I was in the basement of the Tube Factory, watching Kevin Angell wield a four-inch paintbrush. He was applying varnish to a handful of wooden prisms, and my nostrils tickled with the tawny smell of polyurethane.
“We need four of these for tomorrow,” Kevin said, sweeping the brush over each side of the prism. “We give them to donors, partners, people like that.”
“That’s cool,” I said, with a hint of envy. Because the prisms were cool—they’d been cut from the windowsills on the Tube’s main floor and branded with the Tube Factory logo.
“Do you mind if I take a few pictures?” I asked. “I promise to only photograph your hands.”
Kevin laughed. “No worries. Here, we’re always taking photos.”
I’d met Kevin only an hour earlier. Jim Walker, the executive director of nonprofit organization Big Car Collaborative, had taken me downstairs to “the shop,” where—among router tables and table saws—Kevin and I shook hands. At the time, Kevin—who joined Big Car in January—was spray painting some shelving brackets.
“We keep busy,” said Jim, who also introduced me to staff artist Brent Lehker.
Minutes later, the four of us were back upstairs, sitting at a table Kevin and Brent had crafted from wood from the Tube Factory’s rafters. A light fixture—salvaged from from a local grocery store—hung over the table.
Not that we needed it. Natural light bathed the room, and The Rolling Stones’ “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” echoed about the Tube, its glossy floors. Paint cans and zip ties rested atop the bar. There were industrial-style shelving units. One held all of the Tube’s T-shirts. The other, books.
“This building is a piece of art in itself,” said Brent.
I smiled, and I asked them—Jim, Kevin, and Brent—to tell me more.
The Tube Factory—whose grand opening is tonight, May 6—is a 12,000-square-foot space for creativity, culture, and community. Numerous donors, including the City of Indianapolis, helped fund its creation, and Riley Area Development Corporation (RADC), local architect Lucas Brown, and Blackline architect Craig McCormick co-led renovation and planning efforts. Big Car Collaborative operates the Tube, which is located in historic Garfield Park, among long-term residents and live-and-work homes for artists. The Tube features a gathering and education area, exhibition space for national and local artists, and a tinkering lab for hands-on learning.
But the Tube building’s story began more than 100 years ago.
Weber Dairy constructed the building in 1908, when Cruft Street was on the edge of city limits. There was no Southside; cows grazed nearby. After the dairy, the building hosted companies that produced a variety of goods—candy, roasted peanuts, sheet metal, machine parts, and manufactured metal tubes (for which the Tube Factory is named). Before Big Car moved into the space, the building was boarded up, void of business for several years.
Indianapolis artist Emily Gable depicted the Tube’s history in a mural. The hand-drawn pattern pays heed to the building’s roots in manufacturing, and includes a personified peanut and an antique milk can with legs. It’s quaint. It’s funny. And it’s perfect for the Tube Factory, which, as Brent said, is “a puzzle.”
“I can’t imagine how many times it was added onto,” he said. “There were the additions, and then the expansion around the additions.”
The Tube’s curious construction led to some interesting finds during renovation. Behind some plaster, Big Car uncovered a window, now part of the bar area. Plaster removal also revealed the word “office,” which had been painted onto the bricks. A series of pipes in the basement was removed and later reused as the base for the bar.
“It’s about trying to make something old look as good as possible without altering it at all,” said Kevin, who has a background in restoring antique furniture. “That’s what we’re doing.”
Jim agreed. “It’s about using what we already have, and what already exists. It’s not about looking ‘industrial.’ Instead, we focus on practicality. Use.”
Which is why Big Car asked the construction workers and tradesmen to save everything they could—just in case. It’s why lights were reclaimed from the grocery store. It’s why tables are made from the rafters. It’s why they left one of the plaster walls intact. It’s why everything is on wheels—so it can be moved to where it needs to be, at the time it needs to be moved, by the person who needs to move it. It’s all about flexibility.
“Really, it’s a collaboratively designed space,” said Jim. “It was designed by all of us.”
All of us. Meaning Big Car. Meaning the city. Meaning RADC and Blackline and Lucas Brown and Emily Gamble. Meaning everyone who has a wooden prism—a piece of history, a piece of the Tube.
Before and after photos courtesy of Big Car Collaborative.
From 6 to 11 p.m. tonight, join Big Car Collaborative for the grand opening of the Tube Factory and The People’s 500, an exhibit celebrating the relationship between the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the people of Indianapolis. Free snacks and refreshments will be served, and Rob Funkhouser, Jeff Stevenson and the Drifting Strangers, and Don Electronico will provide music.