Culture News

What's Happening at The Icehouse in Downtown Phoenix? Depends Whom You Ask

From the outside, things look quiet at the Icehouse, the former warehouse that’s been an on-and-off staple of the downtown Phoenix arts scene for 25 years. But behind the scenes, there’s been a flurry of activity — including efforts to sell the place.

It’s currently owned by Icehouse Arts & Entertainment, which includes several members of the Hestenes family. David Hestenes, a professor emeritus in physics at Arizona State University, is listed with the Arizona Corporation Commission as the statutory agent, though he describes himself and his daughter Helen as co-owners of the Icehouse.

“Helen is really the inspiration for the Icehouse,” he says. His role through the years has basically been financial. But now David says he’s ready to let it go. “I’ve been supporting it for 25 years,” he says. “I’m 82 years old, and you can’t do it forever.”

He says he’d like to sell the Icehouse to someone who supports its mission, described in a one-page flyer he shared with New Times last week as “promoting the arts and humanitarian causes.”

Helen says they have a prospective buyer, although she won’t reveal any names at this point. The possible buyer is based in Utah, she says, and it's someone her dad knows through his science connections. She’s hoping they’ll seal the deal in October.

She won’t disclose their asking price, but says the Icehouse is worth about $4 million based on the value of nearby properties. Public records on the Maricopa County Treasurer’s Office website put the “full cash value” (what they consider the market value) for the five lots comprising the Icehouse at just over $1.9 million dollars.

David Hestenes says he plans to use money from the sale to pay back taxes on the property. Online records for the Maricopa County Treasurer’s Office show the Icehouse owners owe more than $121,000 dollars in taxes.

For a time, it looked like Peter Conley, who resigned last year from his position as executive director with the Icehouse, might buy the place. He returned with a business partner about a month or two ago and wanted to buy the Icehouse, according to Jayme Blue, who has been the facility manager at Icehouse since Conley left.

Conley hasn’t returned New Times’ calls, but Helen confirms he was considering buying the venue. Conley might still be interested, she says. That is, if the City of Phoenix didn't stipulate that the Icehouse can only operate as an art gallery, and that improvements must be made related to the building's fire-safety issues.

But the City shows no sign of backing down.

Mo Glancy, deputy director for inspections and acting assistant director for development with the City of Phoenix Planning & Development Department, says his deputy met with “proposed owners” in July and explained what they needed to do. “I’m not sure what happened with them,” he says. Regardless of a possible change in ownership, he says, certain requirements have to be met before the Icehouse can hold events beyond the scope of a typical gallery show.

Here's how that works: The Planning & Development Department issues permits that indicate how buildings can be used, and how many people can occupy each building at any given time. The Icehouse has a permit to operate as an art gallery, and paperwork filed in 1990 seems to indicate that only two rooms are certified for occupancy, Glancy says. The total combined occupancy allowed for those spaces, known as the Cathedral Room and the White Column Room, is 299 people. Other parts of the Icehouse aren’t approved for occupancy, he explains.

Glancy says the occupancy certificate authorizes the Icehouse to operate there as an art gallery — nothing more. “The problem is if they go beyond what happens in an art gallery,” he says. Performances typical in art galleries are okay, Glancy says, but to bring in tables and chairs, for example, would be problematic. Because the Icehouse is only certified as an art gallery, weddings are only permitted if the City issues a special use permit. “They’re not certified for doing large events,” he says, adding that the fire department issues assembly permits, which the Icehouse lacks.

Fire safety issues have been an ongoing problem for the Icehouse. In 1999, New Times reported concerns expressed by fire safety specialist Leonard Woolum. In denying a permit request for the use of indoor pyrotechnics, Woolum addressed several significant deficiencies with fire escapes, unmarked exits, and fire extinguishers. He also noted problems with the venue's wiring and its lack of a sprinkler system.

To qualify for those permits, Glancy says, the Icehouse would need to make fire safety-related fixes. “The big ticket item is sprinklers at this point,” he says. Helen estimates it would take $50,000 just to install the first section of sprinklers, adding that she’s working now on creative ideas for a fundraiser to help pay for them.

It's unclear whether a recent visit from the fire department contributed to the alleged deal with Conley going sour. But Blue says, “The fire department shut us down."

Phoenix Fire Marshal Jack Ballentine says they've done no such thing, though they did put a stop to August 7 happenings on the site. Ballentine says the fire department turned down a permit request for an event planned on August 7, but he suspected the event would still take place, so he sent a fire prevention specialist to check it out. After finding adults drumming and consuming alcohol in the presence of children, and evidence that people were living on the venue's second and third floors, the fire department called the police department to assist in clearing both the drumming circle and all upstairs rooms. Ballentine notes that the Icehouse doesn't have a liquor permit and reiterates that it does not have permission to function as anything other than an art gallery.

Blue says that the City has it all wrong, based on her own reading of city ordinances. Helen’s assistant, an artist named Jamie Von Korb whose studio is located at the Icehouse, agrees — referencing a 1990 document authorizing “assembly” at the Icehouse. They’re both convinced the Icehouse is authorized to hold events as well as art exhibitions, and plans to keep talking with both the planning and fire departments to resolve the issue. Helen has a more creative take on the issue, saying weddings and other events involve artistic expression.

It’s just the latest saga for a place that’s been around nearly 100 years now. Michelle Dodds, Historic Preservation Officer for the City of Phoenix, notes that what people call the Icehouse today is actually two buildings — one built in 1920, the other in 1922. Dodds notes that the City of Phoenix has designated the Constable Ice and Fuel Company Warehouse as a historic property, and it’s also listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

So what’s likely to happen at the Icehouse in coming weeks and months? David Hestenes told New Times last week that the Icehouse was temporarily closed so they could address “some code issues,” but Helen says the Icehouse is open. Blue organized an exhibition of works by Jesse Perry and a couple of his artist friends, which is scheduled to open during October First Friday. Blue’s also planning a round-up of food trucks in the venue’s dirt lot for sometime in October.

Blue says she wants to put out a call for art to exhibit in November, and has an exhibition featuring her own works and works by Constance McBride scheduled for December. But it’s clear from a new Icehouse website that went up on September 27 that they’re also eager to book weddings and other special events.

"The city says it's only approved as an art gallery, but we say it's also approved for alternative uses," Helen says. "That's always been important to me. Everybody should have their own chance to create their own filler for the Icehouse's empty shell."

KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Lynn Trimble is an award-winning freelance writer and photographer specializing in arts and culture, including visual and performing arts
Contact: Lynn Trimble