Sixth Street in Gainesville—the growing college town which is the home of both the University of Florida and Santa Fe College—was once a prime business and residential address prior to the movement of businesses to the local mall and otherwise away from the city center. As is often the case here in the South where we have no shortage of space, sprawl was too tempting and office parks replaced the offices of lawyers and accountants downtown while people moved into new subdivisions far away from their jobs. Due to this trend, Sixth has in my own lifetime been a an odd admixture of beauty salons, a tree surgeon’s offices, the local Humane Society, a television repairman, and a store devoted to educational toys which seemingly has been there forever. All that is well and good, but what has been lacking from this area was a restaurant, bar, or anything to build a sense of community via shared space—a place to go after work or meet up with friends.
Thankfully, this has recently changed and in a big way. When the Humane Society moved to another location up the street, their former quarters (which were several buildings on a small campus) were purchased by Nick Moskowitz, the owner of a successful T-shirt printing company with plans to build an arts-based center there and provide a much-needed hub for artists in Gainesville. Despite being a college town and a large one at that, Gainesville has always, it seems, suffered or wanted a bit for greater diversity and scope of visual arts. The University of Florida has its Harn Museum, which is a first-rate fine arts museum, plus an older and much smaller University Gallery, which hosts traveling shows and student and faculty exhibits, but outside of these official offerings and Santa Fe College’s campus gallery, only a handful of private galleries exist in town.
The vision for Curia on the Drag was extensive and challenging: to provide a haven for the arts complete with a gallery space, known as Gallery Protocol, a coffee shop and beer/wine bar (which is Curia on the Drag itself), a studio space for artists called the Fermenter, and additional space for concerts and other events. The immediate challenge was physical and logistical: the Humane Society’s quarters were old and had been, expectedly, given over to the daily duties of tending to many animals, leaving them in need of vast renovations. Given that a total of four buildings plus the grounds required work, it’s a marvel that this enterprise has been completed as lovingly and carefully as it has, producing an environment which is highly welcoming, bright, quirky, and cheerful.
Chase Westfall, the properties manager for Curia, explained to me as he provided me with a tour of the complex that the owner’s primary goals in the renovations were pragmatic ones: producing a comfortable and engaging atmosphere and quality adaptive reuse. The buildings date from circa 1948 through the 1960’s (though the one actually housing the coffee shop was built as early as 1929 and underwent renovations aplenty over the years) and mostly exhibit mid-century commercial typology as far as their design, making it nearly surprising how well the renovations translated into spaces that are both functional and warm, inviting, and in the case of the coffee shop downright homey. These renovations also made the small campus of buildings cohesive, painted in a calming golden cream tint with terracotta accents and featuring new windows and door hardware that is still evocative of mid-century roots.
Practical and open in its navigation, the cluster of buildings presents the coffeehouse as its point of embarkment, but the gallery itself faces Sixth Street and offers a traditional “storefront” to the entire complex. Aside from this gallery, there is also the “Superfun” event space which can be rented out for large one-artist or group shows or other events. This building was originally the Doug’s Dairy Twirl ice cream shop, and the original sign has been retained as well as the building’s mid-century design character. Doug’s indeed would have in decades past provided the local community the same basic type of “place” for meeting as Curia does now.
Perhaps most interesting of all is the warehouse-like space known as the Fermenter. This space which is divided into smaller but very open rooms and bays is an artists’ studio space and a call for submissions is opened four times a year, allowing the artists who are thus selected to use the space for four months free of charge. The concept is to allow recent university graduates in the fine arts a larger studio space than they probably would have access to in their own home and may be lacking now that they are out of school. Also, established artists who have small studios or need a separate space may find this premise interesting and it allows artists to work close to other artists, as they would have in a college master’s of fine arts graduate program.
In planning this small campus, it was clear that while a gallery is a nice and necessary means of communicating visual artwork to the community, in a college town it seemed pragmatic to offer a working space as well for artists since leaving school is often a transitional time when young artists suddenly no longer have these professional work areas when they need them the most. In offering such a space and providing it free but to the most-promising of artists who compete via their portfolios for it, there is an incentive also for young, talented visual artists to remain in Gainesville instead of moving to larger markets where they could find these resources.
Curia, the actual coffee shop in the midst of this little creative village, would be a stand-out even if it stood alone. The coffee is exceptional, and they also have beer and wine which seems a smart move for both their customers and their business. The atmosphere is the fruit of the efforts of several artists associated with Curia, according to coffee shop manager and operations director, Zach Kennedy. The idea was a common one: to create a fun and welcoming environment for patrons, but it’s a concept which alas often falls into a muddle of bright colors and disconnected themes when many businesses try to apply it, but with Curia the talent and verve were present to make the establishment a pleasing, exciting and fully enchanting physical space. Curia’s leadership—people like Zach and Chase—should be thanked for bringing together divergent influences and concepts into a cohesive whole.
More Curia on the Drag Photos by Mike Walker