Cameron and I set out to start exploring the neighborhood with no goals in mind. That's how we like it. Though, we did have someplace to be. Cameron's friend was getting married in a warehouse just two blocks from my apartment, yet another place within a few-minutes' walk from home that I had yet to discover.
We set out walking and it was only about 100 steps before we stopped at a familiar spot: ART CO. Since my first drive down this block of Commerce Street on my way to the leasing office to tour apartments, I've been fascinated by this place. It's one of the only things within the viewscape of my kitchen window that I've really looked at and contemplated in the time I've lived here.
This building stood out more than anything else on the block. "ART CO.," the massive red block letters spelled out atop the awning of a perfectly 1960s building. In my six years living in Dallas, I don't remember ever seeing this building in use. Part of its flare was that you were never really sure if it was totally abandoned or just a super unpopular art supplies store, which wouldn't have been unusual for the time in Deep Ellum. There it stood, whimsical, quiet, and unbothered - like Willy Wonka's Chocolate Factory or LaHarpe's Office Furniture on Clinton Avenue in Little Rock - calling out to me more loudly and bright red-ly than anything else on this quiet end of Commerce Street.
The building itself is old (you know, compared to, like, me) and simple and maybe beautiful. I can never decide. And it couldn't decide what kind of brick to use. The portion of facade below the metal awning is a rusty tan layered brick, and above that is the plain, boring beige that provides a perfect, neutral backdrop for those standout letters.
"You can have your trendy layered brick, Randall," said the original builder to his partner in the thriving East Dallas art scene sometime in the 1950s. "But nothing upstages the ART CO. sign, or I walk!"
"Have it your way, Tom," conceded Randall. "Just let me keep the inverted trapezoid entrance and almost-but-not-quite-floor-to-ceiling windows, OK pal?"
This is definitely how it happened.
And Tom (or whoever) was right! In the same way that the view out my window makes my apartment, that sign made ART CO. The name was simple, the font bold and clean, and the building height low enough that it fit comfortably within your line of vision traveling down the street. It was perfectly engineered to grab the attention of anyone passing by.
And my eyes passed it. A lot. I drove by it, was driven by it, walked past it, and looked out my kitchen window at it and wondered what art ever went on in this seemingly abandoned company. ART CO. was becoming my Boo Radley, and my cat is named Scout, so you can see where this is going.
Then, one day, ART was gone. It was just CO. now. CO, period. And CO. didn't have so much to say by himself, except that there was something afoot.
"What about those ART letters going missing?" Cameron and I were at a casual gathering of the neighbors across the street at Dani's, and we'd finally gotten to the inevitable point of any conversation amongst Deep Ellum residents: change in the neighborhood.
"Yeah dude someone stole 'em," someone replied. A handful of others in the circle had heard that, too. One neighbor's "You just know it's hanging up in someone's loft right now." was met with laughs of "Oh my god, seriously." and "Ha! Yeah, no doubt." and "Freakin' hipsters."
Stole? Hipsters? I pulled out my phone and asked Google what the fuck was up. Google said she did not know what was up but wanted to know if I might be interested in "Dallas police shoot man who led them on chase in stolen bait vehicle..." or "Meadows Museum confirms two Spanish paintings once stolen by Nazis"? I was not.
Over the next several weeks, the CO. building started getting some action. Large cardboard sheets replaced the old dusty blinds hanging inside the almost-but-not-quite-floor-to-ceiling windows. "FOR LEASE" signs went up and came down. A notice told me someone had applied to sell liquor on the premises. Damn, another new bar? This far east? I lamented my quiet end of Commerce Street and mostly stopped thinking about it.
Until one morning when I opened my blinds to find that CO was gone, leaving only "." Goddamit, had someone come and napped CO, too? I saw a couple guys get out of a pickup truck parked out front, circle the building once, and... walk right in the front door?! I ran down the four flights of stairs to the front door of my building, raced across the street, and poked my head inside. I acted like I wanted to ask some questions about the buildout, but really, I was just looking to see if they had C and O lying around on the floor somewhere.
I didn't see CO, but I did get some good intel on what was to become of the ., formerly CO., formerly ART CO., building. The construction people told me a guy had bought the place and was turning it into a live music venue with a bar inside and food trucks out back. Shit. That actually sounded pretty cool. They didn't know anything else and the only guy who did was on the phone, so I walked on, curiosity decidedly re-piqued.
After this, the information started coming to me. An article popped up on my Facebook about a new venue with music, art, booze, and food trucks called Deep Ellum Art Co. Click.
"Off the beaten path in Deep Ellum -- at least for now -- there's construction stirring at Deep Ellum Art Co., an ambitious concept expected to open this summer", the article read. "It's slated to be a music and art venue with two stages, a bar and a food truck park." OK, I knew this. Scanning ooonnn... My eyes stopped at the name of the owner: John Larue. I knew John Larue! Well, sort of. John Larue was the name of the administrator of a Facebook group I'd joined months earlier that listed out all the live shows going on in the area. It was freaking awesome. I kept reading.
"LaRue, also the owner of Grapevine's So Cal Tacos, remembered visiting Deep Ellum as a teenager in the '90s when he saw the words 'Art Co.' in steel letters above the front doors at 3200 Commerce St.
'I've driven past this building a million times,' LaRue says. 'It's in Bottle Rocket. The signage alone was too cool to think about taking down.'"
Mhmm. Larue got it.
Cam plopped down on the big brown couch he knows I hate but always makes us sit on anyway as I debriefed him on the developments in the case. I told him about the missing letters, the new venue, the John Larue connection, and Bottle Rocket. True to form, Cam latched right on to the film reference.
"Ah, right on! Have you seen Bottle Rocket?" I hadn't even heard of it until my recent foray into detective work. "It's Wes Anderson's first movie," Cam film-studented at me. "We should watch it."
Download. Play. Wait for it...
"There's the sign! Wait, rewind." I wasn't sure I had seen it right.
We rewound, and there it was in all its ART CO. glory. Except not, because it didn't say "ART." It said "ARTS"! With an "S"! 😐 OK. This changed things. ARTS CO., huh? We speculated whether perhaps there was a guy named ART and it was his CO. and they just forgot the apostrophe. Or maybe this was the place people went to experience not one art, but all the art. Arts? Whatever. We went on with the movie. I fell asleep.
The next day, reenergized with the thrill of a new clue, I asked Google what else was up, and she showed me "New Art, Music Venue Has Big Plans for Deep Ellum - D Magazine." Perfect. Thank you, Google! Click.
About a third of the way into the article, John Larue is quoted saying the ART CO. sign was part of what inspired the name "Deep Ellum Art Co." and that "[a]t one point the sign on the building used to say Smart Co."
Uh... Wut. SMART CO.? I crossed my arms and Grumpy Cat frowned at the stupid dumbness of this new information. Obviously this couldn't be true because I live in the America of selective facts and this particular one did not fit my theory, but, like... what if it was true? Did someone runnoft with S and M, too? And were those letters hanging on the wall of a hipster sex dungeon somewhere? And what about the other S?? It had been well established by this point that the sign said "ARTS," so, what, was it "SMARTS CO."? This was getting ridiculous. It seemed the more I found out about ART CO. (if that was even its real name), the more layers of thick mystery fog descended upon it, obscuring the lone, bright red "." to little more than a sad, confused speck in the distance, longing for some sense of purpose and identity.
I kept searching, and finally, there were answers. More articles had been written about the new venue, and they all made some reference to the history of the building that would house it. Depending on whom you believe, ART CO. was built either in 1955 or 1949. It was once a printing press repair shop (Yes! Arts!), and, before that... an auto parts service center for a local car dealership. Oh.
I felt perturbed. Here I was, thinking I knew where the story was going, only to have every clue take me further into a reality I didn't particularly care for. The banal truth of ART CO.'s environment - one of a once-thriving but long-dilapidating industrial neighborhood - was slowly cauterizing the ideas of an old East Dallas artist hangout I'd fleshed out in my mind. Which was unfortunate, because I didn't want to have to tell the ghosts of Randall and Tom they never existed.
Over the next few months, I watched from my window as workers and contractors cycled in and out of the now-open doors. New fencing and massive air conditioning units popped up, and local artists created new murals on old brick walls. It looked cool. I was ambivalent about the change.
After walking a few blocks down the alley and back down Commerce Street, Cameron and I stopped again in front of ART CO., now Deep Ellum Art Co. The words "Deep Ellum" shine neon red above the new ART CO. sign, which prominently displays the original CO. (so they did have it!) next to a big block outline of where ART once stood. It's a celebration of the old and the new; a symbol of the revitalization of a neighborhood which, despite the grumblings of those (often including me) who would reject anything that infringes on the historic value of its bones, would have no chance of thriving without it.
We peaked through the curtains and scanned the events calendar posted on the window. "We need to go to a show here sometime," I said.
"For sure," Cam agreed. We walked on.