The building that houses Black Dog Forge, and which includes the basement where Pearl Jam first played together, is up for sale. Now band members and other artists hope whoever buys the building preserves its history.
We have become used to saying goodbye to our places here. Restaurants and bars. Camera and clock shops and concert spaces. Places we liked just for the color they added to the city.
But when news broke the other day that the Second Avenue building that houses the Black Dog Forge would soon be up for sale, something in me snapped.
Basta, I thought. Enough.
The basement of the forge (and the adjacent Studio Gioia) is where the band that would become Pearl Jam first met and played together. Eddie Vedder arrived straight from the airport after flying in from San Diego, telling bassist Jeff Ament in the car, “I don’t want to mess around. Let’s get to work.”
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They did, and in a matter of months their sound drew the world to Seattle: music lovers, hopefuls, armies of A&R guys from major record labels. Entire industries and lives were built on what came out of that basement.
In a city that is increasingly losing its landmarks, our music history is invaluable — worth far more than a likely sleek stack of apartments, where those with no sense of the artistic burial ground on which they live create little more than craft cocktails and code.
“Long live Belltown,” Ament said the other day. “Seattle is dead.
“It’s sad to see the color and life sucked out of our city,” he said, “but makes sense that ‘the other folks’ would eventually want to move back downtown.”
Guitarist Stone Gossard was tipped off to the place by photographer Spike Mafford, who showed his work at Galleria Potatohead, which was in the same building and fronted Second Avenue.
“We built walls and decorated the space with art, posters and other inspirational pieces,” Ament recalled. “And we had an actual P.A., which we never had until then.”
During breaks they found coffee at Cafe Septieme, breakfast at Cyclops. Burritos at Mama’s Mexican Kitchen. They went to the Vogue to listen to DJ James Babyteeth.
And they got to know Louie Raffloer and Mary Gioia, he of Black Dog and she of the adjacent Studio Gioia, who have been working in and renting the space for 25 years.
“The Black Dog crew are the last of the old Belltown artist spirit,” Ament said. “They create beautiful and functional forged pieces, of which I have a house full of railings, gates, doors and light fixtures that they made for me.
“Louie and Mary are true artisans and the gatekeepers to one of the iconic neighborhoods the city has ever seen.”
I stopped by the morning after the news broke, and found Raffloer and Gioia standing outside in the sun with their two dogs.
Gioia recalled the day last week when the man who collects their rent came by and told her it would be the last time he did so. The building owner had decided to sell, and they had two months left.
“I was just nauseous,” Gioia said.
The parcel officially includes three addresses: the combined Black Dog Forge and Studio Gioia, the RIZOM clothing store and an art gallery fronting Second Avenue.
It is all owned by the family of Janet Butler, the longtime owner who died within the last year.
“She loved artists,” Raffloer said. “This was their patronage. They were angels to many artists.” (Those included bands like Soundgarden and The Presidents of the United States of America, rap and hip-hop artists, and clothing and jewelry designers.)
King County tax rolls appraise the land at $2.4 million — up from $1.8 million just a year ago. But we all know it will go for way more than that.
Butler’s son, Frank, told Gioia that he had turned down two $5 million offers from foreign investors in the last few years, and hoped to sell to someone local who wants to preserve the building.
One donor, Paul Franklin-Bihary, supplemented a $25 donation with this:
“This space, in an indirect yet profound way, helped me craft my sense of self, increase my pride of being a born-and-bred Seattleite, and expand my soul by helping all of these amazing Seattle bands develop their music and share it with the world. I hope this project works. We need some of our past to remain intact in this city, and, as a cultural landmark, this building matters.”
If the campaign doesn’t reach its goal, Drewery said she will give the money to Raffloer and Gioia to help cover whatever it costs to relocate 20 tons of forging equipment.
In a bit of irony, Raffloer never liked grunge music. He’s a country-western guy.
“Back in the day, that’s what we used to crank not to hear them downstairs,” he said. ”We’re delightfully ignorant. Is ‘Ten’ a song or an album?”
Photographer Lance Mercer shot Pearl Jam’s first publicity photos in the basement, and when the band moved out with the rent prepaid, Mercer set up shop there, developing photos and rehearsing with his own band, The Briefs.
“Any space that you spend a long time in, there’s a smell, there’s a vibe,” he said. “I have a lot of personal history in that room. It’s like your grandparents’ house, but with this, it’s like, you know, smoke and stale beer and puke.”
He remembered the day actor Kelsey Grammer came down the alley from a nearby park where his show, “Frasier,” was filming.
“The Forge was going with noise, there was a band practicing and he ran down the alley, saying, ‘Please! Please!’ ” Mercer recalled. “We didn’t give a (expletive) that it was Kelsey Grammer. ‘How much are you going to pay us? What, buy us lunch and then what else?’ ”
In that sense, Black Forge was a clubhouse for artists. And, in his mind, protected because of that.
“I always thought it was the last place where artists could be and work without feeling threatened by all the things going on around there and having to move out.”
Mercer loved the outcry that followed news of the sale.
“I think it’s a great opportunity for people to fight back against big developers,” he said. “It’s unrealistic to think that they can raise the money. But it’s like a petition. It will make people take notice.”
Drewery is hoping philanthropist Paul Allen or one of the bands will take notice and perhaps buy and preserve the building.
“If it was 1991 Belltown,” Ament said, “we would buy that building in a heartbeat.”
Realists that they are, Raffloer and Gioia took a ride down to the South Park and Georgetown neighborhoods to see what’s out there, and found that even those neighborhoods are being gentrified and jacked up.
“We have no idea what it’s like to rent in this city,” Raffloer said. “We’re about to find out.”