For many, the iconic warehouses in Lowertown, Saint Paul are little more than beautiful historic structures, but they are actually an important cultural resource for the arts community as well. In the late 1980s, the warehouses of Lowertown were revitalized with the purpose of building a space in which artists could both live and work affordably.

In particular, in 1989, the City of Saint Paul invited Artspace to redevelop the six-story warehouse built in 1908 by the Northern Pacific Railway. The result was the Northern Warehouse Artists’ Cooperative (NWAC), a self-governing, democratically run artists’ cooperative, one of the first such live-work spaces in the country to be developed. Sine 1990, the NWAC has served as a catalyst for the economic and cultural growth of the then-struggling Lowertown neighborhood.

As the home of the Black Dog Café (filming site for the upcoming The Lowertown Line interview with Dessa and Brother Ali) and the AZ Gallery, the Northern Warehouse is a well-known structure in the Lowertown landscape. The first two floors of the warehouse are utilized for commercial space, studios and galleries and the top four floors house the NWAC and serve as 52 live/work units.

NWAC members are writers, art teachers, dancers, designers, filmmakers, musicians, painters, potters, poets, photographers and more. New members are admitted through a selections process, which consists of an artist interview and portfolio review. Members elect their own Board of Directors and Chairs of the various committees, which help run the cooperative.

The artists seem to take full advantage of their space and its intended function. Apartments are partitioned off with clear delineations between “work” and “live,” and there are very deliberate galleries in nearly all units to fully display the work to its best advantage. This multi-purpose arrangement fosters a unique culture of creativity and collaboration among residents.

The warehouse uses every opportunity to invite the public inside including the Spring and Fall Saint Paul Art Crawls as well as Lowertown First Fridays from 6 – 9 p.m. each month. The upper-level private spaces open up during these events and offer a fascinating glimpse into the life and work of Minnesota artists. Wandering around the building on a beautiful Sunday afternoon presents a strange and exhilarating combination of history, modern day Saint Paul, art and community.

This unique culture, however, is at a crossroads with the current development and re-envisioning of the Lowertown neighborhood. In the next few years, Lowertown will become significantly more high profile with the construction of the new light rail and Saint’s stadium, as well as the rehabilitation of the iconic Union Depot. While some residents of the building relish the change in their quiet neighborhood, others express concerns over being priced out of the rapidly developing area and think the community runs the risk of losing a big part of what contributes to its unique charm.

No matter its future, there is no doubt that as it stands, Lowertown and Northern Warehouse provide a true Twin Cities art experience and are a must-see space for any art lover.

Special thanks to Kara Hendershot and Cynthia Uhrich for their hospitality and invaluable information regarding the building and their experiences with NWAC.

More information about Northern Warehouse and when/how to visit is here: http://nwacartists.com.