Calvin Orlando Smith performs with the Whiteaker Hot Club at a 2020 car wash fundraiser at the Firehouse. Photo by Athena Delene.

Firehouse Blues

After a decade of hosting arts events, the house venue Whit Firehouse faces the end

The signature skull and crossbones flag of the Whit flies at half staff outside of the old Whiteaker Firehouse, which has served as an arts space in the neighborhood for the past 11 years.

The Firehouse arts venue is coming to an end as the property owner, PBS Enterprises, is evicting it. The property owner, through a longstanding informal agreement, is terminating the lease with the residents so the auto shop Old Dominion Collision, which is across the street, can expand its operations. 

It’s likely the end of a house venue that has hosted live music, readings and circus performances and has been a form of affordable housing for local artists, says Ethan Rainwater, who’s lived there for more than a decade. 

“It doesn’t exist everywhere where we have professional grade production in this house,” Rainwater says. “We can throw house shows here, but they’re just really good ones.” 

Patricia McConnell, one of the owners of PBS Enterprises, bought the old Firehouse at an auction in 2003 for about $190,000. After taking over the building, she says she had a tenant before Rainwater — an S&M dungeon. When Rainwater moved in, they had an agreement that at some point Old Dominion Collision would take over the lease. 

McConnell once owned Old Dominion and now her son, Dustin Caldwell, runs it. She says that Old Dominion will use the Firehouse property as additional office and storage space. 

Rainwater says he received the eviction notice in May. He wasn’t surprised, he says, but he was still disappointed to see it. The Firehouse has been a place to have arts events without a cover charge and a space that has allowed people — from artists to activists — to get started. 

“One of the more powerful things I’ve seen living here is people who are just starting out their aspirations as artists or event producers, they have a space like this where they can try out their dreams,” he says. 

The venue has held fundraisers for various causes, including a bake sale for CAHOOTS and a car wash for low-income migrant farmer communities in Phoenix and Talent after the 2020 wildfires. And, shortly after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, which made access to abortion a constitutional right, an activist used the Firehouse to host a fundraiser for Northwest Abortion Access Fund. 

Rainwater says the activist was inspired from a protest and raised $8,500 for the nonprofit that helps people pay for travel costs to and from abortion clinics, as well as for the procedure. 

“There’s countless examples of that over the last decade,” he adds. “People have a training wheel spot to work out their dreams.” 

In the countless events the Firehouse has held, he says the space hasn’t had noise ordinance complaints, police presence or disgruntled neighbors. 

When PBS Enterprises first bought property on 1st Avenue in 1995, the lot where Old Dominion stands, McConnell says it was a disreputable street. She says since purchasing property there — including the lot where the Firehouse stands, as well as the property the PBS sold to Thinking Tree years ago — it had improved the neighborhood. 

McConnell also says the Firehouse isn’t supposed to be a large gathering space. When PBS Enterprises purchased the property, it became a residentially zoned lot. She says she and Rainwater agreed to limit gatherings to 100 people for insurance reasons, an agreement that was violated at the recent August 6 concert. 

The loss of the Firehouse is another moment of a changing Whiteaker, Rainwater says. People who want to be near art created in the neighborhood and drink at the local brew pubs have been moving in, which is raising rent for the artists, who are now moving out. “It’s a transition from a culture of creators to a culture of consumers,” he says. 

In the time that Rainwater has lived at the Firehouse, he says he’s counted more than 50 people who have lived there. Currently, it’s the headquarters for High Step Society, the home for a recording studio business, Rainwater’s tree trimming service and an event production company.

But the Firehouse has also provided affordable housing for artists to live in an “increasingly unaffordable neighborhood,” Rainwater said at an August 6 show, which may have been the venue’s final concert there. With the eviction notice, the artists who live at the Firehouse have to look for housing in a tight housing market, he tells Eugene Weekly. 

The artists who have been impacted by the eviction have decided to leave Eugene, some moving to Portland and out of state. 

If PBS Enterprise were to sell the Firehouse, Rainwater says, the community would likely come out to help purchase it. 

But McConnell says it’s too late to talk about selling the property to Rainwater or others. If he or someone else had approached her five or 10 years ago, she would have considered it, she says. And she says no one has approached her with the intent to buy the property since notifying Rainwater with the lease termination notice. 

Rainwater says that he has approached McConnell about purchasing the property. He sent offers in 2015, another in 2021 and a third one after receiving the eviction notice in May 2022.

But if it’s the end of the Firehouse, Emily Jensen, co-founder and CEO of Thinking Tree Spirits, says she doesn’t want it to lead to a loss of the arts in the Whiteaker. As a licensed venue that’s located across the street to the Firehouse venue, she says, Thinking Tree Spirits will do what it can to support the neighborhood’s live arts scene. 

“We pride ourselves on supporting arts and music,” she says. “We want to open our doors to make sure that isn’t lost.” 

But an eviction of the residents and the loss of the Firehouse will be difficult to replace, whether other places in the Whiteaker open up for more live arts like Thinking Tree Spirits or if another house venue tries to fill the void, Rainwater says. 

“The specialness of this place has to do with its location. And it also has to do with this live-work situation where this is a house but it has the capacity to do pretty big large-scale events,” he says. “That doesn’t exist anywhere, where you can have a venue in a neighborhood and nobody complains.”

This article has been updated. 

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