The legacy of Arbor Vitae lives on

By Melanie Kruvelis, Senior Editorial Page Editor
Published October 12, 2012

Woody Goss doesn’t have a whole lot to say about his house.

“I have a room,” he says. “I have roommates. We’ve got a fish tank and a kitchen. Am I missing anything?”

Well, just the baby doll sitting behind him in a feather boa and mustache. And that drawing that reads “Hella Taco.” Then there’s that picture: the one with the straight-faced bearded man sitting in a Chuck E. Cheese’s photo booth. But I guess that’s just the sort of stuff you learn to forget when you move into a Midwestern art collective. Hell, it’s been less than a year since Goss moved into Arbor Vitae, the third floor loft that sits above Wazoo Records on South State Street, and he’s already forgotten his first day here.

“I don’t really remember what my first day living in Arbor Vitae was like,” Goss, a recent University alum, tells me while sketching a dragon in his spiral notebook. “I don’t even remember the first time I came here.”

Funny. About halfway through the mason jar of coffee his roommate hands me to drink, I can already tell that this place — this hollowed out, creaky-stepped explosion of instruments, books, dusty rainbow flags and records — well, this isn't a place I’m going to forget.

But Goss doesn’t seem fazed by the sprawling loft and its undeniable do-it-yourself-dammit art gallery vibe. He plays a riff on one of the synth-organs in the living room, a little ditty that sounds like he handed the marching band machine guns.

“You dig it?” he asks.

I do. I dig the piano, the meticulously organized VHS collection (labels range from “post-apocalyptic” to “artsy-fartsy”), the chicken scratch sheet music that covers the coffee table. It’s bizarre. It’s fascinating. And I don’t really get it.

Goss does his best to explain. He tells me about Rich Ahern, the architect who founded Arbor Vitae about 50 years ago.

“He was a traveler,” Goss says. “He was an architect, but he spent his life traveling around the world.”

After years of trekking across Europe, Ahern decided to come back to the Midwest and build himself an architecture studio. And when he saw the forgotten attic above Wazoo Records, he knew it was the one.

“The realtor told Ahern, ‘No, you don’t want this place. It’s been abandoned for years.’ But Ahern persisted, and so they walked up the stairs to the attic. Suddenly, they heard this crunching noise," Goss said. "They looked down and realized they were stepping on dead bats.”

But as legend has it, when Ahern took one look from a loft on the second “floor” of the attic, he knew it was perfect.

“It was too big for him, too expensive, but it had this deeper meaning for him," Goss said. "So he got it.”

Ahern started renting out office space to other architects. Somewhere along the way, the offices turned into bedrooms. Later, when Ahern got involved in the peace movements of the 1960s and 1970s (even bringing the Dalai Lama to campus), artists began calling Arbor Vitae home, too. It’s been drawing folks in ever since.

Six people live in the loft today. Actually, six people live in the loft always. Arbor Vitae houses a rotating sextet, Goss tells me.

“When someone leaves, their job is to find a replacement,” he said. “People are selective. You have to be clean, artistic — you know, we’ve got a list somewhere … ”

This year, Arbor Vitae celebrated its 50th anniversary. I asked Goss why it has stuck around so long. He put down his crayon and set aside the nearly complete dragon drawing.

“People who live here really care about the place,” Goss said. “This place is really bigger than any of us. The legacy carries it, you know?”