top floor until the 1950s, the contrast between the government-issue offices with their crown moldings and the prisoner bathrooms with their mirrors made of suicide-prevention metal—it all sets off the imagination.
But immigration is not an abstract romantic idea, it's a political reality, and the fact is that the closure of this building did not signal an end to political detention—Seattle detainees are now held in a center in Tacoma instead. And as we've seen recently in Arizona, racism and xenophobia are still brewing—and will escape through the steam vent of conversations about immigrant rights. By coincidence, Seattle artist Eroyn Franklin is having a show this month at Gallery4Culture based on the actual experiences of immigrants who were detained in this building and in the Tacoma center. On display are panoramic scrolls close to 50 feet long each, the original drawings for a graphic novel under development called Detainment. It's based on interviews she conducted with a trio of independent journalists from the Common Language Project at the University of Washington, which is devoted to covering underreported stories. Her two main subjects are Gabriela Cubillos, who was detained for six weeks, and Many Uch, who was detained for six months. They were both released, but Uch, who came to the United States as a child refugee from Cambodia, could still be deported at any time.
Contact INSCAPE at 890-3283 or email@example.com.
This story has been updated since its original publication.