Urban Potters Odyssey: An Interim Report By Richard Aerni and Michael Frasca
The problems faced by rural and urban potters often are in no way comparable. The rural potter’s problems revolve around isolation and transportation, and the difficulties of dealing with sales markets and suppliers who are usually quite a distance away. This same isolation, however, allows rural potters to enjoy the benefits of a relatively secluded and harmonious environment, where working and living spaces are easily intertwined. Urban potters on the other hand, are close to markets and suppliers, but they have more difficulty combining working and living space in a comfortable and efficient setting. City zoning and building codes usually preclude any arrangement whereby the potter can practice his craft within or next to the home. This forces the potter either to go “underground,” or to locate the studio in an area separate from the dwelling—one which has been zoned for business or industry. Thus the underground potter can become secretive and devious in dealing with the outside world, while the potter with a studio separate from his home has taken one step toward the 9:00 am—5:00 pm Monday-to-Friday grind. This is a frustrating situation for many urban potters, since the nature and scale of most studio potteries do not seem incompatible with normal residential life in the city.
We are two potters residing in an urban residential area of Cincinnati, Ohio. We have been working with city officials this year to bring about changes in the city zoning codes, changes which would help to solve one of the most frustrating problems for the urban craftsman. To date, we have secured through the city council an ordinance which allows our studio/residence/sales gallery to be combined in one unit. This ordinance is a prototype of one which city planning officials are now formulating: an ordinance which would allow studio artists to work in and to sell out of their residences legally. We hope that this ordinance will act as a precedent, allowing studio artists in other cities to resolve their problems in a similar way.
Our studio is located immediately adjacent to the city center, in a primarily residential area. The neighborhood, known as “Over the Rhine” was built and populated in the mid-1800’s by immigrant Germans. Its building stock consists mainly of solidly crafted brick and stone structures of considerable architectural merit. Due to the general decline in the popularity of city living in the mid-1900’s however, the area seriously suffered from neglect. We moved into the area in 1976, establishing a studio and residence in a friend’s building. The house had been abandoned, vandalized, and condemned for some time. Working there quietly and unobtrusively for three years, we became strongly attached to the neighborhood, and we planned to remain there. Working with community groups in the area, we took an active role in regenerating the neighborhood. We bought an abandoned house further down the street to which we intended to relocate our studio and residences. Late in May of 1979, however, we were discovered by building department officials who were making a routine check of the neighborhood. They notified us that we were in violation of the zoning codes and that we must shut down the studio and vacate the building. We were located in an R-6 zone (multi-family, high density housing), which could not accommodate our studio, as they had classified it as a manufacturing operation. Their decision affected not only our present studio, but also our future studio/home down the street. We met with building department officials and explained in detail the workings of a pottery studio and the importance of having it closely tied to the potter’s home. It was to no avail. Rules were rules.
It was difficult to reconcile this decision with our experiences. For three years we had successfully lived and worked in the neighborhood, with no apparent ill effects. Our neighbors were interested in and supportive of the work they saw us produce, and our relations with them were very good. We had checked with local Environmental Protection Agency officials about potential health hazards to nearby residents, and we were reassured on that point. There was no logical reason why we should not be able to continue to live and work in the area.
The problem, as we saw it, was that the existing zoning laws were enacted during a time of urban industrialization, and they were designed to protect urban residential areas from encroaching industries and businesses. That was a good idea. In recent years, however, there has been a definite trend toward the cottage industry, in which an individual conducts business out of his residence. There are many reasons for the spread of the cottage industry—the crafts boom, a dwindling energy supply, and a desire to soften the hard edges of the business world by combining home and work, to name a few. We felt that there were no provisions in the zoning codes for these people who often times add character and diversity to their neighborhoods. With this in mind, we prepared a document pleading our case, which we submitted to a sympathetic city councilman. This paper pointed out these zoning blind spots and emphasized the positive aspects of addressing the needs of cottage industries, particularly the studio artist. We included a history of our studio, our reasons for working in the city, a portfolio of our work, letters of recommendation, and a petition from our neighbors encouraging the city to look on our cause sympathetically. The planner who handled our case, Lee Meyer, and his supervisor, Erwin Hoffman, were extremely receptive to our ideas. For some time a particular concern of theirs had been finding ways to revitalize the high density (R-6, R-7) residential zones which surround the business core of downtown Cincinnati. They believed the addition of artists’/craftsmen’s studios to these areas would be a valuable aid to this revitalization.
The planners decided to write a notwithstanding ordinance exempting us from the existing zoning code. This would allow us to begin work on our new studio while they formulated an ordinance which would allow other artists/craftsmen the same privileges. They were concerned about preserving the residential character of the neighborhoods housing these cottage industries, so they placed nine restrictions on our studio/residence in the notwithstanding ordinance.
Mr. Meyer was also concerned about the possible health and safety hazards of our outdoor, natural gas-fired kiln. His chief areas of concern were the possible risk of explosion, the rate of diffusion of hot air and gasses from the kiln stack (the buoyant plume), and the possible air pollution hazards. Cincinnati building codes call for the kiln chimney (constructed either of ceramic-lined metal, or double-walled masonry with air space between the walls) to reach a height of not less than twenty feet higher than any building within fifty feet of the kiln chimney. In our case, this would call for a kiln stack roughly fifty feet high. We argued that this was unreasonable, unsightly, prohibitively expensive, and unworkable. (One potter told us that we would have to start making heavier pots or they would get sucked right up the chimney). We said that the code was written for heavy industry (foundries, tile works, brickyards, and so forth) and should not apply to our 35 cubic foot kiln. Mr. Meyer agreed that the code was probably excessive, and he agreed to work with us on a more acceptable solution if we could come up with any scientific evidence supporting our assertions. The search consumed several months. Informed and influential ceramists from around the country were contacted; ceramic and scientific journals were surveyed; NIOSH even conducted a computer search through their files of scientific and engineering data, but no studies concerning kiln safety in a small studio pottery were found. We briefly considered applying for a grant to hire people to conduct such a study, but this option would have consumed too much time and energy out of our already shaky potting schedule. With no evidence to support a relaxation of the existing code, Mr. Meyer had no choice but to go ahead with what was already written. (This issue is still a major problem for us: In fact, it is the major problem for urban potters, so if any readers have access to material that may be of help, we would appreciate it if they would contact us.)
Building codes presented us with even more problems. When we submitted our architectural plans to the building department in order to obtain the necessary permits, we were surprised and dismayed to have our studio placed into the “factory” classification. This meant that we would have to adhere to the strictest set of building requirements on the books. The plan examiner was sympathetic to our situation, but he explained there was little alternative. Once again, there were no codes set up for our type of operation. It would be extremely difficult to create a new category, since the codes were administered on a state level. The examiner explained that placing us in the factory class actually saved us from having to install a sprinkler system, which would have been mandatory under any of the other categories in which he could have placed us. Nevertheless, our classification did require us to install fire doors on all stairways, as well as a three-hour fire-rated ceiling between the studio/”factory” and our apartments above. This effectively added over $2000 to our building costs.
At the time of this writing, construction on the new building is just beginning. We hope to have at least the studio portion completed this year. The rest will come as time and money permit. Was it worth it? In our case, “yes.” We think it was. We are city-oriented people, with strong ties to our neighborhood. With the ordinance passed, we are now able to live and work here, openly and legally. Without the ordinance, we may have been able to go somewhere else in the neighborhood, living and working quietly, out of sight of the city officials, but there always would have been the possibility of being discovered and shut down. It is hard to build your studio—your business—into something you are proud of, something which can take its rightful place in the neighborhood, when you live with the fear of discovery. Admittedly there is much more that needs to happen before the role of the craftsman in the city can be realized painlessly and effectively; but at least now the door has been opened.
City of Cincinnati An Ordinance No.____, 1979
Authorizing the Department of Buildings and Inspections to allow 1309-11 Spring Street to be used and occupied by Mr. Michael Frasca and Mr. Richard Aerni as a pottery studio and retail sales outlet notwithstanding the provisions of the R-6 Multi-Family High-Density District Use Regulations of Chapter 15 of the Cincinnati Building Code.
Whereas, Mr. Frasca and Mr. Aerni desire to remodel and vacant and vandalized building at 1311 Spring Street to be used for a pottery studio and a retail sales outlet on the first floor and for dwelling units on the second floor, The building at 1311 Spring St. is located in an R-6 Zone District, which district does not permit a pottery studio or a retail sales outlet as a principal permitted use or a principal conditional use; and
Whereas, a communication has been received from Mr. Frasca and Mr. Aerni which communication pleads eloquently for the unique needs of artists and asks the Planning Commission and Council to consider a text amendment to permit artist’s studios and sales in an R-6 Multi-Family High-Density District, and
Whereas, the staff is drafting a text amendment which would allow for this type of use in the R-6 and R-7 Multi-Family High-Density District; and
Whereas, even though Mr. Frasca’s and Mr. Aerni’s studio at 1316 Spring Street is illegal, it has been a revitalizing influence on the neighborhood; and
Whereas, on October 26, 1979 the Planning Commission approved an ordinance authorizing the issuance of a permit to Mr. Frasca and Mr. Aerni to remodel a vacant and vandalized building at 1311 Spring Street to be used as a pottery studio and retail sales outlet notwithstanding the provisions of the R-6 Multi-Family High-Density District Use Regulations of the Zoning Code of the City of Cincinnati; now, therefore,
Be It Ordained by the council of the City of Cincinnati, State of Ohio:
Section 1. That notwithstanding the provisions of Chapter 15, the R-6 Multi-Family High-Density District Use Regulations of the Cincinnati Zoning Code, the Director of Buildings and Inspections is hereby authorized to allow a pottery studio and retail sales outlet at 1311 Spring Street to Mr. Frasca and Mr. Aerni provided that the following conditions are followed:
1) That the only goods that are sold from the premises are those actually made on the premises;
2) That the floor area devoted to the studio and sales space shall not exceed two thousand (2000) square feet;
3) That the studi and sales space be limited to the first floor;
4) That any kilns used on the property be built to the specifications of the Cincinnati Ohio Basic Building Code;
5) That any outdoor kilns shall be no less than ten (10) feet distant from every abutting property line in an R District;
6) That the use proposed shall be limited to one (1) non-illuminated identification sign, erected as a ground or wall sign, which shall have a sign area of not more than two (2) square feet; and
7) That the studio and retail sales outlet comply in all other respects with other applicable regulations contained in the Building and /or Zoning Code of the City of Cincinnati, except as herein provided.
Section 2. This ordinance is hereby declared to be an emergency measure necessary for the preservation of the public peace, health and safety and shall go into effect forthwith. The reason for this emergency is to permit Messers Aerni and Frasca to begin remodeling of the property at 1311 Spring Street at the earliest possible time before the winter season begins.