DETROIT — For Hugo Navarro, the 5-by-9-foot jail cell that serves as his studio in southwest Detroit is an admittedly creepy place to immerse himself in his work.
Unlike jailhouse artists who find creative inspiration behind bars, however, the 56-year-old is there by choice. He paints at 555 Nonprofit Gallery and Studios, a decade-old arts organization that this year moved into its new home in the Detroit Police Department’s former Third Precinct station.
The city closed the building in 2005 as part of a department-wide reorganization, and the former lobby where residents once could walk in to report crimes now is an airy gallery. Detectives’ offices now serve as classroom and studio space. And potentially claustrophobic cells — bars still on their doors — are fostering creativity.
“I didn’t really have anything in mind before going to my jail cell,” said Navarro, whose colorful paintings of Detroit’s shuttered Michigan Central Depot and fires gutting homes adorn some of the cells near where he’s worked for the past few months. “I just let myself go and let my inside do the work.”
The Third Precinct renovation is among a handful of projects nationwide converting old police facilities, including one in Chicago that is becoming live theater venues and one in Philadelphia that is being converted into homes. For Carl Goines, a co-founder of 555, says the project is a balancing act between preserving parts of the police station’s past and making it a welcoming place for artists.
“This is a space that’s taking on a new life. It’s a space that’s becoming inspirational,” said Goines, a sculptor. “It pushes them to take their work to a new level.”
555 is leasing its new home from Southwest Housing Solutions, a nonprofit community developer that bought the former precinct in 2009 and spent about $2 million on the project. Garage space at the building houses Detroit Farm and Garden, a gardening, farming and landscape supply store.
While Southwest Housing Solutions traditionally is involved in residential projects in southwest Detroit, developing roughly $100 million in housing and real estate, making sure the former precinct didn’t languish as vacancy in one of the city’s stronger neighborhoods made its reuse more important.
“It’s exactly what we wanted it to be,” said Tim Thorland, the developer’s executive director. “The great thing about the gallery space is that it’s a continuous work in progress.”
In Philadelphia, the former 26th Precinct Police Station, which sat vacant for years, is being renovated with the upper floors as apartments, said architect Victor Barr Jr. of VLBJR Architects Inc. Much of its history as a neighborhood law enforcement hub was erased by time and earlier reuse, but salvaged architectural details are being recreated to bring back some of its character. Arches in the basement, Barr said, mark where cells once stood.
In Chicago, the Griffin Theatre Company acquired a former police station and plans to start construction in September on the first of two live performance spaces. The building’s large cells are too massive to remove, said William Massolia, a founding member, so they’ll be used to house a green room, dressing rooms and a box office.
“We’re going to be using some of what was there and not disguise the fact that it was a police station and a jail,” Massolia said.
At 555, an official opening event is planned for Sept. 14 and the building is a work in progress. In years to come, part of a second floor that once was home to a locker room used by officers could become a dance studio. A gym where officers once could play basketball might be a place for performances.
That raw potential is part of what makes it attractive. Elizabeth Sutton, 42, a photographer who is part of 555’s board and an educator at the Detroit Institute of Arts, is turning first-floor space formerly used as detectives’ offices into a darkroom. She said the building’s past enters into her thinking as she works there.
“I’m really sensitive to space,” Sutton said. “One of the things that I kind of like about this is that it is sort of institutional and industrial. But at the same time I think it is really open to transformation.”
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