By Sabina Mollot
The Third Street Music School Settlement, which has been in the midst of a busy year celebrating its 120th anniversary, now has another thing to celebrate — a $5.3 million renovation. The project, which is scheduled to begin this summer, will include a state-of-the-art auditorium, a newly built ensemble practice and performance space and an adjoining recording studio.
The plan, which is already 80 percent funded, will also include an expansion to the school’s lobby and an additional staircase which will also serve to make the front of the building, currently marred by fire escapes, more attractive with some glass paneling, allowing those on the street a view inside. There will also be a new elevator installed.
“We’ve reached a point where we needed more space,” said Valerie Lewis, the school’s executive director, during a recent conversation at her office. “The demand for our programs continues to grow.”
At this time, there are close to 4,000 students at Third Street, with 1,700 of them enrolled in onsite programs. The rest learn at offsite locations around the city through partnerships with 25 other schools.
However, the school has needed upgrades at its building, located on East 11th Street between Second and Third Avenues, for a while. Originally part of the St. Mark’s Hospital complex, where nurses were housed, the building has two dates on its cornerstone, 1890 and 1926. Its current elevator is the original one, and is a “traction” elevator, meaning it uses steel rope, and is considered a freight elevator that can carry up to 3,000 lbs. The plan to renovate came out of a number of needs voiced by students and their families, in particular the recording studio, which will be located in the building’s sub-basement. Lewis noted how it’s become increasingly common for conservatories and competitive high schools – and even competitive middle and elementary schools — to require students to provide a high quality recording as part of an audition process. In addition to being able to provide that service onsite, Lewis noted that the studio will also be helpful in teaching students about subjects like sound engineering and re-mastering. She’s also mulling the possibility of putting out a Third Street album of music.
“We want to give our students an advantage,” Lewis said. “These are skills they might not otherwise get until they’re in college.”
The ensemble space next to the studio, when not being used for musical purposes, will also serve as a dance room, with the floors to soon be replaced for this purpose. Mirrors will also be added to the walls that can be flipped around when the room is being used for music or whatever else is needed for like meetings or early childhood programs.
Another major part of the project is the transformation of the auditorium, where public concerts are held. The theater-in-the-round, which has never had the most comfortable seating, will get new moveable seats. In addition the oversized HVAC system that had created an artificially low ceiling over the performance area will be removed.
“So if the students are doing ‘Nutcracker,’ they’ll be able to do a lift in the middle of the floor instead of moving to the side,” said Lewis.
The changes won’t just be cosmetic though. New paneling will be installed along with a soundproofing system that’s aimed at improving concerts by keeping outside noise out. Lewis noted how last year during Santacon, the noise from revelers on the street could be heard more clearly than performers during one school concert.
The lobby expansion will make the space, which already has a few tables and chairs squeezed in for waiting parents, into more of an inviting gathering space. The architect on the project is James Czajka.
Funding so far for the renovation came from foundations, alumni and the public and the first phase of the work is scheduled to begin this summer when the class schedule slows down. The project is expected to be completed over two summers.
At this time, the school is attempting to raise the rest of the needed funds, an effort that’s also aimed at raising Third Street’s profile.
“People tell us we’re the best kept secret, but I don’t want to be the best kept secret anymore,” said Lewis, who, following the renovation, hopes to see the school offer more daytime programs for adults.
Currently, the most popular of the school’s onsite programs are the early childhood and pre-school ones as well as the after-school program for students of all ages, though most are between six and 18. The school also has a few bands, including one for students age 50 and up, and that group, along with other students and faculty members, put on a total of 250 concerts a year that are free and open to the public.
Of those who go to the school itself, most students live in the surrounding neighborhoods of the East Village, Stuyvesant Town and the Lower East Side, though there are also some students from the outer boroughs and even a handful from New Jersey.
Though Third Street (named for its original location, which was actually on Third Street) is a tuition based school, it’s also a nonprofit and many of its students (around 75 percent) are able to attend because of some sort of financial aid. Fees vary depending on the program, of which there are many, including ensembles and one-on-one lessons. Lewis herself has been taking piano lessons at the school, while her son studies guitar and her daughter the saxophone.
Lewis noted that in some ways the school hasn’t changed all that much from its original mission of being a settlement house, when music was still one of the offerings. “At one time it was case work; it was about needing a bath,” she said. “(Music) was a high priority back then and we believe it should be part of a young person’s development, and a middle aged person’s development, an older person’s development and an integral part of a child’s development.”
The building, which has a total of 36,000 square feet, has been mostly owned by Third Street since the 1970s, with the exception being half a dozen residential units on the top floor. The residents, who own their homes, “all love music,” said Lewis, “which is a good thing.”