COHatch and the Harrison Center breathe new life into Polk Stables

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At the entrance to the Polklore Micro-Museum, a mural painted by Cierra Johnson features a collage of the people and artifacts who make up the history of Martindale-Brightwood.
At the entrance to the Polklore Micro-Museum, a mural painted by Cierra Johnson features a collage of the people and artifacts who make up the history of Martindale-Brightwood. (Photo provided/COhatch)

Nestled in the cozy Martindale Brightwood neighborhood, right next to Tinker House and across the Monon, the historic Polk Stables has been given a second chance, now home to a coworking space and interactive museum.

COhatch Polk Stables hosted its grand opening on June 5, inviting the community back into a newly revitalized and preserved historic site. Having stood empty for more than 50 years, the building now has new ownership and a chance to breathe new life into the community as both a coworking space and a micro-museum.

“We love the idea of reinvigorating that neighborhood, bringing more community space to that neighborhood, and making sure that the building kept a lot of historic meaning, which is why so much of the design is obviously focused on the Polk Sanitary Milk Company,” said Erin Maxson, head of digital and marketing at COhatch.

COhatch is an “innovative community space” chain that originated in Columbus, Ohio in 2016 to re-envision coworking spaces. With more than 40 locations open or in renovation across the county, Maxson said the Martindale Brightwood location aims to offer a nontraditional, collaborative headquarters for small businesses, startups and nonprofits.

On average, COhatch includes a variety of private offices, meeting rooms and event spaces as well as full mail service for members, kitchens and coffee bars stocked from local businesses and various amenities for families and members — such as rock climbing, sports simulators, movie theaters and game rooms — depending on location.

Giving Polk Stables a second chance

One of the things COhatch is dedicated to is intentional restoration of old buildings. Due to its size, COhatch Polk Stables is one of their more significant projects, Maxson said. 

Polk Stables is the last remaining building of the Polk Sanitary Dairy Company complex, which is in the historic Martindale Brightwood neighborhood. James T. Polk founded Polk Sanitary Milk Company in 1983 and served the Indianapolis community for 75 years until it was eventually bought out in the late 1950s.

After the Polk Sanitary Milk Company closed in 1963, Indianapolis Public Schools purchased the complex the following year to use as storage before demolishing everything but the stables and parking lots, said Joanna Taft, president of the Harrison Center.

Taft became aware of the building in 2016 — when it was on the verge of complete collapse — and used Creative Placemaking and art to raise awareness for the building and its story to urge someone to save the building. 

Inside the Polklore Micro-Museum, guests can browse artifacts collected by neighbors in the community and interact with AI to hear the history of each of the artifacts and the art that accompanies them. (Photo/Chloe McGowan)

Sajan George and Greg Enos later bought Polk Stables in 2019 before partnering with COhatch to renovate and save the building.

“We’ve always said that this is a neighborhood with a great story and new people are welcome to be part of that story, but we don’t want people to move in to think it’s a blank slate,” Taft said. “When the co-working space comes, we have the opportunity to invite all those smart young entrepreneurs into the story of the neighborhood, they can share their resources with the neighborhood, they can help the neighborhood move to solving some of the challenges that it’s had.”

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Preserving legacies within the Polklore Micro-Museum

The Polklore Micro-Museum is all about cultural preservation and tells the history of Martindale Brightwood through significant items belonging to families who have made their homes here for generations. Part of that history is preserved in a mural at the entrance to the museum — decades worth of people, stories and artifacts represented in a colorful collage by Harrison Center resident artist Cierra Johnson.
Neighbors were invited to tell their stories and donate beloved artifacts such as washboards, gold boxing gloves, a rolling pin, more than a dozen trophies, roller skates and old leather baseball gloves.

Many of these stories were turned into art that is now displayed on the walls alongside art created by Harrison Center residents like Johnson, including Israel Solomon, Courtland Blade, Alicia Zanoni. Some family heirlooms were too valuable to display and were instead preserved through images in Johnson’s mural, Taft said.

Guests can interact with the artifacts through three different methods of Augmented Reality (AR) created by the Harrison Center’s “accidental AR intern” Caroline Park. It is designed to be almost like a scavenger hunt, Park said, where guests scan artifacts with their phones to watch a short video anecdote on the history of the items and their significance to the community. 

“It’s a great way to integrate technology into the museum,” Johnson said. “Martindale Brightwood is really trying to move into the future, and so we want to remember our history of course, but we also want to be on the cutting edge of things, and this is a way to engage with people who are going to be already on their cell phones anyway.”

Martindale Brightwood is approximately 78% African American, and the museum aims to accurately preserve the stories of these residents and their ancestors. However, the area is also 5% Hispanic, and Michelle Andrea — local artist, podcaster and Polk fellow — collected artifacts and created artwork based on the stories of these families who also called Martindale Brightwood home.

“I really enjoy painting about the stories, not just my own, but stories about immigrants,” Andrea said. “So, being tasked to find stories of immigrants — specifically the Hispanic community, which is my community — it was so encouraging because I know how it feels. I know how it feels to be a part of that small percentage, especially in that neighborhood.”

In addition to collecting stories and creating art for the museum, Andrea also worked on a podcast about the Polk Micro-Museum, which she said will be released soon.

Although some of the stories Andrea collected are not currently featured in the museum due to a time constraint, she said the museum is designed to never be complete and artifacts can be added at any time.

COhatch signals new life for Martindale-Brightwood

Ribbon cutting at COhatch Polk Stables during its grand opening on June 5, 2024. (Photo provided/COhatch)

COhatch Polk Stables took more than three years to complete, and at 22,0000 square feet, the building features three floors and 48 offices and 12 meeting rooms for small businesses, entrepreneurs and creatives to call home.

The Polklore Micro-Museum itself can also be used as a meeting room, accommodating up to 80 people, Taft said. Starting in June, the museum will welcome a 48-hour rotation of resident entrepreneurs and musicians to brainstorm “creative solutions” to neighborhood problems that have yet to be solved.

“I’m excited for the flooding of the neighborhood with resources and opportunities,” Johnson said. “The people here deserve it, and people view our neighborhoods sometimes as a dying area, and I think it’s a perfect segue into a period of rebirth.”

Although the official ribbon cutting took place on June 5, COhatch Polk Stables has been open since the end of May and is currently 20% full in terms of those who work there. Maxson said the goal for this location is to welcome in at least 20 local nonprofits, 10 startups and three to five community partners. 

COhatch Polk Stables is located 1533 Lewis St. For more information, visit cohatch.com/locations/indianapolis/polk-stables. To learn about the Polklore Micro-Museum and sign up for a tour, visit harrisoncenter.org/polklore-micro-museum.

Contact Arts & Culture Reporter Chloe McGowan at 317-762-7848. Follow her on X @chloe_mcgowanxx.