A buffet restaurant in downtown Gary, Indiana, is becoming a different kind of cultural smorgasbord. Following a recent facelift, the former eatery is now the home of “ArtHouse: A Social Kitchen”—a culinary business incubator and community events space.

Built in 2008, the restaurant was short-lived and sat vacant for the better part of a decade. To revive the 14,300-square-foot building, owned by the Gary Economic Development Corporation, the city collaborated with artist Theaster Gates’s Place Lab and successfully applied for grants to create and operate the ArtHouse for two years. The $1.65 million in grants included $177,000 for an exterior art intervention that would draw attention to the nondescript building (outfitted with a large commercial kitchen, it did not need substantial interior renovations). Charlottesville, Virginia–based architect Jeana Ripple and urban planner Barbara Brown Wilson won the competition for the public art portion.

The resulting lighting installation, which crowns the building, comprises a 257-foot-long stretch of wire scaffolding hung with 2,000 solar-powered lights made from acrylic tubing. To create a daytime effect, Ripple lined the lanterns with dichroic film, which changes colors depending on the viewing angle. Protruding above the roof, the artwork acts as a modern “false front” and creates a beacon for the neighborhood.

Working with the designers, the ArtHouse team made the transformation a community project. As work progressed, they held workshops for foster youth that focused on public artwork, and they invited community members to furniture-making classes, enlisting them to build outdoor benches. Since ArtHouse’s opening last November, hundreds of people have attended its weekly events and 20 individuals are enrolled in the culinary business program. “As with a lot of other Rust Belt cities, the narrative in Gary has been about the decay of the city—but we’re showing that there’s a really rich network of ambitious entrepreneurs here,” says Michele Larimer, ArtHouse’s project manager. L.L.


Back to Design for the Public Realm