The endlessly self-renewing Old Creamery

Artist Lush Newton working on a vintage locomotive for this week's Creamery Festival. KLH | Union

Kevin L. Hoover
Mad River Union

OLD CREAMERY – Arcata’s Creamery Building is an icon, a landmark, a historical relic, a light industrial park, a performance space, an artistic warren, creative incubator and the capitol of the surging Creamery District.

Jack Finigan and Jake Pickard in the former SunFrost factory, which is being remade into the State of Jefferson Public House. KLH | Union

For all its history, the Old Creamery’s story is still being written. Plans in the making ensure that the venerable edifice’s future will be as vibrant as its past.

This destiny was far from assured when Brian and Lisa Finigan bought the place nearly 40 years ago. The previous owner, Jim Marvel, didn’t know what to do with the massive, mostly vacant hulk of a building. Lisa remembers how it was riddled with hundreds of broken windows and every roof leaked.

“At that time, its location four blocks off the Plaza may as well have been outer Mongolia ... It was on the wrong side of the tracks,” Lisa said. “It could easily have ended up a teardown.”

Instead, she and Brian set their sights on a buildup, with emphasis on artisanal and creative enterprises. Over the years, businesses came and went. The Pacific Arts Center Theatre, the Dancenter, the photography studio of J. Patrick Cudahy (who shot the photo for Ingrid Hart’s iconic Humboldt Honey poster) and others occupied spaces in the massive building.

Presently, the place is in the midst of a major renaissance catalyzed by the Creamery District’s evolving “art and commerce” theme, a product of of intensive scoping which began in 2012.

Acupuncturist Aria Simpson of Rakuda Health needles a patient in the Creamery Tower. KLH | Union

On the eve of this year’s Creamery Festival, the old building is being infused with new and diversified tenants. Along with the Finigans’ woodworking business, Shoshana Rose’s Redwood Raks occupies its core, along with Bang! Bang! Vintage/Consignment, the Humboldt Bay Housing and Development Corp. (HBHDC), painter Marisa Kieselhorst and three new tenants – a seamstress, Brooklyn’s Rose Mountain photography and block printer Marnie Nave. There’s Brian Federici’s willow studio, Phoenix Ceramics, Gregg Moore’s musical enclave (which hosts Power to the People Lunches every Thursday), and of course the popular Arcata Playhouse. The tower is now an Airbnb, operated by Timarree Finigan, with and Suzanne Dunning's Tosha Yoga and Aria Simpson’s Rakuda Health acupuncture studio in a shared space down below the apartment. In an outbuilding on the far west side is Larry Schlussler’s relocated Sun Frost.   

Block printer Marnie Nave exults in her new workspace. KLH | Union

The building and its creative tenants work symbiotically with other district businesses such as Holly Yashi, Wrangletown Cider Company and Tomas Jewelry.

“We’ve got a whole world of activities going on here,” Lisa said. “There are so many people going in and out. I like that we have so many people of every age and color.”

Stockpiled decor for the Creamery Fest. KLH | Union

The Creamery’s evolution will take a giant leap within six months or so, as the spot at the northeast corner, adjacent to the courtyard, is radically redefined with a new attraction that could rival the Playhouse’s popularity.

Formerly the Sun Frost factory, the vast space is soon to house the State of Jefferson Public House, a new, all-ages restaurant and bar.

Even as they await permits, founders Jack Finigan and Jake Pickard are toiling furiously to create the eatery/drinkery. Stacks of fixture, lumber, wiring and a long bar rest on the floor, awaiting installation.

David Ferney of the Arcata Playhouse spruces up the place. KLH | Union

The restaurant will feature diverse food offerings, including Korean-Mexican fusion cuisine and wood-fired pizza. It will serve local beer, and eventually may host brewing facilities. There will be a game area with a pool table, plus indoor and outdoor seating (see floorplan, below).

To accommodate the restaurant’s outdoor tables and generally freshen things, the Creamery’s courtyard is set for an overhaul. This will include moving HBHDC’s ADA ramps around the corner and adding new landscaping.

Many projects are ongoing. The green strip along the new bike path, part of the Humboldt Bay Trail, has a new irrigation system. More trees will be planted there, and the Creamery’s front area is getting some welcoming trees as well – boxed, drought-tolerant coastal madrones. Even the parking lot will soon sport fresh stripes.

“We’ve got so much going on,” Lisa said.

She’d love it if someone would come and take away the 40-foot fiberglass boat hull on the building’s west side, as that area is being eyed for additional off-street parking.

The old fiberglass boat hull has sat on the Creamery's west side, and is available to someone who might have use for it. KLH | Union

Brian and Lisa adore their retail tenants, though their emphasis is on providing arts and craftsfolk with suitable habitat. “We’re going to stick to more studio-based artists,” she said.

While future plans solidify, Creamery workers, including Madeline Finigan, struggle to keep the elderly building going. Some of that work falls to Jack, who sometimes finds himself crawling through the structure’s nooks, crannies and tunnels in search of water leaks. In one deep, dark recess, he came upon some cryptic chalk arrows.

“Someone 70 years ago was trying to figure out where the water was coming from,” he said. “I gave up too.”

The oldtime maintenance person/frustrated leak detective apparently just built another roof under the leaky roof. But Lisa said the troublesome trickles have continued to defy investigation. “They’re the bane of our existence,” she laughed ruefully. “It’s neverending.”

Also neverending is the story of the community resource and cultural institution known as the Old Creamery. “Over 40 years, we’ve taken what was a run-down warehouse and made it something vital to the community,” Lisa said. “The future is just continuing that goal.”

Jerry the Creamery Dog. KLH | Union

Jerry the Creamery Dog seems comfortable with his ever-changing surroundings, padding about among the endless parade of friendly people at the formerly desolate, now bustling Old Creamery location.

“We’re no longer on the ‘other side of the tracks’,” Lisa said.

The floorplan for the State of Jefferson Public House.


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