By Beth Treffeisen
Off Washington Street in the South End in a large complex, is a brick entranceway with an iron gateway that leads down a discreet alleyway on Waltham Street. Once off the busy street, a quiet brick oasis is met with an iron-worked sculpture, back-deck porches and twinkle lights above.
Hidden in this back corner of the South End is Patch NYC, a designer, home-décor, gift shop, Melle Finelli Studio jewelry store, Perrotine with silk, cotton and linen lampshades and tucked all the way in the back sits J Jake Art Gallery.
“What I really like about this courtyard is that it reminded me to a lesser degree of Harvard Square,” said Jake Spitz, the owner of the gallery. “When you’re in Harvard Square, there’s bustle, bustle everywhere. You got the trains, the homeless, all the college kids flying about, and then when you go behind those walls, you start to whisper.”
He continued, “It became an oasis of serenity; it becomes more relaxed and serene. With this particular courtyard I felt the same things. That’s what I love about this place.”
The complex is home to 80,000 square feet of artists’ studios, commercial offices, a Citizens Bank branch and the newly opened La Motta’s restaurant.
Tenants in the building include Image Unlimited Communications, Connelly Partners, Oudens Ello Architecture, Grassi Design Group, and over 90 artists’ studios featuring some of the South End’s one-of-a-kind creative spirits.
Originally built as a factory for the Vose Piano Company, the structure is actually three buildings fused into one address and retains details from the Industrial Revolution, including ceiling-mounted, steel fly-wheels for turning lathes and wax-melting, sliding, metal fire doors.
Known for making exceptional pianos, Vose & Sons was originally established in 1851 by James Whiting Vose on Washington Street. In the 19th century, Boston was home to a large population of old world craftsmen who had immigrated to the area from the old country. These craftsmen possessed amazing skill in woodworking and piano building.
Vose was in a position to take full advantage of this skilled workforce and built a number of high quality, square grand, upright and grand pianos under the name “James W. Vose” during the era.
In 1889, he brought his sons into the business and established the firm as “Vose & Sons.” In the 1920s, Vose & Sons built a new state-of-the-art factory in Watertown and left the South End location. Not long after, the Great Depression hit and the firm was forced to become part of the huge Aeolian-American Corporation.
The 46 Waltham building traded hands and by the 1950s it belonged to A. Rosenthal & Son, a leather-goods company, according to the South End Historical Society. In the late 1960s, it was owned by Bort Carleton Co., a ladies’ handbags, shoes, and clothing store.
“The area ran into a lot of decay once the manufacturing moved out,” said Spitz. “When all the manufacturing left, then there was no money in the area.”
Spitz said that this area suffered a lot of decay from the Depression all the way up to the 1990s.
John Amodeo, a landscape architect at CRJA-IBI Group and the chair of the South End Landmarks Commission said that small parts of the area started to turn around in the 1970s, mostly due to a grassroots movement.
The Washington Gateway Main Street non-profit organization worked hard to revitalize that part of Washington Street. Through grants, the organization helped local business owners update their store facades and add appropriate period-lighting.
Before that Amodeo said, “The storefronts looked like barricades because the Washington Street under the L was a hostile place.”
The MBTA Orange Line T came down in 1986, “lifting a blight on the whole neighborhood,” said Spitz.
“Now, baby carriages is what you have to watch out for on Saturdays and Sundays because the sidewalks are all irregular,” said Spitz. “There are all young families are in here now. It’s beautiful.”
The current owners, GTI Properties acquired the 46 Waltham St. building in 1978. At the time the building was still being used for industrial purposes.
The previous owner had it divided into a number of smaller spaces. When purchased, GTI Properties founder Mario Nicosia removed a one-story building to create the open courtyard that is there today.
By the early 1980s, there were already a lot of artists and photographers in residence. According to an article dated to 1998 when Sara Campbell and Peter Wheeler moved in, “Word spread in local fashion circles that rent was reason and parking cheap.”
Amodeo said that he believes that artists started squatting in the warehouses on Harrison Avenue, in the 1960s and 1970s.
Due to the high housing rents, many artists opted to pay for just their studio space. Although they couldn’t have a kitchen, sinks were allowed so that they can wash their tools or use water for their work.
“Artists would adapt,” said Amodeo. “You would bring in a toaster oven and a small college refrigerator; throw a mattress on the floor. If someone were going to check you would throw the mattress in the closet and the toaster oven behind it.”
Today, in order to keep the artists around, developers now have to designate a certain percentage of new housing to live/work space for artists.
“They didn’t want to gentrify at the expense of the people making the neighborhood diverse and interesting,” said Amodeo.
Spitz said that 46 Waltham building became an offspring of the artistic community of the 450 and 460 Harrison Ave., warehouses. Today, 46 Waltham is a part of SoWa and participates in events such as the SoWa Art Walk, South End Open Studios and more.
Over a year ago, Spitz got the call after four years that there was a studio available that he could have.
“I saw this space and it was empty and I went and grabbed it,” said Spitz. “I thought this particular courtyard could use a nice gallery in it to help the other merchants and also to make it a nice community center where people can come in, look at fine art, talk fine art, and enjoy the space.”
Spitz said because they are located a little further away in the Northwest corner of SoWa, they don’t typically get the First Friday people coming over.
“We think if we got better restaurants in this part of town that they would all be coming this way – a little art and dinner,” said Spitz. “But the street traffic is always hard for us to be part of, but that’s ok because we have some nice events.”
Spitz said that he wanted to open this gallery not only to show his art – that features impressionistic abstract photographs – but also to give the opportunity to other artists who may not have another platform to do so.
Often times artists have full-time jobs, and are too busy to go banging on the doors of galleries to see if their artwork can get shown.
“What I wanted to do was not only get my own work shown but give opportunities to other artists I’ve always enjoyed over the years and get the public to see what they’re doing and how they’re looking at life – that’s what I’m seeking,” said Spitz.
He continued, “Over these years, I’ve met a lot of people, and I know a lot of people, and I want to have them show their stuff and show their work.”