The queen of Northrup King

Updated: November 19, 2010 - 4:44 pm

// Debbie Woodward oversees hundreds of artists at the NE building and now uses it for humanitarian work for Haiti, too //

When Debbie Woodward first entered the dark Northrup King building she now manages, she had one anxious thought: “I’m going to need a cell phone and some Mace,” she said.

Today, the Northrup King building isn’t quite so intimidating. Woodward has filled it with more than 200 artists, and she coordinates arts events that bring thousands of people through the doors. She recently started using the building to warehouse and ship donations for Haiti earthquake victims.

Fourteen years ago, Northrup King was far from being a hub of activity. Six-hundred employees that packaged seeds for the Northrup King Co. had moved out to Golden Valley, seeking a larger space where they could transport seeds with a forklift. The empty Northeast building was very dark, sporadically lit by a few single bulbs. There were no hallways and only a couple of entries to the stairway, making it difficult for Woodward to find her away around. She often wound up in the boiler room, where she sought help from an ex-Northrup King employee to simply find the stairwell. When Woodward’s sister, a Lakeville resident, saw the building for the first time, she burst into tears and told Woodward it wasn’t a bit funny that she was working there.

“Why would you buy something like this?” Woodward wondered at the time. She had to direct the question to her father, Jim Stanton, who purchased the building with a partner in the late ’80s. Stanton’s work is pervasive Downtown — he developed the Bridgewater condominiums, the Riverwalk Apartments and Lindsay Lofts. Stanton said he bought Northrup King because it was a bargain.

“My friend called me up and said, ‘Jimmy, how would you like to buy 780,000 square feet of building for $2.1 million?’” Stanton said. “I said, ‘That’s rent. That’s $3 a foot. … Go ahead.’”

Stanton recruited his daughter, who has a background in human resources and sales management, to fill the place up with tenants. It doesn’t sound like he cut her much slack, however.

“After the first couple of years, he said the building should pay for itself,” Woodward said.

That wasn’t a simple task — the mid-90s were the “Wild West” at Northrup King, Woodward said.

People occasionally broke in to the building to shoot pigeons in the grain elevator. Others quietly moved into studios and went unnoticed, setting up shop without paying rent. Artists would injure themselves trying to rewire their studios. Woodward heard that people danced around the building at night, naked and on acid. A group of musicians carved into the walls and started fires. One memorable tenant routinely brought his motorcycle up the freight elevator. Another tenant arbitrarily claimed portions of the building outside his studio for large public art projects. Another tenant created elaborate sets, photographed himself inside them, and dropped the leftover set pieces in the hall.

A few artists were already working in the building when Woodward arrived, but only one artist worked there full time.

“All of a sudden, people found out that the same woman who makes a $3,000 custom woven rug has a nice client that might want one of their paintings,” Woodward said. “It’s not just a bunch of people hanging out, it’s people doing good business.”

Woodward decided to renovate the building one chunk at a time, with the help of staff like Al Pekarek. Pekarek started working in the packet seed division at Northrup King in 1962, when he was still in high school, and he retired from the building staff just a year-and-a-half ago. He helped sheet rock the walls, rewire the electricity, subdivide the open floor plan into smaller spaces, repair 400 steam traps and fix the boiler.

“I can picture where the machines were,” Pekarek said. “For me, it’s quite a transformation.”

Whenever Woodward got on a roll with new leases, she would use the money to build a new hallway.

Stanton joked that even though the building doesn’t take subsidies, Woodward is running it as a nonprofit anyway.

“I never get any money, because she keeps reinvesting it in the building,” he said.

Woodward tries to keep studios affordable by avoiding extra polish on the build-out. The floors aren’t buffed to a shine. Many studios don’t have water service. By keeping the renovations simple, Woodward said, she doesn’t have to charge artists for beautification they don’t need.

“They know how to make it look pretty without much money,” she said.

Northrup King is full today, but the recent recession ousted most of the building’s large tenants. When Macy’s didn’t rehire a team of artists to construct the eighth floor holiday show last year, the business shut down at Northrup King. A machine repair shop that had operated for 20 years also closed during the recession, along with a company that made three-ring binders.

“It was like shutting off a water spigot,” Woodward said. She couldn’t lease out the large spaces, so she chopped them up into smaller studios that she has since leased out.

Demand for studios has picked up again, and Woodward expects the trend to continue as artist-heavy buildings like the Ford Centre empty out to make way for new development projects.

It’s easy to assume that Woodward has an artistic bent of her own. But she doesn’t.

“I think that’s why it works,” she said. “Artists running stuff like this — that doesn’t work at all. … For me, it’s about reaching a level of mutual respect.”

Instead of art, Woodward’s passion is community service. She has volunteered at Cityview School in North Minneapolis for about three years now. She’ll soon take her third trip to Haiti in two years, where she will volunteer at an aid organization called Real Hope for Haiti.

Woodward travels to Haiti prepared to help with anything. She’s taken overnight shifts caring for Haitian newborns, transplanted trees, cared for sick children, and repackaged pharmacy goods in Creole.

After the earthquake, she offered to collect supplies at Northrup King and store them in a large space a tenant had recently vacated. In April, she shipped a 40-foot container full of food, handmade dresses, baby blankets and buckets out of Northeast. She drove another load of donations to Indiana last month.

Jess Lehman, a student at North Central University, helped Woodward pack up donations at Northrup King last spring, and she’s traveling to Haiti with Woodward later this month.

“People need advocates; they need someone to continue pursuing them and being a voice for them,” she said. “Debbie has done that from behind the scenes.”

Pekarek also offered praise for Woodward’s behind-the-scenes work at Northrup King.

“It was a huge place. They had all this space and didn’t know what to do with it,” he said. “She got a real handle on the building. … She’s done a terrific job there.”

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