Warehouse renovator supports local art and businesses while preserving downtown history

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Michael Levine renovates historic warehouses in downtown, supporting the local art scene and local businesses. He runs Levine Machine, which houses entrepreneurial businesses like Seed Spot and WebPT. (Alexis Macklin/DD)

Downtown Phoenix Voices is an ongoing series of profiles on the many diverse and inspirational voices in the downtown Phoenix community. To read the last installment in the series,
click here.

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There is a mess everywhere. Shelves are stacked with cardboard boxes; turquoise foam and lighting fixtures line the walls. Metal rods lie in a pile on the floor; machines sit dormant, loaded with lumber.

Next to the street entrance are three 1970s-era cars, while tucked away in a corner at the far end is a pile of worn pew ends from a synagogue marked with the Star of David. The room rumbles occasionally as planes fly overhead to land at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport.

This is the studio and storage space where Michael Levine, 44, works. This room is a small treasure in a much larger collection, which is just one of many historic warehouses Levine has renovated since 1999. Levine’s studio is at the east end of Levine Machine, 605 E. Grant St., which houses entrepreneurial businesses like Seed Spot and WebPT.

At 10 a.m., Levine Machine is awash with activity. Levine darts from room to room, stopping to chat with tenants or conversing with a pair of men in sharp, pressed suits. He walks past a meeting in a conference-room prototype, which consists of a raised wooden platform with cutout metal walls.

“This is our zoo; these are the caged animals,” Levine jokes, eliciting a glance and chuckle from one of the men in the conference room.

Levine Machine is an entrepreneur’s playground. The double doors lead into a smaller, homier room where Levine’s tenants work. The next room is all vastness and sunshine — the top wall and part of the ceiling are glass, open to the sun and sky. More office space follows, until we reach the east end of the building and Levine’s studio.

This is where we are now, perched on a pair of metal stools next to a worktable. I’ve been in the building for 45 minutes, and we have yet to start the interview — a good part of the time has been taken up by tours, introductions, stories about Levine’s children and more.

It is these stories that make up the framework of Michael Levine, artist, entrepreneur, historic preservationist and father.

***

Even as a child growing up in Brooklyn, Levine mixed business and art. He started his own business, a graffiti-based endeavor that he called Bubbletters, at eight years old. This was more than a makeshift lemonade stand. He created his own business cards and would build signs for special occasions, such as sweet sixteens and bar mitzvahs.

“It was all cut out of wood. My parents were crazy and would let me use a jigsaw when I was eight, cutting with a reciprocating saw,” Levine said.

Levine continued his artistic business ventures in high school, as well, painting on jeans and denim jackets. He attended Edward R. Murrow High School, where the art director at the time talked him into attending art school.

In Levine’s senior year, the art director asked him what he intended to do for college. Levine responded that he was considering pre-law at whatever college his parents could afford.

“He literally takes his forearm and he puts it on my chest, and he shoves me up against the wall and he’s like, ‘You’re going to art school,’” Levine recalled.

On the advice of his teacher, 17-year-old Levine attended Parsons, the New School for Design, in Manhattan. In his sophomore year, Levine decided to major in environmental design, which he called “Parsons’ version of architecture.” Levine took drafting, 3D and engineering classes for a year and a half and then transferred into the fine arts department, where he was able to do the hands-on work that satisfied him.

“I could build with different sensibility than the fine-arts students who went straight into fine art, which was more human-scale. They really didn’t get the architectural scale that I was exposed to,” Levine said.

Levine’s foray into the world of the arts was a learning experience, from attending classes with people much older than him who were looking to discover themselves, to his first exposure to openly gay artists.

“You’re drawing naked men, naked women, and you have to be cool. It can’t be about the man being naked. And you’re seeing other people, and then you’ve got gay guys flirting with you, and, you know, you — you’re conceptually open-minded, but you’ve never been hit on,” Levine said.

Levine was also required to take liberal-arts classes at the New School for Social Research, the college attached to Parsons, which Levine called a “left-of-left think-tank liberal college.” Levine’s interest in history shone through in the classes he described, which primarily focused on Native American roots, anti-Manifest Destiny and critical thinking.

“By the time I graduated art school, I’d already been exposed to the West,” Levine said. “I was already thinking socio-politically and wanting to make art that got people to think for themselves.”

During his time at Parsons, Levine was developing a construction business he called Avant-Garde Artists and Architects, which eventually became Aaardvark and was renamed Aarmadillo when Levine moved west.

It was a job Levine did through Avant-Garde Artists and Architects that made him realize that he had to leave New York. The construction project on which Levine worked was rife with corrupt activity.

“My foreman was a cocaine addict. The painter was a cocaine addict. The United Brotherhood of Carpenters, which was an Irish Mafia union, came and extorted a thousand dollars a day out of me,” Levine said. Asking superiors to take action had no effect, he added.

The foreman and the landlord on the project were adding numbers that didn’t belong to the list of items that needed to be fixed, and the landlord was reimbursing them, he said. When Levine approached the head of leasing at Trinity Church, the landlord on the project, to deal with the problem, he was unsuccessful.

“That’s where the corruption of New York made me realize I had to get out of New York,” Levine said.

***

Levine moved to Phoenix in 1990. Several elements inspired him to choose Phoenix: his interest in the West and the Native American population, the ability to weld and work outside, and the large public-art program, which at the time was second only to Seattle’s. The year after he arrived, however, the budget for the public-art program was cut.

Levine’s first experience with renovating historic warehouses came with the Arizona Cotton Compress Warehouse on 13th Street and Jackson in 1991. He began renovating the building in 1992 in order to live there, and he ran an art gallery for three years.

By 1999, Levine was itching to get closer to downtown.

“I wanted to get closer to where the action was. I thought 13th and Jackson — 13th and Jackson could be 50 blocks away from what’s going on,” Levine said.

Levine’s first intentional step into historic preservation came with the Phoenix Linen and Towel Supply building, now known as Bentley Projects, on 215 E. Grant St. He bought the building with only $10,000 and a loan from a family whose faith in Levine was the first step to his success in warehouse renovation.

“Most of business and entrepreneurial development is not based off of numbers. It’s based off of the passion, the idea and the execution of that,” Levine said.

Levine’s passion and drive were exemplified in his experience with Bentley Projects. On the first day after he had bought the Phoenix Linen and Towel Supply, he was burned by hydrochloric acid from a broken line in the building. Bentley Calverley, who now owns Bentley Projects, recollected the way Levine’s face and arm were bandaged and commended Levine’s tenacity in the face of such a serious setback.

“With quick thinking, he helped himself. And it’s that ‘I can do this’ attitude. He was back to work extremely quickly,” Calverley said.

Two starburst scars spider out on Levine’s right arm as a reminder of his burns, one on his inner elbow and the other on the upper shoulder.

“I couldn’t weld for — I couldn’t be in the sun for two years. I was like a vampire,” Levine said, laughing.

Levine attributes much of his original success at Phoenix Linen and Towel Supply to the Diamondbacks’ playoffs run in 1999 and World Series victory in 2001. He parked cars inside the building for games.

Renovation came with ownership, something Levine could do with the building when business was slow, and advertisers and designers began to take notice and rent space. But Levine only wanted a space to build his art.

“Yeah, the thrill of the chase and proving people wrong and being a business person is exciting, but it’s not nearly as thrilling as making a Cinderella carriage for my four-year-old,” Levine said.

Levine used the money from selling the Phoenix Linen and Towel Supply building to Calverley to buy the Southwest Cotton Company and Karlson Machine Works, which became Levine Machine.

Levine also bought and renovated Phoenix Seed & Feed, the oldest warehouse in Phoenix. He sold the Anchor Manufacturing Building to Steve and Andi Rosenstein, who converted it into the Duce.

These warehouses encompass Levine’s love for history and art. He detailed the history of each one, making connections between the stories of the past and the icons of today.

“It’s like the Phoenix story, so many Phoenix stories. It’s amazing to talk about. And you could feel it in the brick,” Levine said.

It is these stories that Levine views as the backbone of Phoenix, and his concern that its residents do not value their history enough is palpable.

He expressed great regret for the demolition of the Madison Hotel on Oct. 17.

“The Phoenicians need to buck up and fight for every brick and mortar that they possibly can to retain who they were, who they are, and who they will be,” Levine said. “Otherwise, it’ll be Anywhere, USA.”

***

Today, Levine continues to save and work on historic warehouses, but he devotes much of himself to his children. He built a full-size carriage from metal rods and translucent plastic material for his 4-year-old daughter, who went trick-or-treating inside it for Halloween.

Packed away in a corner of Levine Machine is a metalwork hot-air balloon, which Levine hooked to a basket for his daughter’s third birthday. Steve Rosenstein admires Levine’s commitment to his family.

“We have a lot in common. We’re both family guys,” Rosenstein said.

Levine has three children: his daughters, Shea and Kate, and a son, Mack. All three children are under 4 years old, but Levine already sees his own tenacity represented in them.

“They won’t take no for an answer, and I have to try to teach them to play well with others. It’s life lessons I’m having to reapply to myself,” Levine said.

Levine continuously returns to the stories of those who helped him, such as the family who lent him money, and the coincidences that kept him from failing, like the Diamondbacks’ playoffs successes. The mantra Levine repeated throughout the story of his history was “Fake it ’til you make it.”

“There’s been other small partnerships and other people who put their money where their mouth is, and I didn’t do it all by myself,” Levine asserted.

However, it is Levine’s passion and drive that kept him faking it — and, eventually, making it, over and over again. Calverley compared Levine to the Energizer bunny, attesting to the time and energy he puts behind every project.

“He only knows how to go full-throttle. And I love that about him,” Calverley said.

Contact the reporter at molly.bilker@asu.edu