Resurrecting The I. Fell Building

Originally built as a car dealership, the I. Fell Building has been converted into something like an artist incubator.

daniel evans and cynthia brubaker at i. fell building

Photo: Annie Corrigan/WFIU

Daniel Evans (left) of the Bloomington Clay Studio teamed up with preservation developer Cynthia Brubaker in converting this 1929 car dealership into gallery space and artists work spaces.

The Prospect Hill neighborhood in Bloomington is becoming a destination for artists. The I. Fell Building at the corner of Rogers and Fourth Streets has been transformed into rentable workspace for artists as well as gallery spaces for exhibitions.

With its concrete floors and exposed steel trusses, the building feels like a work in progress. But while some renovations are taking place to reconstruct aspects of the building’s history, developers and artists alike are embracing its industrial feel.

Let There Be Light

Kim Ransdell is sitting at her 2,000-pound Vandercook letterpress in her workspace in the I. Fell Building. The room is packed with tools of the trade, including a cabinet full of wood and metal type, a magnetic sign press and painting and stencil supplies. Her workspace is in the northeast corner of the building on Fourth Street. One of her walls is a garage door, and another features two big banks of single-pane windows.

“I feel like I’ve got one of the best studios in town,” says Ransdell, who runs the Collective Press.

For her work, the light is invaluable. “I’ve spent a lot of times in a dingy closet of a space, and I didn’t realize how much the light really opens your heart up,” she says.

Encouraging Artistic Behavior

There are about a half dozen other small rooms where jewelry makes, ceramic artists and stained glass workers have also set up shop. With all these different artists under one roof, the I. Fell feels like an artist incubator.

Daniel Evans is with the Bloomington Clay Studio, also a tenant in the I. Fell. He teamed up with preservation developer Cynthia Brubaker when he was looking for a space for the Bloomington Clay Studio.

“I decided I was going to create something that had an aesthetic about it, that as an artist I would want to go to and make work,” says Evans.

Historic Revitalization

Light seems to be on Brubaker’s mind these days. She is in the process of reconstructing the building’s old transom windows — the horizontal banks of windows above the doorways. She received a grant from the Bloomington Urban Enterprise Association for historic facade revitalization. Her current project is to find a color for the wood portion of the transom windows that matches the yellow tripartite brick on the outside of the building.

Brubaker says this tapestry brick is typical of the 1930s era. It’s divided into three parts; the center section has a textured pattern and it’s smooth on either side.

Back In The Day

The concrete slab in front of the building on Rogers Street reveals a bit about the building’s past; this is where the tall gas pumps were located when the building was first opened in 1929 as an Auburn Cord Duesenberg car dealership.

“It was a horrible time to open a car dealership in Bloomington right when the Depression hit,” says Scott Fell Caulfield, one of the fourth generation of Fells now running the building. It was built by his great-grandfather Isaac and grandfather Irving Fell. Control was then transferred to his grandmother Rose, and then his mother Eleanor Fell transferred control to him last December.

The story I always heard is that my grandfather Irving went the bank with the keys sometime in the 1930s and said, ‘I can’t do it anymore. We’re not making any money. We want to turn it over.’ Basically the bank said, ‘We’ve got nothing to do with it. Go figure something out.’ That’s how it stayed with us during the Depression.

In the intervening years, the building has been home to a junkyard, a warehouse for Indiana University Bookstore, the ROTC, and most recently the State Beauty Supply.

Caulfield’s favorite personal memory of the I. Fell is of his first haircut at Charlie’s Barber Shop. The barber shop was a neighborhood staple for 40 years up until 2010 when barber Charlie Franklin died. Eleanor Fell says that even through several generations of owners, one thing stayed the same — they never raised the rent on Charlie. It was always $100 per month.

“My father had a handshake with him when he first started the barber shop, and we honored that handshake until he died,” she says.

A New Beginning

It was Brubaker and Evans who approached the Fell family about the latest incarnation for their building. They both agree that this former car dealership has made a seamless transformation to the artist incubator.

“It’s funky,” says Brubaker. “You feel like you’re not going to hurt it.”

Evans adds, “There’s no new car smell.”

Annie Corrigan

Annie Corrigan is a producer and announcer for WFIU. In addition to serving as the local voice for NPR's Morning Edition, she produces WFIU's weekly sustainable food program Earth Eats. She earned degrees in oboe performance from Indiana University and Bowling Green State University.

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