Front Runners: Paul Levy's Bridgeport Art Center

Paul Levy and partner Tony Augustine took a crazy chance. In 1999, the real estate developers bought the enormous 500,000-square-foot Spiegel Catalogue building in the old Bridgeport Stock Yards district on the south side. And now it's paying off.

Photo by: Bridgeport Art Center Now home to the Bridgeport Art Center – a mixed-use space with fashion design center, multiple galleries and more – the 1911 Spiegel Catalogue building has had several incarnations, including Goodwill, Harris Market Lamps and an air conditioning and heating company.

The rambling mixed-use Bridgeport Art Center has a fashion design center, multiple galleries, premier special events space, a burgeoning art community, and storage and commercial tenants: Joffrey Ballet, Continental Airport, North American Bear and home furnishings consignment warehouse Coyle & Herr. We asked Levy to walk us through putting something this massive together in Chicago.

“It took two years to sand blast the whole building,” says Levy. “There was water damage, the roof was rotting, timber rotting.” The five-story building at 1200 West 35th Street was originally purchased by their Prairie Management & Development company for use as a self storage and document storage facility. That arm of the business hums along. But inside is a totally revamped vision.

Photo by: Bridgeport Art Center The dazzling Skyline Loft event space in Chicago's mixed-use Bridgeport Art Center is industrial chic, banked by windows with downtown views, original timber beams and exposed brick.

Levy escorts us to the fifth floor and shows us a star. An 18,000-square-foot Skyline Loft event space. Voted best new venue of 2012 by Illinois Meetings + Events magazine, the loft is chameleon-like, fitting 1,200 trade show guests or a corporate bash or awards reception. President Obama's team dressed it up for his 50th birthday party. Rich touches are everywhere. In the restrooms, a back-lit ceramic work by Jay Strommen hangs at the entrance; a reflective sink trough has several U-shape recesses; stall doors are made of re-purposed riveted sheet metal. 

There's a standing open house at the center every third Friday where you can see the work of some of the 50 or so artist tenants. Creatives like Turtel Onli, an Indie publisher of graphic novels, neon sculpture artist Monika Wulfers, and wine and paint studio Wet Paint Chicago.

Photo by: Bridgeport Art Center A runway show at the Fashion Design Center in Chicago's mixed-use Bridgeport Art Center. There are 23 studios in 13,000 square feet. The model is walking the center's “common” cutting table.

The newest addition, the Fashion Design Center, launched in October 2012. Levy says the idea was inspired by a Department of Cultural Affairs study about designer flight, a seedling for the Chicago Fashion Incubator at the State Street Macy's. That program accepted eight interns per year but it was temporary. So where could these Chicago designers work year-round?  Right here.

Artists rent studios that range from 180 to 5,000 square feet. Linen designer Delma Zia runs her company Tailored Elements from a 2,200-square-foot office/studio. “And we're already running out of space!” Her client list is top-shelf: she designed several custom tailored linens for more than 20 receptions for the annual Christmas at the White House production.

Pattern-maker Alisha Boyd of Haisalrenee Contracting Services, a tenant for only two weeks, says it's worth her one-hour commute. In Chicago for a month and a tenant for three weeks, north Londoner Stephane St. Jaymes says, “It a really good deal for designers.” 

Event space? Fashion design center? Records storage? Art exhibits? “It just happens organically,” says Levy. He runs off a list of the next projects: An 8,000-square-foot pottery center. A combination gallery, studio and office space planned for differently abled adult artists, inspired by Project Onward's program at the Cultural Center. “We found out that there was nothing out there for adults,” says Levy. And new live/work artists spaces. Ten studios at a generous 1,000 square feet on that glorious fifth floor.

Bridgeport Art Center is itself a type of idea laboratory. A risk that sounded nuts way back when. Asked how much of what's here now was part of his original plan: “Zero!” Levy laughs. “But you can't do every building like this.”

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