Six months after the storied coffee house Caffe Lena re-opened after major renovations, patrons, performers and board members sound delighted with its results, with minimal setbacks.
Maryalice Cole has been attending for several decades and said the upgrade — the largest overhaul since its opening more than 50 years ago — was beyond her expectation. “They respected Lena’s vision,” she said, referring to venue-founder Lena Spencer. “She would be very proud.” Cole pointed out the iconic elements that were preserved: a bust of Spencer, the original doors and shutters were saved, the staircase, and a few other items which stood out against a modern décor. The dominant red brick wall that lined a full side of the room helped maintain the old ambiance. “They kept the bones, and made the right improvements, like one would do to their home,” Cole said.
“I’m so glad it’s still here.”
“I think they enhanced the ambiance,” said Bill Cole, husband of Maryalice, who has been attending shows for numerous decades, or, as he said, “All my life.”
Before the renovations, performers had to walk through the main room — maneuvering between patrons’ tables — to reach the stage. A new dressing room and door to the side of the stage offers direct entrance and exit.
“I can see a fan thinking that you lose a little intimacy,” said Michael Eck, a performer, board member and lifelong patron, who was initially skeptical of the renovation project. But the direct access to the stage, he said, makes it easier for the musician to prepare, “to be ready to do your thing.” As well, the exit and return for an encore is more seamless for the musician. “The new layout of the stage and seating makes it easier to connect when playing, to get your point across,” he added. “It’s still very much the Caffe Lena experience for everyone in the room.”
Beer and wine were added to the menu for the first time, a seemingly minor addition to most, but a major change to some coffee house traditionalists.
“I was against it,” said George Ward, who’s been attending as a patron and musician since the café opened. “The Caffe was a place to listen to music without being around alcohol,” he said. The fears of Caffe Lena turning into a drinking bar never materialized. While Ward said he would still vote against the selling of wine and beer, he freely admitted — laughing while he called himself a hypocrite — that he enjoys a glass of wine when attending a show at the café. He noted that alcohol is not sold at all shows.
With the improvement in the venue comes higher challenges for upkeep, Ward explained. Costs are now higher to maintain given a more sophisticated sound system, more complex finances, an ongoing fundraising campaign, and a new kitchen. “I consider Caffe Lena magical, and we’re privileged to have it. People recognize all this had to be done, and I think it was done well.”
Longtime executive director Sarah Craig understands the trepidation of veteran patrons who expect a modern refurbishing to sterilize a historic room. “As much as I’d like to be able to visit the old room in a museum, the reality is that it could no longer serve the technical needs of our artists or the comfort needs of our audience.” Not the least, an elevator will be added for the first time to allow access for everyone.
She said that they made the effort to retain every element that they could, from shutters to bricks to furniture. And she’s quick to note that it’s the people — staff, volunteers, performers and audience — who set the tone and create the vibe, and that hasn’t changed.
A series of contemporary art pieces were commissioned for one of the walls. While modern and a bit far from a folk style, the pieces together tell a story of the venue and its founder.
Frequent audience member and roots-music fan Richard Sellers was nervous about the plan, until he walked into the room his first time. “My first response was, ‘They saved the building.’ ” For him the work remains a process. The most recent change he noticed this past weekend was a new curtain near the stage for the first time. “I’m not a sound engineer, but I can tell you, there’s a slight improvement every time I come to a show.”
Craig said that patrons have “tip-toed” back to see the results. “They’re holding their breath when they walk in, but they leave with a sense of relief and excitement and pride. ... This place goes deeper for people than just another evening of entertainment. That’s why there was so much riding on getting the renovation right, and we did.