On Labor Day weekend last September, if you stepped outside of the new Korean restaurant or the swank Japanese kitchen at 5th and K streets NW and gazed across the way, you might have caught a scene that felt slightly out of place in shiny, revitalized Mount Vernon Square. Lanterns emerged from inky, overgrown foliage. Guitar squeals careened through the alley. A fire escape that looked like it could collapse any second led beer can-carrying revelers into a disheveled warehouse that appeared it was about to do the same.
But the cookout-cum-DIY show was just one night. The weatherbeaten, blue-and-white structure at 443 I St. NW may be a boho holdout from Mount Vernon Square’s rougher days, but “I don’t think a lot of people know that it’s not just a bunch of kids in the building getting drunk,” says Will Sharp, the 31-year-old creative director of the streetware company Durkl, which resides on Gold Leaf’s first floor.
For well over a decade, Gold Leaf’s 12 studios have housed legion creative types like Sharp. And while Gold Leaf attracted packed crowds and scattered media attention over the years as its art parties grew notorious, its more important legacy is simply as a cheap, spacious place for folks to do their work. “There are happy artists here over 50 that come in at night and paint,” says Sharp. “Artists, welders, sculptors, musicians, and jewelers all under one roof is kind of an oasis for someone like me.”
One of the most accomplished current residents is sculptor Gordon L. Kray, whose Pierre L’Enfant statue resides at Judiciary Square. Visual artists like Josh Cogan, whose studio has housed portrait shoots of Michele Bachmann and Wale, work nearby rehearsal rooms used by indie-rock bands Ra Ra Rasputin and U.S. Royalty. “There was this unspoken creative encouragement that was there the whole time; the moment you stepped into that door, you knew it was the place to be for creation,” says songwriter Ryan McLaughlin, whose folk-punk band Typefighter used the space for much of last year.
All of that will end, along with Gold Leaf’s current lease, on Jan. 31, when artists will have to pack up their supplies and gear. Rumors of the warehouse’s demise have circulated for years, but in 2011, Demers Real Estate, Inc. finally closed a deal with developer Equity Residential. Eventually, this incubator of whatever-goes will make way for much fancier digs, and Mount Vernon Square will be that much less weird.
“I used to look out behind my studio and there was an abandoned lot with abandoned cars,” says Nick Pimentel, a visual artist who worked at Gold Leaf for years. “At night you’d see cars light up, and people smoking crack, and prostitutes. It looked like fireflies with all the lights going on and off. Now you see a Safeway, Busboys & Poets, and a Chipotle.”
Gold Leaf’s first indie-rock tenants were Trans Am, the synth-obsessed post-rock group known for their experiments in retro-futurism. Around 1997 or 1998, the trio went looking for a spot to build a recording studio, and came across 443 I Street. The well-known D.C. gallerist George Hemphill had lived and worked there in the ’80s and early ’90s, and Bill Adair’s Gold Leaf frame shop still occupied the bottom floor. “It was like the Trans Am workshop laboratory,” says drummer Sebastien Thomson. “It [was] kind of a dream come true—you wake up, ride your bike down to Chinatown, and you play with your bandmates all day.”
Not long after Trans Am moved in, Adair moved his shop to Dupont Circle, though the name Gold Leaf stuck. In 1998, sculptor Mike Abrams took over much of the site. “My inspiration was like, Andy Warhol had his space, and it’s inspiring to have artists working together,” he says. While working on his own art and teaching classes, Abrams built out the other studios and began subletting them to a diverse crowd of artists. “I could point to every room in the building and say this one’s a business, this one does video editing, this one’s a sculpture fabrication shop,” he says.
Pimentel was one of the first people to rent from Abrams. True to the dynamic nature of the space, Pimentel not only painted and silkscreened there, but also hosted shows. The Hosiery, as his chunk of Gold Leaf was called, put on off-the-grid concerts by indie-rock heavies like !!!, No Age, the Thievery Corporation side-project Dust Galaxy, and Devandra Banhart. That tradition continued when group Fffever moved in later in the 2000s. “They basically would practice, record, hang out, and throw events there,” says Sharp. “They did it all themselves, regardless of what people said to them about it being illegal or not being up to code. It was refreshing; they re-energized that place.” That part of the building later went to the fractured blues-rock trio Laughing Man, who began calling it Red Door. Some of the shows they booked over the last two years even took a turn for the almost-mainstream: A series of Jazz Loft performances eventually got a stamp of approval from the D.C. Jazz Festival.
“I tried to nurture the spot as much as I could with open door policies, and let people come and play music if they wanted to,” says Laughing Man’s Brandon Moses. “People could come in and rehearse if they wanted to. Bands could rent space for long or short periods of time or for free.”
If the vibes were mostly chill, that didn’t keep the authorities from getting suspicious. “Two 40-year-old dudes in leather jackets, gold chains, and crew cuts came in asking if there’s any alcohol sold in our space,” says Moses. If that wasn’t obvious enough, the two undercover officers then gave “the third degree to some kid who brought a beer from Safeway.” Of course, the hosts were only asking for donations and didn’t sell alcohol, so they never got into much trouble. “They basically came in, stood around, listened to a band, and left,” said Moses.
Of course, Gold Leaf saw plenty of wild moments. Aside from the occasional party that spilled into the street, Abrams recalls one well-lit evening when “I was cruising down the street and thought, ‘Oh cool, fireworks.’ Then I realized, ‘Wait, those are coming from the roof of I Street.’” He made his way there to find police circled around the building but unsure how to get in, exclaiming, “We need to talk to those guys!” But generally, Abrams says the police were kind. They might show up to a party, but they would rarely shut it down. “What they don’t know about is the afterparty,” Abrams says.
This time, Gold Leaf is shutting down for real. Last May, Demers Real Estate brokered a sale of the space to Equity Residential, which plans to build apartments. Some bands, like Laughing Man, have already had to vacate. The lease for the rest of the building ends on Jan. 31, and in the meantime there are a number of farewell shows slated.
“I don’t think there is anything like it in D.C. It was a unique place, and was as fertile as the ground gets in a city like D.C., where there are more art bureaucrats than artists,” says Cogan. It certainly won’t be easy to replicate a situation like 443, and Pimentel doesn’t see a similar spot opening anytime soon. “I don’t see it being possible for a bunch of artists to find a big enough building in D.C. proper to do this…rent prices have gone up so much.”
Some of the musicians interviewed for this article said they were looking into new practice spaces in town; some of the artists talked about looking for space in the suburbs, perhaps in Hyattsville’s growing arts district. A few said they’re considering moving to towns like Philadelphia, where more mixed-use spaces exist.
That sort of warehouse-style workspace is rare in D.C., though. This week, another longtime artists warehouse, 52 O Street Studios, let some of its residents know they may have to vacate their live-work spaces later this year. (The owner is planning to build a hostel.) On H Street NE, a building of workspace backed by Thievery Corporation’s Eric Hilton only lasted a month or so last year.
There are new live-work spaces for artists in NoMa and Brookland, but they’re not that cheap, and come with narrow income requirements. Another new development in Brookland will include some artist studios, and Dangerously Delicious Pies, a shop on H Street NE, is converting some rooms into rehearsal spaces for bands. The market for cheap workspace is dynamic in D.C., but you could hardly call it abundant.
Not everyone is feeling bleak. “I don’t feel like it’s the end of the earth, I just feel like it’s a new beginning,” says Abrams. “What I’d really like to see is the developer currently doing I Street step up and say, ‘Hey, we’re taking over your old building, but we’re going to give you some space out of this because we can be helpful, and you can be helpful to us.’” His overtures to Gold Leaf’s new handlers haven’t been returned, however.
For his part, Moses isn’t too worried. After spending so much time at Gold Leaf over the past three years, he says, “That sense of community, that sense of having useful spaces that function for the purposes of artists, that’s gotten a hold on people enough that either separately or collectively, these types of collectives will get created.”