A Space to Create

By Jen Merrill

The Millworks to Bring Arts, Dining, Drinks, Music and More Under One Roof

While traipsing through the gravel inside of what will soon be The Millworks – a multi-faceted project that includes a bar, farm-to-table restaurant and music venue integrated around working artist studio spaces – you can really see the potential.

But more importantly, you can feel it.

It’s bursting through the breathtaking warehouse windows, each clouded with years of neglect and disregard. It’s peeking out from behind old fixtures that are being rehabilitated so that they may enjoy the new life that awaits them. It’s standing firm in the wood beams that support the structure, a structure that was once the Stokes Millworks, where workers crafted wood and laminate products dating back to the 1920s.

It’s there at 340 Verbeke Street, right next to the Broad Street Market, just waiting to be tapped into.

“The energy is just so fabulous,” says Tara Chickey, who is managing the artists’ spaces, gallery and small retail element.  “There’s something about all of that old wood and that there were workers in this space who worked with their hands and were creating. I love that now it’s like an element of ‘creating’ in a different way. It’s cool to see that parallel.”

A lot of that old wood – longleaf yellow pine, to be exact – is being sandblasted and repurposed into The Millworks’ bar, doors and window enclosures. They even salvaged some unique, handmade tables from the rubble, and those pieces will find a new home in the communal art space. Chickey describes the project as having an “old-world industrial feel” as these elements of days gone by mix with the stark modernity of the open warehouse space.

“When we first went in, there was just stuff stored everywhere, in corners and tucked away. So we needed to have that visionary sense and see past that,” she explains. “It was a hard sell on the first floor because it was so dark, and there were piles of wood. But now it’s brightening up and opening up, and it keeps shifting. I’m excited to see the next stage of it.”

Owner Joshua Kesler bought the building about a year ago with the idea of turning it into a bar and music venue. Once he got into the space, he started questioning, “What is the highest purpose?” as he carefully considered the layout, type of construction and amount of space.

“It evolved, but it didn’t take long. And once it did, it felt totally right,” says Kesler of his plan. “Once you have those things like the wood available, it’s not that hard to put the design and the concepts in play. It’s not like you’re out there trying to figure out what works other places. It’s not a forced concept, and people are responding to it in a very natural way.”

Kesler is hesitant to say that this project is about the revitalization of Harrisburg but rather the revitalization of urban settings in general. As the owner of Harvest at the Broad Street Market – a stand that sells produce, dairy products, baked goods and more, all from farmers and artisans within a 50-mile radius – Kesler is excited to add to a “food network” in the city.

“It’s like a regional destination kind of project. That’s what I see The Millworks feeding into,” says Kesler. “I think the four legs of the stool will be The Millworks, the Susquehanna Arts Museum, the Midtown Scholar and the Broad Street Market. That’s something worth taking a day-trip for.”

“I think it will act as a hub,” elaborates Chickey. “All of these small projects around the city can really thrive because of this larger project. Having this here is such an anchor that will allow for other things to happen and other people to take chances on businesses that they might not have done otherwise.”

Dine and Drink

The first floor of The Millworks will house a 4,000- to 5,000-square-foot farm-to-table restaurant and bar, as well as an open-air beer garden that’s enclosed in glass and leads up to a rooftop deck. This will allow patrons to eat and drink in an intimate outdoor space without feeling removed from what’s happening in the other parts of the building, whether that be a group of artists collaborating in the communal space or a band about to perform live.

“We need outdoor space in the city where you don’t have tons of traffic zooming by,” says Kesler of the open-air area. “I have always wanted a rooftop deck, so since this building can actually support it without too much modification, it was like low-hanging fruit that was part of the sale in my mind.”

Kesler describes The Millworks’ atmosphere as decidedly not upscale, but rather a modern casual-yet-cultivated vibe. He says the bar and restaurant will be “more concept-driven than chef-driven,” which allows for the social aspect of the space to really be the driving force of the location’s overall feel.

“I think it’s going to feel like you can sit here and relax, and you’re not being ushered out because you’re done eating. It’s going to be big enough that you’re going to have that feeling of home,” explains Chickey.

The menu will change seasonally and will source as many ingredients as possible from the Broad Street Market and local growers. A wood-fire oven will add personality to the kitchen and allow chefs to bake homemade bread, which will also be available for sale next door at the market.

“I think that’s a very exciting tie-in to the market and the food-consciousness about what we are eating, where it comes from, who’s making it,” says Kesler. “Why not get from a local source if you can?”

Create and Collaborate

In the remaining space of the large warehouse building, over 20 artists and craftspeople – including silk-screeners, illustrators, painters, photographers, filmmakers, sculptors, seamstresses, writers and wax artists, among others – will nestle into their corners and nooks to create.

Twenty-four working artist studios exist among the first, second and third floors of The Millworks, along with a communal art space that will house large work tables, a full wet dark room with two enlargers, a four-color silkscreen station, an etching press, a relief press, pottery wheels, kilns and a letterpress. Artists renting space at The Millworks will have access to all of the mentioned amenities as well as 24-hour access to their studio spaces.

While the personal studios will be privatized with walls and doors – built from the repurposed wood, of course – there’s a sense of community engagement that’s absolutely crucial to the concept. Saturdays, Third in the Burgs and other events will be “open studio days” that encourage the public to wander through and explore the artistic processes at work.

“There’s a different kind of understanding and respect for the art when you can see where it’s been created,” encourages Chickey. “I think that’s really special.”

Chickey – who previously owned Mantis Gallery with Andrew Sedgwick Guth – is a multi-talented artist herself as well as an art educator at Central Dauphin High School. She recognizes the importance of integrating art with community, especially as it relates to her students.

“I think it serves as another outlet for these kids to experience artists and the art in their community,” says Chickey. “It’s a beautiful model to show that you can do anything you want. You do not have to – you can, but you don’t have to – move to New York City to be an artist.”

All the artists renting space in The Millworks will have the opportunity to have their work displayed in the gallery on the first floor as well as throughout the bar and restaurant area. Plus, a small retail space within the building will sell everything from fine art to cards to jewelry and more, offering the ability to connect local artisans with potential customers.

All Together Now

With tentative plans of opening the studio spaces this summer and the bar and restaurant in the fall, Kesler and Chickey are passionate about where this project has come from and where it’s headed – and they’re not the only ones.

“The people in the neighborhood who are walking by and talking have been very, very happy to see something happening here in the building. They come to the market, and they’re just glad to see a big project going on,” says Kesler.

“This is just another fantastic project that’s happening that will shift a lot of perspectives about Harrisburg. I’ve been in the city for 10 years now, and it’s amazing to see the progression of what’s happening. I feel as though it’s just ripe for this change,” says Chickey with a grin. “There are so many small projects happening, which I admire and respect wholeheartedly. But when you have a larger project like this, it serves as the glue. It brings all of this together with this new understanding of what’s happening within the city.”

The studio spaces are almost completely filled up, but for information, contact Tara Chickey at tara_chickey@yahoo.com.