Colleen Houston can see the future from her office.
The CEO and artistic director of ArtWorks isn’t psychic – or at least doesn’t claim to be. She only needs to look out the front of the organization’s temporary headquarters to watch the renovation of its new home across the street at 2429 Gilbert Avenue in Walnut Hills.
Work began last year on the building, constructed in 1909 for the Bolce Paint Co. ArtWorks bought it in 2021 from Woody Melson, who operated Race Refrigeration from the premises after his father, Woodrow Melson Sr., bought it more than 50 years ago. The $9 million renovation is scheduled to finish late next year or early 2025, housing the nonprofit responsible for bringing hundreds of murals and other public art to Greater Cincinnati.
“If you can imagine, all four stories of this building were filled with old appliances, refrigerators, stoves and what not. It was packed,” Houston said. “There were tiny corridors as you wound your way through it.
“We hadn’t done our homework so it’s amazing to discover the history we have uncovered. It’s thrilling to be able to bring a building back to life.”
“In our negotiation letter,” Houston said, “we wrote that we would like to have the Crosley refrigerator that is in perfect working condition. And even Woody was not sure. He was like, ‘I want to think about that.’ ”
Melson relented on the fridge, which will be featured in the building with another piece that celebrates his family’s business: a sign hanging perpendicular from the north end of the building that reads “GE Major Appliances Race Refrigeration.” It might seem routine, but it honors the first Black-owned company licensed to sell GE products.
“Race Refrigeration was owned by two generations, father and son,” Houston says. “When you think about the history of the building and the neighborhood, that is significant.”
Houston originally had her eye on a building on the east side of Gilbert, a space that is larger. But she learned that buildings on the west side of the street are eligible for historic and new market credits; the street’s east-side buildings don’t qualify for the latter. After Pray assured her the west-side site was big enough, she was in.
“And what a coincidence, we had already done a mural on the building,” Pray said of the “Welcome to Five Points” image that adorns the south wall and serves as a gateway to the neighborhood. “From a historical perspective, each building has a story behind it and it’s great to be able to have the opportunity to pump new life into it. This was a paint company, and we’re ArtWorks and we paint (laughs). I don’t think we thought about that. It was just a coincidence.”
Staying in the neighborhood, however, wasn’t a coincidence. Houston remembers standing at the Cincinnati Art Museum’s Art Climb dedication in 2020 and thinking her agency belonged in the area.
“I give a lot of credit to the Art Museum,” she says. “Its investment came first, then the (Cincinnati) Ballet was moving across the street. When you think about two of the city’s most esteemed institutions being at the base of Gilbert Avenue, and then having ArtWorks near the business district adds to the critical mass that starts to build an arts district.”
Playhouse in the Park also doubled down on its investment in the area, unveiling its $50 million main stage Rouse Theatre in March. And heavy hitters aren’t the only players on the block. Planet Dance, the home of Exhale Dance Tribe, has operated on Gilbert Avenue for more than 15 years. SKT Ceramics, a few doors north of ArtWorks new space, opened in 2021. And, while not technically an arts organization, Mortar, which supports minority entrepreneurs, is renovating the Durner Building next to SKT.
“Five Points Alley is the heart of the neighborhood,” Houston says. “It is one of the city’s best examples of creative place-making. It was unsafe at one point, but residents and the Walnut Hills Redevelopment Foundation worked together to take over the space.
“They organized cleanup days, brought in food trucks, events, there was a mayoral debate here. There’s a lot of magic here now. I remember a young man saying there weren’t any safe places for him to hang out with his friends. Discovering (Five Points) was important because there is a place where he can hang out after school.”
Houston also credits the efforts of Cincy Nice.
It was important to Melson as well. His legacy is defined by the half-century he spent working on Gilbert Avenue after his father moved the business from the West End. He was impressed by the ArtWorks model of hiring young people from where projects are underway.
“I had just gotten board approval to structure and (present it) the next week,” Houston says. “But I knew Woody had other offers and I was like, ‘I have to offer it him today.’ I personally delivered it to him and he signed it on the spot.
“He did that because it was important to him to sell to another Black-owned business or a group like ArtWorks because he knew we were all about the neighborhood.”
ArtWorks will pay tribute to Woody Melson’s legacy when it moves into its new home and begins to paint its own future.
ArtWorks New Home
- Four floors at 2429 Gilbert Ave., Walnut Hills 45206
- Multiple studios for training and employment for under-resourced youth
- Gallery for exhibitions by ArtWorks and emerging artists
- Space for community and private events and programs
- Office space for staff and teaching artists
- Onsite storage for paint and supplies
- ArtPark with green space, public art and parking (across Gilbert Avenue)
- Information: 513-333-0388; artworkscincinnati.org