What you need to know is that this was not what I expected. But haunted house stories almost never are. And in the wake of Public Space One’s exciting expansion into the Wesley Center early this month, where they’re creating a free workspace for artists, filled with materials and equipment, I wondered about PS1’s historical roots in the space above The Deadwood, a space behind the thick, squared windows I would ogle from behind espresso at The Times Club.
I’d heard whispers about that space: that it was cavernous, that it was beautiful. That for whatever reason the owner refused to let people use it, that he didn’t want to be a landlord, that he just wanted it gone. Basically, this was downtown Iowa City’s equivalent of the suburban haunted house with the grumpy, mysterious groundskeeper narrative, and I needed to ride my bike to it and get lost inside.
That opportunity arose when Mission Creek Festival hosted two all-ages experimental music shows at the end of March. Inside the indeed cavernous, urban-decay-baroque graffiti lies the once-palatial space with a stage, big back room, storage and even an empty bar built right in. One Deadwood employee called it “the single biggest waste of real estate in Iowa City.” But there we were, enjoying experimental musicians wail away on guitars riding waves of reverb. I spoke with Craig Eley, one of the MCF masterminds, riding high in the mid-week tremolo of music, arts and food events all over town. I asked him how he rented the space. “We came to (Jim) with a really nice pitch,” he told me, “and I think being part of the festival really helped … The festival has great relationships with a lot of venues. This is an unbelievable space, an unbelievable room.”
When I asked him about any plans to run more shows up there, Craig optimistically told me, “You know, that’s really not up to me. Jim has reasons and times he wants to use it and doesn’t. When it’s available and possible—the right time—, we’d love to use it again.” As I looked around at the high ceilings and graffiti-mapped walls with crumbling veneer right out of a warehouse in a Hollywood gangster movie, and then at Iowa City’s gratefully hip swaying to the music, I wondered when would it be “the right time?”
So I knew I had to meet the mystery man himself. And he was as pleasantly awesome as the misunderstood tend to be. Jim Bell has the face and handshake of a man you can trust. His smile is the kind that might make one want to tell their life story on a porch, or at least buy a drink from The Deadwood, a place he bought 21 years ago April 6. “It means I’m just getting broken in,” Jim says, and he laughs good and clean with a smile full of trustworthy teeth. “I understand the questions, but don’t know all the answers yet.”
I asked Jim about the history of the building and about its current state of shallow-breathing disrepair. “I bought the building 12 years ago,” he explained. “There was a viable tenant up there for many years; it was BJ Records, then another person trying to do a similar thing. Then it became vacant; obviously, the CD market sort of crashed. Then the tornado came through and damaged some of the structural members in the roof. The trusses cracked. We had to take out the suspended ceiling and the duct work in order to put beams up there supporting the trusses. That was 2 years ago, the tornado was 3 years ago. It’s been vacant since then. I’ve been thinking about trying to put a few apartments up there. The space is 40 feet by 80 feet (!). I was getting $2500 a month rent when a tenant was up there, but the bathrooms need to be updated. It needs $50-$100 thousand to make it viable for a business, $200 thousand might convert it to apartments. So there’s a barrier for entry. I would need $2000 a month rent plus the cost of remodeling and we could finance that over a long term. And the nice bar area? If you thought you could make money doing two shows a day, a couple all-ages shows, this would be a great venue for that. But there’s not drinking upstairs. Our liquor license covers the ground floor.”
Suddenly, the haunted house is a lot more like a Jenga tower of subtle rules, a limbo game against city codes, and one misstep in planning can see it tumble down. But just what could such a tricky venue be viable for? “…for art shows—we’ve had 6 or 8 people display art up there. You could do a party or live music, as long as it’s not too hot … that ventilation was taken out with the suspended ceiling. It’s an interesting space with 22 foot high ceilings! They used to play basketball up there pre-World War II. It’s a big room with a visually stunning appeal … we have zoning issues. Lack of ventilation. Lack of bathroom facilities. It would be a major commitment to put those in. As long as you have fire extinguishers and exit lights, you can do things occasionally like art exhibits or events on a small scale, as long as you’re not trying to make a lot of money, like a fundraiser or small concert.”
“You know,” Jim tells me with the “listen to this” eyes of a kid at heart. “That used to be a tuberculosis ward during World War II. A lot of people died up there!” This is back to being a haunted house story.
“People were in here, spook people who look for the harmonics of ghosts. They got one good vibe of a spook.”
“When?” I asked excitedly.
“Oh, this was a week or two ago,” Jim says. “They had real fancy equipment that detects electrical disturbances. They were in the basement and upstairs late at night. We’ve always known this building was haunted. Some people have seen them in the basement, I’ve felt them go past. We just ignore them. We know they’re not evil spirits. But you can feel them when it’s quiet. The ghosts stay away when it’s loud and busy.”
Attention artists: I channeled your spirits and spoke thus: “Jim, could artists use the space for shows?”
“If artists wanted to pitch ideas,” Jim said, and stopped. “Certain bands can come in and make money, but other ones run people out. But upstairs is another world. There are insurance liabilities and, of course, we’d like to make at least SOME money doing it. … I look at the economy and when I’m going to commit that much money, work, time and effort to making it viable. It’s not losing money, so I’m content to wait for the right time, the right economy.”
May this house of restless spirits not rest too long.
Russell Jaffe is filling in for R.A.D. Wudnaughton, who has become stricken with image poisoning after encountering some particularly evocative visuals.