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Artists mourn loss of Peanut Gallery in R.I. fire

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ROCK ISLAND -- Sarah Jane Fellini was awoken at 3:05 a.m. Sunday by a friend telling her the art studio she shared with her husband, Ron, was on fire.

"We saw smoke from Arsenal Bridge. That was scary," Mrs. Fellini said. "By the time we got there, six minutes later, there were like, four or five fire trucks. The flames were huge. Water was just pouring into that little building. They had hoses going into the Peanut Gallery. The firemen were just wonderful.

"We're thankful that no one got hurt, that the building was still standing," she said.

A garage on the west side of the Peanut Gallery building, 300 21st St., was in the process of being demolished when a discarded cigarette started the blaze, fire marshal Jeff Hindman said.

"The building was already down on the ground" before the fire started, he said. The demolition was intended to help make way for the "live-work" DuMarche Market on 3rd project -- eight artist studios with condominiums on the upper floor, in two buildings.

The Fellinis were devastated by the fire and are unsure if the 1912 building will remain. "We're still hopeful we can fix it up and continue. Ron does fire damage in his work," Mrs. Fellini said. "The owner has to decide.

"We're really discouraged," she said. "It's an old building falling apart, Ron's worked so hard to put it back together. I was constantly cleaning, and to see this black oily stuff on the floor...

"We just re-carpeted the bathroom. Part of the oldness of the building lended itself to the love that came in there. There's been a lot of love in that building. The Circellos (the owners) raised six kids upstairs."

Mr. Fellini is a plasterer who has done murals and paintings in the building, and Mrs. Fellini teaches art at Rivermont Collegiate, and does sculpture and painting.

The former Circello's Delicatessen has been used as studio and storage space by local artists since 1998. The Fellinis dubbed the space The Peanut Gallery, partially in tribute to the original owner, Carlo "Peanut Charly" Circello.

It has been a regular stop in the periodic Gallery Hop events sponsored by The District and MidCoast Fine Arts.

"We created huge groups of people who kept coming back each time, with free booze, food and music," Mrs. Fellini said. "Everyone would gather there and made this little art community. Everybody loved the place. It was just a really good time four times a year. We're going to miss it. I was ready for the next Gallery Hop (Dec. 1). I wasn't ready to close down."

The Peanut Gallery also was "open by chance" most Saturday afternoons for artists and the general public. A large mural Mr. Fellini did on the wall shared with the burned garage may have saved the rest of the building, his wife said.

"It was a birds-eye scene flying over the river, looking down on farm fields," Mrs. Fellini said. "The inspector said the extra thick plaster on the wall kept the building from catching more on fire. There was a lot of water and smoke damage. The mural went up on the ceiling, with floating clouds, two buffaloes. Now one's gone.

"The bathroom area was trashed, the framework has all been singed," she said. "There was so much water. Everything smells like burnt tar.

"We were trying to do our best. I don't know what's next. We're just trying to get everything out before it comes down," she said. "Ron's in shock, watching me take stuff out."

On Monday, the city declared the building unfit for human occupancy -- standard procedure after a fire -- and ordered the artists to remove all contents. That includes furniture and tables, Mrs. Fellini said.

"It happened so fast," she said, noting that they live in a tiny house in the Village of East Davenport. "It (Peanut Gallery) was our home away from home. We kept hauling stuff there, people would give us stuff."

The Peanut Gallery also holds special meaning because the couple had their 2003 wedding reception there, during a Gallery Hop.

Groundbreaking for the $1.2 million DuMarche Market on 3rd may be delayed slightly because of cleanup from the fire.

Within the past three weeks, the city completed tearing down vacant buildings it owned there, at 2010-2016 3rd Ave., which formerly housed the Christian Family Care Center, Dodge Brothers Auto Sales, and Taxi Barn.

"It will depend on when that property is cleared, as to when we can break ground," developer Jeff Guthrie said of the rubble, which was gone Thursday. "We will know a little better in the next few weeks. We had a tentative goal of the end of this month to have things cleared."

Once construction begins, it will take about 18 months to complete, he said.

The city paid $383,225 to have the buildings torn down for DuMarche, with the money coming from the downtown tax-increment financing (TIF) district. Rock Island also will offer $150,000 in cash assistance toward construction costs.

Rock Island acquired the former Christian Family Care shelter in 2003 in a land swap that allowed the care center to build a new shelter just blocks away. The city had planned to tear the former mission down, along with buildings to the east, to clear space for development.

Mr. Guthrie was a partner in the $500,000 renovation of a former synagogue in 2004 that houses the 3rd and 22 sports bar on 3rd Avenue.

For DuMarche, two of the 1,500-square-foot condos will be sold for $150,000 and the remainder for about $110,000.

Mr. Guthrie has met with Quad City Arts to discuss artists who may be interested in setting up shop there in 2008. He said having the Peanut Gallery next door also should be a good fit.

"It will be a nice tie to DuMarche. It can complement it," Mr. Guthrie said, adding that besides visual arts, DuMarche also may include performing and culinary arts.

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