Renaissance. Just the sound of the word conjures up images of people like da Vinci, Michelangelo and Galileo driving the inspiration of the day to expand the arts, science and other pursuits.
In much the same way, areas of cities undergoing an urban renaissance often rely on forward-thinking people to spark the rebirth of a particular neighborhood and create a new and vibrant future.
That’s just what’s happening on Franklin Street in Tampa. Located across the street from two colleges and less than a three minute drive from the city’s bustling downtown, the area was once a set of dilapidated auto dealerships and parts stores. But, no longer. There you will find the large yet comfortable shop of Franklin Street Fine Woodwork School. I recently had the opportunity to pay the shop a visit and meet a woodworker genuinely excited about the craft.
Co-owner Carl Johnson let me into the shop and gave me the nickel tout of the facility. Large windows restored to the yellow brick facade let the natural daylight flood in to the 2000 square foot shop. We walked up a slight ramp to the shop’s floor. Carl explained that’s because they laid down wooden sleepers and built a double-thickness 3/4 inch plywood floor to make it easier on their feet while standing during a long day, and to provide a raceway for the shop’s dust collection and power supplies. Work benches, large stationary power tools, stacks of beautiful lumber and complete works of art share space on the shop floor.
Carl and his business partner Alison Swann-Ingram have been working together since 2004. In 2009, they merged their two separate businesses – Swann Woodwork and the Artisan’s Workshop – and relocated to their new facility. “It took nearly a year’s worth of renovation to bring the building to where it is today,” said Carl. “We wanted to preserve the old character of the building while making it function for what we needed. That involved some careful planning and working closely with the city.”
Part of that was preserving parts of the old architecture and building fittings (Carl proudly pointed the shop’s original cast iron wall mounted sink as an item saved during the demolition) while creating new ones that fit the spirit of the building’s timeframe. Carl drew my attention to the fact that he built all of the interior doors for the building out of poplar. “It was funny. I told the painter how I wanted them done, when the painter told me he couldn’t paint over the beautiful wood. Looking back, those simple poplar doors really do make a statement.” A comfortable classroom, glassed off from the shop, gives Alison and Carl the opportunity to hold a class in a less-dusty environment.
Back in the building’s loading dock area, Carl and Alison have kept the original slide-siding loading door and the building’s original brick facade. But, they have also installed a modern, stand-alone spray booth for their finishing work. “We love to spray lacquer. This booth is a semi-custom structure where we can shoot the pieces in the right environment and ensure we get the best possible finish.” The sci-fi looking booth comes complete with two huge filtering stations and a ring of waist-high fluorescent fixtures to give the operator raking light across the project to check their progress.
Since the shop functions as both a custom furniture shop and classroom, it provides students a unique opportunity to both learn and observe during their time at Franklin Street. “Alison is the one who loves to teach. And, she’ll have a class of students going throughout their paces while I’m working in the other half of the shop. During their breaks, the students will always come by and watch or ask questions. In many ways, I’m providing the bonus coursework, and they always walk away learning even more than the bargained for!”
As I left the shop and shook hands with Carl, I noticed some other things going on in the neighborhood. Next door, a computer company was setting up shop, finishing the renovations on their unit in the building. Nearby, the employees of several law offices were moving about. The pulse is coming back to Franklin Street in Tampa. And, if you are ever in the Tampa Bay area, you owe it to yourself to pay the Franklin Street Fine Woodwork shop a visit and say hi to Carl and Alison.