Historic Savage Mill becoming a favorite of tourists

Eclectic mix of arts, crafts draws 1 million visitors a year, owner says

January 20, 2000|By Jill Hudson Neal | Jill Hudson Neal,SUN STAFF

Not too long ago, historic Savage Mill was a dilapidated and ramshackle ruin of a building, a sprawling expanse of empty space and light. Not much fun to look at, but it was heaven to a number of local artists -- a perfect place to paint, sculpt and be creative.

These days, the newly gentrified Savage Mill has emerged as one of the region's most popular tourist attractions. It also houses far fewer struggling artists.

In the early 1980s, the mill was used by dozens of local artists who used the Carding Building's open floor as studio space. It wasn't fancy -- no heat or air conditioning, and artists taped off their floor space with white masking tape -- but it was fun and familial.

"It was a bare-bones arrangement, but there were no rules about how you had to do it," says artist Marilyn Saboe, who rented a few hundred square feet of space from the mid-1980s until 1995. "After the renovation, a lot of people left. It just got too expensive to rent the space."

Then, Saboe's rent was $300 a month. Today that same space would cost $3,500 a month. Where dozens of artists like Saboe worked, only a dozen remain.

The cavernous mill, near U.S. 1 and Route 32, has become a viable retail outlet since its $12 million renovation began in 1985.

An eclectic mix of antique shops, furniture, crafts and art spaces, the 12-building, 200,000-square-foot shopping center boasted a $25 million profit last year -- up by $15 million on 1995, according to Steven Adler, one of the mill's owners.

Adler attributes the rambling mill's success to the mix of artists-- interior decorators, a gilt repair specialist, bakers, a guitar-maker, antiques dealers, weavers, knitters and restaurateurs.

Some artists have complained about sharing retail space with vendors who sell Beanie Babies and other knickknacks.

It may not be fashionable, "but the people who sell Beanie Babies pay a lot more in rent than the artists, that's for sure," says Adler, who also acts as a business adviser to the mill's shop owners. "The reality is that if we don't make payments to the bank, there will be no space at all for anyone to sell anything."

Back in the mill's Carding Building, the artists' studios occupy a narrow corridor on the first and second floors in the back of the sprawling complex.

The walls are lined with paintings, murals and other works. Large windows give visitors a peek into each studio.

"This is like a private oasis, a little haven," says Columbia artist Rhona Schonwald, who has been selling her large oil paintings out of her studio for three years. "I used to try to work at home, but there was always some distraction. This studio is small, but there are no distractions.

"And I welcome the tourists -- they're very respectful of your work and your space," Schonwald says. "You can sell your work here, and have time and space to work on your art."

About 1 million people visit the mill each year, Adler says.

All that foot traffic translates into potential buyers, a precious commodity for the mill's artists, who often struggle to sell their work themselves or find representation in large, well-known art galleries.

Across the country, old mills, factories, schools and warehouses have been converted into shopping complexes and apartments with towering ceilings and exposed brick and duct work. Many owners have had success dividing floors and renting studios to artists who pay top dollar for the space.

Savage Mill has followed the trend, and the result shows in the rental rates.

Monthly studio space rents for about $3,500 a month, compared with less than $500 a month for a similarly sized artist studio in historic Oella Mill near Ellicott City. Adler says a large portion of the rent goes toward full-time maintenance, security and office staff.

The mill's owners encourage the artists to be in their studios as many hours a week as they can.

"Many artists do not have backgrounds in retail and may not understand the importance of being in their studio to welcome customers in," Adler says. "We bring a million people to the mill, so you've got to have an open door. That's sometimes a dilemma for them, but you've got to be creative and savvy to make a living."

But making a living at the mill might be a long way off, says Schonwald.

"For most artists, the main focus is to work here. This is mainly a work space and a good one. If you sell, that's great. But every artist knows that you've still got to get out there and market yourself.

"That hasn't changed after all these years."

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