It all started in a private home in 1957 with a small group of folk guitarists learning the chords to “Sloop John B.” Now 55 years later Frank Hamilton, Win Stracke and the other founders of the Old Town School of Folk Music would hardly recognize the place. Or, to be more precise, places.
Next month, Old Town will open its fourth facility across from the school’s main buildings on the 4500 block of North Lincoln Avenue. The new 27,000-square-foot, $16 million, three-story facility and 150-capacity concert hall is scheduled to open Jan. 9, kicking off a 55-day series of events celebrating Old Town’s 55th anniversary.
The latest addition to the Old Town village will bring hundreds of additional music classes, concerts and jobs to Chicago and the thriving Lincoln Square neighborhood, which Old Town has anchored since 1998. Even though the economy has been sagging since 2008, the Old Town School of Folk Music keeps seeing its audience expand. Years ago, it outgrew the 43,000-square-foot Lincoln Avenue space it opened just a little over a decade ago. Even though it subsequently bought a former soccer-club building next door to open more classrooms, it still wasn’t enough to meet demand from a music-hungry community.
“When the school moved here in 1998, there was a lot of consternation in the Old Town community whether we could fill this building,” says Executive Director Bau Graves. The school had been based since 1968 in a modest building on Armitage Avenue, which it still runs. “It ended up within a couple years that we had classes running in prime time in every room. There has been a lot more demand for Old Town participation from various communities than we can accommodate. We end up saying ‘no’ a lot. There’s a sense that we’ve hit our heads on a very real ceiling in the current facility and can’t grow anymore, even though there is a demand for it.”
Graves’ second-floor office has a perfect view of the venerable institution’s response to the decade-long squeeze: the Old Town School East Building at 4545 N. Lincoln Av., with 16 music classrooms, 3 dance studios and a concert space.
The Old Town East will match the exacting acoustic standards set by its big sister across the street, right down to the rubber shock absorbers used to minimize rattling by water pipes and heating ducts. It also will offer some enticing aesthetic touches: cast-iron exterior panels with musical symbols designed by Chicago artist Margaret Ketcham, an array of Old Town artwork dating to the Chicago institution’s beginnings on all three floors, and a series of stained-glass portraits of blues, jazz and country greats by renowned artist R. Crumb decorating the lobby and staircase.
“He not only gave us permission to use them, he let us use them free of charge,” Graves says of Crumb, who moonlights as a multi-instrumentalist and singer in a string band.
The project is coming in about $1.5 million under its $18 million budget, Graves says, thanks to the efforts of architecture firm VOA Associates Inc. and general contractor Bulley & Andrews. The school has raised about $10 million to pay for the project so far after paying $2 million six years ago for the property, a former bakery. More funds will start coming in as a bevy of new classes fills up to meet demand, particularly from the Hispanic and other ethnic communities.
“We’re going to be able to add a lot of depth in the types of classes and the times we offer them to (ethnic and musical) communities that are present here in Chicago in large numbers but that we couldn’t serve as fully as we’d like,” Graves says.
Old Town, which serves a record 6,600 students a week, including 2,700 children, will increase the number of classes it offers to 900 from the current 700 once the new space opens. At least 100 teacher jobs will be added to the payroll.
The number of concerts will double to nearly 400 between the current 450-seat theater and its smaller but more flexible equivalent at the new facility.
Colleen Miller, Old Town’s primary talent buyer, says the new facility will have more of a casual vibe, with retractable bleacher seating allowing more space for dancing. As with the classroom offerings in the new space, many of the concert bookings will tilt toward ethnic music. A doubleheader of dance lessons followed by a similarly themed dance concert will be a regular Friday feature, with initial bookings including samba with Swing Brasileiro on Jan. 13, Haitian band Pa Doute on Jan. 27, and square-dancing with string-band Volo Bogtrotters on Feb. 17.
Though it seems like overkill to be adding yet another concert venue to the already stacked Chicago lineup of music-intensive bars and clubs in the 150- to 500-capacity range, including Schubas, Empty Bottle, Buddy Guy’s Legends, Space in Evanston, Double Door and Lincoln Hall, Miller says she’s not worried.
“Even though we share the same artists with some of these clubs, our room has a distinction,” she says. “The new room will be a great space for dancing, but also the nuances of listening. It’s not quite as ‘clubby’ as other places.”
“We’re identified as a music venue, not a bar,” Graves adds. “People come here for the musical experience and that’s an extremely loyal audience.”
Matt Rucins, the talent buyer at Schubas and Lincoln Hall, agrees that Old Town has a niche focused on folk and ethnic music that distinguishes it from other clubs. “It’s one more space for bands to choose from, and it might make my possibilities a little less,” he says. “But Old Town is just a different breed. There are not many people doing this who have that many years behind them as an organization and as an established venue. They have a dedicated subscriber base that is more apt to come out to shows. It’s a golden play for many artists.”
It’s also a golden play for everyday folks, who have been turning up at Old Town in record numbers for music and dance classes and concerts even as the recession has flattened out other businesses. About 500,000 people pass through the school’s facilities annually.
“In the middle of a recession when money is tight, taking a class at Old Town is one of the cheaper ways to have fun,” Graves says. “We spend a lot of time in our homes and workplaces, but people need a third place to recharge their batteries. Old Town provides that social link for a lot of people.”
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