Restoration of Caffè Lena Receives a Big Boost

The nation’s oldest continuously operating folk music coffeehouse, the historic Caffè Lena in Saratoga Springs, New York has announced a unique philanthropic partnership with Bonacio Construction Inc.  The deal is part of a restoration campaign aimed at repairing, preserving and enhancing the historic venue.

Caffe LenaCaffè Lena will sell their parking lot to Bonacio Construction, allowing the firm to build a 4 story mixed use building in the space next to their own building at 47 Phila Street in Saratoga Springs. Designed by Frost Hurff Architects, the new structure will feature an elevator and stairwell that will be shared with the existing Caffè Lena, connecting the new building with the Caffè’s second floor and providing full accessibility to the Caffè’s listening space. The steep steps in the existing building made for accessibility issues for some patrons.

Since the Caffè first opened its doors in May 1960,  artists like Bob Dylan (whose first professional folk performance outside of NYC took place at Caffè Lena), Mississippi John Hurt, Odetta, Arlo Guthrie, Emmy Lou Harris, Rufus WainwrightAni DiFranco and virtually every prominent folk artist since the dawn of the folk revival have performed on the famous stage. The alumni also includes Christine Lavin who once worked the tables as a waitress before eventually headlining her own shows on the stage. Each year, thousands of people continue to walk up those stairs to enjoy performances in this very special place, a room that echoes with the voices of the past while welcoming the new voices that will carry on into the future.

Announcement of the philanthropic partnership of Caffé Lena and Bonacio Construction Inc. (Photo courtesy of Wanda Adams Fischer)

Announcement of the philanthropic partnership of Caffé Lena and Bonacio Construction Inc. (Photo courtesy of Wanda Adams Fischer)

The deal with Bonacio Construction was made as part of  “Campaign for Caffè Lena“, a restoration fund drive launched in 2015 to insure the future of the iconic coffeehhouse. Caffè Lena hopes to raise $1.5 million dollars for the project, with $1.25 million going directly to the cost of restoration and $250K to be used to start an endowment for the venue’s future. Upon completion, the restoration will provide full accessiblity to the venue’s second floor,  expansion of the listening room, reinforcing the floors as well as modernizing the plumbing and electrical system.

A privately owned and operated construction and real estate development firm, Bonacio Construction is also located in Saratoga Springs. In addition to constructing the stairwell and elevator, Bonacio will also work on restoring the flooring as well as updating the roof of Caffè Lena, critical fundamentals of the renovation. It is estimated that the value of the deal with Bonacio Construction is worth $500,000 of the restoration projects $1.25 million dollar goal.

“This partnership solves many challenges for the Caffè” noted Sarah Craig, Executive Director of Caffè Lena. “Bonacio is a big company with the resources to get our job done well and quickly so we can get back to making music at 47 Phila.”

The Caffè will close for the renovations this summer with a reopening celebration being planned for October.  To keep up their title of the nations oldest “continuing” coffeehouse, a temporary location will be used during the closure. Great care is being taken to preserve both the historic fixtures and the intimate atmosphere, although patrons will be glad to hear that seating will be expanded from 85 to 110 seats and traffic patterns improved to allow audience and volunteer servers to move more freely around the listening room. The stairwell will continue to feature posters and flyers of performers both past and present – however it will be wider and easier to traverse, along with the new elevator. Even with the new expansion and renovations, the look, feeling and spirit that has carried Caffe Lena through more than 55 years will be preserved.

“The part of our heritage that we’re most proud of is that for more than five decades we’ve been connecting both emerging artist and lifelong professional folksingers with a warm, supportive and attentive audience” declared Craig. “These renovations ensure our ability to carry that mission forward to the next generation and keep the best voices of roots music singing in our intimate, historic room.”

Current entrance to Caffè Lena

Current entrance
to Caffè Lena

​When Bill and Lena Spencer opened Caffè Lena in 1960, their original intent was to make enough money to travel and support their interests, Bill was a sculptor and Lena was an actress. As the coffeehouse scene and the folk revival were blossoming around the country at the time, Caffè Lena grew into a very special gathering spot for the region. Saratoga Springs was chosen as their location as it was a college town and the Caffè would attract the young audiences that the Spencers were hoping for. They wanted to create the feeling of European coffeehouses as opposed to the kitschy beatnik coffeehouses they visited in New York City and Boston. In Saratoga Springs, they found an unused room on the second floor of a building that housed a laundromat and antique store on the first floor. The L shaped room seemed inviting for the atmosphere they were looking to create.

After the first year when they realized they were not going to be making enough money to travel, Bill became frustrated with the business and his relationship with Lena was strained. Bill and Lena would divorce, and Lena would continue to grow the Caffè. Lena Spencer’s vision turned the small upstate New York venue into a Mecca for folk music, not only for the local audiences, but also, for the traveling musicians as well. Under Lena’s guidance, the intimate coffeehouse became a stage for not only folk musicians, but also artist from other musical genres including bluegrass and jazz alongside theatrical performances and poetry, not to mention the artwork that graced the room. Following Lena’s death in 1989, the Caffè became a non-profit organization that continues to carry out Lena’s vision.

While the fund raising campaign began in 2015, the project actually started back in 2010 when Frost Hurff were engaged to develop a design for the renovation. In the following years, initial construction work began including reinforcing the foundation and laying in a new concrete slab in the building’s basement. Now with the arrangement with Bonacio, the remaining restoration project will begin in earnest this spring.

It really doesn’t matter where you live, if you love folk music, you  can thank Caffè Lena for the important role it plays in the perpetuation of the traditions. Other famous coffeehouses have long since closed their doors, but Caffè Lena carries on. New artists continue to emerge, receiving opportunities to perform in this hallowed space.  This restoration project will help insure that the stage of Caffè Lena will be ready for future generations to experience the magic of folk music and the camaraderie of the coffeehouse tradition.

The partnership with Bonacio does not conclude the fund raising – the project still needs support to meet their goal. Please visit the Campaign for Caffè Lena at their website and find out how you can play a part in preserving this important part of our folk heritage.

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