Inside The Stutz Controversy

The Stutz illustration
Illustration by Curt Merlo

THE LIFE CYCLE of a vacant industrial building typically goes one of two ways: abandoned for years and left to decay until it’s finally razed, or neglected for years until someone with money and a bright idea steps in. What happens next in that second scenario, says one Indianapolis artist, is: “You put a couple of weird artists and musicians in there. Before you know it, the caffeine spot shows up, the brewery shows up, you see a couple of pride flags. Then, once you see that woman jogging in yoga pants with the baby stroller, it’s over, man. That’s when you know you can’t afford the rent or you’re not going to get your lease renewed.”

The Stutz Building seems to be following that second path. The home of the Stutz Motor Car Company (1914–37), then Eli Lilly & Company’s packaging division (1940–82), the site sat vacant for a decade until developer Turner Woodard purchased it in 1993 and created a home for small businesses. To quote The Encyclopedia of Indianapolis, “Artists soon followed.” At its peak, almost 90 painters and sculptors had studios in the Stutz, and their annual open house was a highlight of the city’s arts calendar.

“Turner took somewhat of a risk taking on that hulking property,” says Marsh Davis, president of Indiana Landmarks. “He really brought it to life.”

Last year, Woodard sold the Stutz (seven connected buildings at 10th Street and Capitol Avenue, and an eighth nearby) to New York–based developer SomeraRoad, which has been investing in Indiana properties for a few years. Since the purchase, the company has been replacing the windows, installing new heating and air conditioning, and repairing the façade, with plans to convert the building into a “creative office campus or vertical village.” The new Stutz promises to be a destination for nearby IU Health workers, and soon will be home to restaurants (Cafe Patachou, Barista Parlor, Amelia’s Bread, Taqueria de Julieta), fitness facilities (Myriad Health and Fitness), an event venue (VisionLoft), retail (Grounded Plant and Floral Co.), a nonprofit (Pattern), and coworking office space (Industrious). “A highly curated collection of the best Indianapolis has to offer, creating a walkable amenity package for office tenants that is unmatched in the market,” according to SomeraRoad’s quarterly investor update.

It’s not hard to see what caught the eye of Basel Bataineh, one of SomeraRoad’s partners. He was driving around downtown Indianapolis when he noticed the Stutz Building and, “as a real estate investor, I thought it was beautiful. I thought the architecture was unique. I thought the alleyways running through the buildings were really cool. The old historic character was largely intact, and I wanted to learn more.” When he and his partners found out more, they envisioned something like Ponce City Market in Atlanta, a former Sears, Roebuck & Co. store and warehouse that now houses shops, restaurants, apartments, and an amusement park on the roof. Or Industry City in Brooklyn, a repurposed industrial space that now calls itself “a one-stop destination of experiences, eateries, events, and everything in between.”

Woodard had been approached many times about selling the Stutz, but had always resisted. “The history was important, and that included the artist community,” he says. “Other developers didn’t quite understand or appreciate those thoughts, but SomeraRoad impressed me. They seemed sincere.” Though SomeraRoad didn’t give him a written guarantee that it would accommodate the artists working there, Woodard says he expects them to be embraced.

Bataineh says the number of artist studios in the new Stutz will depend on demand. “We create space, and people who want to lease that space are welcome to lease it,” he says. But he won’t commit to a particular price just yet. “They will be commensurate with the capital being invested in the space. We’ve agreed to set aside some spaces that are more raw—not unlike the artist studios that the Stutz has housed in the past—and those spaces will generally lease for cheaper than if a marketing company asks us to fit out their offices.” At the very least, there will be public art and art shows, like BUTTER, a multiday fine-art fair held at the Stutz last September that showcased the works of Black visual artists from across the country.

Artist Phil Campbell has seen this kind of transformation before. He was in Broad Ripple in the late 1980s when Broad Ripple Avenue switched from art galleries to bars; on Mass Ave in the ’90s when that street went from art galleries to restaurants; in the Faris Building just south of downtown when it was sold to Lilly; in the Murphy Building, which he owned until the housing market boomed, his lender called the loan, and he lost the building. He’s been in the Stutz since 2013, and hopes to have two more years there. But he’s skeptical about SomeraRoad’s intentions.

“If you want high-quality artists who don’t have a wealthy spouse paying for their studio,” he says, “you have to keep the rents affordable.”

Monty Matuka, founder and creative director of the clothing company MELI, moved into the Stutz in July 2020. By September 2021, he was asked to leave to make way for a new elevator shaft. “With me being a minority business and the only fashion business in the building, I would have thought they would have wanted to keep me for diversity and bring in more of my audience into the building,” he says. MELI is now located in the Murphy Building, a “super-warm, super-welcoming” space.

Constance Scopelitis moved into the Stutz in 1993, a space on the third floor with a wooden floor (which is good for standing for a long time), a southern window exposure (which she loves for the light), and the visibility of working around other artists in one location. She’s credited with starting the open houses, which ran for 28 years. “When the new owners came in and bought the property, I thought, They’ve got an awesome, modern, contemporary plan,” she says. “But as an artist, I need to take control of where I’m going to continue to work.” She’s leaving to build a 1,200-square-foot studio at her house in Rocky Ripple.

Photographer Faith Blackwell—at 10 years, a relative newcomer to the Stutz—hopes to stay. “It’s a true community of artists,” she says. “I can walk around the building, pop my head into anybody’s studio, and we can toss ideas off one another. I’m trying to be optimistic about everything, because from the renderings, it looks like a beautiful space.”

Stuart Alter, the president of the Stutz Artists Association, is measured when he talks about the future. He’s upset with SomeraRoad—“They have dismantled a thriving, vibrant arts community”—but also realistic. “If you take three art studios, knock down the walls, and make it an office, all of a sudden you’re making 10 times the rent. I understand that. That’s their prerogative,” he says. “But I think they missed the boat in not leveraging the Stutz artist community. They should have more strategically integrated that into their plan.”

Woodard, who also has a studio in the Stutz, plans to stay. He says the artists’ concerns are justifiable, “but I think it will be just fine a couple of years from now.”

Perhaps no one exemplifies the importance of the Stutz to the local arts community better than Greg Hull. The dean of the Herron School of Art & Design was also the first artist-in-residence at the Stutz in 1996, which gave him free studio space for a year and helped establish him in Indianapolis after moving here from Dallas. He stayed at the Stutz for three years because space was affordable, then found an industrial space east of downtown before building a studio at his home. Hull sees the Stutz as a microcosm of the city, and he hopes SomeraRoad will, too.

“I want the new owners to understand that the arts are one of the most effective barometers for the health of any ecosystem, and the economic impact of the arts on every community, we’re finally recognizing, is huge,” he says. “This is a quality-of-life issue.”