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Journey through the historic Thorp building: the birthplace of Art-A-Whirl

Part of the adventure of Art-A-Whirl is exploring the architectural treasures of the historic warehouse buildings that house many of the artists’ studios. They include the Grain Belt Bottling house, Northrup King, Q.arma, Casket Arts-Carriage House, and Thorp buildings.

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I attended the opening night reception at the Thorp building & Central Business Center (CBC), 1618-1620 Central Ave NE (look for the white painted building with the neon Diamonds Coffee Shoppe sign). I had never been there before.

It was a bewildering place. Inside we found a winding labyrinth of brick corridors and staircases leading to a seemingly endless variety of suites and studios housing artists, photographers, musicians and creative businesses. The evening included musical and projection performances, whirl art, and fashion.

The Thorp & CBC retain historic industrial characteristics, including a towering brick Vic chimney (think Victorian-era England), vintage freight scale and freight elevator (where local musicians play during Art-A-Whirl’s famous Freight Sessions).

A number of freight dock entrances dissect the immense 250,000-square-foot space abutting railroad tracks. During the Art-A-Whirl opener, the 36,000-square-foot bay-windowed “Big Space” was the setting for cocktails and a goth-inspired fashion show by Red Shoe Clothing Co.

Bohm Commercial Real Estate leases the space and provides this history: Built in 1902, the Thorp Building was originally home to Thorp Doors, which made heavy duty sliding metal clad fire doors. But during WWII, it functioned as an undercover site for building military equipment. Together, the Thorp and CBC buildings housed the General Mills Mechanical Division, which produced the Torpedo Director and “black box” flight communications recorder, among other strategic devices. Two guard towers actually remain there from the secret operations.

The complex is now home to 65 artists and is touted as the “birthplace of Art-A-Whirl,” one of the country’s largest open studio art crawls. A group of Northeast artists began holding planning meetings there in 1995. Interestingly enough, the Art-A-Whirl name resulted when one of the attendees spotted the neighboring Whirl Air Flow’s tornado logo from a 2nd floor restroom window.

Though the Thorp is not as populated as the some of the other widely known open studio buildings with waiting lists in Northeast, word is spreading. Banners boast that up to 60,000 square feet of space is available for lease. Missed Art-A-Whirl? It’s not too late to see these open studios during First Thursdays in the Arts District from 5 to 9 p.m.

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