January 4, 2018

Building a Community of Ingenuity at the Hellmann Creative Center

  • By: Nicholas Som
The exterior of Hellmann Creative Center.

photo by: Frank Doring

The Hellmann Creative Center retains its metal towers from its days as a lumber mill.

For the nonprofit Center for Great Neighborhoods, the importance of community has always been an essential tenet. Located in Covington, Kentucky, the Center has worked to improve the town’s neighborhoods through historic preservation, creative placemaking, assisting low-income individuals with tax preparations, and more since its inception in 1976. They have rehabilitated more than 40 historic properties in town, including the transformation of a row of dilapidated shotgun houses into a thriving neighborhood complete with chicken coops and vegetable gardens.

But perhaps no project captures the Center’s community-oriented spirit more effectively than the Hellmann Creative Center. Once a bustling lumber mill, the Hellmann building sat abandoned for about 15 years before the Center acquired it in 2013. Today, in addition to serving as the Center’s headquarters, Hellmann houses eight artists' studios and multiple community spaces for locals to enjoy and hold events.

“For us, [Hellmann] really embodies, visually, what our work is about,” says Sarah Allan, program director at the Center. “We believe everyone deserves a beautiful built environment. Equity and inclusion are big drivers in everything we do.”

The Hellmann Lumber Mill opened in 1877 and quickly became a vital part of southwestern Covington. The mill employed most of the people in the neighborhood, who built things like church pews and decorative molding.

However, the mill eventually fell on challenging times. The Hellmann family sold the property in 2001, though it was largely inactive for several years prior. After a brief stint as a construction office, it was put up for public auction by the state of Kentucky. The winning bid? A relative bargain of $35,000, submitted by the Center for Great Neighborhoods.

The Center had never attempted such a large-scale project, having worked primarily with single-family houses for first-time buyers, and lacked concrete plans for the property. However, the opportunity to revitalize such an important local building, newly prominent thanks to the expansion of its street into a freeway, proved impossible to resist.

“We had just started doing a lot of work with arts-related development […] so we knew there was an opportunity to do something like artists' studios,” says Allan. “But when we decided to try to get it at auction, we didn’t exactly know what we were going to do with it, though we knew we could figure it out along with the community.”

Surveys revealed that residents in the neighborhood agreed with their assessment that artists' studios would be a good fit. But as Allan and the Center considered the property further, they realized it had the potential for even more. At the time, the Center was based out of a nondescript building on the outskirts of town, with limited community space. Moving their offices into the renovated Hellmann, which offered plenty of space and was much more accessible, made almost too much sense.

With a clear vision for the property in place, rehabilitation work began in September 2015. Many of the building's horizontal support beams needed replacement, though its vertical beams were largely intact. Retaining the character of the once-bustling lumber mill was a central priority, and many noteworthy features were preserved. The pulleys that powered the mill's machinery can be viewed above many of the studios. Clear lacquer now protects a ghost sign on the exterior. And it’s impossible to miss the metal towers atop the building’s roof, once used to store wood chips and sawdust.

“It’s so beautiful and unique inside, because it’s an adaptive reuse,” says Allan. “It’s fun when people who have never been in this type of [structure] get to see the beauty of this old building.”

The Hellmann Creative Center opened its doors in September 2016, and its impact has been felt throughout the neighborhood. Classes on everything from tai chi to Swedish quilting are held each week, and the success of the project has also inspired further development of other properties in the area.

“We want everyone to be able to use this building,” Allan says. “It was truly a community-driven effort.”

Nicholas Som is an editorial assistant at Preservation magazine. He enjoys museums of all kinds, Philadelphia sports, and tracking down great restaurants.

nsom@savingplaces.org

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