Old Arizona gets new life

Massive Whittier edifice serves up everything from theater to tea and clotted cream; says one owner, "When you own your own abandoned building, anything is possible."

To get to Nicollet Avenue going north around the Lake Street K-mart, you have to take 1st Avenue, turn left on 29th Street, and — just as you curve right onto Nicollet — you’ll see a two-story Old West saloon-looking building smack in the middle of Whittier, amid a meat-packing plant, a car wash and two ethnic restaurants.

Not exactly the wide-open range.

However, inside, owners Darcy Knight and Elizabeth Trumble have been knocking down walls and opening up spaces at Old Arizona Studios, 2821 Nicollet Avenue, since they bought and moved into the building 13 years ago.

In 1995, the corner outside Knight’s bedroom window was the fourth-most-popular corner for prostitution in the city. Knight saw the corner as a sign that the neighborhood needed a positive place for girls and beyond prostitution.

"Then I wouldn’t have called myself a visionary, to be able to look at an abandoned building and see a theatre, but now, I can see that I am," said Knight.

From there, she had to convince Trumble, plus a bank loan officer and many others, that the duo could re-invent the abandoned set-design shop (see sidebar).

"I was skeptical," said Trumble. "I had just come out of working in the nonprofit world. I was the President of the YWCA’s Board of Directors, and I know how hard it is to operate a nonprofit and find funding," said Trumble.

Even Knight admits she isn’t sure how she convinced Trumble. "I don’t think she ever agreed. I think she just got so involved that she couldn’t get out."

On how Knight got a bank loan to buy the building: "I don’t know what happened. I was in the loan officer’s office for two hours, and when I came out I had a loan and she [the loan officer] was in tears."

Since 1995, the two have managed Old Arizona, a center for after-school and summer arts programs for girls. Of the program’s approximately $250,000 budget, $100,000 is funded by grants; Knight and Trumble’s for-profit ventures provide the rest. Trumble, a video producer who owned her own production company, and Knight, a former professional make-up artist, have plenty of production industry contacts to rent out the cavernous Old Arizona space to TV, film and photography productions.

However, Knight said that in the last few years, the Minneapolis film industry has "died," and along with it, the revenue for the girls program. With a dream of returning the production studio to a full-time theatre, Knight retired last December from her make-up career, and the two are finding new ways to squeeze revenue out of the 20,000-square-foot building.

In the last three years, the main production space was occasionally booked as a theatre venue. With renovations, Knight and Trumble plan to book the space consistently. The 2,100-square-foot performance space — with a 43-foot-tall ceiling and audience risers on wheels — can be transformed with each production. The lobby is currently functional, but Knight and Trumble are remodeling a former make-up station to expand the lobby.

That’s not all. Old Arizona houses a dance studio, a sky-lit rehearsal space, a coffee shop, a separate tea shop and a spiritual books-and-gifts store.

Knight and Trumble built the coffee shop space for the girls program, for the girls to hang out before class instruction began. Trumble, a gourmet cook, saw the caf as a place where she could give back something that she received growing up in Minnetonka.

"I was extremely fortunate to have such nurturing parents…when I was growing up, all my friends came to my house after school because my mom would make cookies for us. And that’s how I see Old Arizona. I make cookies and I stand at the door to welcome and nurture the girls when they come in," said Trumble.

Now, in addition to a meeting place for the girls, the warmly lit room serves drinks and desserts during intermission, and will open on Saturdays for traditional English tea.

On the other end of the lobby, Knight has created a small teashop carrying premium teas. She envisions the teashop as a successor to her grandmother’s tradition of drinking tea and chatting with friends while sitting in the parlor.

Between the two cafs is a spiritual bookstore concentrating on nontraditional spirituality, as well as sacred objects and gifts. Knight has always been interested in spirituality, and after completing her training in spiritual direction, she said she plans to use the book store to help guide her clients’ spiritual journeys.

The remodeling and redesign is attracting an array of clients. Frank Theatre is currently performing Shakespeare’s "The Taming of the Shrew" in the performance space. The Jungle Theatre consistently uses the rehearsal space, and there are also private parties, corporate events, art shows and weddings in the performance space. Trumble, a gourmet chef, provides catering and also collaborates with the Loring Pasta Bar and Broder’s.

Old Arizona is a meeting place for neighborhood businesses, residents and developers discussing plans for a reopened Nicollet Avenue. While they plan, Knight and Trumble have been listening.

"Right now, people turn the corner and say, ‘oh, I’ve always wanted to stop in there.’ But then there’s no parking and they keep driving," said Knight. "With the development and more parking, people will stop and come in."

The two are full of ideas and plans for the building. There’s talk of a third story, another kitchen, a mezzanine and courtyard. As Knight said, "When you own your own abandoned building, anything is possible."