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New Artists’ Workshops In An Old Ice Cream Plant

by Jerome Weeks 28 Jul 2015 6:22 PM
architectural rendering1

Architectural rendering by ArchiTexas.

A former ice cream plant in the Cedars area south of downtown Dallas will become a new home for the arts. But a different one. Cedars Union, as it’s called, will be like a private gym – with 24-hour access for artists to use fully-equipped workspaces. Or rent micro-studios. KERA’s Jerome Weeks says, the plan is for an ‘arts incubator.’

We’re in the old Boedeker ice cream plant, on Ervay just across I-30 from Dallas City Hall. Built in 1921, three-stories tall, yellow-brick and concrete, almost 40,000 square feet. This cavernous, dark, dusty space on the first floor was the ‘cold dock,” the refrigerated loading dock for trucks to fill up with ice, ice cream, dairy products. Old, large, wall-mounted fans are running, but the stifling heat in the room  makes the air feel almost solid.

“And it’s very raw,” says Ben Griffith about the space, pointing at the fat concrete pillars. “I mean, you can tell paint-peeling. This is some of the old insulation that actually dates back to the ‘20s.”

Griffith is program manager for what’s called Cedars Union. This huge room will be used by artists working on larger-scale projects, like building theater sets. “And on this side here,” Griffith says, indicating the west wall, where a more recent, pre-fab metal warehouse has been attached, “we’re going to add an annex that will house our dirtier shops, our full wood-working, our full metal-working and we hope to include glass and ceramics in there as well.”


Ben Griffith. Photo: Jerome Weeks

Communal workspaces like this — equipped with tools open anytime to dues-paying members — are hardly a new idea. In Carrolton, Dallas Makerspace provides classes and equipment for blacksmiths, welders, even engineers working in 3D design. But this is new to North Texas artists – on this scale, near downtown. And there’s more — like lecture halls and a coffee shop.

“Would you like to ride a creepy elevator?” Griffith asks eagerly. Why, sure. “It’s dangerous.”  It’ll be the height of the tour, then. It’s one of those ancient freight elevators with a wooden safety gate you haul up and down, clattering and banging, the wood barely holding together.

The second floor of the Cedars Union is currently full of small, shabby offices — much more recently installed. These will be ripped out and replaced by some seventy micro-studios for lease, each around fifty-to-seventy square feet, plus a couple of larger spaces. The plans aren’t etched in stone yet, so there’s still wiggle room on the demand side, what can fit.

And then there’s the third floor with its oddly tiled walls. “We do know this was their mixing room. So this was another cold area in the building — although it’s not now,” Griffith adds. “It’s probably 114 degrees up here.”

On the top level is where there’ll be live-work spaces for three artists-in-residence. Griffith says the whole idea behind Cedars Union is to create an environment that’ll help emerging artists get from sketchy ideas to becoming full-fledged producers, to foster collaborations among different artists, even provide them with some entrepreneurial business guidance. The Bowdon Family Foundation bought the building late last year. But Griffith says Ken Bowdon first told him about creating what he calls an ‘arts incubator’ four years ago.


The ‘cold dock.’ Through the doorway is the pre-fab warehouse that’ll be torn down for the new workshop annex. Photo: Jerome Weeks

“And I said, ‘Well, it’s not going to work.’ And he said, ‘Why not?’ And I said, ‘Because you’d have to give this resource to the creatives to do with it what they want. You can’t dictate the process, they have to be a part of the process.’ And then, four years later, I’m eating crow because that’s exactly what he did. He and the Bowdon Family Foundation gave this to the community. So it’s exciting.”

Hundreds of local artists have been surveyed for what they really need. There are no galleries in the Union, for instance. It’s all about spaces and tools for working.

And on Tuesday, dozens of local artists toured the building, had lunch and were briefed on the plans and progress. Janielle Kaster, an actor-performer with the experimental cabaret group called The Tribe, was one. She was interested in seeing if their were any performance possibilities — even site-specific ones — whether there could be collaborations with visual artists. And she wanted to check out the Cedars.

“Dallas right now is like five decisions away from actually becoming a hub where we create new work and incubate new work. So it’s a pivotal time, and it’s really exciting that people like Cedars Union are making decisions toward the positive.”

Three blocks down Ervay Street from the Cedars Union is where the MAC, the McKinney Avenue Contemporary, will be moving over the next few years — with its mix of performance spaces and galleries. So the Cedars is becoming very much like West Dallas. Even as massive new apartment developments transform the area, artists continue to filter in, hunting for the affordable, the near-downtownable — while they still can — and in piecemeal fashion put to use a neighborhood much of Dallas wrote off or left decades ago.

Projected opening date for the Cedars Union: early 2017.


  • cool, I just might be interested in some space there

  • Thrilled to have these guys as neighbors in The Cedars. It’s one of the many amazing things happening on South Ervay!

  • I am interested. is this primarily a work space or will there also be a rent-able show gallery?

    • JeromeWeeks

      No, as the story expressly reports, there is no gallery/exhibition space currently in the plans. So yes, this is primarily — even overwhelmingly — a workspace. In fact, there is a “mock gallery” in the floor plan for the third level. But even that’s for artists who essentially want to see how their work WILL look eventually in a gallery space somewhere — they can ‘mock up’ their show’s layout. The thinking — derived from surveying local artists — is that there wasn’t a crying need here for another commercial or community gallery space.

      • I found it.. sorry dumb question.

        • JeromeWeeks

          No problem. Gave me a chance to explain some of the thinking that went into the planning for Cedars Union and add something I didn’t include in the story.

      • Bill

        One thing worth investigating is getting a “Liberty Bell” kiln. It is required to do large fused glass panels. After initial investment, it could be rented to differ the cost. With something like a “Liberty Bell” you might develop a fused glass studio?

  • So cool. Love seeing historic buildings get a reboot like this. Thanks for sharing the story, Jerome!

  • randy

    The collaborative work space look promising but those private studio are simply too small for anyone serious to want to use… they’re basically closets. What the community needs are more things like Jay Shinn’s Art Motel, simple private studio with good ventilation and lighting.

    • JeromeWeeks

      Point taken — he types, as he stands in his 10×10 office cubicle. But as noted in the story, there are a couple of ‘larger spaces,” which can be shared. Plus, there are the workshops with their equipment. It all depends on the nature of your artwork, the scale you work at, the tools you need.

      And, of course, Cedars Union isn’t the answer for all artists in all genres.

  • Jessica Layman

    So glad to see someone in Dallas A: devoted to restoring a building rather than tearing it down to build something new, B: making workable space for artists to create work in. An word on the costs of the rental? Will the rent be subsidized by the Foundation 100% or will there be some sort of “creative spaces” type grant process? Also, are their plans for rotating artists out of the studio spaces as they “graduate” in order to move newer artists in?