The Caffè Lena folk music venue and Bonacio Construction announced a $500,000 partnership Tuesday to renovate the historic coffee house and make it handicapped accessible for the first time.
In return, Bonacio will take ownership of a small parking lot Caffe Lena owns next to the 47 Phila St. institution. There he plans to build a four-story, eight-unit condominium mixed-use building, with retail on the ground floor.
A joint elevator and new stairwell will serve both buildings, making the cafe handicapped-accessible. Bonacio will also work on interior and exterior renovations to the cafe as part of his donation to the organization.
“This is transformational,” said Caffè Lena Executive Director Sarah Craig. “Folk music is about inclusion, and we have wanted to better serve our patrons and the community since purchase of the building in 1998.”
Caffè Lena, founded by Bill and Lena Spencer in 1960, is the oldest continuously operating folk music coffee house in North America.
The Caffè Lena board has been looking for a way to make the building accessible since purchasing it nearly 20 years ago. The cafe is on the second floor, up a narrow flight of stairs with a turn in it.
Other significant renovations are planned, including a new roof, flooring and higher ceiling. The former “black box theater” behind the stage is already being turned into offices, a new “green room” for performers and new bathrooms — moves that will allow the cafe to remove the old kitchen and “green room” and replace them with additional seating. The cafe’s total seating will increase from 85 to 110, and a new sound system will be installed.
“Our goal is that in 50 years you’ll still be able to come and hear great songs here,” Craig said.
“The big thing is we’re going to have an elevator, and that will change lives for many people,” said Caffe Lena board Chairman Stan McGaughey, noting many supporters can no longer climb the stairs.
The contributions by Bonacio — which include $100,000 cash — mean the cafe has now raised $825,000 toward its capital campaign goal of $1.2 million, to pay for renovations and establish an endowment, McGaughey said.
Bonacio Construction President Sonny Bonacio, whose firm has figured prominently in city construction projects for more than a decade, said the Caffe Lena project ties into his efforts to keep the city thriving.
“Caffe Lena has been a staple. It’s been a major amenity to downtown Saratoga,” he said. “Live music is something out culture deeply, deeply needs.”
The cafe has hosted such folk legends as Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Arlo Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Dave Van Ronk, David Bromberg and Tom Chapin. It is also known for its coffee and soft chocolate chip cookies, and for regularly featuring new artists.
When Lena Spencer died after a fall in 1989, a volunteer board of trustees carried on the operation, and bought the building in 1998, after an extensive fundraising campaign.
Craig said the board rejected suggestions that the building, which dates from the 1880s, be abandoned because of the renovation costs.
“This room is irreplaceable,” she said from the low historic stage, from which a performer of even average height can touch the ceiling. “It is the left room left where the social revolution of the sixties happened. It changed our relationship to music.”
Bonacio is also participating in the current renovation of Universal Preservation Hall on Washington Street, another live music venue.
“If you think about what Bonacio is doing with the UPH and Caffe Lena, we’re really transforming all our live performance venues,” said Todd Shimkus, president of the Saratoga County Chamber of Commerce. “It’s going to be great for attracting people.”
The condominium plan still requires approval from the city’s Design Review Commission and Planning Board. Bonacio will be before the DRC on Wednesday, Feb. 3. Caffe Lena board members said they’ve talked to neighbors, whom they believe are supportive.
Assuming the project gets city approvals, Bonacio said the work at both cafe and on the new building will take about a year.
Craig said Caffe Lena will be closed for a time during the renovations, though a schedule hasn’t yet been determined. She said music will be performed at other city venues during the closure.
As building owner, Caffe Lena is also landlord to Hattie’s Chicken Shack, Sweet Mimi’s Cafe and Bakery, and Cole’s Woodwind Shop, which sells musical instruments. They are supportive.
Reach Gazette reporter Stephen Williams at 395-3086, [email protected] or @gazettesteve on Twitter.