A New Lease On Life For The Stutz Car Factory

When Turner Woodard bought the Stutz Building in 1992 and saved the historic car factory from demolition, the modest plan was to “light it up, fix it up, clean it up, and lease it up,” Woodard says. Viability mattered more than vision. Warehouse storage made sense—Woodard had experience in that sector, and a Chinese restaurant soon asked for 50,000 “dry and bird-free” square feet to stash supplies.

Photo by: Tony Valainis

Local artists had a better idea for the industrial-sized blank canvas. They valued the generous spaces flooded with natural light and didn’t mind choppy and awkward layouts. Woodard, a painter himself, welcomed  them with affordable rent. As word spread, the Stutz flourished as a vibrant artist community, and marketing startups, tattoo artists, and massage therapists moved in, too, creating what Woodard calls one of the country’s first small-business incubators. The annual open house was one of the best parties of the year. Bands played in the halls wide enough for automobiles, a cool crowd got lost in the gritty maze of stairwells and studios, and Woodard’s friends filled the room housing his car collection. Even when grunge fell out of style, the Stutz never did.

Photo by: Tony Valainis

The building threatened to fall apart, though, and Woodard didn’t want to tackle large-scale improvements alone. Plus, you never really knew where the front door was. Despite the challenges of an aging building never designed for walk-in traffic, the Stutz community stuck together. While they  didn’t love the mice and out of order bathrooms, the long leases were a great deal, and the Stutz Artists Association carried prestige.

In 2020, out-of-state developer SomeraRoad pulled up with a handwritten letter and a trunkful of capital—$100 million to buy the gold and green landmark and bring it up to speed. Fix it up, clean it up, lease it up—but all the way this time.

Woodard believed he found good stewards in SomeraRoad. “I could have sold the building 10 times but was so concerned about the right touch with regard to the history and its place in Indianapolis and not making it wildly different, like backroom offices,” he says.

Photo by: Tony Valainis

SomeraRoad, which developed industrial spaces in Indianapolis already, says it took a couple years to understand Woodard’s dreams for the building and run with them in the same direction—a thriving creative community, but with better amenities and more to do. When IU Health’s $4 billion campus arrives a few blocks north, the Stutz will be sitting pretty as a neighborhood hub. SomeraRoad’s major structural improvements include replicas of the original windows, new mechanicals and sewers, shored-up exterior brick, modern elevators, and a rebuilt original archway off Capitol Avenue over one of the compound’s entrances. When the 110-year-old windows came out, materials around them crumbled. Portions of  the building were falling off altogether.

The street level, previously dominated by sleepy offices, is now what economic developers call “activated”—populated with businesses and event areas that draw a lot of foot traffic, including coworking spaces, cafes, and fitness studios. Once-bleak alleyways that broke up the building’s extreme girth (it swallows a full city block) are spiffed up and strung with white lights overhead. There are new murals and a free car museum with Woodard’s wheels. There’s a Patachou.

Upstairs, some walls came down to create larger office spaces, including an area that can accommodate a corporate or creative anchor. The raw industrial feel remains, as do artist studios. SomeraRoad plans to fill the building back up with businesses as renovations continue in phases. The bulk of street-level businesses have opened gradually since May (Cafe Patachou and Julieta Taco Shop plan to join them later this month), and new-and-improved entrances along Capitol, 10th, and 11th make them easier for the public to find.

Photo by: Tony Valainis

SomeraRoad added two nods to Woodard, who retains a minority stake in the business—a taproom named Turner’s and the car museum, a handshake agreement in the deal. “That took longer to negotiate than the price of the building,” Woodard says. The museum sits at the end of the courtyard amid a patch of businesses including the taproom, VisionLoft Events Stutz, Amelia’s, Grounded Plant & Floral Co., and Barista Parlor. It’s an intentionally symbiotic arrangement. Weddings at VisionLoft can spread out to the beautified streetscape and the museum for receptions, and pedestrian traffic creates hustle and bustle.

Art remains the chassis for the Stutz’s new commercial engine. SomeraRoad  is  continuing a long-standing artist residency, commissioning a major 3-D  installation at one entrance, and deputizing Pattern, the Indy-grown powerhouse supporting creative entrepreneurs, to elevate the Stutz’s artistic integrity by overseeing activities. “I want it to be a hub of national recognition,” says Pattern’s Polina Osherov, now the Stutz’s program director. The shining example of the Stutz’s new ambition is Butter, a cool-kids art fair dedicated to Black visual artists nationwide. Sales have topped $500,000 in the first two years.

There are still concerns about whether the Stutz’s old guard of artists will fit in. SomeraRoad consolidated existing studios into two buildings. Some artists left, put off by construction or month-to-month leases. A few artists were kicked out due to space availability, according to SomeraRoad. Rents haven’t changed, but some believe a hike is inevitable for the company to recoup its investment. SomeraRoad’s spokesperson says, “We are only raising rents on areas of the building that have undergone significant construction improvements. Artists located in older portions of the building will not experience rent increases.”

Photo by: Tony Valainis

The artists are worried about more than money. The number working there has gone from about 70 at its height to around 20 now, with most available studio space occupied. “We had a great community that helped each other. That’s all going to be gone without the number or diversity  of talents,” says John Ross, a painter and longtime tenant. One of the absences is Constance Scopelitis, an original Stutz artist, who chose to accelerate plans for an at-home studio rather than relocate within the building. She is concerned about where exiting artists will land. “The era of the big warehouse is over,” she says. “Most places available now don’t have big windows, which is a death knell for an artist.”

Photo by: Tony Valainis

Stuart Alter, president of the Stutz Artists Association, says SomeraRoad  has supported the artist association and understands its value as an economic driver, and he is optimistic about the future. But he understands the qualms over major changes. “It’s going to be different, and that alone means that we don’t have what we had,” he says. “It might be better, but we don’t know.”

Signs are starting to emerge now that the building is reopening. The Stutz’s annual open house drew upward of 4,000 people and took over the whole complex. By comparison, Penrod Society’s Magic in the Making fair in May drew about 1,000 people and was contained to two buildings. But that serious crowd spent money. “I had a wonderful night. Sales were good,” Alter says. Day to day, Alter is looking forward to having more company in the building. “There were offices, there was a lot of activity, but on weekends, the place was quiet,” he says. Now the Stutz is coming alive with markets, weddings, and brunch crowds. Whether the road ahead is a bumpy one or a joyride, it won’t be a lonely one.