Driving down First Street at the edge of Downtown Bay City, most people see the obvious – an abandoned building next to a lot choked with weeds, shrubs, and small trees.
When Avram Golden – who owns Golden Gallery
at 113 Third St. – walks through the area near the intersection of First Street and North Jefferson Street, he sees potential.
The building sits within steps of Bay City’s growing downtown district.
Inside 409 First St., Golden imagines studios for artists, a makerspace for students to learn welding and other industrial skills, and an event space. In the weed-filled lot next to the building, he pictures a sculpture garden. He talks about using projectors to shine art onto the back of the Bay County courthouse building.
Golden envisions the four-story building as home to manufacturing, event space, a photography museum, 3-D print lab and innovation center, as well as apartments for student artists.
He says he’s been thinking about what he calls The Jefferson Project
for about three years. In July of 2021, he took the next step, buying 409 First St. He created the hashtag #thejeffersonprojectbaycity
to share his plans on social media.
Those plans are ambitious, but rooted in studies showing the connection between art, mental health, and community growth.
Golden’s goal is to preserve the building’s architecture and design as much as possible.
He invites businesses, schools, universities, non-profit agencies, and government officials, to tour the building and walk through the outdoor space while he explains why the community needs the Jefferson Project. He visits other nearby business owners to discuss how their spaces benefit from his vision.
He’s counting on collaboration to make it work.
After Golden bought the building, he cleaned debris and trash from the surrounding yard. He hopes to eventually create a space that invites people to enjoy a sculpture garden and other public art.
“I’m trying to get everybody together to fill what I see as a gap, an innovation center where art, technology, manufacturing, and community come together,” Golden says.
“This is not a very active portion of town. You talk to 99 out of 100 people, they’re not going to know where this is. We plan on changing that.”
The Jefferson Project building overlooks a section connecting the popular Rail Trail to Downtown Bay City. It's primarily used for parking and as a travel route. Golden wants to transform it into a destination.
Marjo Jaroch, Executive Director of the Downtown Development Authority, says the project fills several needs.
“I think it’s an incredible asset for our community,” Jaroch says. “As a larger picture, we’re trying to attract and keep young people. This gives us another space where young people can create, where they can feel like there’s a space for them. I think it’s a unique way to bring people together, which is something that’s missing in Bay City.”
The Jefferson Project building faces the back of the Bay County Courthouse. Golden envisions interactive art projected onto the back of the building.
The building’s history goes back to 1902, when the first portion of it was built as the Hammond Seed Co. Over the years, it was home to Jennison Hardware Store, a truck rental business and a place for vocational trades lessons. It was used for storage at various points. An old newspaper article declares it one of the most beautiful buildings in the city.
Golden hopes to build an outdoor sculpture museum in an area now filled with weeds, overgrown grass, and small trees.
Golden’s first visit to the building wasn’t ideal. The electric, gas, and water were all turned off. It had been empty about 10 years.
“It was overwhelming,” he remembers. “Nothing worked. It was dirty, dingy, the lights didn’t work. We were using cell phone lights to look through the building.”
But after the tour, he couldn’t stop thinking about the potential. He talked to developers and people in the trades about the building and what it would take to restore it. He had environmental studies done and hired experts to look at the foundation. At every step, the building became more appealing.
Finally, in the summer of 2021, he bought the building and set to work. He cleaned out an area near the door from First Street, creating a lobby with couches, chairs, tables, art, and two offices. In the lobby, he displays materials explaining the project and letters from area businesses supporting it.
A few trees and picnic tables dot the area now, but it’s primarily used for downtown employees to park while working.
As he worked, he discovered oak and maple hardwood floors with only a few areas of damage. The roof needs some work, but architects and inspectors assure him the damage is minimal and the structure is solid. Windows are boarded up in many parts of the building, limiting natural light, so Golden holds a flashlight as he leads tours.
Golden has invited community stakeholders to tour the building that he bought about a year ago. He hopes to build interest in the building’s potential as the center of a vibrant art district.
Much of the space is filled with desks, home furniture, letters, books, and even several pianos. A conveyor belt still works. The elevator shaft is accessible. One non-working bathroom features a wooden toilet. But the stairs and floors feel sturdy underfoot. Exterior doors easily swing open, but securely lock. Skylights don’t leak. Exposed beams line the ceilings. Rugged bricks fill exterior walls. Robust columns run from ceiling to floor.
A dramatic sunset beautifies the area every evening. Golden wants to add public art to beautify the area all the time.
While he walks around, he talks about his vision.
Golden wants to use the first floor for manufacturing; the second for event space, photography studio, photography museum, and projection space; the third floor for a 3-D print lab; and the fourth floor for student housing and artists’ studios. Also on the second floor, he hopes to build a rooftop space. His plans include a ground-floor patio and additional parking.
The building at the intersection of First Street and North Jefferson Street appears abandoned today. But it’s housed a variety of businesseses for over a century.
It's only a few blocks to his gallery, making it ideal for a photo studio, print lab, and storage. He created an office for himself. He has wanted to add those to his gallery but didn’t have the space. Plus, he has big dreams for Bay City and this building.
Golden has collected newspaper articles, such as this one from 1902, touting the building’s virtues.
“It’s got a bigger life than me,” Golden says. “I could do those things, grow the print business, have my photography studio, and have a storage facility, and probably be fine.”
But Golden wants to build an art district for the city. He talks about art as a catalyst for change. Art draws people to a community and inspires kids to return after getting an education.
“I think it’s essential that we get a space where artists and engineers and entrepreneurs can get together and create,” Golden says. “It’s a blank slate. This is an opportunity to affect great change in a community.”