It would have been hard to imagine the bustling Station North of today in 2005, when Sherwin Mark began to turn the previously abandoned Lombard Office Furniture into Load of Fun (the name, devised by burlesque team and early tenants Trixie Little and the Evil Hate Monkey, was derived from the remnants of the old sign). At the time, the area was known for blight, crime, and abandoned buildings. Load of Fun, which primarily houses artist studios and performance spaces, has done as much as anyone else to change the contour of the neighborhood.
But at the end of August, as scores of new Maryland Institute College of Art students toured "graffiti alley" outside the building, Mark closed Load of Fun, temporarily locking out its tenants-including the Single Carrot Theatre, which occupies part of the first floor.
As a result of an anonymous 311 call reporting a violation, the city came to inspect the building and discovered that the front half of the second story-where the offices of online magazine What Weekly and the studios of individual artists are located-was not in compliance with its "use and occupancy" zoning. The space is zoned as B-2 (Community Business District), but, Tania Baker, a housing department spokesperson, says it doesn't meet requirements for occupancy (The notice read: "Land use without proper occupancy certificate").
"I contacted the city right away," Mark told City Paper. "I've been working with a lot of cooperation on their part. We're not exactly clear what improvements need to be made. I voluntarily closed the building. I need to exercise an abundance of caution."
Though the closure was voluntary, the move sent panic throughout the arts community and especially those artists or organizations, like the Single Carrot Theater, which has a show scheduled to begin this month in the building.
Mark held a meeting with the tenants and community stakeholders on Wednesday, Sept. 5. Though City Paper was expelled from the meeting, which Mark called a "private matter," we have been able to obtain detailed reports of its proceedings from those present. They claim that Mark told them that he has been involved in meetings with "department heads, not inspectors" of city agencies regarding the building's three major issues: lack of sprinklers, the electrical system, and egress issues.
Tania Baker confirmed this in an e-mail to City Paper: "Both Baltimore Housing and the Fire Department are working closely with the owner to help him reopen as quickly as possible. We meet regularly towards that end. We're happy that the owner is taking appropriate action to properly occupy the property and we will continue to work with him to help identify the quickest and most economical path."
In the meeting with the tenants, Mark reportedly said he would meet again with the city to lay out a proposal of how he was going to address each of the issues. He told the tenants that, once all of the funding and permits were in place, it would take at least four weeks to install the sprinkler system and two weeks to replace the electrical system.
"At this point there is nothing completely concrete but there is an excellent possibility the building will reopen on a limited basis in the very very near future," Mark told City Paper in an e-mail.
In the meantime, the artists occupying the building have limited access to their spaces, except during coordinated times, when they are allowed to remove belongings under Mark's supervision. The whole situation has created a certain level of paranoia, beginning with Mark himself. At the beginning of the Sept. 5 meeting, Mark reportedly noted that he is South African and grew up under a fascist, apartheid regime. He reportedly said that he and his colleagues in art school expected there to be spies among them, and made an analogy to the present situation, insinuating that someone placed the 311 call either to hurt him or the building itself.
Others in the community blame the changing nature of the neighborhood.
"All of the funding is changing the dynamic of the neighborhood," says Liam Flynn of Liam Flynn's Ale House. "Load of Fun was sustainable but there was no glitz. Station North [Arts and Entertainment District, Inc.] is determined to throw bigger parties without keeping the funds on hand for these purposes."
Station North is still undergoing a dramatic change. In recent years, MICA has been buying real estate nearby, including the property directly behind the Load of Fun building, and the owners of the North Avenue Market are planning a million dollar renovation of the building.
In the beginning of 2009, Mark, as 120 W. North Avenue LLC, refinanced the original mortgage on Load of Fun for $560,000, in order to, as Mark told City Paper, improve the interest rate, install a heating system, and make other improvements.
Mark states that the community has been incredibly supportive since the Load of Fun has closed. On Sept. 7 MICA hosted events with scholar and artist Johanna Drucker that were originally scheduled for Load of Fun.
Some of the artists are able to wait and see what will happen, but Single Carrot Theatre, whose season is scheduled to open in the building Sept. 21, have found themselves scrambling.
"We have called an emergency board meeting, a company meeting," says Nathan Cooper, the theater's artistic director. "A lot of people are working really hard to make sure we are able to open our seasons with as little alteration to the schedule as possible. The best thing out of this is to see how the community is coming together."
While Cooper says that Single Carrot will open its season, he was not able to provide specifics on the location by press time.