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Ice House

Ice House serves as cool magnet for arts community

By Maggie Wolff Peterson For The State Journal

BERKELEY SPRINGS — The Ice House in Berkeley Springs, once a 40,000-square-foot white elephant, continues to emerge as a center of culture in the state's premier arts village.

Acquired by the Morgan Arts Council in 1996, the four-story, brick-and-concrete building constructed in 1911 began as a cold storage facility for apples. Then the tallest building in town, its upper three floors were accessible only via rickety, narrow wooden staircases. Over time, broken windows allowed access to pigeons. Its concrete floors were pitted, uneven and gritty, and bathroom facilities were essentially nil.

It was dark and dirty, and the ivy that covered an entire exterior wall obscured the fact that the wall was disconnected from the rest of the structure. 

Today, the building houses a first-floor co-op gallery that is home to more than 30 artists. Open on weekends, it offers jewelry, textiles, stained glass, sculpture and framed pieces. Adjacent is a special exhibition gallery with curated shows that change eight times a year.

Elsewhere in the building are a black-box theater, dance studio and classrooms. Vast, open second-floor space allows storage of stage sets and costumes, carried by the building's original freight elevator. Additionally, offices for the arts council are housed on the first floor, and continued renovation has added a skylight loft at the top of the building that will someday be used for social functions.

"What this has done is certify Berkeley Springs as an art town and give it a center," said Jeanne Mozier, a council board member. "Art is very important to marketing Berkeley Springs."

Since 2006, the town has been honored by American Style magazine as one of the top 25 arts destinations in the country. The Ice House has acted as a magnet to bring artists to Berkeley Springs, knowing they would find merchandising and gallery support, Mozier said.

"Prior to the Ice House, artists here didn't believe they could sell their work here," she said.

And with art as a centerpiece, the town has attracted boutique merchants and fine restaurants. 

"It translates into people's minds as a good place to eat and shop," Mozier said. "Thirty percent of our tourism is directly attributable to the draw of the town as an art town."

Transforming the building has been an ongoing project since the arts council received it at no cost from U.S. Borax, which operates a sand mine outside of town. It took the council six months to develop initial plans for the dilapidated structure. Since then, the council has accessed nearly $1 million in federal and state grant funding to update the building's utilities, install restrooms, build interior walls and shore up crumbling floors, which are then painted and finished by resident artists. So far, two floors of the building have usable spaces.

Additionally, $90,000 was raised in completion of the "Legacy Vine," a three-panel painting now installed in the building's lobby, that allowed donors to claim the image of a bird, leaf or flower. "If you're going to have an arts center, you should have a piece of cool art," Mozier said. Better than a buy-a-brick campaign, the piece invested donors in the idea of arts support, she said.

Future plans include re-orienting the building's entrance to face open green space to the south. The space will function as a cultural park and sculpture garden. A catering kitchen is imagined for the building's top floor.

The building also is open for community events such as the annual Festival of Lights, an alternative-healing expo that last November attracted 800 people over two days for demonstrations, lectures and sales of homeopathic remedies and alternative medicine products. Weekday yoga, Zumba and belly dance classes are scheduled in the dance studio. In the summer, the building houses arts and theater camps for children.

"From the day we got the deed, we have used the building," Mozier said. "We just started to do stuff."