The House Issue

A Haven Grows in Hyattsville

By Darragh Johnson
Sunday, March 5, 2006

He sees the small white sign near the train tracks in Hyattsville. The letters are thin, dull and bureaucratic-sounding, but to Garth Rock-castle, they're a beacon: Gateway Arts & Entertainment Initiative.

He's found his new home.

"Perfect," the 54-year-old architect remembers telling himself. "The area is an arts district."

Thirty years ago, Rockcastle helped create one of the country's first experiments in using the arts to revamp downtrodden urban neighborhoods. The Minneapolis-based movement was a nonprofit called the Artspace Project, and its idea was simple: Create and foster arts districts by helping artists build studios and living spaces, while keeping the vibe -- and the prices -- sympathetic to artists and their typically less-than-deluxe paychecks. These days, this is classic urban-redevelopment theory: Artists and other "creatives" are often the first to discover The Next Great Place. Behind them follow the money, the yuppies and the coffee shops. But back in the 1970s and early '80s, the idea of devoting space exclusively for artists was seen as "crazy," says Rockcastle's old friend and Artspace Project colleague Chris Velasco.

Leap ahead to the fall of 2004. Rockcastle has just taken a job as dean of the University of Maryland's School of Architecture and wants to find a place to live near College Park. And Artspace has become one of the nation's leading developers of arts districts. It's working on projects in Buffalo, Houston, Miami, Chicago, Portland, Ore., and . . . Prince George's County.

Rockcastle hasn't been on the board of directors since the 1980s. But he gets on the phone with the Gateway initiative's executive director, Nick Francis, who is working to transform the rundown Route 1 corridor, from Mount Rainier to Hyattsville, into a thriving collection of studios and galleries. As they talk, Francis pulls an Artspace how-to resource book from his shelf called Creating Space: A Guide to Real Estate Development for Artists. He flips it open, and there, sure enough, is Rockcastle's name.

"I want to do something in the arts district," Francis remembers Rockcastle telling him, "and I want to make sure it fits into your scheme."

Not long after that first phone call, the two men drove around the City of Hyattsville, an often-overlooked historic town just a couple miles north of the D.C. line. It's an area of deep-porched bungalows, regal Victorians and old, large trees, though few passersby see that part. Most people, if they come through at all, travel along U.S. Route 1 -- a sad strip of used-car dealers, abandoned buildings and empty lots. Still, for one quick block in the heart of Hyattsville, Route 1 turns retro chic -- the hipster tone created by Franklins, an industrial-looking brew pub and general store. Its corrugated metal siding, neon diner signs and urbane merchandise have inspired a cult following and offered a glimpse of what Route 1 could become.

"I can tell," Rockcastle told himself, looking around, "it's about to change here pretty quick."

He'd seen this before: His home in Minneapolis was an old farm implement factory that he rehabbed in the city's decrepit-turned-fashionable Warehouse District. Now, he would do it again, in Hyattsville. He started looking at everything on the market -- and even at some properties that weren't, including the 85-year-old Machen building, a brick, two-story commercial space with nine front windows, dentil moldings and a front yard of cement sidewalk. Over its eight decades, it had housed a print shop and duplicating center, and then become office space for Machen family members, including an attorney, an accountant, a congressman and a surveyor. Rockcastle wrote the owner a letter and wound up spending $350,000 to buy the building's 5,000 square feet of space on one-third of an acre. The price included an old garage surrounded by knee-high weeds and a view of the old county courthouse, the train tracks along Route 1 and a billboard for Pantene shampoo.

Rockcastle has great visions for what the Machen building could become: a mini arts colony, complete with lofts, galleries, a European-style courtyard and French balconies. He envisions using furniture such as bookcases on wheels to create walls and transform rooms into long artist studios, and he hopes the old garage out back will become a myriad of art-studio configurations.

"I practice what I preach," Rockcastle says, standing at the building's front windows and watching the sun set. "A whole city will be influenced by what we do here."

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