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Preview of Old Town School’s New Building

By Paul Wilson | Monday, November 21, 2011

Eric Delli Bovi, the Old Town School’s director of external affairs, points to a large fan in the new building during a tour in early November. The school has been providing tours of the building in anticipation of its Jan. 9 grand opening. Credit: Paul Wilson

For the past 15 months, the biggest project in Bau Graves’ life has also been the biggest distraction.

From his office in the second-floor at 4544 N. Lincoln Ave., the executive director of the Old Town School of Folk Music has had a front-row seat to the school’s $18 million expansion across the street.

“It’s been distracting as hell,” Graves says, laughing. “There will be cranes carrying gigantic steel girders through the air, and I’m trying to conduct a business meeting with somebody. Have you ever seen how big HVAC ducts are?”

The 27,120-square-foot expansion is set to have its grand opening on January 9. The grand opening also begins 55 days of special events to commemorate the school’s 55th anniversary. The expansion has been agenda item No. 1 for Graves since the day he started at the school, he jokes that it’s been his “obsession.” Old Town board members actually voted to go forward with the project at Graves’ first meeting in 2007, two years after the school purchased the lot and razed the boarded building at 4545 N. Lincoln Ave. that had housed a bakery.

The recession that began in late 2007 delayed the project, Graves says, bluntly, that some major donors they’d been counting on appeared to be  “hiding under rocks.” Eventually, ground was broken in August 2010, and raising money got easier in the past year. Still, Graves said, the school is about $7 million short of the $18 million goal.

Graves said he never lost faith that the project would get done, though it has been scaled back to remove a floor and a finished basement. The architects got creative, putting blowers, fans and plumbing overhead in hallways, to maximize space while preserving acoustics in studios.

The school’s current home and the new building have some odd similarities, both were built during times of great economic uncertainty, for instance, with the current building opening in 1929. The new building’s exterior was designed to complement the original Art Deco structure.

One key difference: The old building is a converted library, whereas the new structure was designed with music and dance in mind. “You can have a punk rock band playing in one room and Taiko drummers in the next room and an Irish step dance class in the next room and none of them are going to disturb the others,” Graves said.

The school, he said, has helped improve the Lincoln Square neighborhood since it opened there in 1998. That’s something Mayor Rahm Emanuel, a former ballet dancer, echoed in an interview earlier this year, before he took office.

Old Town Executive Director Bau Graves holds a transparent panel featuring the image of blues guitarist Son House. The panel is one of many by artist R. Crumb that will decorate the main staircase at the school’s new building at 4545 N. Lincoln, set to open in January. Credit: Paul Wilson

“Take the Old Town School of Folk Music,” Emanuel told WBBM in March. “On Lincoln Avenue, prior to that entity, it was not a place that was growing economically. The success of an institution is not because there’s more restaurants and bars. Yet it anchored that community.”

When Massimo Di Vuolo decided to open Due Lire Vino and Cucina at 4520 N. Lincoln Ave. last year, he did so in part because he liked the fact that Lincoln Square was “one of the few neighborhoods in the city that was still evolving,” thanks in part to the new school building.

“We knew there was this big project coming up and we knew it would bring more people,” he said. “Old Town School is part of this neighborhood, and we love this neighborhood. It’s artsy and laid back, almost like being back in Europe.”

In addition to a new 150-seat flex space, which can be used as a classroom, community area or for performances and dances, the new building will have three large dance studios with sprung floors. It will also have 16 classrooms. The school outlined some other items attendees will notice in a release last week.

  • Transparent panels decorating the main staircase featuring renowned comic illustrator R. Crumb’s iconic images of  musicians based on his “Heroes of  Blues, Jazz and Country” project
  • A history of American folk and popular music through 100 posters donated from the collections of the Peace Museum and Ronald Cohen
  • A “Shape Wall” of staggered, recessed rectangles in the main lobby, designed as a way to absorb sound in the building’s large community gathering area, and visually invoking a cityscape, shape notes, or a piano roll
  • The cast concrete building façade showcasing decorative panels by artist Margaret Ketcham with the word “music” depicted in 28 languages, including Braille, hieroglyphics, semaphore and Iroquois

The Old Town School, which still has its original facility at 909 W. Armitage Ave., was founded in 1957 as part of folk music’s revival in the United States. Today, a leading folk music spot nationally, Graves notes that the Old Town School’s $13 million budget for 2012 is five times larger than the National Endowment for the Arts’ $2.5 million folk music budget, the school has worked to remain welcoming to all talent levels.

That’s a philosophy Graves hopes the new structure can help propagate.

“The music is important, but so is the sense of community and validation for everyone,” he said. “It doesn’t make any difference if you’re a beginner or a virtuoso player.”

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