Greetings! This is E. Stephen taking advantage of the seasonally-appropriate frigid weather, to finally start writing out the narrative I’ve been verbally repeating for the past two years. So, for the benefit of those who don’t already know it, here’s the story of Katrina and me and Torrent Engine 18.
Katrina and I have both been involved actively in the arts for most of our lives. Specifically, we’ve both been involved in the arts around Boston since the 90s. In the early 2000s, our paths converged in NYC. We first met officially in the fall of 2003, became inseparable, and relocated back to Massachusetts together. Katrina moved into an underground art and performance space in Allston named “Pan-9” that had been publicly-clandestine base of operations for Boston artists for nearly 15 years, which i already had an ongoing involvement with.
On December 29th 2006, a fire tore through Pan-9. The fire was caused by electrical problems which the landlord had repeatedly refused to fix. The building was eventually repaired, but the 2000 sq ft space that had been Pan-9, where audiences of hundreds had once gathered to see live performances, was subdivided into 4 separate condos units.
Immediately after the fire, we began to seek a new space where art and people could could converge. We visited dozens of potential rental spaces over the next two years, but there was nothing suitable in our price range. During those same years, we also had countless meetings with city development councils and non-profit foundations, as we looked for ways subsidize an arts space in a rented commercial space. Potential opportunities and resources appeared bountiful, but tangible help was always an elusive mirage. The bottom line always seemed to be there was no help available to anyone who didn’t already have a pre-existing multimillion dollar budget.
During those years, we moved a half dozen times from one cramped temporary space to the next.
In 2008, the housing bubble burst. Suddenly a glut of properties were for sale at prices such that a monthly mortgage would cost dramatically less than renting the same square footage. At that point, even as buying a property was suddenly a more affordable option, we also noticed a plethora of major media pundits trumpeting the message that the housing market crash was “proof” individuals were better off renting and should avoid ever buying property. We rightly interpreted this as a warning that big money was planning a mass-buy up of bargain properties, and knew we’d have a limited window of opportunity to purchase property ourselves.
The dream of ownership had always held a huge appeal to us. Over the years, we’d watched numerous art galleries and performance spaces forced to close by rising rents and difficult landlords.
Here are 3 facts (for the benefit of any lucky people haven’t already experienced it):
1. For years its been a recurring recurring urban cycle that most artists can’t afford rent in “nice” parts of town, so they rent out badly maintained spaces in less desirable areas. The artists invest sweat equity, make repairs, and open arts spaces. About the time the art spaces have existed long enough to build audience and reputation, the neighborhood gentrifies, the rents skyrocket, and the artist are homeless again.
2.The majority of art’s spaces are not financially profitable. They usually exist because the people running them are constantly busting ass, and pouring their own personal resources into the venture.
3. Becoming an arts non-profit does NOT instantly guarantee a magical endless stream of string-free grant money.
Our strategy was to consolidate costs by buying a property in the price range of a conventional residential house for us to live in, but that was also big enough for arts events, so we’d be less dependent on external funding than if we were had to cover costs of both living space and an art space at a separate location. Katrina had been lucky to maintain steady day job at Harvard for some years and we both had some savings, so we began the hunt for a property to buy.
We quickly discovered most realtors didn’t return phone calls at all. So we found a buyer’s agent who seemed enthused to work with us, but stopped answering our calls after a few weeks. (We later learned he’d unexpectedly keeled over dead, and no one had updated the voicemail at the number we had for him.)
Eventually we found a wonderful buyer’s agent named Deborah Galiga who’d been recommended to us by other art friends.
With her aid, over the next several years, we visited over a hundred different properties.
We typically spent an hour a day, every day, searching the online real estate listings for Greater Boston. We hunted based on price per sq. footage, and proximity to public transportation. But even at post-crash prices, we realized our only hope of finding space enough for both living and art was to target oddball properties at the bottom of the market.
We visited boarded up gas stations, and rickety foreclosed homes. We visited abandoned buildings full of burned-out car and trees growing through the floors. There was one apartment building we’d been told was vacant, but when we got there, the building manager explained it was still technically half occupied by people living in the low-income units… but not to worry (he cheerfully explained), they’d soon be evicted. He jimmied the lock to the apartment on the top floor with a butter knife while whispering “a crazy lady lives here, but I’m pretty sure she isn’t home.” We were greeted by two inquisitive cats, but no sign of the lady. Paper plates heaped with decaying takeout-food covered every surface. The ceiling was a jungle of flypaper. At the far side of the bedroom, we saw hundreds of metal cans carefully stacked against the wall. At first I thought it was a beer-can collection. But when I realized the cans were aerosol bed-bug spray, I suggested we leave ASAP. As we fled the apartment, Katrina mentioned she’d noticed a motionless body lying in the bed.
On the first floor, without knocking or introduction, the building manager led us into an apartment occupied by a young mother. Despite her two active two toddlers, the apartment was spotlessly clean and carefully organized. She had a sweet, open face, and apologized to us in broken English, flustered that she hadn’t had time to prepare anything for us to eat, because when visitors arrive, offering them food is the proper thing to do. The building manager whispered in my ear, “She doesn’t know she’s about to be homeless.” We left almost in tears—we didn’t put an offer on that one.
There was listing for a “10 story building - 40 thousand square feet - $100,000.” We assumed it was a misprint, but called anyway. The realtors told us it was no misprint, and all would be explained if we came and saw the place.
We arrived and found a 10-story-tall windowless obelisk of crumbling white concrete. The listing agent opened the single rusting steel portal at street level, and we realized that the sq footage was strictly conceptual. The tower was a single, hollow shaft 85ft tall and roughly 30ft X 40ft square. No electrical or plumbing. No floors or stairs. The darkness was broken only by laser-like beams of daylight angling in from dripping ventilation slots in the tattered roof. Seagulls circled far above us. We stood on gravely sludge. In the shadows, ancient stalagmites of bird shit towered tall as houses. Mummified birds lay around my feet in congealed in oily puddles. The structure had been built to store giant blocks of ice in the days before refrigerators. In 1910, a single giant mold had been constructed on site, and the entirety of the concrete building had been poured into place in one single step. It was brutal masterpiece. I cannot think of it even now, without the opening bars of “Thus Spoke Zarathustra” playing in my head. Shortly after its centennial anniversary, the mighty 1910 Icehouse was torn to the ground. I still regret not buying it. (Katrina thought it impractical.)
I went to one store-front that looked OK from outside, but inside the entryway was a dense barrier of cobwebs. The electricity was off, and all the windows were covered by steel shutters. I cut my way through layer after layer of floor-to-ceiling webs full of very live, active spiders. Deeper into the darkness, lighting my way with only a small flashlight, I discovered the webs had effectively contained a mass of swarming flies. Pushing on through the buzzing, I descended to the pitch-black of the basement. Bugs swarmed, denser and thicker, until finally I reached the heart of the ecosystem: two bloated dead raccoons squirming with maggots. At first the raccoons seemed to be glowing… then I realized it was daylight. The raccoons had fallen through holes in the roof, straight through the rotten floor above, and into the basement where they could fall no further.
During a July heat-wave, we were led on a surreally heartbreaking group-tour of a multifamily house. Dozens of potential buyers and their agents jumbled through the stifling, un-airconditioned rooms, peering into closets, discussing different eviction tactics, while the actual residents of the abode, awkwardly tried to stay out from under foot… I became disoriented in the claustrophobic heat and opened a door that I thought lead back outside. On the bed, draped in a translucent white bedsheet sat a beautiful adolescent girl reading a book. She appeared not to be wearing anything except the sheet. She silently looked back at me, with a dark, unblinking gaze that was more calculatedly devastating than any shouted epithet. I quickly shut the door… Probably less than 3 seconds all told… but etched in my brain.
At one building, we were glowered at by an abutting homeowner who initially assumed the reason we’d ventured there was to buy heroin from his neighbor across the street. (And indeed there were multiple used hypodermic needles littering the sidewalks and gutters.)
Months passed. As we visited location after location, the novelty of discovering mummified animals and used drug paraphernalia in unexpected locations waned.
During those years when we were house hunting, we placed offers on about 20 different properties. Everyday was a like new lottery. Every phone call might suddenly unspool an entirely different future as we waited to hear if offers had been accepted. There were multiple small heartbreaks as houses we’d grown fond of escaped us.
We first noticed the listing for firehouse in early 2010, and were intrigued, but at that point the asking price was over 600,000 which was way outside our budget.
As we continued the housing hunt, we kept checking the firehouse listing.
As other properties came and went, the price on the firehouse slowly dropped.
We nearly were able to purchase the building for $360,000 in early 2011, but because it was an unusual property, none of the banks that had pre-approved us for financing on previous offers were willing to back us.
On New Years Eve 2011, the owners finally verbally accepted our cash offer of $295,000.
Speaking as a starving artist, $295,000 is an enormously large sum of money. But to put that amount in context of Boston real estate, $295,000 is about the average price of a small one-bedroom condo in non-desirable location around Boston.
HISTORY & DESCRIPTION OF THE BUILDING
Torrent Engine 18 sits at 30 Harvard St in Dorchester MA. It was originally constructed in 1869 for use as a firehouse. It’s architectural style is a variant of the Queen Anne Victorian, known as “The Eastlake Style.”
The firehouse was named after the horse-drawn pump (water torrent) engine 18 that it was built to house.
The main portion of the building is two stories tall and has a full basement. It’s approximately 60 feet long, by 26 feet wide. All the exterior structural walls are built of brick, 3 courses thick.
The foundations are massive hunks of Roxbury Puddingstone (Massachusetts’ official state rock.)
The first floor is an open space where originally the engines were garaged.
The second floor is divided into rooms which were originally living quarters for the firefighters.
There is an attic area under the eaves (probably once a hay loft), and a full basement under the main section of the building. There’s also a one-story portion addition which runs the length of the building on the left side, that was originally a shelter for the horses that pulled the torrent engines. The building was originally entirely wooden framed. The extant framing is still wood, but at some point in the 20 century, the original floor between the basement and first floor was replaced with a poured in place, steel reinforced “waffle pour” concrete slab to support the weight of heavier fire engines. The building is situated on a corner lot with a large back yard. The total size of the lot is over 10,000 sq ft (which would be smallish for the burbs, but is sizable for an urban area.)
And, no, it does not still have a fire pole, but we hope someday to reinstall one.
The original builders used good materials and built everything extremely solidly, but the 20th century was not so kind to it. The City of Boston stopped using it as a firehouse in the 1960s, and it sat empty for years, open to the elements and occupied by birds. In 1971, the building was purchased by a Moroccan daycare center and given complete gut rehab, down to the bare bricks and beams. That rehabilitation probably saved the building from being torn down, but many of the repairs were done horribly (sinister foreshadowing).
Under various management, the building continued as a daycare center until it closed in 2007, when it finally went bankrupt due to Bush-era cuts to education funding. The building was then purchased by a church group which held it for several years (also not doing any repairs) until we bought it.
Prior to purchase, we hired an inspector, who had experience rehabbing older buildings to examine the firehouse. He’d gone over a previous property we’d been interested in, and seemed very knowledgeable. In retrospect, the day he inspected the firehouse, his mind was not on the job. Every couple of minutes his phone rang and he’d shut himself in an unoccupied room of the firehouse and have screaming argument with someone. (From the tone of screaming, I couldn’t tell if the altercation was a professional contact, or perhaps an ex-wife.)
There were several area with obvious cracking in the bricks and signs of moisture damage that i was concerned about, and I specifically asked the inspector his opinion on each of these issues. With each of them, he assured me the problems were merely cosmetic and could be easily and cheaply remedied. It was only after purchasing the building that we discovered those “minor cosmetic issues” were in fact indications of major structural, and drainage problems that were far worse than I could have imagined.
When we bought it, we did know knew it needed an entirely new roofing surface, a new furnace, some plumbing and electrical repairs, some minor masonry repairs and a huge amount of cosmetic work. The more easily accessible copper pipes in the basement had been stolen by copper thieves, but the plumbing on the upper two floors was intact. We had all the water lines pressure tested and they seemed fine. The baseboard radiators throughout the building were ugly, but they also passed the pressure checks. The sewage line was scoped with a camera, and dye tested and everything passed all the required tests there too.
The upstairs had most recently been used as office spaces and playrooms for the daycare center. It had a full kitchen, a full bathroom (with tub and shower), and one half bath. The offices all had their own walk-in closets and all they needed to become bedrooms were beds. The estimates we got for required work in 2012 came to about $70,000.
At the time, this seemed like a lot of money, but we figured we’d be eligible for enough bank financing to cover that sum after purchasing the building. We thought we’d done due diligence, with assessments by qualified personnel. We expected we’d get the building legal to live in within 6 months so we could move in before winter and stop wasting money on rent. The plan was we’d gradually do all cosmetic repairs ourselves, and try to get the downstairs of Torrent Engine 18 approved for use as an arts performance space by 2013.
That was where things stood as of March 2012, when finally we both liquidated our personal savings and inheritances, closed on the property and officially became its new owners…
But all did not proceed as planned.
Stay tuned for the continuing saga!