Community revival and the artist retreat

Last weekend I came across a property in Hazelton, Kansas that seems like it would work very well for an artist retreat. It’s a very large building that was most recently either a farm implement or oil well supplier from what I can tell. The 1948 concrete structure — from what I can tell it would be best described as Mid-Century Modern — seems to be a organized maze of a five bedroom living space nestled in the midst of a series of garages and open spaces.

It’s exciting to find properties like this in light of the retreat idea, especially ones that seem within some kind of financial reach (best scenario would be if the property was donated to the effort, probably after we receive 501(c)(3) status although not necessarily). My wife will tell you I become obsessed when I find certain spaces that serve certain functions, which is probably a fair assessment.

But this post isn’t about the building in Hazelton. It’s about the community of Hazelton.

Hazelton, Kansas is a very small community (roughly 130 people) about an hour southwest of Wichita. It’s the type of place most people can’t ever imagine moving to, the type of town that’s dying off in America. From what I can tell in Google Maps, most of the downtown buildings (about 10 of them, seemingly well kept) are vacant. A water tower stands over a green space and what appears to be a water treatment facility lies east of its guard; a highway and railway pass by to the west.

This isn’t the kind of place I would expect to end up in, although the vacant schoolhouse idea could also land the retreat in a similarly tiny town. However, as happens when new ideas present themselves, I’ve found myself daydreaming of what Hazelton might become with an infusion of the arts.

How could the retreat I’m imagining help revitalize this small community? Granted, it’s not going to be the kind of economic boon many of these rural places generally hope for. It won’t be a factory with 50 jobs, but it might (on the high end) employ five people part-time. Instead I’m wondering how an arts related institution can give back to the place that it’s in, large or small. In the case of small, in the case of Hazelton, Kansas, the impact could at least appear more significant than in a larger city.

In my daydream, the retreat is able to employ a few part-time employees (eventually). It hopes to help put the presumably vacant downtown buildings to some good use, even if it’s not installing regular businesses. Maybe one of them becomes a community space available for birthday parties or community wide Thanksgiving celebrations or occasional gallery spaces for movies, music, theater and other art exhibitions. Maybe one of them is transformed into a place where a person with a passion for food cooks a monthly meal for anyone who wants to come. I’d like to see a bonafide park — I don’t think there is one from what I can tell, again from Google Maps — and sidewalks with decorative streetlamps along Main Street from the highway to downtown (donated to the community by the retreat, if God were to ever bless the retreat with such ability).

Adding: Of course, in this day and age of the internet, those buildings could be used for for profit businesses. They would probably be inexpensive to rent for storage for internet sales (thinking of the eBay boom, which is pretty much past now anyhow). Maybe one of them becomes a gluten free bakery that ships breads across the country. These aren’t the strongest ideas related to the point of the internet enabling far flung locations to succeed, but they’re what come to mind off-hand.

My wife was dreaming of creating a library for the community if it doesn’t have one. I would hope to turn the roughly 10 acres around the building into a public, park-like space with a walking trail — preferably one that’s tied to the rest of the community in some form or fashion) — sculpture garden and tennis court (which is already on the property).

This line of thinking is new to me, probably because most of the time (though admittedly not all) I imagine the retreat being on a farm or acreage outside of a city. This enticing piece of property is fostering this new line of thinking. Regardless, for any of the things I’ve brainstormed to happen we’d want to start by garnering interest from the residents. In many ways I’m thinking like a community planner here, a facilitator with the best interest of the place and its people at heart.


About pcNielsen
Paul Nielsen founded The Aesthetic Elevator late in 2005. He owns a piece of paper, located somewhere in his house (not on the wall), stating that he earned a B.F.A. from the University of Nebraska around about 2001. While there, he studied studied architecture, graphic design and ceramics, graduating with a degree in studio art. Paul presently serves as communications manager for a small non-profit doing their print design and marketing. He spends as much time sculpting in his studio as possible — which is not nearly enough. Visit his website at

6 Responses to Community revival and the artist retreat

  1. kseverny says:

    it looks like a really cool place to set up a rertreat

  2. Deb Seeger says:

    Too cool when will this be ready?

    • pcNielsen says:

      Well, likely not for years. We don’t really have a timeline. At the moment we’re still working on feasibility. What are you looking for in such a retreat?

  3. Julie says:

    I like the idea. I do. Idly, I wonder if these are things that the existing community would like to see, would like to add. If they’d fear a change for the worse. You know this stuff, from reading Norris. (You’ve read Dakota, I’m sure!) Then I start thinking of where to start… talk to the mayor, the town council, whoever the existing leaders are there, and… not even feel them out, but maybe just listen to them? ya know?

    And a word from the inner architect… it seems like you’re starting to have some idea of a program: what kinds of functions you need spaces to serve, and what their sizes might be. Keep track of your ideas for each building; it’ll probably help you later! It’s cool to see this idea developing.

  4. Pingback: Are small towns worth saving? « The Aesthetic Elevator

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