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Building a Community

Looking back on 20 years of art at the Brunswick Building

As a child, you probably asked an elder why, if the Earth is spinning, don't houses, people and everything else fly off into space? Centripetal force is easily demonstrated to a five-year old; gravity less so. It's one of those things you have to take on faith, at least for a while.

Now, if you've driven through rural Montana, you might have mused that if anything was ever going to fly off into space during a momentary exemption from an immutable law of physics, it would probably be something out there. In many parts of the state, no man-made addition to the landscape really seems to belong-almost as though the dirt hasn't quite decided to let anything get comfortable on it.

Of course, this doesn't necessarily apply to Montana's urban environments. And if there's one building in Missoula that undeniably looks like it belongs to the dirt it's holding down, it's the Brunswick Building on the corner of Woody and West Railroad. Get out of the car and look at it. Long and low, painted a respectably aged burgundy that makes it look smaller than it is, the Brunswick seems squat and remarkably sleek at the same time. It's one of the only flatiron structures in the state-a piece of pie with the crust and tip lopped off. Its eastern wall is half as wide as its western aspect, which is slightly attenuated on each corner by two slimmer walls that that give each of the upstairs corner rooms a fifth interior wall.

These upstairs rooms house the studio of Leslie V.S. Millar, an artist who has worked in the Brunswick for over 20 years and, with husband Max Gilliam, has owned the building for the past five. The vibrant Millar is a wellspring of historical details about the Brunswick, and a guided tour inside and out brings to light a hundred years of quirks and idiosyncrasies.

The Foundation

Built in the early 1890s, the Brunswick was originally a railroad hotel. Early editions of the R.C. Polk city directory list the Brunswick Hotel with one George M. Dunham as its proprietor. The business apparently changed hands in the early 1920s; a 1922 directory lists Charles Heckler as proprietor. The last mention of the Brunswick Hotel in the city directory came in 1929, when a woman named Anna Snell was listed as its putative owner.

The interval between hostelry and arts in the Brunswick was marked by the same pattern of multiple mercantile tenancy that characterizes the sometimes checkered pasts of many other downtown structures. A drugstore appears in an extensively overhauled insurance map dating from 1921, but the layers and layers of pasted-on addenda make it impossible to determine the year it first opened its doors. In the 60 years since it ceased to be the Brunswick Hotel, the structure has also housed a beauty salon, a bar, a pawn shop, and-this in a whisper, although you sometimes get the feeling that almost every other building north of the river has seen the same-if not an entire house of ill repute, then at least a couple rooms' worth. Millar speculates that her studio space once belonged to the madame.

In the early 1970s, the corner room below Millar's studio also housed the first incarnation of the Good Food Store. Laughing, the artist recalls the incongruity of nascent hippiedom budding on the abutment of the industrial infrastructure. "You'd walk into this former saloon and there would be this pine-cone-and-bough mobile thingie hanging up," she chuckles, "and people weighing and measuring wheat and oats and things behind the bar."

Artists Robert Strini and Linda Wachtmeister bought the Brunswick in 1979. They were looking for cheap studio space as well as a place to live, explains Millar, but eventually quailed at the idea of living in the railside tenderloin. "After about three months, they realized it was much too urban for their tastes," Millar says. "So they moved their residence out, and over the next few years invited other artist friends in."

"This was kind of the hippie, bohemian area of town in the late '60s and early '70s," Millar continues. "And at the time this place was pretty funky. A lot of the rooms were beat-up and a lot of minor repairs had to be made over the next 15 years."

A small price to pay, she notes, to work in such an endearingly quirky old building. When Millar began managing the Brunswick's affairs some 15 years ago, artists could still rent one of several 10-by-10 foot rooms for dirt cheap-as low as $40 per month. The early days were pretty catch-as-catch-can, she admits, but it didn't take long for the Brunswick to catch on in the long term, with artists queuing for rooms as they opened up. "There was a lot of moving in and moving out at first," Millar says. "But eventually it started to stabilize, and since the beginning of this decade it's been a matter of as soon as someone moves out, I've already got someone lined up to move right in."

Strini and Wachtmeister moved in the early '80s, first to Superior, then to Seattle, and eventually to Charlottesville, Va., where they still live. During their tenure in Seattle, Strini and Wachtmeister retained their personal and financial interest in the building, sponsoring and subsidizing the Brunswick Gallery, which ran for some six years in the middle of last decade. Millar surmises that if it were around today, the gallery would be a cornerstone of the Missoula arts community. At the time, however-in the teeth of the '80s recession-there just wasn't enough money to keep it running.

"The gallery was pretty avant-garde," she recalls. "And the portion of the Missoula population that should have supported it didn't have any money. There just wasn't enough public support, and they just didn't have the wherewithal to keep it going."

But the renters stayed on. It's easy to see why artists are crazy about the place. The outside of the Brunswick is charming and odd; the interior even more so. A slightly listing set of stairs on the eastern entrance leads to a long, tall hallway that makes an abrupt bend, perhaps 20 degrees from true, halfway through the building. It looks like someone set up a full-length mirror slightly askew at the end of the hallway, a nifty trompe l'oeil that almost had me poking into thin air as though I was in a circus funhouse. With all its extra angles, plunging lines and lopsided stairs, parts of the Brunswick look like a set from The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari, or a literal reconstruction of Van Gogh's room at Arles.

Part of the mildly disorienting effect is due to an addition onto the building which, Millar estimates, was made 10 or 15 years after the original structure was completed. From the outside, it takes a patient eye to see the slight differences between the older and the newer.

"Concrete windowsills," she says from the sidewalk, pointing to the second-floor windows on the eastern end of the building. "The ones in the original building are made out of granite. And the windows are smaller on the newer part." She also mentions that three layers of brick make up the walls of the original-but only two layers in the addition. As we go upstairs, she explains that the peculiar bend in the hallway marks the seam between the two eras. None of this is especially remarkable, except in that the slight dissimilarities between the older and newer parts of the Brunswick contribute, almost imperceptibly, to this feeling that the building is playing a good-natured prank on you.

"The truth is," Millar says, "the building's slightly lopsided and it's kind of charming. And look at this," she continues, gesturing at the fifth wall in her atelier, "you wouldn't get that in a normal studio. That's another reason I was determined to make this place work and not get kicked out. I was determined to make it happen because I didn't want to move anywhere else."

The Pillars and Columns

After roughly 10 years of managing the Brunswick, Millar and husband Gilliam finally bought the building in 1994. "We purchased it in part out of self-interest," she confesses. "But also as part of what I'd like to think of as my community effort to keep the place for the artists." Artists are often the first to get squeezed out when businesses colonize more bohemian parts of town, Millar explains; in a manner of speaking, they bought the Brunswick to create a kind of artistic easement to be enjoyed in perpetuity by the artists, writers and occasional musicians who work there.

"Artists move into areas with lots of space and cheap rents," she says, which often makes slightly run-down areas into pleasantly funky artistic enclaves which, in turn, become desirable to businesses with bigger bucks. "Ultimately, other businesses move into an area and they say, 'Oh, this is a great location.' Then rents go up and the artists get displaced."

And that won't happen to the Brunswick. "We have no intention of ever selling," Millar says firmly, "It's going to be in our families forever."

In keeping with the loose, organic feel of the building, Millar espouses a similarly firm but patient philosophy concerning necessary repairs and renovations. "I'm proud of how we're doing it," she beams. "The advantage to my husband and I owning it is that we're slowly making improvements but respecting the integrity of the building." Instead of rushing into pell-mell custom renovations, Millar says that she and Gilliam favor undoing certain past "improvements," literally brick by brick, to restore the Brunswick to its original condition. Whether for reasons of privacy or deterring vandals, the ground-floor windows on the south side have long been bricked over, and Millar mentions that she's considering opening them up again.

"Instead of saying 'Oh, gee, wouldn't a bay window look great here,' and so on," she explains, "We're trying to bring out the original beauty."

In its 20 years, the Brunswick as a haven for the arts has sheltered a good deal of "names" in the local and national scene. Between 50 and 70 artists have passed through the building, many have stuck around Missoula for the long haul, and at least one lived out the last of his days in the building. Jay Rummel, who died on New Year's Eve of 1997, rented the big ground floor studio in the Brunswick for 17 years. Rummel inherited the space from sculptor Strini, who had initially set up shop in the room after the closure of its last mercantile incarnation-A. Able Antiques. Herself excluded, Millar says, Rummel was the Brunswick's longest-running denizen.

"I was always afraid that he was going to fall asleep with a cigarette and burn the place down," sighs Millar, who, like most people who live and work in old buildings, finds ample room for fire on her list of things to be vigilant about. She smiles and shakes her head slightly as she recalls Rummel cooking hamburgers in his studio. "'Jay,' I told him one time, 'If you do anything to burn this place down, if I survive, I will kill you myself.'" Millar says it in jest, but her mock-menacing tone belies a determination to keep the Brunswick safe and sound that occasionally suggests a mother bear's ferocious sense of protectiveness.

From time to time, anonymous tokens to Rummel's memory still get stuffed into the sturdy mesh of a steel door outside his old studio, which is now shared by Lisa Berry, Janet Whaley and Jennifer Reifsneider-three of the roughly 11 artists and writers who currently rent space in the Brunswick.

"I cleaned it out once because we kept bumping our faces on it," says Reifsneider of the cluster of weather-beaten offerings, "But we kept all the little objects-little bunches of flowers, little bundles of sticks, plastic chickens. I think Lisa [Berry] has seen people leaving things, but I never have."

The space Reifsneider shares is a 1,300-square-foot jungle of clay dust, maps, tools, a kiln, dozens of studies and works in progress: disembodied hands, a partial cross-section of a chambered heart, an old chair to which Reifsneider is affixing words from a disemboweled dictionary. Tiny words. On closer inspection, most of them appear to begin with R.

"No, they're all different," she says, "I just put up the word 'scabies'."

Reifsneider, a graduate of the Rochester Institute of Technology, pulls out a book of slides of her recent work. "Contents," a piece which includes the chair she's finishing up, also consists of radically redistributed dictionary innards-two sizable piles of torn-out pages, plus the chair. Reifsneider says that when she sets up the installation, hidden speakers beneath the piles will loop the sound of ripping paper. She then pulls out a small box and shows me "Vestige," a 25-foot garland of stamp-sized dictionary squares.

Ouch. As a man who loves dictionaries and is still hoping to hear someone sneak the words "dirigibloid" and "urticaceous" into a conversation, it pains me to see a dictionary prematurely dispatched to the Pearly Stacks. Not that I'm any kind of saint, mind -I once tore apart a copy of The Protagoras and the Meno with my teeth and bare hands, and damn did it feel good. Still...

"I started doing them because I was having problems with my own communication," Reifsneider says.

To which I can also relate. There's always the matter of this foot in my mouth. And I can certainly appreciate the beauty of dismantling an unabridged dictionary, which theoretically includes the raw materials of anything you could ever want to say, to protest a certain preordained content in language. Or to suggest the futility of words. Or in despair of making them work right.

On working at the Brunswick, Reifsneider says: "It's a good place. This is really the first studio I've had, so I don't really have anything to compare it to, but it's been a good space for that sort of thing." She nods toward the chair. "Working in my bedroom, it never would have occurred to me to get down on my knees and push piles of paper around."

The Finishing Touches

In honor of the Brunswick's 20th anniversary in art, Leslie Millar says there was some discussion of putting on a 20-year retrospective featuring works by all the artists who have passed through the building. Unfortunately, she says, assembling such an exhibition would have been a daunting, prohibitively time-consuming task, and she has opted instead to focus on preparations for the Brunswick's annual Christmas open house, an event that gives the public a chance to drop by, get acquainted, and check out the works of the artists who create there.

"It's the main yearly event for us," she says. "People can come see the studios and check out the performance on Friday night, which is always pretty interesting. And people have a chance to buy some of the artist's work, if there's anything for sale."

In the meantime, the building isn't going anywhere. Millar is confident in her vision of the Brunswick as a cultural institution and convinced that the future will bear out her expectations both that art will always have a place in Missoula and that the Brunswick will one day be remembered as a haven for the artists.

"Ultimately," says Millar, gazing at the locust trees growing from the sidewalk, "maybe 80 years from now, people will talk about the heyday of the Missoula art scene and remember that this building once played an integral role."

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