Janis Martin, a local artist and owner of “The Lily Arts Center on Greene and Berkey,” a community arts center in the renovated old Model School building, has been involved in many projects in her lifetime – teaching painting classes, designing gardens, and renovating historic buildings, to name a few. But through each endeavor, she has had one goal: “I want to help people see things they don’t usually notice.”
Janis’ Lily Arts Center project has been in the works for nine years. In 2006, Janis and her late husband, Randy, purchased and began renovating the old school building, a 1920s era schoolhouse (and later, an administration building) on the corner of Greene and Berkey Avenues. The Martins purchased the property from Indiana Landmarks for only a few thousand dollars.
Their idea was to convert the old school building into a place where artists and entrepreneurs could gather. The building, though immaculately constructed, was not well preserved. Among many other major obstacles, the old school lacked an electricity transformer, which would cost them roughly $6,000 to replace. Other projects were easier to tackle: Randy was a mason contractor, so he had the skills necessary for taking on construction tasks. Janis, on the other hand, led the project with creativity and a passion for bringing beauty into spaces where it’s not often seen.
“We didn’t want it to be torn down,” said Janis. “We wanted it to be something that would provide us and the community with something.”
Janis and Randy found each other in college, at the University of Cincinnati, at a meeting for those interested in historic building renovation. Their mutual interest, of course, carried on throughout their lives. The Model School project wasn’t their first major renovation project. While living in Elkhart, the couple bought three foreclosed houses and one historic building on the corner of Lexington and Main. Together, they transformed the mostly run-down structures into homes, places to raise children, and space for community to gather.
“I love the old buildings, I love their character, the way they were built, the little things about them,” said Janis. “It’s such a waste to not do something, to lose all that. There’s a deep sense of past when you’re in an old building. Each has a story to tell – I just don’t want that story to be lost.”
Shortly after purchasing the old school building in 2006, Randy passed away – but Janis continued to build on to their collective dream. She invited artists to rent out the old classrooms and offices, newly converted into studio space; she designed and landscaped the lawn, formerly a concrete slab, into a sanctuary-like garden; she paid contractors to install a massive rain water collection system and an intimate parking lot with special permeable paver bricks that allow rainwater to soak into the ground, rather than run-off into the streets and sewer.
“When we first came here, there was no wildlife, nothing green,” said Janis. “Now when I come, I see birds and living things.”
“Of course,” Janis continued. “There will always be more that I’d like to do – but I’m happy with how it is so far. Sometimes when I come to work, I sit out on the patio with a coffee and think, ‘This is it. I wanted it to be a special place, and this is what it’s become.’
The artists and entrepreneurs who rent space are supportive of Janis’ vision, too.
“I’m so grateful for Janis’ ideas for the place,” said Charrise McCrorey, a life coach who rents office space in the basement. “I love being in Goshen too, there’s an entrepreneurial spirit here unlike anywhere else.”
In addition to Charisse’s business, Lily Arts Center is home to a photography studio, a reading tutor, a Mary Kay consultant, and a painting gallery and studio. Janis teaches oil painting classes there as well, with a new session set to begin in January of 2016.
“The space is adaptable for a so many different things,” said Janis.
But continuing her dream hasn’t been without obstacles. Since Randy passed away, Janis has had to pay for outside help for renovation projects, which pop up often in such an old building. So earlier this year, Janis put the building on the market.
She’s looking for a buyer who could, in some way, continue her and her husband’s passion for bringing life into old spaces and providing a space for artists and entrepreneurs.
Janis is hopeful. Having lived in Elkhart County since 1974, she has seen immense positive change in the community around her, so she knows she’s not alone in her passion for restoring historic buildings and providing space for the arts.
“In Goshen, projects seem so real, not touristy,” said Janis. “People take chances on things. People follow their dreams. They do what they want to do – which, to me, is so exciting.”
Though Janis won’t own the historic building forever, she continues to encounter life with the same goal she puts into her work: to go through life noticing beauty in the old, run-down, shabby, and seemingly mundane – and encouraging others to do the same.
“I want to help people see things they don’t usually notice.”
“There’s a deep sense of past when you’re in an old building.”
“In Goshen, projects seem so real, not touristy. People take chances on things. People follow their dreams. They do what they want to do – which, to me, is so exciting.”