Years after the idea was first tossed about, the Chinatown Artists Lofts have become a reality at the historic Mendonca Building.
Owners Ernest and JoDee Hunt bought the old building at Maunakea and Hotel streets six years ago with the idea of converting the upstairs offices into artist lofts. When permits were finally in place, they gutted the second-floor space and created 10 studios, each with its own bathroom and an industrial-style sink.
A year after the units became available, only two remain vacant.
"There’s a good feel that comes with an old building," said Rich Richardson, manager of the project and creative director of the ARTS at Marks Garage, a neighborhood-based arts center working to foster an artistic, social and economic renaissance in historic downtown Honolulu.
"It’s soulful. The materials are authentic and everything’s real honest. You feel like you’re part of the historical experience."
None of the original first-floor tenants, including a Chinese restaurant, bric-a-brac store and herb shop, were displaced for the studios, he said.
Built in 1901, the two-story Italianate-style structure was restored in the 1980s, with repairs of banisters and awnings. The original building included plumbing for living upstairs, according to JoDee Hunt, so she feels as if she is restoring that part of its history.
The entrance to the lofts is on Maunakea Street, right next to a barbershop, and leads to a landscaped interior courtyard dwarfed by surrounding high-rises. Studios range from about 500 to 1,500 square feet with high ceilings and windows that overlook the colorful Chinatown neighborhood. Some have exposed brick walls, and others original wood floors, but each unit has a different configuration.
The lofts are air-conditioned with interiors intentionally left bare for artists to work with.
Rent is between about $850 to $2,500 a month.
The project, managed by the nonprofit Hawaii Academy of Performing Arts, seeks a mix of community-minded artists, with "artist" broadly defined to include creative professionals in the performing, visual, literary and culinary arts. Applicants are chosen, in part, on creative merit.
Among those living at the project are a ceramicist, a painter, a Chinese medicine practitioner, an Irish singer, a Hawaiian printmaker, a professional photographer and an ink artist.
When artists live next to one another, their creative energies come together and ideas are exchanged, Richardson said.
"It’s not all about bars and nightclubs," he said. "The important work for this neighborhood is to give it a creative foundation."
JoDee Hunt believes there could be more artist lofts in the neighborhood. The building — right in the heart of Chinatown — has become a meeting ground for different parts of the community.
"It’s exciting to have these artists up there," she said. "They’re all contributing to the community. They’re part of the vision."
Occupation: Lead singer of Celtic rock ‘n’ roll band Doolin Rakes, songwriter, actor, educator; works with the Hawaii State Foundation on Culture and the Arts, the Hawaii Arts Alliance and Honolulu Theatre for Youth
Loft style: "Celtic Casbah"
Highlights: Painted plywood floors
Walking into singer James McCarthy’s live-work loft in Chinatown is like traveling the globe.
You’ll see bolero hats, ethnic jackets from around the world, photos of family and past gigs and a framed letter from his grandmother (the last one she wrote him) adorning the walls.
McCarthy confesses he’s no interior designer, but he decorated his loft with objects that either inspire him or have positive memories. He jokingly calls it "Celtic Casbah."
In his living room, the centerpiece is a worn, brown leather sofa from the now-closed-down Red Elephant Cafe on Nuuanu Avenue where his band recorded its "Irishman in Paradise" album. The sofa is set next to a coffee table on an Oriental rug, along with his guitars and amps.
Furnishings are simple: a few bookcases, a desk, a director’s chair, dresser and shoji screens. A hot plate, toaster oven and midsize fridge serve as a kitchen. There’s no television.
"My creative life is more energetic and peaceful without the TV," he said.
Instead, he spends time sitting on the sofa, playing his guitar and composing songs.
Two generous, 8-foot-tall windows look out on Hotel Street and the Chinatown police substation. A city bus rumbles by regularly, but McCarthy says he’s used to it.
To save space during the day, he stores his mattress and box spring on their sides near the entrance, draping them with a large velvet cloth featuring a Celtic cross.
The musician jokingly calls it a "McCarthy bed" — his own improvised version of a Murphy bed.
Stuffed animals and puppets McCarthy uses while working with arts programs for schoolchildren are scattered all around.
"For a musician, living in an urban area makes sense," he said.
McCarthy walks everywhere, to his weekly gigs at O’Toole’s Irish Pub on Nuuanu Avenue, to work at the museums and to restaurants and arts events.
He says there’s a sense of community in the neighborhood, having lived there for several years now. "For me it’s not just the space, but the concept that artists can have a place to live and work," McCarthy said. "I love the courtyard. I love the proximity to other artists."
Loft style: "Contemporary White Chic"
Highlights: Antique Chinese buffet
Lily Harrison’s loft space is divided into two clearly defined areas — one for living and one for working.
She lives in the front segment furnished mostly in white with a convertible leather sofa, a low media console and storage cabinets mounted on the wall.
The place is simple, organized and clean. She sleeps on a mattress set on top of a contemporary white rug with square patterns.
"I was going for clean lines," she said. "I wanted everything clean and bright. White makes everything look more open."
When Harrison first moved to Hawaii from Dallas, she was looking for a live-work space similar to the one she shared with others in a converted industrial warehouse. Living and working in the same space saves money, Harrison noted, and when she is inspired in the middle of the night — which often happens — she can simply get up and paint.
Some Asian furniture accent pieces, like a Korean-style step dresser and a Chinese buffet, and mirrors from Crate & Barrel complete the look.
She has no closet, so her clothes hang neatly from two portable, metal dress racks.
In the back of the studio, a far larger space is dedicated to Harrison’s artwork. Here, she paints on wood panels using oil and her latest experimental technique, applying layers of spray paint over her paintings. Harrison describes her work as abstract art inspired by nature.
"I like organic shapes," she said. "I’m inspired by nature and sea life. I like to experiment with lines and different textures and layers."
The space is ideal for painting because of the tall ceilings, the industrial sink for rinsing brushes and an old carpet she doesn’t have to worry about keeping clean, she said.
No paint is allowed in her white living space.
Harrison, who hails from Memphis, Tenn., says she loves being in the neighborhood. She likes the urban feel and rides her bike most places, including Waikiki, where she used to live.
"Chinatown is growing a lot," she said. "There’s so much to do. There’s night life, and new shops and restaurants keep opening. It’s inspiring to know other artists are working with me. We talk about where Hawaii’s arts scene is going, and we encourage each other to stay true to our artwork."
Occupation: Photographer, owner of Firebird Photography
Loft style: "Portable Antique Chic"
Highlights: Collection of old cameras and typewriters
Fashion photographer Cheyne Gallarde describes his loft style as a mix of old and new.
The same aesthetic applies to his vintage-inspired photographs that recall the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s — what he calls "antique chic."
Gallarde loves taking something familiar and giving it a new perspective from behind the camera lens. For instance, in one of his photographs, a milkman in ’60s costume stands in front of a Manoa plantation-style home; in another a matador poses at the top curve of the Waikiki War Memorial Natatorium, which hints of Spain.
Rather than focusing on having the latest technology and equipment, Gallarde said he focuses on design and lighting.
"I style everything," he said.
His loft has an office area that doubles as a living room, plus a separate room, and a view overlooking the hustle and bustle of Maunakea Marketplace.
Most of the furniture is portable. There’s a futon sofa, a folding desk, salvaged green cushions and an improvised table made from a clothes rack and board.
"A lot of my stuff here has to do double duty," said Gallarde, who has lived in studios most of his adult life.
Colorful chairs and cushions are spread everywhere, along with shelves full of antique cameras and typewriters.
Gallarde, a Waipahu High School grad, admits he’s a collector. In an homage to his love of old things, he has a tattoo of a Polaroid camera on his arm.
At this month’s First Friday, Gallarde hung various cardboard props on his wall as part of his "Thinking Inside the Box" exhibit. He makes the props for some of his photo shoots in part because of his limited budget, but also for fun.
The loft is still an unfinished piece of work.
In his bedroom, Gallarde plans to install a rolling ladder, similar to those used in libraries, along one wall, which has a built-in bookshelf from floor to ceiling. Along the other wall, he wants to install a closet system where he can hang his wardrobe for models.
His photos are not so much about reproducing the past, but interpreting bygone eras.
"My love for the past stems from growing up in Hawaii," he said. "I love Hawaii architecture and geography."
Gallarde says he enjoys living smack in the middle of the arts district so he can be part of all the action.
"Of all places on Oahu, this is where I belong as an artist," he said.