Safe House

At a concert one chilly Saturday night in March, a crowd of people wait in the lobby to speak to the man in charge. An ambitious guitarist hoping to score a gig pushes to the front to pass along a demo tape. A photographer wants to inquire about exhibiting work. And at the head of the line, three girls demand the name of the sound engineer, on whom they’ve developed a collective crush. The man in charge adjusts his glasses and sighs. It’s the kind of clamor you’d expect at any New York or Los Angeles nightspot. But something separates this from club scenes elsewhere. The girls are no older than 15. The photographer is just shy of 17. And the guitarist can’t be more than 20. By comparison, the man in charge, Aaron Jamison, exudes a serene worldliness. But he’s only 23. And this isn’t New York or Los Angeles. It’s Anacortes, Washington, at the Department of Safety.

Follow Commercial Street through the heart of Anacortes, a small fishing village (population 10,000) northwest of Seattle, and you can’t miss it: a low, broad, gray building with DEPARTMENT OF SAFETY stenciled on its side in homemade orange supergraphics. Built in 1953 to house both the city’s police and fire departments, the 14,000-square-foot structure was abandoned in 1999 and lay deserted until Jamison and three fellow classmates at Trinity Western University, outside of Vancouver, stumbled onto it
a few months before graduation. Transfixed by the building’s rusted window frames and solid construction, they formed a pact to make the place an all-ages outpost. They vowed to sell any unnecessary possessions—cars, cameras, miscellaneous appliances—to fund a renovation. “We’re your average utopian romantics,” Jamison says. After agonizing over a name (they considered everything from Freedom Reigns Here to Sustainable Pretension before settling on the current title), the group arrived, tools at the ready, in June 2002.

It took five months to make the place livable, and, Jamison now admits, if they had known the extent of the work this would require, they probably would have reconsidered. Tasks like ripping out the first floor’s drop ceiling, erecting art-ready walls in the old downstairs office, filling the place with scavenged furniture, and rewiring the entire building were all-day, every day efforts. “I got used to 110-volt shocks,” Jamison says. “But I got a 220 once, and that’ll put you on your ass.”

In August 2002, the foursome opened the doors of the Department of Safety: a music venue, youth hostel, art gallery, and private residence. But the doors closed almost immediately, after a 23-band inaugural celebration, dubbed the Safety Summit, prompted the fire marshal to issue a cease and desist order and a $20,000 inventory of mandatory improvements—including replacement windows, lower gallery walls, fire doors, and exit signs—to bring the building up to code. “Liability,” Jamison says flatly,
“is a fucker.”

It was the concert space that saved them. Jeff Winston, the father of a DOS band member, stepped in to bankroll the necessities. Now, along with the velvet curtains and retro furniture, the new, inspector-approved venue sports gleaming exit signs and fire extinguishers. “Needless to say, Jeff gets into all our shows for free,” says DOS cofounder Alexander Mahan.

The building consists of an enormous double-height garage, a four-story tower originally used for drying fire hoses, and two floors of living quarters. It’s a sprawling cinder block structure built to suggest a civic institution. But on a weekend afternoon, with a band thrashing out power chords in the garage and a couple of guests nursing hangovers in the kitchen, the space has a playful,secret-society feel—a clubhouse dressed up in adult clothing.

Such precociousness is borne out by the three guest rooms—the Lacan, the Steve Horwood Memorial Room, and the Quonset—that make up the hostel. At $35 per night, the private Horwood room features a wall-mounted, motorized sculpture rigged with lights and a rusted fan. The Quonset room is a four-bunk, $17-per-person communal accommodation with lobster nets hanging from its walls. The stark, loftily named Lacan room (also private, and priced the same as the Horwood) feels like the raw-plywood equivalent of an Ian Schrager hotel. The room’s design reveals the building’s original rusted exterior window frames, now girded by a freshly painted white wall and backlit to dramatic effect. With lengthy quotations from culturalstudies mainstays like Karl Marx and Don Delillo, the DOS Web site ( has the postgraduate air of twentysomething idealists who find themselves at odds with mass culture. “A lot of our college friends went off to various cities to get the jobs they’d been trained for,” DOS cofounder Tammy Masalonis says. “They couldn’t get them, they settled for something less, and now they live isolated lives. We came here to do something different.”

It all sounds very blue sky, but with a multitiered business model, the Department of Safety is self-sustaining. The four partners, none older than 25, are shrewd operating officers. Money from the hostel and concert hall covers the $1,600 rent; everything above that is reinvested (the latest improvements: a washer and dryer). “We have our state 501(c)3 nonprofit status,” Jamison says. “But we want federal status, so we can give tax-valid receipts to our donors.” The guest rooms all have Ethernet and Wi-Fi connections, and DOS publicity materials show more personality and polish than those of most commercial hotels. The art gallery, booked through January 2004, has exhibited Pulitzer prize–winning photographers and received submissions from as far away as Finland.

Miraculously, Anacortes escapes 28 percent of the rain that pours relentlessly on the rest of Western Washington. Maybe it’s the kids who are charmed. Packed with squirrelly teenagers on this Saturday night, the place remains civilized—even peaceful. Throngs have gathered outside, flirting and smoking cigarettes while the band rattles the windows from within, and the sleek ticket booth, spotlit by track lighting, has done steady business all evening. Inside, Jamison points to a 14-yearold girl in the front row swaying to the music. “She’s a harpist,” he says. “Her mom drives her to every concert so she’ll learn about stage presence.”

It’s in this environment of upbeat, youthful creativity that the DOS thrives. During a year of back-to-back concerts, even though the building abuts the new fire department’s sleeping quarters, only one incident has blemished the venue’s record: an addled punk fan from out of town grabbed a fire extinguisher and discharged it onto a neighboring church. Within a half hour, a group of high-schoolers cleaned it up—without being asked. “The guy even left the fire extinguisher there,” Masalonis says. “That made it much easier to fill the thing up again.