G2K a BACA Business: Marty Youmans and 52 O Street

Yesterday, I posted about Kendall Nordin, one of 34 working artists at 52 O Street. Today, I’m profiling Marty Youmans, the building’s owner. As I mentioned in the earlier post, Marty’s plans for 52 O Street have been the subject of some recent debate in the neighborhood (see here and here), and, while I’m certainly sensitive to the concerns, this piece is only written from a genuine curiosity about the place and how it operates as a working artists’ studio, not any opinion on the potential changes.

52 O Street Studios. (From Marty: "We can let the building be the face of the story!")

“I’m not the creative type myself,” Marty says, “but to me what they do is so cool.” Marty’s giving me a tour of 52 O Street Studios, retracing some of the spots I saw with Kendall on my earlier visit and pointing out some new ones too. Kendall first showed me the building’s old-style elevator, with the big folding cage you only see now in movies that are set in the 30’s and antique apartment buildings in New York. She also showed me places like SCRAP-DC, a nonprofit at 52 O Street that collects recyclable arts and crafts materials for schools, nonprofits and artists in the city to re-use, and she introduced me to James Martin, a printer and bookmaker who works on her floor. Marty started us off on 52 O Street’s “garage,” which has an unfurnished cement floor that allows it to house artists who work with heavy machinery. Did you know that Truxton Circle has its own custom motorcycle company?

SCRAP-DC, one of 52 O Street's most unique tenants.

52 O Street is the first property of its size that Marty’s ever owned. Though he lives in Falls Church with his wife and two children, he owns several houses in this area, which he think offers a unique mix of affordability, historic housing and accessibility. Owning property is a second career for him, after spending time as a journalist in Tampa Bay and here in Washington as a technical writer for the government. Owning property “is an excellent full-time job,” he says, “but a lousy hobby.” You’re on call 24/7, he explains. You never know when the next furnace will break.

52 O Street caught his eye in 2003, and when he reached out to then-owner Eric Rudd, he was glad to find it available. Rudd, who first converted the building to artist studios in 1978 after previous incarnations as a warehouse for a meat-packing company, a furniture company, Decca Records and more, had moved to Massachusetts to launch a new studio. With the added distance and the strain of starting a new venture, Rudd was open to selling, and Marty was open to a new challenge.

From the inside-out, at 52 O Street.

A building as big and old as 52 O Street isn’t easy to manage, and it’s still Marty’s largest property. He’s had a particularly vicious fight with the boiler, which he says “is about the size of a VW bus.” Overall, though, he loves the building, an enthusiasm that shows through as he describes some of the artists who work there, like Micheline Klagsbrun, one of the longest-tenured and most active tenants. “She just goes to the heart of this place,” he says, and Kendall, whom he told me was one of the best people I could have reached out to.

He’s still hoping to convert the ground floor of the building to a youth hostel, but that initiative is only in the planning stages right now. The change would entail converting four current artist spaces to rooms and complementary spaces like a coffee bar, a stage, a studio space for art students and more. His goal is to refresh a building he thinks hasn’t changed much in 30 years and fill what he believes is a legitimate need in the city. It will be a long process, however, one he’s only now beginning. “First,” he explains, “I need to make sure the details are all kosher with the city, I need to make sure they’re kosher with the tenants and I need to make sure they’re kosher with the community.”

O Street has too many interesting artists for me to list here, but you can see a full list on their website. I’ll almost certainly be profiling a few more as time goes on. (Truxton Cycles!) Don’t forget to check out the Open Studio on April 14th and 15th.

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