An art occupation in an historic space: UPDATED
If these dust motes could talk, they’d have some twisted stories to tell. Instead they hover, mute and indifferent, trapped by a thick shaft of sunlight pouring through the west-facing windows inside the Seven Seas building downtown. Located on 1st Avenue across from the Seattle Art Museum, this six-story, 130-year-old building is better known as the former home of the Lusty Lady, the infamous adult theater that was anchor and ornament of what some locals wistfully refer to as “Old Seattle.”
With its ancient brick walls and 20-foot-tall, wood-beamed ceilings, the first floor is elegantly dilapidated—and, with its 4,000-some square feet of gaping, empty space, imposing. The Seven Seas has been vacant since the Lusty Lady shut down in 2010 after 25 years of peep shows and “private pleasures.” Before that the building had played numerous roles over the decades, including hotel, mercantile, tavern, short-term housing and shooting range.
Last year the Pioneer Square development firm Revolve announced that it optioned a 100-year lease from the owners, with plans to turn the building into a 47-room boutique hotel with a rooftop bar and restaurant on the bottom floor, which opens to Post Alley. The still-unnamed hotel is slated to open in 2018. This month, the Seven Seas will open to the public as a month-long art installation (it was also set to host the Punk Rock Flea Market, though as of April 26, fire marshall inspectors have deemed the upper floors off limits for safety reasons, leaving the PRFM without a home). If you’ve never been inside the Lusty—or prefer to deny that you have—this is your chance to bask within a shrine of Seattle history alongside of-the-moment artwork.
The residency was organized by artists Carlos Ruiz and Ty Ziskis in collaboration with event producer Peter Lowe and Punk Rock Flea Market founder Josh Okrent. Okrent had been searching for a new locale for the PRFM, which recently lost access to the former post office it last occupied in the Central District. Ruiz had been searching for a space to mount an art show. Last fall they learned about Revolve’s development plan and emailed their pitch: to access the space before development begins and fill it with art and music and events, all of which would benefit the Low Income Housing Institute (LIHI) and Sex Worker Outreach Program. Revolve took an in-person meeting and, to Ruiz’s surprise, were immediately receptive.
“They’re cool fucking dudes,” he says, walking me through the empty space a week after he was given full access. “I thought they’d be stuffed shirts.”
Revolve architect John Schack says the firm was happy to promote a cultural institution like the Flea Market that has a philanthropic component. “This is a way to introduce ourselves to those people that inform Seattle art and culture and develop a relationship that could blossom into other interactions down the line,” Schack says. “And Carlos’ work we find to be evocative in its own right.”
Ruiz will take over the first floor, basically where the Lusty Lady’s peep show and video booths once stood. He’s producing massive prints of his work—graphic, black-and-white illustrations and photo images rendered on long scrolls of white paper—as well as custom-made, large-scale lamps, projections and illuminated sculptures to light the space. (Beyond the natural light of day, Ruiz says, the place is very poorly lit.) The first floor will also host readings and concerts, with each event complemented by a cash bar, which Lowe is in the process of building. A storefront will be open to the public during working hours, selling items made by local artists and designers.
“If we have a show we’ll charge to pay for staffing,” Ruiz says. “But for every eight bucks, six is going to paying a bartender, sound guy, bouncer and cleanup crew and two goes to LIHI. Every show is a benefit.”
On the day I visited, Lowe was patching holes into the worn wood floor and prepping other improvements to the space, like functioning plumbing and electricity. Work will continue up until the last possible moment, Okrent said, at which point they'd open the space to occupany inspection. According to an email Orkent sent me on April 26, "This is more than just a matter of bad signage or not enough fire extinguishers—they found structural damage that affects the whole building and determined that there's no safe way to bring the public into the space."
Ruiz says that the storefront area of the space has been approved for use and that his art opening will take place as planned on May 5. Beyond that, the rest of the group's plans are up in the air. "Maybe you know of the perfect space?" writes Orkent. "At least 5,000 sqare feet with working toilets, parking and CHEAP? If you have an idea, please don’t keep it to yourself."
The print version of this article went to press days before the cancellation of the Punk Rock Flea Market at the Lusty Lady. The online version has been modified to reflect those changes.