It's one of those urban legends that sounds too good to be true but really is: Sherwin Mark walked into a furniture store to buy a chair and ended up purchasing the whole building.
Now he's turned that building into the newest artists' colony in Baltimore's Station North Arts and Entertainment District, with painters, a silkscreen artist, a sculptor and the Trixie Little and Fluid Movement performance art groups among the tenants.
The former Lombard Office Furniture building, a three-story structure at 120 E. North Ave. that has had previous lives as a car showroom and an auction house, is the building that caught Mark's attention.
He selectively removed letters from an old sign on the building and renamed it Load Of Fun Studios - 24,000 square feet of studio and gallery space for local artists, now almost completely full.
Mark and the artists are having an open house from noon to 6 p.m. Saturday as part of the fourth Gotta Have Art celebration held to show people what's happening in the city-designated arts district north of Penn Station.
A "mixed media" artist and adjunct professor at the Maryland Institute College of Art, Mark essentially stumbled into his role as czar of the new artists' studios.
He said he walked into the North Avenue furniture store two years ago, looking for an ergonomically correct chair, and was bowled over by what he saw on the top level.
"I went to the third floor and from the windows I could see the Howard Street bridge across I-83, which had just been painted, the new Brown Center at MICA, the church across the street from it, the synagogue on Eutaw Place," he said. "I saw that view and I said, 'This is amazing. It's the most incredible view.'"
He struck up a conversation with the owners and learned they were planning to retire and sell the building. One thing led to another and before long, he had negotiated a contract to buy it from them.
A 54-year-old South Africa native who has lived in the Baltimore area since 1981, Mark explained that he had been looking for studio space for himself and had experience leasing residential properties. He also was aware of the city's initiative to make a 100-acre area north of Penn Station into an arts district, giving tax breaks to artists and arts-related businesses that move there or invest there.
The building was constructed sometime between 1904 and 1911, Mark said, and was originally used by the Eastwick Motor Co., a Ford dealer. It subsequently housed dealers of Graham Paige autos, DeSotos, Plymouths and Nashes. In 1957, it became an auction house for E.T. Newell. Lombard Office Furniture moved there in 1978.
Mark bought the building last fall and began leasing it to artists. For now, the spaces are studios and galleries but not residences, because the building doesn't meet local codes for living quarters.
Mark said he would like to renovate the building to contain street-level retail or gallery space and parking and nine "legal to code" live-work studios above - two-story spaces connected by internal stairs. The renovation would cost about $3.2 million, and Ziger/Snead would be the architect. Before he can do that, he said, he needs to know whether he'll receive state tax credits for historic preservation. He applied for tax credits last year and didn't get them. He's applying again this year and expects an answer in June.
In the meantime, Mark took one of the studios for himself - one with the view he likes so much. He's made temporary gallery space available to Photo Forum, a group that is mounting an exhibit for the Gotta Have Art celebration. He says the building's rawness reminds him of the old Greyhound bus repair garage on Park Avenue before it was renovated, when the Contemporary Museum under George Ciscle had a Russian Deconstructivist photo exhibit there 15 years ago.
"It's fabulous space," he said. "And the area is going to get there. MICA is going to build student housing 100 yards away. It's going to be an excellent anchor."
Mark asked Fluid Movement, as a condition of its lease, always to display something visually interesting in its windows. He's also thinking of putting a sign or work of art atop the building to announce that it marks a gateway to the area.
"I don't know how many people come across that bridge every day," he said, "but I think we need to do something that makes it clear this is an arts and entertainment district. It needs to be really prominent."
The Gotta Have Art celebration runs from noon to 10 p.m. Feb. 11. A complete list of events is posted on the Web site stationnorth.org.