By Scott Sullivan
Ox-Bow will occupy the former Saugatuck-Douglas District Library building after Douglas City Council Monday agreed to lease the 137 W. Center St. structure to the Saugatuck art school for $1,200 monthly the next three years.
An option to buy the 1870s-built wood-frame former church for its $430,000 appraised value is included. The lease will begin March 1.
The structure — which also was home through the years to an Odd Fellows Hall and Douglas Athletic Club — reverted to the city after the library, housed there for 40 years, vacated in spring 2020 to move into its new $4.35-million foot facility at 174 W. Center St.
Nonprofit Ox-Bow, which will assume all facilities and operating costs, plans to use the property for sharing with a wider public now on-campus programming including exhibitions, lectures by professional visiting artists, food and beverage events, readings, book tours, screenings, performances and retail space for Ox-Bow-affiliated artists and regional artisans. Regional administrative staff will have offices there as well.
Those intended uses, city manager Rich LaBombard told council, are compatible with C-1 district zoning standards and the city’s master plan.
Ox-Bow moves into a two-floor, 4,500-square-foot structure that has “character.” Also old-building issues per the library board, including infrastructure problems such as groundwater leakage and mold damage, minimal technology assets, inadequate restrooms and ADA access.
Not unsolvable for a creative party with uses in mind that can make that character an asset. But not for all buyers either.
The library board sought an out for years but money, not surprisingly, was a factor. District voters Aug. 5, 2014 denied a 26-year, 0.67-mill bond request to build and equip a new 12,500-square-foot, $5.14-million library on a 174 W. Center St. parcel the board had already purchased 899 “no” votes to 550 “yes.” They also rejected a paired 10-year, .3-mill increase for operations, 856 to 593.
Many who voted “no” then said they were not anti-library, but felt the proposal was overly ambitious and expensive. Some also objected to the board buying land beforehand.
The board came back with a smaller proposal four years later: a 25-year, .4271-mill tax increase to build the new single-floor, 9,000-square-foot library that now stands. It passed by a 64 to 36 percent margin, 1,377 “yes” votes to 768 “no.”
The Covid pandemic and more unforeseen building issues delayed staff fully moving there and its opening. But when the library did move, the building went back to Douglas, which had no specific use for the property.
Council identified goals of putting the building back into public use and on the tax rolls with an occupant that would contribute to the downtown’s vitality. Ox-Bow was among several parties early expressing interest.
City staff Aug. 19 advertised for three weeks a request for building purchase/lease proposals from qualified parties and distributed four RFP forms, but Ox-Bow’s was the only one returned.
Founded by School of the Art Institute of Chicago painters Frederick Fursman and Walter Marshall Clute 111 years ago, Ox-Bow was meant to serve as a respite for artists from the industrializing havoc of Chicago.
The two men, per the Ox-Bow website, “began this tradition after visiting the Saugatuck area one summer. They became enamored with the natural beauty of the area, as well as its rural isolation.
“They began teaching summer painting classes at the Bandle Farm on the east bank of the Kalamazoo River approximately one mile upstream from Ox-Bow’s present location. In 1912 and 1913, classes were held at the Park House, down river and at the Riverside Hotel. In 1914, the school moved its entire operation to the Riverside Hotel — which soon became known as the Ox-Bow Inn.
“At the turn of the last century,” the site goes on, “Saugatuck’s major industries began to decline. In 1907, the Kalamazoo River channel was straightened to flow directly into Lake Michigan, effectively cutting off the Riverside Hotel from its patrons.
“Due to a lack of guests, its Shriver family owners leased the hotel to a group of artists for the entire summer. The industry of art and leisure was taking over as the area began to reinvent itself as a Midwest resort community. The hotel persisted as lodging for its clients even though the clientele had changed from traders to artists.
“After Clute’s death in 1915, with the support of a group of core shareholders including Isobel and Edgar Rupprecht, Fursman took over as director for the next 30 years. Also in 1915, Thomas Eddy Tallmadge, the renowned architect and architectural historian, came to Ox-Bow and quickly became its best patron, leaving 110 acres to the school upon his death.”
Ox-Bow and the City of Saugatuck in 2008 put that land east of campus, known as Tallmadge Woods, into a permanent conservation easement.
Today’s Ox-Bow School of Art and Artists’ Residency is a separately incorporated nonprofit still affiliated with the SAIC offering year-round programs that cater to degree-seeking students, professional artists and others new to the field. Students from schools across the country visit to study and make art on its wooded, secluded campus.
The school offers courses for credit and non-credit that can be used toward SAIC degree requirements. In recent years staff has broadened Ox-Bow’s outreach into the wider community, including exhibits at the Saugatuck Center for the Arts and annex of the former Petter Art Gallery. Moving into the former library is its next step.
“Ox-Bow,” said the school’s application to Douglas in part, “is, and has been historically committed to building and nurturing community on our campus.
“We seek a wider and deeper connection to the region which we have called home or 111 years, and believe we share many common values including pride in our community, parks and public spaces; a commitment to cultural diversity; and stewardship of the natural environment,” it continues.
“As a historical arts and cultural organization … our contribution to the reputation ‘art coast’ is established. However, while we may be responsible for bringing countless national and international artist to the region over our lifetime, we have been less visible locally on a day-to-day basis.
“We believe we have the history and expertise … to contribute to the unique and distinctive experiences stated in the Master Plan’s Strategic Direction for People, Arts and Culture. In doing so Ox-Bow’s reputation has a high probability of attracting further arts and culture to the region,” its application says.
By Scott Sullivan