For 70 years, 1500 S. 73rd Street in West Allis was an edifice shrouded in death, loss, and mourning. In 1930, Slattery & Skubal Funeral Home took root in the imposing brick building. In 2000, the funeral home, too, died and left the lower level of the corner property vacant until 58-year-old retired educator Erico Ortiz breathed new life into the ignored property to usher in art exhibits, dramatic works, community meetings, and—beginning this weekend—live music events in his new artistic outlet, Inspiration Studios. Saturday night, Old Earth, Christopher Porterfield, Dietrich Gosser, and storyteller Dave Hendrickson will officially christen the unconventional site a music venue, as the young artist hub will house its first full-fledged concert.
“It’s a black box,” Ortiz says. “I can use it for anything that I want.”
Last December, Ortiz—a longtime musician, avid community player, and novice painter—purchased the former funeral home in hopes of having a place to ply his lifelong passion.
“I was running out of space in my house for my own art and I wanted a space of my own,” Ortiz says. “And the theatre company, the Village Playhouse [of Wauwatosa], was looking for a home. So I thought I could kill two birds with one stone and get a building.”
Ortiz looked at a variety of properties, mostly storefronts, but nothing stood out to him. When walking through the vacant 80-year-old former mortuary, he was quickly taken with the classic and eerily beautiful building. That said, the aged establishment was far from a turnkey operation: Ortiz replaced a boiler, pulled up a significant amount of carpet, dismantled the stage (which he deduced once held caskets during visitations, sermons, and eulogies), and filled five dumpsters full of garbage. While cleaning out the garage, he found three urns with ashes, along with prayer cards, and log books dating back to the early 1930s. Ortiz intends to build a display case for some of those items in the entrance to pay respectful homage to the building’s funeral home past. The most extensive and funeral-appropriate restoration was that of the embalming room.
“It was a mess. It was filthy and ugly,” Ortiz says. “When we bought the place, the floor was all brown—blood. It stunk like crazy. We scrubbed and scrubbed, then we had a guy come in take a power-washer and come back a few days with a cleanser. Now we use it to store paint.”
That motif of rebirth and re-purposing is evident throughout Inspiration. The abandoned embalming room stores paint for set pieces. Those same set pieces are built downstairs and transported to the ground level by way of a thin elevator shaft that was once unmistakably used to transport coffins and embalmed bodies to the showing room. In that showing room-turned-art gallery, a donated grand piano now sits where the stage once did. Since its March 1 grand opening, the site that had long been synonymous with grief and expiration is now tinged with an aura of happiness and expression. As Ortiz likes to say, he’s “giving new life to a place that celebrated death.”
The new life finds Inspiration Studios casting a vast creative net to serve as a theatre for both community and youth productions, a rehearsal space for plays and dance troupes, a site for rotary club meetings, West Allis’ only art gallery, and now a place for intimate musical performances in the 99-capacity setting. Ortiz says Inspiration has already drawn kind words and a visit from West Allis Mayor Dan Devine. Field Report front man Christopher Porterfield also saw something special in the studio, as evidenced in his recommendation that Old Earth mastermind Todd Umhoefer book a show in the space. After touring the site, Umhoefer gladly booked the inaugural musical performance in the unconventional venue. He said he was taken by the stage lighting, the presence of a piano, Ortiz’s commitment to local art, and, of course the building’s morbid past.
“As soon as I found out the history of it being a funeral home, I thought this fits right in with the Old Earth narrative for sure,” Umhoefer says. “You can only play so many places so many times. I’m an experimental artist and I have to experiment with the spaces I’m performing in as well. It’s different when I’m performing at a bar than a place that’s dedicated to that.”
Ortiz, too, was drawn to Umhoefer’s artistic integrity. He feels Old Earth and the other performers playing Saturday will pair well with the locally sourced art (currently prints, etchings, and mixed-media assemblages by Sheboygan artist Angie Zimmerman) hanging on his gallery walls.
“I want to work with emerging artists. I want to work with people who haven’t yet made it,” Ortiz says. “I want to support those who are starting. I’m into Todd’s whole vision, his goals, and what’s behind his stuff.”
Ironically, since starting Inspiration Studios, Ortiz’s own art has suffered due to a mixture of preoccupation and working his hands to the point of severe arthritis—forcing him to wear braces on his hands temporarily in preparation of reconstructive surgery on his thumbs. Still, the retired vice principal is beaming in his new position. He’s sunk nearly $50,000 of his own money into Inspiration Studios, not to mention thousands of hours, and the well-being of his own artistic instruments—all to revive a dead and discarded building. And he couldn’t be happier with his decision.
“It’s heartwarming. It’s exactly what I wanted. I want it to be a busy, vibrant place, and I think it’s turning into that,” Ortiz says. “I’m trying to touch a broad community and I’m hoping that West Allis will support us.”
Inspiration Studios hosts Old Earth, Christopher Porterfield, Dietrich Gosser (Madison) and David Hendrickson Saturday, May 17 at 7 p.m. Advance tickets to the all-ages show are $10 and come with an immediate download of Old Earth’s Milwaukee To Edinburgh 2013 album.