The rumors, if you've heard them, are true: The Odd Fellows Hall on East Pine Street is about to be sold. The old building, which turns 100 next year, is a veritable nexus for numerous arts organizations. Its sale leaves tenants, many of whom are long-established fixtures in Capitol Hill and the city's arts community, facing the certainty of an uncertain future.
After hearing about the likelihood of a sale for several weeks, the official word came to tenants in a memo dated Wednesday, Oct. 25. While not addressing specific details, the letter stated that "Our intent is to update the building systems while retaining and/or restoring much of the original charm The Odd Fellows intended nearly 100 years ago. Significant changes in layout are planned for the retail and office (top floor) levels of the building."
Another rumor, that developer Ted Schroth was buying the building, also proved correct. Schroth, whose Trace project nears completion nearby, has received praise for the renovation of the old warehouse on the corner of 12th Avenue and Madison Street. "A group of investors led by my company (GTS Development LLC) will purchase the Odd Fellows Hall, and we expect the sale to close in January," Schroth said via e-mail. He said he wanted to talk to the building's tenants before speaking in greater detail.
With numerous performance spaces, a warren-like floor plan with high ceilings and creaky stairs, the Odd Fellows Hall exudes character and charm. For Hallie Kuperman, who opened the Century Ballroom more than 15 years ago, the space is quite simply unique. The ballroom's 2,000 square-foot floor is used for dancing, of course, but also sees use for music and performance events, as well as movie and video shoots. Kuperman said she is hopeful that the new owners will appreciate the artistic character of the building they purchased.
"I hope we can explain how this building has gone over the last 10 years, from being really unfinished to these great spaces. The organizations here are really strong," she said.
Kuperman has 18 months left on her lease. If there is to be radical change, she said, it won't start with her. But while she and other tenants welcome the prospect of much-needed upgrades, she worries that higher rents or drastic redevelopment would alter or even eliminate one of the city's unique arts hubs.
"Most of the organizations here are thriving, and it is in part because of this location. What works for us is this ballroom, this feeling of space. It takes you back to a time that doesn't exist anymore," she said.
Whatever happens, Kuperman said the Century Ballroom will exist in some form even if it ultimately has to relocate.
"We're fortunate to be well-established," she said. "But I certainly don't want move into a gymnasium. You can build or move into another location, but you simply cannot create this space somewhere else."
Another longtime tenant, Freehold Theatre has called the Odd Fellows building home for 16 years. An acting studio providing a wide variety of classes, Freehold has rehearsal and performance spaces and actively promotes new dramatic works. While Freehold is on solid ground financially, like the vast majority of nonprofit arts organization, large coffers of money are simply not at hand. Freehold's lease runs through April. If rent was raised to market rate, Freehold would need to move.
Freehold's managing director Angela Luechtefeld said she didn't have the sense the owners had formulated a detailed plan.
"This could be a good thing, conceivably," she said. She was optimistic that the new owners would be open-minded and expressed some relief the building isn't going to be demolished. Like other tenants, Luechtefeld said she expected to meet with the new owners later this week.
"I think it's great that they are probably preserving the building. But I want to remain hopeful that they will be concerned about preserving the arts organizations as well," she said.
Velocity Dance has called Odd Fellows home for 11 years, the entirety of its existence. Beyond classes and performances, Velocity makes its performance spaces available to other artists, many of whom are also tenants in the building. Executive director Tara O'Toole said it's been an almost symbiotic relationship between Velocity and the many people who use the space or attend performances.
O'Toole said she wasn't particularly surprised at the news.
"We all saw the writing on the wall with all the development going on around us. Everyone in this building has wondered what was going to happen to our artistic homes," she said.
O'Toole isn't certain what would happen to Velocity if rents go up dramatically. She needs to be pragmatic about keeping her group strong if the building eventually has to relocate. The loss would go well beyond the charm of the building and encompass being part of the larger artistic community that occupies the Odd Fellows Hall. It's more than economics, though Velocity and others may need to face some hard economic realities.
"The economy of nonprofit arts groups is simply different from a regular business. We're doing well, but it's not like we have anything like financial flexibility. I hope we're able to convey to the new owners the depth of our concern over what would be lost if this building doesn't remain a space for artists," she said.
Rents in the building are in the range of $10 per square foot. But if they were raised to market rate, those rates could triple. For nonprofit arts organizations, even large ones like Freehold and the Century Ballroom, such an increase, were it to happen, would probably force relocation.
"We simply could never afford what Capitol Hill market-rate rents," said O'Toole.
Freehold, Velocity and the Century Ballroom are established organizations which in all likelihood could survive in another location should it ever come to that. But the building is also home to numerous small organizations and businesses, such as Reel Grrls and Macha Monkey.
Michelle McCauley opened her one-room Body Symphony yoga-inspired weight-training studio on the fourth floor in January. She'd been working out of her home for several years prior to opening the space. Making such a move was a big deal. "I'm barely breaking even, and if my rent is raised, there's no way I can stay. It's as simple as that," she said.
While the news of the impending sale hit her "like a ton of bricks" she was aware that the building's sale was always a possibility. Her lease runs through the end of December and will convert to month-to-month after that; her time at Odd Fellows could be short. A dancer herself, McCauley doesn't think she can find another affordable space in Seattle, let alone one that lets her stay so connected with other artists. Many artists use the space, not to mention countless others who attend performances and classes.
"This space makes me happy, and if I and others like me have to leave, we'll be losing a link to the arts community and so will the city," she said. "I am somewhat resigned to what may be inevitable, but its traumatic, like a divorce. I'm not scared and I'm not angry. I'm just heartbroken."
Kuperman maintains a sense of cautious optimism. She said she's looking forward to speaking with the new owners and helping describe what the Odd Fellows building is all about. She hopes the sense of what the building means to the arts community - that it's greater than the sum of its parts, can be conveyed to the new owners.
"I want to explain how these arts groups have thrived over the last 10 years. I want to tell them that the arts are important. Developers have a choice about what they're going to make in the world, what they're going to make for their children. I hope they can support what's in this building. We don't need 20 more retail spaces or 20 more bars. We need community, things that make us talk and think. And art does that."