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Welcoming a new community of artists to my neighborhood.

Sensory Overload, Whittier Artist Co-op

May 12, 2012

Response from guest contributor Kelli Lydon

May 19 2012

I first visited the Whittier School when it was the Boys and Girls Club. As a six year old I made some pretty bad pottery in the basement kiln and did some pretty bad tumbling in the tiny gymnasium. For me and countless other Des Moines kids, the Whittier School was a place for growth and exploration.

Fast forward a couple dozen years and I’m back in the old neighborhood , living in a house on York Street within sight of the Whittier School. I moved back to Des Moines to fix up an old house and co-founded the Des Moines Rehabbers Club, a group of like-minded people who feel passionately about fixing and reusing what is old rather than replacing it.

When the Rehabbers Club developed a list of the Most Endangered Buildings in Des Moines, I made sure the Whittier School was on it. I hoped that someone would take a look at the old school and see its value and potential the way I did.


Fortunately, there’s another group of like-minded people who value old buildings. Artists and the investors who work with them need large, open, inexpensive spaces to work and display in. We’ve seen several former industrial buildings used this way in Des Moines, such as the Market Street project and the Des Moines Social Club. In both of those cases we saw artists thrive in their space and neighborhoods revive from years of decay and neglect. There’s no guarantee of success, but there are some pretty strong models for how these partnerships can work and with each new project, our understanding of the process gets refined.

When I read in Art Beacon that the Sensory Overload project was going to use the Whittier School, I started imagining the potential. Other efforts to find a commercial use for the property had failed. Could the art community step in and breathe new life into the languishing building? I made plans to check out the show and see if I could find some answers.


Admittedly, I don’t know enough about the visual arts. But I know they’re important and I know that I want to learn more about them. I had a vague idea of what to expect and decided to go in with an open mind and an eye for how the artists and art related to the building they were housed in. I left my house around 6pm to have dinner with friends, about an hour before the show was set to open. As I drove past the Whittier School I saw trucks and trailers outside and busy people working to finish setting up inside. When I came back from dinner a couple hours later, my neighborhood looked transformed. What is usually a quiet couple of blocks was bustling with small groups of friends making their way down brick sidewalks toward the school. Cars lined the streets and a handful of cyclists appeared on Washington Ave., having taken the nearby Neal Smith trail to get to the show. The area had a festival atmosphere and I couldn’t wait to park my car and join in.

The front doors of the Whittier School were flung open in welcome for the first time in years and I was greeted by several organizers coordinating donations and waivers. “Is there any specific path I’m supposed to take through the rooms?” I asked. “Nope, just follow your senses and explore.” My 30-year-old self picked up where my 6-year-old self had left off and I entered the building in search of discovery.

On my way out the door after taking in the whole show I picked up a flyer that detailed what’s coming next for the Whittier School. The building will be turned into an artist coop, providing studio space for 10 artists. It looks like my wish might come true. If this project takes off I look forward to welcoming a new community of artists to my neighborhood and seeing the Whittier School continue be a center for growth and exploration for years to come.

Interested in owning art space in old Whittier? Email Jeff Zelnio for details.

Kelli Griffis is a lover of old things and good stories. She co-founded the Des Moines Rehabbers Club ( and writes a blog about fixing up her house on York Street at