Off the Beaten Track provides affordable work space for D.C. artists

Lately for D.C.-based painter Regina Miele, art imitates strife. Though a great deal of her portfolio includes dreamy portraits of lackadaisical women and seated figures deep in thought, she recently found herself painting an unusual number of city landscapes. “I was too busy carrying boxes around to have a model sit down,” Miele says. “It’s a matter of logistics, and landscapes are just more accessible.”

After moving out of her artist loft at 14th and T streets NW in 2011, Miele schlepped her belongings to two less-than-ideal studios before finally landing at Off the Beaten Track, a restored warehouse in Langdon Park out of which she and 21 other artisans now rent affordable work space.

The 36,000-square-foot former post office was purchased last July by Greg Kimball and Wendy Hauenstein, a husband-and-wife duo with backgrounds in finance — Kimball, a business-savvy eccentric whose partners used to have to remind him to wear shoes to meetings, founded a currency exchange company in 1999 and sold it in 2011; Hauenstein, a Peace Corps vet who would sooner eat her left Birkenstock than ask for a plastic bag, worked as a financial consultant for a number of non- and for-profit organizations. The two also experienced a series of D.C. real estate windfalls, which ultimately helped them finance the studio project. (Their real estate agent refused to enter a house they purchased at 17th and U streets NW in 1995 because the neighborhood was so derelict. “There was a hatchet through one of the doors,” Hauenstein remembers.)

The lower level of the warehouse is home to a sprawling vintage furniture showroom curated by Kimball, featuring mid-century collectibles and Turkish rugs. The upper level and side annex are partitioned into private work spaces leased at $18 a square foot per year. That rate, which is one of the lowest of its kind in the city, leaves Kimball and Hauenstein breaking even on their investment. Sales of the vintage furniture are their ticket to profit.

“We wanted to do something helpful that benefits mankind, and we’re trying to do that by fostering art and small-business growth,” Kimball says. “But we’re also doing it with a business bent. It’s not quite as tree plant-y as it sounds.”

Though the warehouse has been fully operational since March, it officially opened to the public Saturday with a block party with food from local vendors and tours of the studios. Every tenant — including two florists, a woodworker, a technical pattern maker, a fine-jewelry designer, a pottery craftsman and a letterpress printer — was vetted by Kimball and Hauenstein, who admit to having no formal artistic training.

“It’s fun to be around a creative atmosphere, especially after working in finance,” Kimball says. “Opening bell, blah blah, blah. We’ve made it a mission to surround ourselves with something more fun.”

“We’re just wannabes,” Hauenstein adds.

Every day the craftspeople convene at the warehouse, located at the end of a dead-end street, to fuel D.C.’s burgeoning group of sole proprietors who own creative enterprises — a sector of jobs in Washington that, according to the District of Columbia Office of Planning, is composed of more than 7,000 individuals.

The building (and other creative incubators like 52 O Street, the Torpedo Factory and Jackson Art Center) makes a small dent in the lack of affordable work spaces in a city where condos outnumber collectives. “We wanted to create a place where people can come together and be colleagues,” Hauenstein says, “and where they can share resources, clients and information that will turn into revenue.”

Tilahun Wendafrash is one of them. After seeking asylum in Norway, the Ethiopian-born ironworker won a diversity visa lottery to come to the United States in 2011, but his nonexistent credit history hindered his search for a work space.

“He came to me with a stack of every bill, every invoice and every bank statement he’d ever had,” Hauenstein says. So she decided to give him a chance. Then she tapped him to solder the railings around Off the Beaten Track’s roof deck and later commissioned him to make bookshelves out of the building’s original skylights Hauenstein and Kimball replaced. Last month, Miele, the painter, asked Wendafrash to make her a workstation that will help her settle into her new studio.

“I think there’s an assumption that artists are nomadic and that we’re always moving to gentrify the next space,” Miele says. “But I’m so psyched I can’t see a crane or a condo going up. It’s a fabulous feeling of stability.”

Holley Simmons is the dining editor of The Washington Post Express. When she’s not reporting on local restaurants and tastemakers, you can find her sewing a dress from a 1950s pattern or planting a windowsill herb garden. Contact her at holley.simmons@wpost.com.
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