The Shamrock Hotel during the first Fallas Dart Air event in April, in which the building was turned into a piece of art. photography by Allison V. Smith

The Best Little Former Whorehouse in Texas

The Shamrock Hotel and its merry band of artists stand tall in the face of gentrification.

The Shamrock Hotel Studios occupy the upper floor of a nearly century-old, two-story brick building standing in one of those forgotten corners of Old East Dallas. The Shamrock wasn’t ever actually a hotel. It was a cover name for a brothel that operated during the 1950s and early ’60s. After that, it apparently remained empty for several decades. Since 1996, however, it has been home to a small but vibrant community of painters and other visual artists. Their landlord, the commercial photography studio downstairs, rents it to them on the cheap.

For several years now, redevelopment has been charging ahead in nearby areas. Gaston Avenue is returning to a version of its late-1950s glory, while over in Exposition Park, the revitalization is even more pronounced, with well-heeled professionals moving into new condos. Out here, though, where Elm meets Peak Street, things seemed destined to remain economically stagnant. But now the neighborhood appears to be on the verge of change.

An announcement has come from the Delphi Group, the real estate investment and development firm partially responsible for transforming Deep Ellum from a sleepy warehouse area into a lively entertainment district back in the 1980s. Delphi has just partnered with groups to purchase the It’ll Do Club and the Starlight Lounge, two very old, very divey nightclubs next to the Shamrock, and the firm has plans to turn them into places that cater to a somewhat older, less rambunctious demographic. It would be the beginning of a larger effort to develop the neighborhood as an arts and entertainment destination that Delphi has dubbed New East Elm. Though this marks the firm’s first major public move in the area, Delphi Group president Jeff Swaney says they have been quietly buying up properties there for 12 years.

For the eight or so people currently occupying the Shamrock Hotel, the long economic slump hasn’t been such a bad thing. True, being in a run-down, crime-ridden neighborhood comes with some risks, but the reward is low-cost studio space, coupled with something even harder to find: community. In an age when almost everything connected to the arts is driven by grants, fellowships, and corporate sponsorships, the Shamrock is nearly an anomaly. It exists on its own, without any institutional support.

“It’s easier this way,” says Peter Ligon, an Eastfield College art professor who manages the space. “Once you start getting good at writing up grant proposals, it turns into a full-time job. We’d just as soon avoid that.”

Sunny Sliger, one of the resident artists, puts it another way: “We’d much rather spend our time working and eating and drinking and having dance parties.”

Ligon paints landscapes, including many of the places around the neighborhood. Sliger does fabric collages and installations, including performance pieces a couple of years ago that entailed a Cypress Gardens-style water-ski stunt show. Other residents include artist Lily Hanson, costume and textile designer Marianne Newsom, and artist Noah Simblist. In April, on the same weekend as the Dallas Art Fair, the Shamrock group joined Mai Koetjecacov Editions, Wichita Falls, to produce the first Fallas Dart Air.

The studios are anything but spacious. Ten small rooms clustered around a larger common area. But the light is good, and there’s a small balcony accessible from the common room that looks out across the street and onto the parking lot of the It’ll Do Club. More than anything, it’s this balcony, kitchen, and common area that lend the Shamrock its magic.

Since being established by a group of SMU art students, the Shamrock has endeavored to be an affordable studio space where artists can not only work but also feed off each other and build up their professional chops. Here they all just focus on their work. They’ll paint  in their studios, and when they’re done or need a break, they only have to step out to find themselves among a friendly group of colleagues.

“It’s like a clubhouse,” Sliger says, “just a very easy place. And everybody, for the most part, gets along great and develops friendships. I really respect all the artists that are up there now, and some of them are like family to me.

“I’ve worked in a space by myself, and it’s the pits,” she continues. “There’s nothing better than to be working on something new and be able to go to someone and say, ‘Hey, what do you think about this?’ and get an honest opinion. And if there’s someone there when you come in late at night, you’ll knock on the door and say, ‘Let me know if you want to go catch a beer afterwards.’ ”

“We’ve got a good group here now,” Ligon says, comparing it with the talent there in the early 2000s, when so much was going on at the Shamrock and within the nascent Dallas arts scene that it looked like it was really about to take off. “Things got really active here,” he says. “Road Agent was a really great gallery, and [new media artist] Paul Slocum was getting a lot of attention with his shows. A new generation of Dallas artists were producing art and being shown in Dallas galleries. No small number of them came out of the Shamrock Hotel community.”

But then came the 2008 financial collapse, and that pretty much killed things for a while. “In the last few years, there’s been times we’ve had empty rooms,” Sliger says. “There was a period when four or five of them were empty. It was pretty stagnant. But then it got to be kind of a prize place to have a studio. We started getting artists who were hitting their stride or just showing a lot. Then it began filling up with people who were a little more serious. Now it’s all pretty solid. Whenever anyone is about to leave, they’ll have somebody else lined up.”

The Shamrock’s current passel of artists is a talented and lively bunch. What sort of impact might they have on the city at large? Ligon isn’t sure. “There’s starting to be some commingling between the arts communities of Dallas and Fort Worth,” he says. “But I don’t think either city really has a real art scene yet. To have a real, viable art scene, cities need to have vibrant economies where artists can support themselves with access to galleries. Dallas might get there, but it’s not there yet.”

The fear among Shamrock’s artists has always been that once the neighborhood is revitalized, they’ll find themselves out on the street. Delphi’s Swaney hopes otherwise. “I believe that in a neighborhood that has been fostered by artists and pioneers, it is essential that there be a place for those pioneers in the mix,” he says. “Without that, the cool vibe is lost, and the neighborhood becomes generic. We saw that in Deep Ellum, where the greed of some property owners led to the decline of that area in 2000. As the majority property owner in this area, we are committed to not having that repeat itself in New East Elm.”

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