Seven years ago, Nancy Bender didn't really know what she wanted to do with the sprawling warehouse in the Dunbar Springs area.
It was rustic; it was empty; it was broken down. It needed a lot of work.
"I looked at it and said, 'This building is butt-ugly,' " recalls Bender, standing outside the Whistle Stop Depot, which has an expansive porch, corrugated tin walls colorful with rust marks, and oversized spoked wheels in the front, waiting to become incorporated into the décor of the now-dusty front yard area.
Bender, a retired teacher who moved here from Northern California, saw potential in the former Ralph's Moving & Storage warehouse. If there were a tower rising from the center of the roof, she thought, she could fall in love with it. Her partner, retired carpenter Carlton Dewey White, said, "I can do that."
So she bought it.
And she committed totally to it - not even a fire during escrow dampened her enthusiasm.
White, it turns out, was able to turn almost every one of Bender's dreams about the building into reality. She asked for movable walls, and he made them.
She found electric conduit covers and wanted them converted into lights. He did that, too.
She wanted to somehow incorporate the sides of a wrought iron fence into the building. White obliged.
Also important to Bender was that materials, whenever possible, would be recycled pieces. White could do that, too.
The fire meant that the roof had to be replaced, so the tin that once served as the roof now serves as the interior walls. The movable walls are made out of repurposed aluminum shelving. The light fixtures all had former lives. The front doors are slices of an airplane side. The toilet tank tops that cover the outside wall to the restrooms came from a junkyard.
A lot of work was poured into the roughly 60-year-old building, and around $300,000 fixing it up.
The name was the easiest part - about 200 trains whisk by the back of the building every day, the haunting whistle wafting over the building and making speech momentarily inaudible.
Still, they weren't sure where this was all going, though White had his fantasy.
"I was hoping it was going to be a brew pub," he says.
Bender just didn't know.
But once a year they would throw a party there for out-of-town guests, and at one of those events it came to her: This is a party place. And a gallery place. And a wedding place.
She also sought out ideas from friends, neighbors and others who care about the downtown area and Tucson's cultural scene.
"They did a really good job of reaching out to the community to ask for input," said Michael Keith, the CEO of Downtown Tucson Partnership.
"We talked about the importance of those kinds of neighborhood-driven places where social interaction can take place," he said. "The wonderful thing about those kinds of spaces is they are very flexible … perfect for a large range of activities."
Starting Friday, the Whistle Stop is the main gallery space for the Tucson Sculpture Festival.
BICAS (Bicycle Inter-Community Art and Salvage) has held events there. A few weddings are scheduled. The Montana-based Adventure Cycling Association has booked the Whistle Stop, and Bender has had inquiries from other organizations.
Down the road, Bender is hoping that she can work with different caterers who will join the Whistle Stop in serving lunch to the downtown business crowd.
This "butt-ugly" space has transformed into a very funky, very fun venue with a distinctive, though not classically beautiful, look.
It has, says Bender, "become what it's suppose to be."
If you go
• What: Tucson Sculpture Festival.
• When: 11 a.m.-7 p.m. daily, Friday through Feb. 15.
• Where: Whistle Stop Depot, 127 W. Fifth St., and the Sculpture Resource Center, 640 N. Stone Ave.
• Cost: Free.
• Information: tucsonsculpturefestival2013.blogspot.com
• Opening night receptions: Both on Friday - 6-9:30 p.m. at the Whistle Stop; 8-11 p.m. at the Sculpture Resource Center.
• That's entertainment: Along with food, music and magic, pianist Adam Lipsky and Anarchestra will be at the Whistle Stop; the Tucson Magnet High School Drumline will parade from the Whistle Stop to the Sculpture Resource Center at 9 p.m.
Want to reserve the Whistle Stop Depot?
Prices are still evolving, though owner Nancy Bender said a wedding, which needs two to three days for setup, is about $2,500. Call Tana Kelch, 370-3295.