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Old Mattress Factory Is Hotbed of Art

Ventura building is converted to 40 artists studios

September 05, 2004|Steve Chawkins | Times Staff Writer

For years, stained-glass artist Beglar Merlich has pursued his craft from his daughter's garage, an inconvenient spot for midnight soldering, and even worse for trying to teach eager students.

Last week, though, Merlich arranged to rent a studio in a cavernous, defunct mattress factory that is the latest reflection of Ventura's effort to turn itself into a haven for working artists.

"I see it as a tremendous opportunity," said Merlich, a 70-year-old retiree who has poured himself into his stained-glass passion for three decades. "In fact, I'm loading up my trailer and moving in this weekend."

Merlich is one of some 40 artists who eventually will occupy spaces in a 20,000-square-foot building that was the Bell Mattress Factory from 1936 until earlier this year.

In the newly named Bell Arts Factory, they will get clean, well-lighted places to work for just $1 a square foot, plus a chance to help transform an area that has long been Ventura's poorest neighborhood.

"It's a grand project," said Sharon Troll, president of the Westside Community Council, a local neighborhood improvement group. "This will bring people from all over to visit our part of the city."

City officials are also enthusiastic.

"This can really be a catalytic project, not just for the west side but for the entire arts community," said Sid White, Ventura's economic development director. "We're focusing on making Ventura the new 'arts city' of Southern California."

Last spring, the city hired Minneapolis-based Artspace Projects to plan a development that would provide low-cost studio space and housing for 25 artists and their families.

A location for that project has not been selected, but officials said potential sites are in the vicinity of Ventura Avenue, where oil derricks and storage yards are fast giving way to condos and subdivisions.

For decades, Bell Mattress was a Ventura Avenue landmark. But, overpowered by huge manufacturers and warehouse stores, the business closed its doors in May. Its failure left Josh Addison, the grandson of former Bell owner Robert Addison, in a quandary.

He could have torn down the Bell building, which is owned by a family trust, and made a nice profit putting up apartments. Or he could have leased it to a business seeking inexpensive space, such as the discounter that wanted to use the building as an outlet for cheap T-shirts.

"That just didn't have good karma, feng shui, or whatever you want to call it," said Addison, 42, a high-energy real-estate developer with projects in Kauai and San Diego. "At some gut level, I wanted to make a contribution to the renaissance of the neighborhood."

For Addison, that will mean spending at least several hundred thousand dollars to widen the skylights, upgrade the wiring, and generally spruce up the dingy interior.

The Addison family has other profit-generating holdings in Ventura, including the aging buildings on a prime downtown block and seven acres in Saticoy that used to hold another family operation: one of the nation's biggest parakeet farms. That land is being turned into an industrial park.

Besides, Addison said, using the old factory for some public good would be something his grandfather would have wanted.

An engineer by training, Robert Addison was known for his generosity. He was a big donor to the Boys & Girls Club, which named its nearby clubhouse after him.

He once gave a club regular the money he needed to start college, and the man, now a banker in Sacramento, kept in touch with him until his death, Josh Addison said.

Among the people helped by his grandfather was M.B. Hanrahan, a noted local muralist who rented space in a building he owned.

"He chose to support me just by keeping my rent at a dull roar, and following what I did and appreciating it," Hanrahan said. "Josh kind of inherited me."

In the former mattress factory, Hanrahan and her collaborator, Moses Mora, will be creating a vast mural of a vintage Ventura neighborhood called Tortilla Flats.

The piece, based on one they created for temporary display near the Ventura County fairgrounds, will be mounted on walls along the Ventura Freeway, near where the old neighborhood stood.

"I needed a bigger space and this was perfect," Hanrahan said. "I wanted a place with big doors for deliveries, a place where the public could come in to check out what we're doing."

With encouragement from Hanrahan, other artists and city officials, Addison envisioned the building as a place where artists could gather, children could take classes, neighborhood people could enjoy a new cafe and tourists could buy gifts.

But most of all, Addison wanted a place where artists could work.

"This won't be an antiques mall or a lot of little galleries," he said. "It's a place where people will make art."

That suits stained-glass artist Merlich just fine.

With his retirement savings drained by his old company's bankruptcy, he can't afford to spend much on his art. His new studio will cost him less than $200 a month.

"Stained glass is a nice life," Merlich said.

"But you don't get rich."

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