Arts & Entertainment and Construction

St. Cecilia renovation strikes a chord

New upgrades will improve comfort level for audience, enhance experience for artists.

November 4, 2016
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Catherine Holbrook
Catherine Holbrook, executive director of St. Cecilia Music Center, is excited to show off the facility’s $2.4 million building project. Photo by Johnny Quirin

When Catherine Holbrook reflects on St. Cecilia Music Center’s 133-year history in Grand Rapids, she finds herself “in awe.”

The organization, which began by the initiative of nine Grand Rapids women in 1883, has branched out from its classical roots, now offering jazz and folk concerts, as well as community music lessons.

Holbrook, executive director of St. Cecilia, recently wrapped up one of the larger endeavors in her 10-year tenure: overseeing a facelift of the center’s 122-year-old building at 24 Ransom Ave. NE, which is on the National Register of Historic Places.

The renovations included a new roof, new carpet, refinished floors in the President’s room and the Royce Auditorium, new auditorium seats, updated LED lighting, restoration of the stained-glass Tiffany window in the lobby, new paint jobs in several spaces, new furniture and drapes in the sitting room, facelifts for the green room and dressing rooms, new seats for the musicians on stage, new drapes for the ballroom, updated office space and a full refurbishing of the 140-year-old Steinway & Sons piano, as well as in-progress updates on another 100-year-old piano.

The updates, completed throughout the summer by Ada-based Erhardt Construction and Grand Rapids-based Mathison Mathison Architects, were made possible by a $5.5 million fundraising campaign that still is underway, of which $2.4 million was spent on the building upgrades. The remaining $3.1 million will be used for the center’s endowment, ensuring its sustainability.

Holbrook said the upgrades were aimed largely at increasing the comfort of patrons and bringing the quality of the artists’ experience up a notch.

“With this renovation, we brought the facility up to the level of the artistic presentation that we're doing here at St. Cecilia,” she said.

Such quality, she said, includes performances by the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center in New York City, various touring jazz artists who have previously performed in venues such as Birdland in New York and a whole slew of folk performers in the center’s 3-year-old Acoustic Café series in association with Acoustic Café Radio by Rob Reinhardt.

“I think that the artists will have an even better experience here, now,” she said.

Holbrook said another benefit she hopes the upgrades will bring is increased attendance, both for its concerts and for its student education programs, which in turn will attract more donors.

Sally Zarafonetis, a media consultant for St. Cecilia, said the organization, in the past, has put effort into advertising without always seeing as much return on investment as it would like.

“We take ads out, and we just wonder sometimes, ‘Are we struggling to still get the right message out to the right people? And are people understanding what we do?’” she said. “If we can get them in the building, we usually feel like it worked.”

Holbrook said she thinks the center’s School of Music program, which provides music education for youth and adults in genres from rock and roll to classical, will see a boost because of the renovations.

“I think that they will feel like they're participating in a professional music program, because they're going to be in these real orchestra seats with new stands and lighting,” she said. “There were plastic seats before, and things just looked a little worn out.”

Another positive facet of the renovation, Holbrook said, is how it will impact local businesses as St. Cecilia’s reputation grows.

“Within the artist community, they talk to each other,” Holbrook said. “So, they go back and they tell their manager, ‘Wow that hall is amazing. That place was awesome. Those people were so great.’ And I’ll get a phone call from a manager saying, ‘Hey, how about this artist because they're coming from the Midwest, and now you’re a place that we would want to have our artists.’ So, I think that just helps the economy, because when everybody comes to a concert, they go to dinner, and they're spending money here and at this nonprofit, that nonprofit.”

David Finckel, co-artistic director of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, said the center holds a special place for him, as he came to perform at SCMC many years ago.

“I came to play a solo concert and fell in love with the place — its history, its architecture, what it does for the community. Now that I have an ongoing partnership with it, it means the world to me and my organization to be hosted by this fantastic center of history in Grand Rapids.”

Finckel said he tells people in his travels about its founding by a group of passionate women so many years ago — a true “American story.

“It can easily serve as an example for any town hungering for great music,” he said. “I see relationships forming, and I see the same faces again and again. There’s a great presence forming around chamber music in the community. It’s a group of people agreeing that this serves as a mark of civilized society in their lives.”

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