Alchemy NFK: An Arts District Buried in History
By Geoff Watkinson
Near the shadows of the freshly painted concrete sign of Bob’s Gun Shop is 806 Granby Street. Along the side streets of East Wilson and Moseley, rusted barbed wire lines the top of steel fences, bent and maimed. Around back of 806, a faded Quality Furniture sign hangs over the service garage. Above the storefront on Granby, the black lettering of Alchemy NFK is painted against a white backdrop.
If the address sounds familiar, it’s because 806 Granby is one of the locations where Better Block was held this past April. For a weekend, a block of Granby Street—from Olney Road to Addison Street—was transformed into artist galleries, coffee shops, live music venues, and a skate park, with vendors everywhere in between. The event attracted more than 4,000 people.
“The number of volunteers who helped after Better Block was probably five or six hundred,” said Charles Rasputin, one of the many people helping transform 806 in Alchemy NFK, including co-founders Careyann Weinberg, Clint and Sarah Dalton. “They took time out of their day to build furniture for the street, to draw something in chalk.”
Alchemy NFK, a community group of artists and volunteers, was a leading force behind Better Block. The City of Norfolk entrusted them with 806, and the group decided to hold onto the address. They’re now in the process of finishing the first of three stages of transforming the building into, what the group hopes will become, a new epicenter for local artists. There will be artist studios, practice space for musicians, a gallery, and space for videographers and photographers.
806 Granby is nearly 10,000 square feet, cut in half by a steel door. Peeking through the storefront windows, the front room looked hot, humid. But when Rasputin opened the door, the space was surprisingly cool—central air conditioning contrasting the age of the building.
Faded yellow-brown carpet had been ripped up, haphazardly rolled in sections and stacked on top of one another like a pile of oversized burritos. Almost all of the stained, warped ceiling tiles had been removed. Looking up through the steel grid of former tiles revealed what once may have been an apartment.
“I’ve been theorizing that there was a mid-level of the building,” said Rasputin. “There used to be windows up there,” he said, pointing to an area above the steel grading where a large area was covered in insulation. “Maybe a room was originally there.”
Peg board along the walls had been removed, exposing the original brick. Sunlight from the storefront windows, which struggled to make its way to the back of the room, mixed with the florescent light panels in the ceiling. The light seemed to be as old as the early twentieth century mud-colored bricks.
“Everything you see has been done in the last few days,” Rasputin said. “On Sunday, this was still the furniture store.”
When 806 Granby was originally built in 1919, it was used as a car dealership. “In fact,” Rasputin said, “the grandfather of the man who built this building is pretty famous for firing the first shot of the Civil War.” The man’s name was Edmund Ruffin, born in Prince George County in 1794.
According to Rasputin, after the car dealership closed, the building became Conte’s, the biggest bicycle shop in Norfolk, before becoming Quality Furniture in the 1980s.
“They covered up a ton of the character of the building,” Rasputin said, pointing to the brick.
The front room will be used for gallery and studio space. “Ideally, we’re going to have full-on tenants who have a space here. But we’re also going to offer membership, where if you’re a teacher or a student, you can get in here and you’ll have anywhere from 18 to 24 hour access and you can work. All you really need is a table and the internet, and you’ll have that.”
Rasputin opened the steel door and took me into the back room, which he called The Warehouse.
“When we had Better Block here, we let a few artists hang in The Warehouse, and everyone wanted to hang back here because of the feel.”
A few thin strips of uncovered florescent lights shined off of a mural the length of the right wall where the words “STOP SNOOZIN’” were recently painted in red, white, and blue by Noah Larnz. On the cement floor, near where we entered, was a 1920 Kohler porcelain tub, which likely came from the original bathroom located upstairs near the entrance.
“I found this tub here when we came in,” Rasputin said. “We used it as a cooler for beer at the Better Block. It was full of concrete and glass. I took it to the car wash in the back of my truck.”
He showed me where he had been screen-printing, and pointed to an area in the corner that will be walled off for a green screen and white screen. Other space will be used for a sound stage and band practice.
“Now that they’ve taken out the tiling, the acoustics have improved. It’s good for bass music. Dance music. But it’s not that great for live music because of the reverb.
“There’s a bookstore up the street that’s going out of business. I’m working on an effort to get the shelving to use it for the artist cubicles here and to get the remaining books donated to the Norfolk Jail for their library.”
Rasputin emphasized the notion that Alchemy NFK doesn’t have a face—that it’s a community effort, a crowd of people getting involved. “We have the right amount of folks who have the right amount of drive to ensure that this will be a success.”
Alchemy NFK will open in September. The group is waiting on the city to grant the special provisions necessary for what they want to be. “We want to be able to let the folks who do dance have their dance recitals here. We want to be able to have music play—to have a band during a gallery show.”
In regards to how much funding the city will put into the larger Arts District, Rasputin said they don’t yet have a figure. Regardless, Alchemy NFK hopes to add another chapter to the long history of 806 Granby Street.
“The community is starting to feel like this is going to be a place for everyone,” Rasputin said. “And it will be.”