Three years ago, Shadyside Nursery owner Bill Brittain and his fiancée, Natasha Dean, set out in search of land to farm soil and plant fruit trees. But it turned out to be an uphill battle — almost literally.
“You need more than one acre to be classified as a farm, and we only found two in the city,” says Dean. “One was on a hillside in Homewood.”
The other — located at 1958 Varley Street in Spring Hill — became Rescue Street Farms, home to the couple’s urban farm, an expansive new event space, a brewery and more.
The 15,000-square-foot building on the property — which had housed a Workingmen’s Beneficial Union (WBU) social hall for 90 years — had been vacant for a decade and a half when Brittain and Dean purchased it for $70,000 in 2015.
“It was in bad condition,” Dean says, with copper pipes torn out of the basement and extensive water damage.
Brittain and Dean have invested close to $200,000 in updates to the building, installing doors and adding features like a wheelchair accessible ramp and first-floor bathrooms. They’ve scraped away decades of peeling paint and uncovered layers of history — including artifacts from the WBU’s bowling alley, including balls, pins and shoes. And a large ballroom on the second floor remains untouched.
“It’s like a time capsule,” says Dean, events coordinator for the space.
She created a display of bowling scorecards, letters and other ephemera in the venue, named “WBU at Spring Hill” in tribute to its history.
“One thing I think that’s really neat about the space is that it’s really raw,” she adds. “We worked really hard to keep it the way it was when possible.”
That was part of the appeal for stylist Rachel Eleleth when she booked the venue’s first private event. The 54-year-old Spring Hill resident held her wedding there last September.
Eleleth used to take fashion photographs against the building’s exterior brick wall which faced her home on the other end of the street. When Brittain and Dean offered her a tour during renovations, their enthusiasm was contagious.
“Natasha and Bill have put a lot of love in their space,” says Eleleth.
The vast outdoor area was another selling point for her autumn nuptials.
“The first thing I noticed was the garden they planted outside,” she says. “We took advantage of the outdoor space to have lawn games, a giant bubble-making pool, bocce, photo boards and a fire pit at night.”
A wraparound wooden deck at the building’s entrance offers guests stunning views of the city. And inside, the original character is evident in exposed I-beams and restored walls with visible patina.
Though the wood from the bowling alley was too damaged to salvage completely, bits and pieces were reclaimed for use throughout the building, like in the bar top at Spring Hill Brewing, expected to open at Rescue Street Farms in mid-April.
Brewery owner Greg Kamerdze will brew session ales, cider and mead with oats, rye and smoked malts to complement Saison yeast — the ingredient that lends a “funky” flavor to his specialty, farmhouse ales.
“The idea of the brewery working alongside a large urban agriculture project was always on my mind,” says Kamerdze. “I was struck by the huge potential of the building as a whole, but also the sheer beauty and serenity of the location itself.”
He is excited to cultivate hops on the premises and has been experimenting with recipes using honey and pollen from the farm’s resident beekeeper, Randall Hall of BEEBOY Honey.
Another experiment? Recreating beers from 5,000 years ago. “They’re certainly not exact replicas,” Kamerdze says, “but a little knowledge of how beer was originally made in Sumeria has opened up a lot of delicious possibilities on our tap list.” Rotating seasonal selections will include hopped, sour, smoked and “weird” beers.
Visitors, say Dean and Kamerdze, will likely have opportunities to sample Spring Hill brews at the venue’s public events, which will include a tomato and pepper festival, farm-to-table dinners, Spring Hill Civic League meetings and fundraisers. A variety of food trucks will be parked on-site during the events.
“The opportunities for collaboration,” adds Kamerdze, “are essentially endless.”