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The backward building project

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Steam punk meets extreme recycling at the Whistle Stop Depot, one of Tucson’s most exciting new venues. For its owners it was the ultimate scavenger hunt, and an exercise in ‘backward building’. By Gillian Drummond

whistle stop front doors

Parts of an airplane fuselage form the outside doors to the Depot. Photo by Dominic Arizona Bonuccelli.

A word of warning to architects, builders or designers about to read this: you may not want to. What’s the first thing you attend to when constructing, renovating or designing? A set of plans.

And plans barely came into the equation when Nancy Bender and her husband, Carlton Dewey White, decided to turn around an old warehouse in the downtown Tucson neighborhood of Dunbar Spring.

Yes, they knew they wanted to be part of the city’s downtown revitalization. Yes, they loved the warehouse building and its potential. And yes, they had the perfect resumés. Carl is a home builder (his first: a tree house as a child) and the son of a dump truck company owner, who loves working with salvaged material. Nancy is a retired schoolteacher who renovated and re-sold homes in her spare time. But the rest was up in the air. Several stories up, in fact: the height of a cavernous dilapidated building where the homeless slept and junkies shared needles.

whistle stop pew and wall

Corrugated metal paneled walls, movable walls made out of foodservice shelves, and a school bench.
Photo by Dominic Arizona Bonuccelli.

They were thrown a curve ball straight away, when a fire broke out in the building as they were closing on the property deal in 2008. So even if they had wanted to retain the original building, now they couldn’t.

Instead, over the course of five years, the couple built new out of old, sourcing scrap metal, trims, toilet tank lids, lockers, even a spin dryer from 1948, to create a space that’s a lesson in making do with what you’ve got. If  a salvage yard met steam punk met the cast of Survivor and the challenge was to create using only the parts they had, then The Whistle Stop Depot would surely be the result.

whistle stop toilet wall

Toilet tank lids form the surface of a bathroom wall. Photo by Dominic Arizona Bonuccelli.

“It was a process of backward building,” says Nancy. “Plus, you’re not using things that are square or plain or straight. For most builders, it would drive them crazy.”

Gersons Building Materials was a major source of materials, and Carl got more than imaginative with what he found. One day they went shopping for front doors there. “I think we’ve found them,” said Carl. Nancy looked around her; all she could see were airplane parts. He was referring to parts of a fuselage. She was skeptical, but as Carl worked his magic – attaching the two airplane pieces to some bed frames – he proved they were just the ticket.

whistle stop washer dryer

A 1948 spin dryer serves as a drinks cooler. Photo by Dominic Arizona Bonuccelli.

As word got out about their ongoing salvage hunt, people would drop scrap items outside of the couple’s home. They found some antique benches from an elementary school at an auction in Benson. They used bar bells to help support another door, which formed a landing at the top of a spiral staircase made of scraps. It leads to the roof of the bathrooms; a self-playing piano sits on the top.

On the outside bathroom wall, toilet tank lids in varying shades of white and cream are set into grout to form an innovative new wall covering. A new concrete floor was poured, and drywall was built in suspended parts to form the ceiling. The inside walls are paneled with rusted corrugated metal (from the original roof, damaged in the fire), a move that, says Nancy, helps the space’s acoustics by giving variation to its surfaces. In addition, there is a set of movable walls made out of old food service shelves and casters.

“A couple of hundred thousand” dollars later, the space was ready. Nancy and Carl used it for their own private gatherings, but they really wanted to market it commercially. They considered some offers from businesses wanting to turn it into a bar or microbrewery. “Then it would have been a building just like all the other ones around,” says Nancy. Not only that, she says, the building resisted.

whistle stop drinks trolley

Car doors form the ends of this bar made from salvaged metal. Photo by Dominic Arizona Bonuccelli.

“We’re very connected to the building. It’s like a living organism. Carl and Rick [Carl’s assistant] have touched every inch of the space. When Carl wanted to find a specific size or type of screw, he would go outside and just pick it up.” It was like the building was giving them what they needed, she says. But when they were approached about other businesses setting up in there, the building’s aura became more negative, she says. “The energy of the building changed.”

whistle stop nancy and carl

Carlton, second from left, and Nancy, third from left, with friends. Photo by Dominic Arizona Bonuccelli.

Nancy is thrilled that she and the Depot are meeting one of her original hopes: a boost to Tucson’s downtown. The Depot has become a venue for art shows, including the Tucson Sculpture Festival, the BICAS annual art auction, two weddings, business mixers, seminars and, most recently, a blind dinner organized with Tucson catering company Gallery of Food.

Gallery’s owner, Kristine Jensen, met Nancy earlier this year, and her space inspired Kristine to resurrect Dulce del Barrio, a series of underground ‘adventure’ dinners Kristine ran until 2006. One Saturday night in July they blindfolded 35 guests and transported them by bus to the ‘secret’ venue of the Whistle Stop, serving them five courses and entertaining them and their remaining senses with finger food, music, poetry and tactile teases, like feathers and spritzed water. (See Diary of a Blind Diner in this issue.) Kristine and Nancy hope to have another blind dining experience in the Fall.

The Whistle Stop is on the map as a venue that’s not just sustainable and different, but fun. One of their additions to the building is a 42-feet-high tower that holds a solar chimney. At the top of a tower stands another of their rescued items: a mannequin dressed as a railway guard, gazing out the tower’s window to the nearby railway track that inspired this venue’s name.

And the improvements continue. Tucson artist Wesley Fawcett Creigh has started work on a mural for one of the perimeter walls. You can follow the progress here. 

* For more information on The Whistle Stop Depot and bookings, call 520 882 4969. For information on the next blind dining experience, call 520 488 0869.

whistle stop tower

The tower was added when the Whistle Stop Depot was rebuilt. Photo by Dominic Arizona Bonuccelli.

whistle stop night shot outside

Photo by Dominic Arizona Bonuccelli.

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