Seedy hotel transformed into nvrlnd — touring a new creative hub in Calgary

A group of volunteers worked tirelessly to transform a once-dark corner of southeast Calgary into an affordable home for creating and showing art. It's hosting an open house party on Saturday.

Former annex to infamous Shamrock Hotel now artist studios and venue

The volunteer board behind Nvrlnd, from left: Ian Brooks, Kelly Johnsgaard, Anna Hall, Cory Nespor and Carsten Rubeling. (Drew Anderson/CBC)

The smell of the chicken processing plant still wafts in from time to time and the train still rumbles by. But the garage next door is now a trendy microbrewery, the chicken plant is destined for the rubble heap and inside the former hotel — once dark in so many ways — are bright artist studios, renting for a reasonable price.

The artists behind the project cleaned, scraped, painted and sweated over the conversion from seedy hotel to a creative hub called nvrlnd on their own time and, at least at first, on their own dime.

The effort is transforming the old Shamrock Hotel annex in Ramsay and exorcising its ghosts.

"Part of the deal was the building was our responsibility, so anything that goes wrong, any leaks, anyone breaks in, any problems with the building, we have to deal with it," said Kelly Johnsgaard, one of the board members of the not-for-profit artist collective.

"I literally slept in the basement for a weekend because I was afraid that the hot water tank would blow up or one of the boilers would blow up."

Balloons and mannequins in the hallways of the Nvrlnd studios. (Drew Anderson/CBC)

The Shamrock Hotel proper, which was across the street from the annex and housed its infamous pub, was bought by the city and torn down to make way for the eventual Green Line LRT route. But the annex and a small storefront on 12th Street S.E., both also city-owned, were left standing.

Nvrlnd, run by a volunteer board of five people (Johnsgaard, Cory Nespor, Anna Hall, Ian Brooks and Carsten Rubeling), rents the spaces from the city. The project is the second home for the organization after its old space, the Voltage Garage in Marda Loop, was redeveloped.  

On a tour of the studios that occupy the annex building, the board members talk about finding needles in the ceiling tiles and condoms on the ground, of six dumpster loads of garbage, of mattresses that were recycled and TVs that will be repurposed into an art installation.

The storefront was also cleaned out, painted and serves as a venue to host concerts, art shows and more.

"For the first two months, it was let's get a dumpster bin, let's see who's willing to jump in, get dirty and clean up the mess. There was a lot of mess," said Johnsgaard.

Anna Hall, one of the board members behind Nvrlnd, in her studio in the old Shamrock hotel annex. (Drew Anderson/CBC)

"The rooms had been renovated three times. So the rooms were full of beds and blankets, TVs and dressers, but then the whole basement was full of the first two iterations of the rooms."

The rooms are now white, most peppered with bright art and sunlight streaming in through open windows.

There are the trappings of a creative space, the mannequins inexplicably hanging about the hallway, with balloons littering the ground at their feet. The stairwells are spray painted concrete passageways.

All but three of the 26 studios are rented at $425 per month, meaning the board members don't have to put their own money into keeping the project afloat.

It's clear a lot of work went into the change.

"When you think about what has been accomplished in six months with just a bunch of volunteers, it's kind of baffling," said Nespor.

A view of Cory Nespor's studio in Nvrlnd. The art along the back wall is all from artists who have passed through the former Voltage Garage space. (Drew Anderson/CBC)

But why go through that much muck?

"The long and short is the need. There's a very large need in this city for smaller venues to host any number of things, whether it's house concerts or gallery shows and to keep those costs at an affordable level for everybody," said Johnsgaard.

His fellow board members agree.

"When you don't have those incubational spaces where people can do the work, the works slows down," said Rubeling.

"I've noticed, in the creative music thing, if there's nowhere to play the music, people stop writing music. People stop the creative side of it if there's nowhere to present it."

They talk about the collaborations that have already started to shape in the studios, and the advice, guidance and encouragement that comes from collecting creatives in a space where studio doors are often left open.

There's also the freedom that comes with a studio run by artists who are, as Nespor says, "shoulder-to-shoulder in the trenches together" with the artist who rent the spaces.

Some of the Nvrlnd board in the former honeymoom suite of the Shamrock Hotel. The space is still being converted into a common area. (Drew Anderson/CBC)

Nvrlnd is in a grey area in terms of its long-term survival. Green Line construction will start and the space could be torn down. But the artists behind its conversion hope to stick around.  

"I think if we had our way, we would make ourselves so invaluable to this community that the city doesn't knock this building down and sell it to a developer," said Rubeling.

But beyond building community, cleaning up an eyesore and providing an affordable space for creative tomfoolery, there's also a sort of break with a dark past.

Ian Brooks said they came across photos of families and children, sad reminders of the hard lives that came and went in those rooms. While it's easy to laugh at the seediness of the place, it's important to remember the real-life consequences of what it was.

A shrine of sorts to the old Shamrock Hotel in the former honeymoon suite. (Drew Anderson/CBC)

"So everything that was done to kind of like pull that out and create something new, we think not only externally in the community makes a difference, but we actually think in the space, it's a lot lighter to walk through there," said Brooks.

"There isn't just nicotine and other things seeping out of the walls. Now it's a place where you can have a community party in the backyard."

The Bangarang Block party will take place on Aug. 25 from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. at nvrlnd, 1048 21st Ave. S.E. It's a family-friendly affair and a chance to check out the studios and venues.

About the Author

Drew Anderson

Drew Anderson is a web journalist at CBC Calgary. Like almost every journalist working today, he's won a few awards. He's also a third-generation Calgarian. You can follow him on Twitter @drewpanderson. Contact him in confidence at drew.anderson@cbc.ca.