The Old Town School of Folk Music, already considered the largest community arts school in the U.S., just got bigger. Twenty-seven thousand square feet bigger with the opening on Monday, Jan. 9, of the new East Building at 4545 N. Lincoln Ave. Signaling the importance of the expansion to the city at large, Mayor Rahm Emanuel was on hand to help wield a giant pair of scissors during the official ribbon cutting.
“As we inaugurate this new building, we celebrate the growth and maturing of this institution,” Old Town Executive Director Bau Graves told those gathered for the festivities, crediting the school’s faculty for “the bonds that they nurture through their work.”
Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan, a champion of Old Town in her previous role as state senator, spoke not as an elected official but as a neighborhood parent of two small children. “My six-year-old wants to take piccolo lessons,” she said. “The Old Town School keeps music alive. You pass along our cultural traditions to the next generation.”
The grand opening marked the culmination of a project conceived in 2007. Ground broke in August 2010 and fundraising efforts, hampered by the recession, are still shy of the $17 million budget, despite more than 1,000 donations ranging from 20 bucks to $2 million. “This has been a very large boulder for this institution to push up the hill,” Graves admitted.
Lincoln Square is grateful for those strong shoulders. Having relocated in 1998 from its previous space on Armitage Avenue (“We built that neighborhood up,” joked one musician) to what will now be known as the West Building, Old Town has become an economic and cultural engine for the Square, an example, Mayor Emanuel noted, of the impact a single entity can have on a community. According to Graves, the school enrolls 7,000 students at any given time, with 17,000 individuals taking at least one class per year; 80 percent live within a 20-block radius. Adding up weekly visits by students, concert attendance, the annual Folk & Roots festival, and other programming, Graves estimates Old Town reaches half a million people a year.
With the East Building, Old Town now has room to continue to grow. “Our performance hall here [dubbed Szold Hall] is set up to be a dance hall,” said Graves, meaning there will be room for audience members to dance during concerts. Friday nights have been set aside for the weekly Global Dance Party, which will feature instruction and open dance similar to Chicago’s popular Summerdance program.
Another change: The new building was carefully designed acoustically. “We can run classes next door that would blast each other out across the street,” Graves explained. Classes like Irish step dancing will migrate to the East Building, while quieter acoustic guitar, fiddle and mandolin classes will likely remain in the West. “We have never done much with brass,” added Graves. Sixteen soundproof rooms “opens up all those band instruments.”
This being Old Town, performers not only factored into the design of the new facility but also took center stage at the grand opening. Following the ribbon cutting, an all-day sing-along commenced with spirited renditions of folk classics like “This Land Is Your Land,” featuring faculty members on guitar, banjo, fiddle and harmonica. The sing-along kicked off a series of special performances that will continue through March, many of them free: 55 days celebrating Old Town’s 55th anniversary.
Albany Park resident Anne-Marie Akin, an instructor in Old Town’s Wiggleworms program, was commissioned to compose a collection of songs representing Old Town’s history and spirit as part of the anniversary blowout. She’ll perform the 11-song cycle in Szold Hall on Feb. 26, but offered a preview on Monday, debuting “Let It Rise” as Emanuel looked on. The thrill was almost overshadowed by the end of Chicago Public Schools’ winter break.
“This morning was the first day of school,” she said. As her children rushed to get ready, Akin paused to ask, “Does nobody care I’m going to sing and the mayor’s going to be there?”