Friday, 28 October 2016 11:38

Caffè Lena Slated To Re-Open By Year’s End, And The New Room ‘Feels Perfect’

SARATOGA SPRINGS – The steady beat of hammers and nails continues to rain down on Phila Street where workmen are transforming one of America’s most historic cafes – and its immediate surroundings – into a model for the 21st century.    

Caffè Lena, which first opened in May 1960 as a small beatnik coffeehouse, has hosted some of the best-known performers of the folk music scene for more than a half-century. The charm of the 19th century building the café occupies, however, has also resulted in structural misfortunes brought on by the aging architecture.

“When we got the news that our building was going to require major renovation, we had to make a choice,” Caffè Lena Executive Director Sarah Craig said when the historic café faced a should-we-stay, or should-we-go moment. “We decided to stay.”

The board members who operate the intimate club - which had survived generations of changes in public taste, and the death of its guiding founder Lena Spencer in 1989 - launched a $1.5 million capital campaign in 2013, with $1.25 million specifically targeted for renovation. The campaign raised $350,000 in donations and inspired a collaboration with local developer Sonny Bonacio.

The café sold its corner parking lot to Bonacio Construction, which is building a four-story mixed-use building on the former parking site. Bonacio is conducting some renovation work at the café, which includes the construction of an elevator to serve both the coffeehouse and the new building next door. The elevator is anticipated to be operational by next May.

“Bonacio has tried to help us as much as possible in keeping our costs minimal by pairing the jobs together,” Craig said this week. “Right now, all the structural work is done – the roofing and flooring systems, the wiring and framing. The next step are the surfaces you will see: the sheetrock and the wood flooring, the acoustical treatments we’re putting on the ceiling and the windows that need to be put in.”

During the summer the venue shifted its weekend shows to The Grove on Lake Avenue. With a plan to return to the renovated Phila Street café in the fall, the performance schedule was expanded to include a full slate of weekday shows. That re-opening has been pushed back several weeks, compelling Craig to seek a growing list of alternate venues for the time being.

“The original hope was we would be back in October,” she said. “We were moving around before and we’re really going to be moving around a lot more now. For me, as the manager, it’s a radical change, but it is fun in a lot of ways. It’s almost like we’re living the life our musicians live.” 

This weekend’s showcase features David Wilcox on Friday at The Grove at Neumann, and in November Lena’s 18-show road tour makes staging stops at Universal Preservation Hall, The Parting Glass Pub, Spring Street Gallery, Creative Sparks, Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Saratoga Springs, and the Ndakinna Education Center in Greenfield Center. A full calendar of events is listed on the club’s web site at: http://www.caffelena.org/.

“It’s totally ‘Lena On The Road.’ We’ve gotten through this because the entire community has been generous, from the venues hosting the concerts to the audience who are willing to follow us to all these locations,” said Craig, who joined the Caffè Lena staff in 1995. 

Among other amenities, the renovated venue will include 20 additional seats. The expanded space will help deliver artists with a national profile to the café as well as aid in the development of new audiences, while maintaining the café’s intimacy and preserving its folk legacy.

“A lot of times when you see places go through these transformations, it becomes more of a concert hall. But, the café wanted to remain this intimate folk club,” Craig said.

Lena’s is slated to re-open before the end of the calendar year, although a specific date has not been targeted. The official re-opening celebration is slated to take place next May, when the coffeehouse celebrates its 57th anniversary.

“We’re on track to be back in before the end of this year. Our plan is to be in here and start to do shows and the big fanfare will be next May when the elevator gets here,” Craig said. “Looking at the work that is done now, you just have a feeling of the dimension of the space, and I have to say: It. Feels. Perfect.  

“You can tell that it’s going to sound good, and there’s this feeling that the room is breathing - breathing a sigh of relief. Like for all these years, it was waiting for this.” 

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