Newly Renovated Whistle Stop Depot Provies Unique Community Venue

December 26, 2013

By Christy Krueger

Whistle Stop - exterior front web

The renovated exterior of Whistle Stop Depot.

An ongoing project is one description of Whistle Stop Depot, Tucson’s progressively growing eclectic events venue on the edge of Downtown. Although the 5,200-square-foot building was completely uninhabitable when Nancy Bender and Carl White stumbled upon it, the structure has risen from the ashes through their years-long rebuilding process using reclaimed, recycled and repurposed materials.

Built in 1952, the former transport company warehouse is positioned a few yards from a section of double railroad tracks. And yes, several times a day the train whistles can be heard loud and clear as they pass by. It’s part of the atmosphere.

Bender, who has a background in education, and White, a builder, met in Napa, Calif. In 2005 they came home to Tucson, where Bender’s family has resided for generations. Shortly after arriving, they found the old, dilapidated warehouse and immediately recognized its potential. White has always had a love of materials and a respect for resources and recycling, according to Bender. “The ability to renovate an existing structure using reclaimed materials intrigued him,” she said.

In February 2007 Bender and White closed on the property, located at 127 West Fifth Street, and during escrow the structure burned. “There was no power, no roof, only a 40-foot clear-span steel shell,” noted Bender.

Sculpture Festival at Whistle Stop Depot

Sculpture Festival at Whistle Stop Depot

The couple didn’t let the fire damage discourage them. Instead, they looked at new opportunities it presented. They took the bent corrugated steel roof sections, cut them into wall panels, which they sealed, and replaced the roof with drywall. “Here, the materials dictated the form, not the other way around,” Bender said. Other repurposed features include the airplane fuselage front doors and interior moveable wall sections made from food-service shelves. The bathrooms are decorated with recycled tile, copper pipes and pressure gauges.

Although their first vision for the building was a brewery, that plan morphed into a different concept after a visit by Downtown Tucson Partnership’s CEO, Michael Keith. “He was intrinsic in Whistle Stop,” Bender claimed. He told her there is no other place with the heart and soul of Whistle Stop, and he suggested opening it to the community – which is what she’s now doing. To date, it’s been used for weddings, private parties, business meetings, graduation celebrations and charity fundraisers. Plans for regularly scheduled public functions and performances are currently in the works.

“BICAS (Bicycle Inter-Community Art and Salvage) put us on the map,” Bender said of the non-profit bike repair and recycling collective. “They have an annual art auction fundraiser. All the art is made from reclaimed bike parts. Their first one here was in 2011 when we still had no bathrooms or water and only half the walls, but they more than doubled their previous year. It’s a perfect marriage – art and a building made from reused parts.”

Whistle Stop has received extensive renovations.

Whistle Stop has received extensive renovations.

In September 2013 White and Bender made an important move toward increasing community participation at Whistle Stop by naming Gabriel Ayala as its artistic director. Ayala, a world-renowned classical guitarist and member of the Yaqui people of southern Arizona, brings with him a heavy list of credentials, contacts in the music business and ideas. His accolades include honors at the Native American Music Awards, Grammy nominations, performances at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and a 2013 induction into the Tucson Musicians Museum Hall of Fame. He played for the presidential inauguration on January 21, 2013, and in October 2012 he played at the Vatican.

What Ayala is passionate about is providing a venue for local performing artists. When he first laid eyes on Whistle Stop, he was amazed. “I’d never seen anything like it,” he admitted. “All kinds of thoughts ran in my mind of what it could be used for,” the first of which was the Tucson Indian Market, held November 30 and December 1, with plans to return in 2014. Ayala was particularly excited when Mayor Jonathan Rothschild showed up with a proclamation declaring November 30 Indigenous Day.

Ayala’s overall concept for Whistle Stop fits hand-in-hand with Bender’s. “I want to turn it into a performance venue for concerts, community-based open mic nights where musicians get a chance to host – with a different host every week,” he explained. “I want to do poetry nights, drum circles, plays, car shows, music festivals of all genres – make people feel they belong.”

Whistle Stop - bathroom sink areaWhistle Stop’s next event is its 2013 New Year’s Eve Salsa Party, featuring live entertainment by the Tucson Latin All-Stars. The $40 admission includes one free drink, salsa dance instruction and a champagne toast. Tickets may be purchased at brownpapertickets.com; call 520-882-4969 for more information.

Public gatherings on the drawing board for 2014 include salsa and tango nights, gem show after-parties, a 41-Degrees-Latitude party and Chinese New Year’s. Most events will have themed décor with food and drinks available; dates and details will be announced.

Bender feels that Whistle Stop is becoming an important part of the city center’s cultural landscape. “Whistle Stop has helped redefine the boundaries of Downtown. It should Draw an older demographic than who typically goes downtown. And it’s helped open the city’s eyes about sustainability.”

The City of Tucson plans to build a deck park above the Downtown Links roadway, which connects Barraza-Aviation Parkway with I-10 and runs adjacent to Whistle Stop. The park “will be an outdoor civic space with covered benches and seating, an outdoor movie screen, an area for food trucks,” Bender reported.

Whistle Stop does not yet have a website, but Bender promotes public events on Facebook and through email. She plans to increase her marketing push as the venue becomes more defined in its concepts. She believes Whistle Stop Depot’s potential has only begun to be recognized. “We’re a work in progress, and it’s truly one of a kind.”