Rachel Greco, Lansing State Journal, published on October 24, 2017.
CHARLOTTE - Richard Turbin was newly-divorced and looking for something larger than life to throw himself into when he first discovered 125 S. Cochran Ave. in downtown Charlotte.
Twenty-four years ago he needed a flash light to walk the 159-year-old property's second and third floors with LeRoy Hummel, Charlotte's building official.
"All the windows were boarded up all the way around the second and third floors, so it was darker than all get out up there," Turbin said. "You couldn't see anything."
Once home to a Independent Order of Odd Fellows lodge, it's the tallest building on the block. The upper floors had been empty for three decades in 1993 and were to be sold at a foreclosure auction in just a few days.
"There was no heat, no electricity, no plumbing," Turbin said.
But there was potential, so he bought it cheap,12,000 square feet for just $1,250.
Turbin moved into the 18,000-square-foot building and started fixing it up. Three years later he bought the first floor, opening an antique shop on the ground level.
It's taken two and a half decades and more than $100,000 to realize his dream for the property — the creation of Windwalker Underground Gallery, a nonprofit dedicated to promoting and supporting local art initiatives and artists themselves, some of who live in apartments on the building's second floor.
In the process he breathed new life into the space that is, in many ways, a work of art itself.
An artistic space
Art work doesn't just hang on the walls inside the gallery. Artists have chiseled pieces onto the length of a second-floor wall and spray painted others on the brick exterior.
Inside the building you'll find exposed brick walls and original wood floors and high ceilings, but there's also a 17-foot-long dream catcher sculpture accented by colored glass that hangs below a glass roof skylight, a first-floor stage and a third-floor ballroom with huge windows facing the city's downtown.
There's a koi pond on the third floor landing filled with fish, and a small room at the top of the building that opens, via glass doors, to the roof on South Cochran Avenue.
Turbin spent years gutting the building and restoring it, doing most of the grunt work himself.
"I took a building that was so undesirable," Turbin said. "No one wanted it, but I knew exactly where I was going with it."
On Friday nights and weekends the space is an entertainment venue. Comedians, musicians and storytellers perform on a first-floor stage during open mic nights and organized events. Movies are shown from a large projection screen, including a recent showing of the cult classic "The Rocky Horror Picture Show," and art workshops are offered to the community.
The building is an art gallery too, serving as a creation and living space for a few resident artists who live in second-floor apartments there and other area artists who sell and show their work in the building.
"I love art," Turbin said. "I live for art. My whole dream is to support the arts and to help the children of the community become involved in the arts. That's what our mission is here."
Kalli Dempsey, a member of Windwalker's board, said the building's beauty is the perfect backdrop for the nonprofit, now two years old.
"It's amazing," she said. "It's been a 25-year process. Richard knew what he needed to do and he found the people to help him do it. He just carried this vision with him for so long."
Spreading the word
The building's basement is Turbin's next project. He's renovating it and plans to create a true "underground gallery" art space there.
In the meantime, Windwalker's board is still working to draw more visitors to the property, for events or just for a spur-of-the-moment tour. Turbin said many Lansing area residents haven't discovered it yet, and he wants to welcome them.
"We spent all of 2016 saying our mission statement everywhere we could," Dempsey said. "We want people to know what it happening with this space and why."
She said more than 700 people attended events at Windwalker this year, and more than 300 artists have performed there.
Turbin said it's a good start, but they still have work to do in spreading the word about the space.
"To this day people come in through the front door who have never been here," he said. "And the space is deceiving. When you're on the first floor you have no idea what's above you. Really, a lot of cool stuff is going on here. This is a magical building and I'm not just saying that because I own it."
Contact Reporter Rachel Greco at (517) 528-2075 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @GrecoatLSJ.
Windwalker Underground Gallery
Visit Windwalker Underground Gallery's Facebook page at "Windwalker Underground Gallery" to get a look at upcoming Friday night open mic nights and other events at the space, located at 125 S. Cochran Ave. in downtown Charlotte.