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Rainier Oven Building

Below is Part I of the ARCADE winter 2015 feature "The Creative Space-Time Continuum: Histories and Futures Inside the Rainier Oven Building." A photo-essay of the project, with words from the tenants, will release online in installments over the coming weeks. Subscribe to our e-newsletter and follow us on Facebook and Twitter to receive notice of posts. —ARCADE

The first time you walk into the Rainier Oven Building you might mistake it for a typical set of work spaces. The two-level building that sits at the intersection of Jackson, 14th Avenue South, Rainier and Boren in Seattle’s Central Area initially appears a maze of hallways, lined with rows of windowless doors. When closed, these doors are deceiving; their uniformity relays the false notion that each space behind them is the same. But were you to walk up and down the two floors, opening each door, vastly different sets of insides would be revealed. One space houses architectural models and a charming antique bureau. The next has shelves lined with plants and a collection of jeweler’s tools. In one room towards the back, jump ropes hang from above, and hand weights are stacked and sorted by size. Continue outside, and you’d find that the studios spill over into two nearby annexes. There, modern bookshelves fill a former auto-upholstery building and kinetic sculptures drift through the air beside a collection of neon signs.

When ARCADE Executive Director and Editor Kelly Rodriguez visited the Rainier Oven Building this past summer, she was not deceived; she knew there was something distinctive about this place. ARCADE’s editorial year—focused on space, place and culture—was already in the back of her mind when she arrived for the complex’s annual summer party, so perhaps that guided her insight. Or, maybe it was the new moon that rose that night amidst a summer storm. Either way, it was there, framed by the clouds and the season’s end, that she found herself surrounded by a true nexus of space, place and culture, whose story she invited Peter de Lory to tell in pictures, and me in words, for the publication’s final issue of 2015.

When I parked in front of the Rainier Oven Building’s stout brick facade to meet owner Carol Bennett, I had never been inside. But I realized I had noticed this place many times before because its facade appeared simultaneously old and new. The words “Rainier Oven Corp.” were painted across one side, faded and weathered, while the rest of the wall looked pristine and graffiti-less, as if someone had been guiding it into old age.

As I stood with Bennett in the lobby, she spoke of the 23 studios she manages across the Rainier Oven Building and two adjacent spaces on the same corner. Herself an artist and designer, Bennett’s own search for a working space brought her to the defunct oven factory built in the 1920s. At this unlikely Seattle intersection, away from other creative hubs like Pioneer Square and Capitol Hill, she found affordability—a rare attribute during the 1990s when, similar to the present moment, demand enabled properties to be sold on the spot, without inspections. She also saw character embedded in the oven factory’s bricks that was absent from the new construction she witnessed going up around town.

Rainier Oven Building neighborhood map

At the Corner of a Cultural Intersection — Wedged into the southeast corner of South Jackson Street and Rainier Avenue South, the Rainier Oven Building sits at the boundary between the Central District and the International District. This simplified map presents a selection of the businesses and organizations surrounding the Rainier Oven Complex, which reveals a lively mix of neighbors, a characteristic that is echoed within the studios themselves.  Map by Schema.

Woodworker Tom Whitaker happened to be searching for a new studio when the complex opened in 1996. He recalled, “The first time Carol told me I had to see this building, I came by, and the windows probably had never been washed. It was dirty in here, and I thought, This is worse than what I’ve got now.” But as Carol reworked the building into a more open studio plan and power washed away the grime, Whitaker saw the potential she had detected and eventually moved into the space. Over the following 19 years he built new walls and massive shelving units, steadily nudging his studio into its current iteration—an airy, light-filled room, pungent with the scent of freshly sawed wood.

After filling the Rainier Oven Building with tenants, Bennett expanded the studios to the two annexes on the same corner, where Jeffry Mitchell was molding an army of small, brown figures in his space the day I visited. Preparing trays of these cartoonish men for the kiln as we spoke, he told me of his experiences working in a variety of studios throughout his career, landing at the Rainier Oven Complex temporarily in 2006 and then returning permanently in 2012. Mitchell recounted, “I was [in another studio] for a year, waiting for the landlord to connect my kiln. He never did. Artists are used to experiences like that. No one expects more, but Carol has a whole different philosophy.” Bennett also suggested he enlist Best Practice Architecture’s owner and founder, Ian Butcher (another Rainier Oven tenant), to design the wooden loft that presides over his space. I was tempted to joke that Tom Whitaker must have built it, but as Mitchell continued his story, that turned out to be the truth.

“I would rather be here with all of our neighbors than have a fancier office elsewhere, without them,” Kailin Gregga of Best Practice Architecture explained as I spoke with Ian Butcher and her in their clean, white studio back inside the Rainier Oven Building, where they have worked since 2013. Having recently encountered Likelihood, a men’s footwear store on Capitol Hill that Best Practice designed, I had witnessed the fruits of this approach in the flesh. Many of the striking store’s details were born from collaborations with fellow tenants—for instance, its honeycomb-like lighting fixtures crafted by Troy Pillow and scrawling neon fabricated by Noble Neon. The happy hours and abundance of professional connections Best Practice spoke of having with their neighbors made it sound like these studios had been tailor-made for their work.

Lia Hall and Cedar Mannan of Noble Neon moved into a former metal shop in one of the annexes less than one year ago. As one of Best Practice’s collaborators on the Likelihood store, they had already experienced the synergy among those working in the complex. Another benefit they mentioned was the freedom to transform their space to fit their needs. Hall described how they had worked over the past year to convert their studio from its past life as a metal shop into a subdivided space, adding couches and other elements of comfort: “Before, this was never a space where you would want to hang out and spend time … but I think we see a lot of potential in spaces.” As she spoke, her words began to sound like Tom Whitaker’s decision to move into the building so many years ago—and like Carol Bennett’s own thoughts about creating the first set of studios from the old oven factory.

After I left the building and passed by the aging Rainier Oven sign once more, Lia Hall’s description of Bennett came back to me: “We say she’s not a collector of art but a collector of artists.” During a time when creative communities are often in constant states of relocation, the existence of consistent, supportive places for such practices feels like a luxury. But the importance of these elements to the Rainier Oven Building’s success cannot be overstated. Twenty years of history and relationships have enabled the studios to expand around the people who work within them as the tenants’ own careers do the same. The Rainier Oven Building is a testament to the idea that time’s discrete but pivotal role in creative practices should be considered when we look for ways to build and maintain hubs of space, place and culture—that planning for and protecting the longevity of creative spaces is important. As Carol Bennett described her decision to leave the Rainier Oven Building’s sign as is, “I don’t need a new sign. I like that transition of time.” 

Rainier Oven Building


"The Creative Space-Time Continuum: Photo-Essay (Part 2)" will release on 5 January. Part 2 will include these Rainier Oven Building tenants: Green Dolphin Enterprises, Lesley Petty Interiors Workroom, Josef Vascovitz, Jeffry Mitchell, Jennie Gruss Interior Design, and Best Practice Architecture.