Thursday, 16 May 2024 13:16

Caffe Lena Named to NYS Historic Business Preservation Registry

Chicago-based musician Joe Jencks captures an image of Caffe Lena Executive Director Sarah Craig, Director of the state Community Preservation Bureau Kathleen Howe, Assemblywoman Carrie Woerner and Saratoga Springs Mayor John Safford outside Caffe Lena on May 2, 2024. Photo by Thomas Dimopoulos. Chicago-based musician Joe Jencks captures an image of Caffe Lena Executive Director Sarah Craig, Director of the state Community Preservation Bureau Kathleen Howe, Assemblywoman Carrie Woerner and Saratoga Springs Mayor John Safford outside Caffe Lena on May 2, 2024. Photo by Thomas Dimopoulos.

SARATOGA SPRINGS —Sarah Craig stood on Phila Street flanked by Assemblywoman Carrie Woerner and Saratoga Springs city Mayor John Safford. 

“Sixty-four years ago on this day, Bill and Lena Spencer were still working day and night to convert an abandoned woodworking business on the second floor of this building right here into Saratoga’s first coffeehouse - a cool, trendy, artsy coffeehouse such as you’d find in Greenwich Village,” said Craig, the recently created iron gated entryway to the cafe framing the trio. 

“They planned to fill it with espresso, folk singers, poets and actors along with the young women of Skidmore College – which was just about a block away then - and anyone who craved some smart company and culture.” 

The Spencers had been working on the building since fall of 1959 and would open in June 1960. 

Bill and Lena Spencer have a burning belief in the supreme importance of the arts and the great thrills the arts offer humanity (and) both feel that the Saratoga-Albany area is rich in tradition, beautiful to behold, and a fine place for culture to flourish in. Next week, Lena Spencer will make her debut as an actress, her husband directing. Scheduled for presentation are Tennessee Williams’ “Auto-Da-Fe” and Vincent Ferrini’s “Sea Root,” in its first stage production. Since their arrival about a year ago, a great deal has happened, most of it due to backbreaking work on the part of both Spencers. Go on and have a cup of coffee and see the next show — July 1961, The Knickerbocker News. 

“Some things went as planned,” Craig continued. “The crowds came, and musicians traveled in from all corners of the world to play a venue well-situated between the east coast urban hubs and points west and north. Some things didn’t go as planned - opening night was delayed by a plumbing snafu, Bill left his wife after a couple of years, and in the age of disco folk fell out of favor, and Lena died unexpectedly in October 1989.” 

Through it all, the café not only survived, but flourished, and it was this that Assemblywoman Woerner and Mayor Safford celebrated in a ceremony they attended earlier this month that recognized the 110-seat coffeehouse for its naming to the New York State Historic Business Preservation Registry. Administered by the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, the program spotlights businesses that have operated for at least 50 years and have contributed significantly to their community’s history.

“Caffè Lena’s new designation underscores the profound impact on the history, heritage, and identity of Saratoga Springs,” Woerner, who nominated Caffe Lena to the Registry, said during the honoring ceremony, which included a pop-up concert by Joe Jencks. For his role, the Chicago-based musician strapped a capo across the fretboard of his acoustic guitar and serenaded with strings being strummed and in a rich baritone voice a song he wrote about the welcoming spirit projected by Lady iberty in the New York harbor. 

Going to the Gallery Theater is a pleasant experience not quite like anything else locally. Bill Spencer’s Siamese cat whose name seems to be Pie or Pasha—he answers to both—is likely ‘to skitter on stage any minute and upstage everybody; when the show’s over and Bill is telling folks what’s on next week, you can hear the actors going over what they’ve just done and allocating praise or blame. – September 1961, Times Union. 

Lena booked afternoon hootenannies and hosted weekend residencies with musicians who performed three sets a night and often stayed over at her apartment in the Collamer Building on Broadway. She also made frequent trips to New York City and made connections with key figures in the thriving Greenwich Village folk scene of the early 1960s. The café’s reputation grew among musicians and theater groups traveling around the Northeast.

Bob Dylan first visited the club in 1961 and played a full weekend of shows for which he was paid a total of $50. Appearances by Rosalie Sorrels brought admirers like Hunter S. Thompson and William Kennedy to the venue, and in the fall of 1965, Don McLean made his first of his many appearances at the café.

“During the 29 years she operated what became the longest running folk music coffeehouse in the country, Lena established and approached the business that they don’t teach you in MBA programs,” Craig said. “This is how she described it: Don’t do it like you’re in it to make money, just do it with a whole lot of love like you’re in it to serve.”

The state Historic Business Preservation Registry program was established by legislation in 2020 and currently lists 160 diverse historic businesses on the registry – from restaurants and barber shops to farms. Caffe Lena marks its place on the registry as only the fourth live music venue on the state registry – the Tarrytown Music Hall, the Capitol Theater in Portchester and the Village Vanguard in lower Manhattan are the others.

It takes a certain amount of intestinal fortitude, or an awful lot of money, to venture into this type of business. Most coffee houses last about as long as a will-o-the-wisp. They spring up, go for broke-and usually make it—to the bankruptcy courts. Cafe Lena is the exception. One of the prime reasons the place has prospered is due to the proprietor herself. An eager listener and a quiet talker, Lena Spencer makes friends rapidly. She is part of Saratoga now and though her brand of entertainment is on the opposite end of the spectrum of the world of music, the cafe has made its place in the area’s culture.  October 1966, Times Union.   

Lena ran the café for nearly 30 years. In 1989, she was severely injured after a fall down the café’s steep staircase and died a few weeks later. Executive Director Sarah Craig joined the Caffè Lena staff in 1995 and three years later an all-volunteer board raised $400,000 to purchase the café. Later faced with structural challenges that would require major renovation, a $1.5 million capital campaign was launched in 2013, and a collaboration struck with local developer Sonny Bonacio which provided the café a 21st century remodeling. 

Subsequent to Lena’s passing there was no certainty about how long the café would last, Craig explained. “But it did. Why? Because of people coming together in the spirit of love and service; it’s sustained by all the people who bring their art to the stage, the people who buy tickets, by members and by those who volunteer on the hospitality crew, and by people like (Assemblywoman) Woerner and Mayor Safford who know that history is one of the three pillars of Saratoga’s identity.”       

In an age of millionaire entrepreneurs. Lena Spencer still books unknowns and struggles to break even at her small but famous coffeehouse in this historic resort. ‘I mean I just barely break even and sometimes I’m lucky if I do,’ she said. ‘But I can’t imagine myself ever doing anything else.’ – December 1978, Rockland County Journal News. 

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