Celebrating 60 Years
"The [School's] building committee had developed a program for the School to determine the needs and how they would fit in with the building," Fritz Biederman, chairman of that committee, explains. After the first architect suggested "some fairly dramatic changes" according to Fritz ("We wanted to maintain the flavor of the School - we weren't out to make any architectural ego statements") The board asked if Fritz would take over the renovation. He agreed. Blueprints were drawn and the work began on March 1, 1987.
"There finally came a point when we had to make a decision about the building," explains former board president Harvey Dershin. "Not that we wanted to give up some of the features we had come to love, like the floors and ceiling that could be seen to vibrate when poeple danced or tapped their feet in unison, or the dungeon of a basement that no one ever entered except Igor the dog, or the 'elegant' rest rooms, with leaky faucets and doors that wouldn't close, or the radiators with valves that seemed to be always set at 'drip,' or the room temperatures that were always too hot in summer and too cold in winter. It was just that the City's Building Department kept wanting us to fix things because of silly codes: things like the roof that leaked, the fire doors that weren't fire doors, the parapets that were falling down, the electrical violations - things like that."
Kenton Morris adds: "The School was falling apart. One of the members of the board, Fritz Biederman, was an architect; we were having a board meeting and someone was talking about continuing the great success with the clog dancing on Friday night. Fritz turned white and said, 'Clog dancing? Where are you having clog dancing?' and we said, well, right here in the main auditorium. And he said, 'You can't do that! This beam will collapse.' At that point we decided maybe we should get the place renovated."
"We considered moving out and selling the building, but we just couldn't bear to leave the neighborhood," says Harvey. "Besides, we couldn't afford it."
In March 1987, everyone at the School packed up their files and their fingerpicks and headed to the Irish American Heritage Center, 4626 N. Knox.
"We had emptied out the building at 909 W. Armitage and put it all in boxes," according to Michael Miles, "and then we carried all the boxes to the third floor [of the Irish Center] where we stored thing in the shower stalls."
"Frankly, not a lot of people came with us," recalls Jim Hirsch, "but it was a good place for us to be. It had plenty of room for our classes and concerts, even though there were some interesting challenges in store for us."
Michael elaborates, "At the Irish Center, we occupied the third floor of this giant building that was a whole city block long. It was previously a Chicago public school, and everything was set up for people four feet tall, and the classrooms had little tiny desks in them."
Back at 909 W. Armitage, major structural problems had to addressed - weak floor joists, crumbling exterior walls, falling plaster on the ceilings - yet everyone agreed the integrity of the building was to be maintained.
"I had a certain vision in the back of my head," offers Bob Friedlander, who served as contractor. "A lot of it we did as we went along. Each person had a vision of what it would look like in the end. Fortunately, our visions were somewhat similar."
Workers uncovered surprises, some delightful, such as original tin ceilings that been hidden by Art Deco moldings when Aldine Hall became a bar in the 1930s; others - well, as Bob says, "The guys would come across these rats in the walls."
The School, floors gleaming, reopened in September 1987.
"Looking back on it all, it's nice to know that we raised the money to meet our goal, and that among all the options for redoing the building, we arrived at a happy medium," says Harvey Dershin. "We did the work that needed to be done for safety and efficiency, yet at the same time we kept the real flavor of the Old Town School. And, best of all, the people did come back."