How Braddock’s Historic Home for Artists Came to Be
Braddock's Ohringer Arts Building, a lovingly converted furniture store, provides housing, community and inspiration for a group of 37 artists.
As the sun goes down in Braddock on a mild summer evening, a handful of artists gather on the narrow rooftop of the Ohringer Arts Building.
This is where, against a backdrop of hillside homes and the looming Edgar Thomson Works, conversations turn strangers into neighbors and neighbors into collaborators.
“You just never know who’s going to be there,” says Bridget Miller, a resident who lives on the eighth floor and owns East Side Laser Center, a hair and tattoo removal clinic down the street.
When filmmaker Willy James sent residents an email about organizing a movie night, Miller brought a king-sized sheet to use as a projection screen. Musicians have come with their guitars and keyboards for jam sessions; Topher Weiss has read excerpts from the memoir he’s writing in longhand. Other nights, Beth Kukucka, an inquisitive photographer, has asked questions to unearth more about the other artists.
“People are really individual here. It’s impossible to group us into a category,” Kukucka says.
The Ohringer’s 37 artists — chefs and actors, experts and amateurs — come from different corners of the city, bringing their creative impulses with them. Visual artist Cue Perry paints on easels (and sometimes the walls) in the art studio in the basement. Weiss, a carpenter, carries wood through the community room on the first floor.
And, according to Gregg Kander, they’re part of a larger project — revitalizing Braddock by bringing artists into the community.
Kander, the developer and owner of the Ohringer, says the vision behind the Ohringer Arts Building — previously the Ohringer Home Furniture store, the largest of eight family-owned furniture stores that thrived in the ’40s and ’50s — started with John Fetterman, Pennsylvania’s lieutenant governor and the former mayor of Braddock.
“It was really Mayor Fetterman at the time that knew … if we can tackle [the Ohringer building], we can show the whole community — and not only the community, the whole Pittsburgh and Allegheny County community — where Braddock is and where Braddock is headed,” Kander says.
The process of restoring the building into affordable housing for artists began in 2018, and ended in February 2021 when the first tenants moved in. Funding for the $10 million project came from the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit program and, after the building received historic status, the Historic Tax Credit. The county chipped in as well, Kander says.
More than 100 people applied to live in the building. Under the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit program, Kander was able to give special preference to artists who met the economic requirements for low-income housing.
“You don’t have to have to be making a living from [art], you don’t have to have sold one thing,” Kander says. “It’s really just showing an ongoing, continuous, artistic endeavor.”
Miller knew she wanted to live in the building as soon as she read about it. But to get in, she had to give a presentation to an artist selection committee, which questioned whether tattoo removal should be considered art.
“I had to define what I do, and actually what I do is I remove bad mistakes,” she says.
Shortly after opening East Side Laser Center 17 years ago, Miller started The Erase Project, a nonprofit that gives people a fresh start by removing their inappropriate or gang-related tattoos. She has given more than 50 people free treatment through the organization, which, under normal circumstances, could cost thousands of dollars.
“No one can get a job if they’ve got gang-related tattoos,” Miller says. “And if they’re already serving time, or youth time, you want to get them ready to go back out into the real world.”
The sole person behind her company and nonprofit, Miller works seven days a week. She has no plans of retiring — her dream is to travel to prisons in a mobile unit so she can treat incarcerated clients on site. Living at the Ohringer has given her time to figure out how.
Other residents at the Ohringer don’t have to travel farther than the building’s ground floor for their next career opportunity. In June, they turned the building’s storefront into a gallery and retail space. In addition to hosting resident events, the space is periodically open to the public; from Nov. 27 through Dec. 19, it will offer open gallery hours from 4-8 p.m. Fridays, 11 a.m-4 p.m. Saturdays and noon-4 p.m. Sundays.
Tokey Mitchell, one of the residents who initially spearheaded the gallery, says profits made from the retail space will help artists focus less on finances and more on creativity.
“When … all their basic needs are taken care of — they’re able to eat, sleep — they’re able to be creative,” Mitchell says. “I want to create a community where artists can just be artists and it’s helping the [Braddock] community.”
Julian Harris knows this first hand — he applied to the Ohringer while bouncing around from place to place, homeless. No longer in survival mode, Harris — a Kung Fu instructor, visual artist, and singer-songwriter — says he can focus on his art in ways he couldn’t before.
“We’re in another dimension. Things that are not typically possible are possible by the very fact of we’re here,” Harris says.
After moving in, Harris began creating his own design company, Framez LLC, in addition to giving himself time to relax; on the floor of his apartment, there’s a container filled with LEGO bricks.
“I’ve been on this whole ‘exploring my inner child’ thing, so I’ve been letting myself play,” he says. “When you come in here you want to create things; you want to play with things.”
Playing is no small feat for Harris, who had difficulty adjusting to the building during the first five months.
“I was self-destructing because I didn’t think I was worthy of the apartment,” he says. “I was like, ‘I’ve never been able to afford anything like this.’”
Kander, though not an artist, paid careful attention to the details in the building, making sure every tile and outlet would appeal to the eye, and, when possible, using local artists’ designs for interior features such as room unit numbers. The community room has brown leather couches and a fridge Kander stocks with drinks; the rooftop has a grill and the bathrooms have toilet seats that, as James points out, “go down slowly.”
It’s Kander’s way of thanking the artists for uprooting their lives and taking a risk on the building.
“They don’t have a Giant Eagle down the block, some of them don’t have cars, they took a risk on a building that wasn’t fully developed yet,” he says. “They wanted to create their own meaningful chapter and they’re doing it … they stepped out there and took a shot.”
Their next step, engaging with the community, has already begun with open mic nights at the gallery and meet-your-neighbor events on the rooftop.
“I think right now, the most important thing is getting to know the community … and seeing what they need,” Mitchell says. “We don’t want to make it feel like we’re gentrifying the area … we want to make you feel like this is the community we’re building.”
Mitchell, who was raised in Braddock and Rankin, remembers going to Comet News — what she describes as the candy store in “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” — and longtime community staple Bell’s Market. She spent her 20s serving in the military and traveling the world before moving back to Pittsburgh in 2017 and starting Tokey’s Treats, a CBD edibles company. While Mitchell remembered the Braddock community fondly, she didn’t think she would live there.
But when she started searching on Facebook to find a new place to live, an artist living in D.C. told her about The Ohringer. Out of the 100 apartments Mitchell applied to, The Ohringer was the only one that called her back.
Mitchell took the opportunity as a sign, though she was hesitant to move to a small town after living in cities such as New York and Philadelphia. She knew Braddock didn’t have all the resources she was accustomed to.
“A part of me was like, ‘Oh, no, no, not Braddock,’ and the other part of me was like, ‘Yeah, that makes sense though,’” she says. “All of the roads led to it.”
Mitchell says she’s fallen in love with Braddock all over again — not as a child who enjoyed Comet News, but as an adult who appreciates seeing people she knows every time she walks into the Family Dollar. Now working as a community health worker in the neighborhood, her goal is to change things “with her loudest voice” so that Braddock will have businesses that serve a purpose to the community, such as a grocery store.
But living in the building is also changing the artists. Kukucka, who normally takes on photography projects alone, has come to understand and respect the variety of artists (and their art) that live in the building.
“We’re all kind of in our own world, but we’re learning to expand that world a little bit … we’re stretching our boundaries to include other people.”
Miller describes the building’s energy as passionate. Weiss, who grew up as one of nine kids, says he likes its pandemonium. For James, the filmmaker, it’s the beginning of something greater.
“It’s like a slow heat that’s about to turn into a boil that’s going to just come up and out of the pot,” he says, sitting on a swivel chair next to the brown couches in the community room.
Behind him, artists signed their names on a green chalkboard with neon markers. Pink loops and blue doodles blend together, making it difficult to decipher where one contribution ends and the next begins. It’s an Ohringer original hanging on the wall in a wooden frame, a collaboration the artists pass before leaving the building on the way to whatever happens next.