Forging a legacy
The fire burns again inside historic metal shop building
Local metal artist David Richer remembers when he was a child accompanying his parents on the trips they took to Chico from their home in Butte Meadows to buy supplies for the Bambi Inn. His parents owned the popular Butte Meadows biker bar/restaurant for 27 years (until 10 years ago). Richer figuratively drooled at the sight of Andersen’s Blacksmith & Welding shop at West Eighth and Salem streets each time they drove past it.
The young Richer, in elementary school at the time, was fascinated by the “parking lot full of stuff,” as he put it—“tractors, piles of iron, a menagerie of metal”—and even more fascinated by the activities that took place inside the busy blacksmith shop then run by popular local smithy, the late Nels Andersen.
Since May of this year, Richer’s Earthen Iron Metal Art Studio has proudly occupied that very same coveted building in which Andersen—and his father before him, Andy Andersen—welded and forged metal (and also shoed horses until the early 1950s) until he closed up shop in the late 1980s.
“I’d been interested [in setting up shop] in this building for a long time,” offered Richer, working in his new shop on a recent frigid morning, his breath visible in cloudy gusts as he talked on one of the coldest days of 2009.
Richer is an in-demand metal artist known for his beautiful and meticulously crafted metal gates and stair railings (among other things) that grace upscale homes, inns and businesses from Chico to the San Francisco Bay Area. He was first introduced as a young child to the wonders of the arc welder/generator that his parents used for backup power at the inn in the winter.
At the age of 13, he began to learn to weld from his older brother who was taking a welding class at school.
“Welding was easy,” the genial 43-year-old recalled. “It became an obsession from then on. I took welding classes in junior high and high school—every metal thing I could get my hands on. When I was a senior in high school, I had probably three periods of welding.”
These days, Richer is hired by high-end Bay Area designers to produce one-of-a-kind pieces for their clients—such as the stainless-steel-with-black-acid-patina metal frame he fashioned for a “vertical garden” in Calistoga created by artsy S.F. floral design firm Flora Grubb Gardens, and the gorgeous leaf-and-branch-patterned gates that it took him two months to forge, fabricate and install at a home on Oakland’s tony Skyline Boulevard.
Richer has reverently preserved Andersen’s original block-letter sign on the front of the corrugated metal building (which shares one turn-of-the-last-century brick wall with the glass studio of artist Robert O’Neal) that includes the words “Steel Work of All Kinds.” He also kept almost all of the metal-working tools and equipment that Andersen used in his day, including Nels’ father’s chain-making tools from the late 1800s, and a 1930s vintage mechanical trip hammer for forging metal called the “Little Giant,” which Richer plans to put back into action in the near future.
Richer’s shop is so period-preserved that one almost expects a stagecoach to roll in to have a wheel fixed or a horse shod.
Dorna Andersen, Nels’ daughter and owner of Richer’s shop as well as most of the other buildings on the South of the Post Office (SOPO) block known as The Junction, including the ones occupied by 1078 Gallery, The Artistry and All Fired Up, is thrilled with the addition of Richer’s metal studio to her growing art-block project.
Stepping foot into Richer’s shop reminds her, she said, of when she was a 10-year-old and used to visit her father at work.
“It was very similar to what it is now,” the 69-year-old Andersen reminisced. “Dave’s kept it just like a blacksmith shop, and really cleaned it up. He just got rid of some unworkable stuff.
“He’s a wonderful asset,” she added. “We’re just crazy about him.”