A Ridiculously Ambitious Art Space Rises in Tacoma

Alma Mater principals Rachel Ervin, Jason Heminger and Aaron Spiro. Photo courtesy Alma Mater.
Alma Mater principals Rachel Ervin, Jason Heminger and Aaron Spiro. Photo courtesy Alma Mater.

On a sunny day in late August, a once-derelict building in Tacoma is swarming with workers in hard hats. The Carpenters Building—a 23,000 square foot complex built in 1954 to house multiple unions—is perched on a high point on Fawcett Avenue. From the rooftop, the view takes in a sweeping panorama of downtown. Nested amid an ever-expanding urban sprawl, the shimmering white of the Tacoma Dome is visible.

The Carpenters Building is home to the soon-to-launch Alma Mater, a monster-sized, multi-use venue that opens to the public early next year. The enterprise is ambitious enough to be laughable and visionary to the point of delusion. But while many a utopian daydream of sustainable, artist-driven space flounders in the imagination, this one is happening, and with an inspired urgency.

“At its heart, it’s an incubator,” says Jason Heminger, a resident of Tacoma for the past 14 years and one of the artists spearheading the project. “We’re designing this place to orchestrate connections, offer up resources, generate mentoring opportunities.”

Heminger is sitting on a couch in a spacious-yet-cozy, light-infused recording studio, flanked by Alma Mater co-directors Aaron Spiro and Rachel Ervin. The low-key setting serves as HQ for now, as the rest of the building is carved up in various stages of construction. Unlike most boxy, soundproof recording studios, this one feels more like a giant living room peppered with analog synths, drum kits, vintage organs and dashes of smile-inducing kitsch. An oversized statue of a gilt cat, fitted with matching vintage gold shades, is perched on a plinth like a funky totem. Despite the duress of construction all around, the studio is functional; Motopony has been recording an album here.

“This project has pretty much taken over our lives,” says Ervin, laughing. Formerly a writer and makeup artist, she was most recently plucked from her job in the advancement department at UW Tacoma—where she also earned her undergraduate degree—so when the three principals were brainstorming a name, the tenor of “Alma Mater” fit.

“It’s like everybody’s a part of the collegiate spirit,” she says. “This is a new kind of school.”

Heminger’s background is in experimental education; he developed agricultural projects for a Montessori school in Colorado. Late in his creative life he began collaborating with Spiro, a seasoned musician and producer. Working with Spiro, he learned the building blocks of writing music and making albums.

“The developmental path of typical artists can be ambiguous, confusing,” Heminger says. “A lot of the motivation for this comes from looking at alternative education models, talking with some investors who were also excited about figuring out more expedited ways for artists to get resources, to get connected. To finds ways of navigating all the confusing art world stuff.”

Investors responded. (Heminger calls it lucky; his charisma suggests otherwise.) A few regional angel investors swept in to purchase the Carpenters Building, otherwise on a track to be razed and replaced by condos, and set the redesign in motion.

The first floor is a labyrinth of interconnected public spaces that will include a cafe, restaurant—they’ve brought on an as-yet unrevealed chef to design the menu—cocktail lounge and art gallery. The beating heart and centerpiece of the space is “a huge-ass music venue,” per Heminger, with a 500-person capacity. Upstairs, the second floor will be additional recording studios, rentable private work studios for artists and a communal space outfitted with kitchen, lounge and other perks for working artists. Seattle-based design firm Lead Pencil Studio, helmed by artists Annie Han and Daniel Mihalyo, have overseen the rebuild, retaining elements of the mid-century, industrial vibe and enhancing the deco-cum-brutalist bones of the space, like the curved concrete facade framing the main entrance and foyer.

When finished, the disparate elements of the complex will be intertwined, connected by halls and common spaces that flow into one another. The main stage will be wired to the recording studio, as will be the green rooms, back stage and work lounges.

“There will be some spaces designed for privacy,” says Heminger, “but overall the idea is to create a fluid space that inspires collaboration, where, say, recording artists will be working around people who are making video, graphic design, illustration.”

On the way out, Spiro stands on the rooftop, accessible via the street behind it, as the building is built into a hill. He reminisces about one of the early events they threw on this very roof: a paella-themed dinner party.

“There were around 400 people up here, surrounded by the light of the city as a backdrop,” he says. It was one of the most magical Tacoma moments I’ve been to. It’s not like we’ve built it and it’s gonna happen. We’ve already seen this beauty happening. We’re just going to continue that.”