Morgan Brown ‘17, Julia Knepper ‘17 – The entirety of Downtown Romeo has a history that ties the whole community together. A story can be found around every corner, in every building, and from every volunteer or employee around town. One of the most fascinating histories in Romeo comes from Starkweather Arts Center: a gallery, shop, and meeting place for art and music lovers.
Built in 1865, the building was originally owned by Mrs. Helen Starkweather and her parents. They lived there through her childhood, and Helen inherited the home when her parents died. The building went through several different businesses before transforming into an arts center, originally functioning as a hat shop, a realtor’s office, and even a carriage factory. When Helen died in 1987, her will left the building to the village of Romeo, mandating that it become a center for the arts.
Mrs. Starkweather always held a special love for the arts, and spread her passion for it to others in the community. She worked as a drafting and art teacher for Romeo schools through the 1940s, 50s, and 60s. A volunteer in the shop, Mr. David J. Pyrce, claims that people still come into the center and inform him that Helen was their teacher when they were young.
“This place does have an incredible historical story, especially since so many people had Helen as their teacher,” Pyrce said. “We’ve had people come in here and say ‘I painted that’.”
Even more interesting than Mrs. Starkweather’s story is the history of the building itself. Helen Starkweather’s passionate spirit is still alive in every room of the center. Her old bedroom now functions as an office for volunteers. The upstairs gallery previously operated as a carriage factory, and an old pulley can be found hanging from the roof of the center. The pulley used to lower horse-drawn carriages that were made upstairs down to the ground.
Frequently referred to as the “hobbit house”, what seems to be a mini brick house lies behind the Starkweather Arts Center. This adorable little shack holds more history than a Romeo resident could ever guess. When Helen’s parents lived in the house, they had a barn in the back. When the village wanted to build a trolley turnaround in place of the barn, they were forced to take it down. Helen, the resourceful mastermind that she was, saved every piece of the barn that she could get her hands on. Helen also salvaged every resource available from nearby burned down houses and a church, and soon became equipped with a full stash of beams, hinges, bricks, windows, doors, and an array of other materials.
Although Helen lived alone her whole life, she did rent out her upstairs apartment to a handyman, who worked for her instead of paying rent. Helen instructed him to utilize all of her gathered materials from around Romeo to build this tiny house, and he did an incredible job. Those who walk into the tiny space are left in awe of the creative craftsmanship, from the large wooden barn beams across the ceiling to chairs made of church pews from the original Methodist church down the street.
“People have come here on tours from the historical society and asked if we could rent the carriage house out for them to live there,” Pyrce said. “It’s a cool building already, but the story behind it is even more interesting.”
This space was previously used as a storage area and garage, but, in recent years, it has been used as a pottery studio, where anyone can take classes in the summer. There is even a basement below this mini home that holds running water and a large kiln. One can learn a lot about saving money from Helen Starkweather.
A massive canvas covers the wall between the two floors of the Starkweather Arts Center. Romeo used to have a movie theater downtown and, naturally, when it closed down, Helen took the old movie screen canvas. Every year that Ms. Starkweather taught, the students who were chosen, or displayed the most talent, had the honor of painting on this vast canvas. Throughout the years, a depiction of the town of Romeo in the early 1900s was painted onto this screen.
After about 15-20 years of work, this mural now displays some parts of old Romeo that are found nowhere else in history books. Some historians refer to this mural for old buildings of Romeo that are otherwise not documented. This valuable piece of history is amazing to gaze upon and realize what a different place Romeo has become. The volunteers at Starkweather are currently working to preserve this historical account.
Reforming the building into a center for the arts was so important to Mrs. Starkweather and the Romeo community that the gallery’s events and shop hours are now entirely run by volunteers. In fact, the volunteers transformed the building into what it is today.
“Volunteers completely run the place,” Pyrce said. “We’ve made it into what it is now, and we’re proud of how far we’ve come.”
Volunteers run the main floor gift shop, monthly open mic nights, and art classes over the summer. The center occasionally holds concerts and guides tours and art shows in their building. Recently, Starkweather has become more involved with Romeo schools: they held a meeting regarding the school bond, and sponsored the banners with student art hanging around town. However, because Starkweather currently has no paid employees, shop hours are limited. The gift shop is open to the public on Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays from 10 am to 4 pm.
More information about the history of Starkweather can be found on http://www.starkweatherarts.com/, along with a schedule of the building’s events.
Checkout the second installment of this series by clicking the link below!