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By Bekah S. McNeel
A whistle stop is a small railway station where a train stops only by request. It’s not an inescapable hub, but a deliberate destination. When Susan Carlin and U?ur K?l?ç (pronounced OO-er KUL-lutch) chose a name for the renovation project that would become one of their life’s works they chose carefully. They chose a name that pays homage to the history of the neighborhood, once home to the railroad community. They chose a name that reflects the area flanked by railroad tracks and a switchyard. However, it was something else that ultimately sold them on the name Whistle Stop Corner for their ambitious rehab venture. “We want it to be a reason people choose to come to this neighborhood,” says Susan.
That neighborhood is Dignowity Hill, and I think they are going to get their wish.
Susan Carlin has a strong sense of destiny. As she tells her story, one gets the feeling that the wheels of the inevitable were spinning toward epiphany when she chose San Antonio as her home in 1986. She only knew the city from an army assignment years before, and it was the mild winters that sold the Kansas City chiropractor. She didn’t know a soul. “I just came with a big U-haul truck and made friends.”
Fortunately, I can tell after ten minutes with Susan that this comes naturally to her. She’s a people person.
From here, her story meanders to a place where destiny might have been derailed: the suburbs. Convinced by those “in the know” that her daughter’s educational needs could only be met in Northeast ISD, Susan left after a very brief stay in Monte Vista for the northeasterly sprawl. “In the suburbs you could be anywhere, so I didn’t fall in love with San Antonio from there,” she recalls.
In 1990, while working as a chiropractor, Susan submitted a poster design for Fiesta. Her design was selected, ushering her into a blitz of local recognition that soon receded and leaving behind the itch of creative vocation. It wasn’t until 2002 that she had her big “aha!” moment. She was an artist. Not a chiropractor who painted sometimes. An artist. It was then that Susan and San Antonio really began to find each other.
Soon, Susan began working with River Art Group. From there she secured space in La Villita –a tiny closet of a gallery according to her. From this vantage point, downtown proved far more appealing than the suburbs. San Antonio blossomed before her eyes and soon she was regularly selling paintings, dreaming of the day when she could ride her bike from her home to her gallery, centering her life on the creative heart of the city. Which brings us to 2010….
Meanwhile, U?ur K?l?ç was finding her way to San Antonio from Istanbul, Turkey, the bustling eastern European metropolis that makes San Antonio’s rush hour look like Mayberry. She loves that laid-back feel though, commenting “no one will run over you here.” Physically or metaphorically.
U?ur is, to date, the only graphic designer I know specializing in high security printed material. Brought to San Antonio by a Parisian gaming company and subsequently shuffled through buyouts, consolidations, and closures, the feisty Turkish talent put her foot down more than once. A gaming company asked her to move to Atlanta. A banking company asked her to move to Denver. She stayed put through the upheaval, because she wanted to make a home, and she wanted to make it here. Tired of the runaround, U?ur decided to work outside the system. She’d been freelancing on the side for a while, and it was going well. She decided to take a job for the only boss who wouldn’t sell the business and ask her to move: herself. What was once her on-the-side-gig, DesignPro Studio, is now full-time.
When U?ur and Susan first connected, they were struck by many things they had in common. However, perhaps the most propitious were their independent dreams of owning a large, dilapidated building and restoring it into a live-work-share space. Susan soon encouraged U?ur to stretch her creative wings into fine art photography, and soon the two moved into the Nueva Street Gallery.
Still the dream of the big, commercial space rehab project danced around the edges of their plans. They began trolling the real-estate market. Warehouse? Firehouse? They had their hopes dashed more than once before widening their nets. Maybe something smaller to start. On August 2, 2011, they consulted realtor.com, and went to see a little house in Dignowity Hill, a neighborhood unknown to either of them.
Upon arrival they saw that the little house was sold. But since they were in this unfamiliar neighborhood, why not look around? They came to the corner of Mesquite and Lamar. Before either could say, “Left or right?” they both pointed directly in front of them and shouted, “That’s it!”
They had found Whistle Stop Corner. They got the “corner” from this intersection, as well as from the corner facing door on the store front.
Like the women’s own journey to creative vocation, Whistle Stop Corner is experiencing a renaissance. While no one is certain when the building was constructed, the oldest maps place a structure on the site as early as 1912. By the 1920’s it was a functioning grocery store, which Emil and Anita Surman, grocers from Fayette County, Texas, bought in 1929. The Red and White Grocery Store would be in business for decades, eventually becoming an A&P before finishing its life as corner store.
The white two-story bears evidence of the Depression, World War II, and the eventual decline of the Dignowity Hill neighborhood as a result of redlining which lasted until 1977. The warren of apartments over the old storefront has suffered the same improvisations that has left many noble homes in the area in architectural quandaries. The grocery store ceased to be operational in the 1980’s, but the proprietor, Leroy Surman, continued to live there until his death in 2000. Without a full-time resident, the building was boarded up and fell into disrepair, heartache for the Surman family who still owned (but were overwhelmed by the demands of maintaining) the main building and the three other structures on the property.
Then on August 5, 2011, Ronnie Surman entrusted the future of his family’s heritage property to the vision of the women who clearly understood the significance of the place, only three days after they first laid eyes on it.
“We wrote a check on the spot. We have a picture of us handing him the earnest money,” Susan said.
What, you may ask, was that trustworthy vision? Three cramped apartments will open up to become a comfortable single family dwelling on the second floor–their own home. “This is our tool kitchen,” U?ur tells me, showing me one of the three original kitchens which is now the staging area for their renovation.
The apartment space on the ground floor, as well as another studio space in a separate building, will be used as guest housing for visiting artists who have come to take classes or join workshops, which brings us to the grandest part of the vision: the old grocery store will be renovated into a space large enough for dancing to a live band, watching a movie projected against the broad western wall, or setting up easels while painters collaborate and learn. Whistle Stop Corner will be “a private school for the instruction and enjoyment of the arts.”
“Whistle Stop Corner has become our biggest art project!” both women tell me gleefully.
The two apartments over the garage are set to be “Retrotech Residences” a term coined by U?ur to mean that they will have all of the original design elements, but with the necessary updating to make them amenable to urban professionals (HVAC, wi-fi, washer-dryer hookups, etc.). Retrotech is also the name given to U?ur’s latest artistic endeavor, a line of jewelry. This demonstrates the natural fit of these women in this historical neighborhood where homeowners have been pleasantly surprised by the pragmatism of the Historic Design Review Commission (thus far) in allowing them the freedom to update their homes.
In another grin of destiny, Susan was commissioned for her first work since moving into Whistle Stop Corner. St. Phillips College, an Eastside institution, commissioned a portrait of the esteemed Artemesia Bowden, for whom the neighborhood elementary school is named. Work and life are melding together and it’s fair to say the community backs them.
Susan and U?ur had not even moved into the house when they attended the Historical Homeowners Fair at Jefferson High School. The contingency of Dignowity Hill homeowners swarmed them with encouragement, congratulations, and—literally— applause. “We felt like we’d just found our people,” Susan says.
They experienced the openness of the urban core that has made an impression on so many. In a task as large as building community, unhealthy competition, pettiness, and pretension are huge impediments—there is no room for such constrictions. People have commented on the novelty of being involved, taking on dream projects, and effecting change in a city the size of San Antonio. I think this is the secret: welcoming the great ideas of others. No one can protect his or her own celebrity, power, or position by keeping others out. When we cheerlead for Whistle Stop Corner, we cheerlead for the kind of city we all want to live in.