Where it all began...
When people ask me, "Where did the idea of The Highpoint come from," I cannot pin the answer to a particular moment or revelation. Things unfolded over the natural course of time, and without planning or knowing we found ourselves together in a place where we all wanted to be. While The Highpoint has a physical address and many will identify it as a building, it is more than a structure – it is community. And the thing about communities, real communities, is they are not built or made. They grow from people who work together and form bonds.
Having spent a number of years living in a townhouse just east of Richmond, I found myself wanting to return to a place with sidewalks and activity just outside my door. I wanted to find a space where I could live and keep my business, pay cheap rent, and walk to a restaurant if I was too tired to cook after a long day. People had already begun favoring city life over the ‘burbs and the cost of living reflected the demand. Finding both affordable and desirable was a bit of a trick, something solved only by looking within the margins of underdeveloped or neglected areas. With that in mind, I started looking for warehouses in parts of the city that had been untouched by Starbucks and ATMs.
When I mentioned my plans to Derek Cote, a friend of mine who was teaching art at VCU, he asked if I’d be interested in sharing a space. His landlord had dreams of turning Derek’s studio workshop into a coffee bar and was forcing the issue by jacking up the rent. As we were both individuals of limited means, Derek and I started looking at buildings in the sleepy industrial neighborhood of Scott’s Addition. After shopping around a bit, we signed a four-year lease for a warehouse on the corner of Moore Street and Highpoint Avenue. It had large spaces with natural light, a few offices in the front, a garage bay, and a couple of bathrooms – one with a cinder block shower that looked like something out of an old prison. Roaches used to crawl up from the drain. It could have easily passed a a set scene from the Saw horror flick franchise.
Not long after we moved in another friend joined us and set up his music studio. Then followed Robert Olson, someone I had known since childhood; he opened up a bird taxidermy business. Our first year went by quickly, and the building began to take shape with tiny renovations here and there. We met new neighbors, some small business owners like the brothers who run Hamlet Dry Cleaners and other artists who, like us, had carved out spots on the cheap.Claire Accardo, my girlfriend, and I ran the Billboard Art Project, hosted a craft show, an artists’ residency and a number of art openings all out of the building. There was always something going on.
That’s not to say times were free and easy. With old buildings come old building problems. Pesky roof leaks would pop up like whack-a-moles. Poor insulation and single pain windows did little to hold in any comfort from the depths of winter and summer. Circuit breakers would get tripped so often that I can still recall what outlets were on each breaker. Of course the owner’s interest in the building was more focused on the rent check than affecting any meaningful repairs. And even though we all spent most of the time working out of the building to make ends meet, the place felt more like a family room or club house, a place where you could hang out with friends when you took a break or grill up on the roof and watch the sun set after a hard day’s work. When I look back, the struggles just seem to get lost in all the laughter, support and joy community brings.
The empty shell of a building had become a home, a place to build dreams, meet new people and share good times with friends. When it came to give it a proper name other than “the building,” the location’s cross street just seemed to fit. So many good things were happening there. It really was the highpoint of our days.
As time on our four-year lease passed, things in the neighborhood began to slowly change. People who had come to escape the high rent of other neighborhoods in high demand found themselves chased out by the rising tide of new development. One of those friends, Andy White, was a blacksmith who lived and worked a block away out of a large space in the old Richmond Fixture building. Gone were the days when you could find him siting on the curb outside his shop picking crabs and drinking Modelo with his dog Bob by his side. Surveyors and architects pointing at features of forgotten buildings became common site. It was becoming clear that the ground was shifting underneath our feet and if we wanted to stay, buying a building was the only way to ensure that we wouldn’t share Andy’s fate.
The most logical place to start was asking our current landlord if he had an interest in selling the building. To our disappointment he did not. But after giving it some thought and realizing that it wasn’t so much the building we were looking to preserve as the community that had grown within, searching for a new place became a little easier and kind of exciting. The idea of expanding and growing our tribe started to take root.
Localizing our search to Scott’s Addition made the process a bit of a race against time as developers were snatching up every commercial warehouse and transforming them into stylized solutions for modern day living complete with granite countertops and high ceilings. We started looking for larger spaces, first the old Adams Camera building, then the East Coast Freight building. We finally came to the old Sea Dream Leather building and everything fell into place. The owners who had also happened to run Sea Dream Leather privately financed our purchase of the building and we closed on December 2012.
At the time it felt like we had staked a claim and that our goal to create a sustainable home was in reach.