There has been as much talk generated about revamping North Fourth Street over the past decade as that of the convention center coming to downtown Wilmington. “When will they break ground?” or “Will it ever happen?” were only a few questions circulating many conversations for years. Like the convention center’s final opening last fall, the Brooklyn Arts District of Wilmington just got a major boost thanks to the newest kids on the block: the Brooklyn Arts Center at St. Andrews. The fully renovated, beautifully crafted church opens to the public this week, operating as a three-in-one venue that hosts betterment toward Wilmington’s arts scene, nonprofit community and business sector. It’s a concert venue, a skate club for kids and a rentable event space for any upscale, awe-inspiring gathering.
The hands behind the restoration of the structure is Dave Nathans, once known for his work at Urban Building Corps. Now an independent business owner, Nathans has a way with bottling the magic that is historic Wilmington by keeping true to the value of its old structures and resources within them. Recently, he has updated the 1888 St. Andrews Church and most notably its 50-foot cathedral ceilings, antiquated brick and plaster walls, century-old stained-glass windows and a breathtaking view of the sanctuary from its balcony, with details to be admired, including hand-painted floors.
Walking through the updated space conjures images of touring through Gaudi’s House of Bones in Barcelona, Spain. No, there aren’t over-the-top mosaics adorning the building, or humpback whale ceilings and whimsical blue tiles. But there is original North Carolina heart pine, dating over a hundred years, modernized with stunning care. It beckons a congregation or celebration amidst a stunning arch above the stage and white screens draped from the ceiling (which can be backlit or illuminated with text and colors). There is space, vast space, which emotes something enchanting, like that of Gaudi’s work.
“Nathans is a visionary builder, preservationist and contractor,” Richard Leder, executive director of Brooklyn Arts Center (BAC), says. “He renewed and re-purposed an important historic landmark on the north side of downtown. . . . [W]hat Dave has done, by himself, with this majestic, 123-year-old iconic church, will anchor our end of North 4th Street, a hip and happening neighborhood that is only going to grow now that we’re open for business.”
Leder joined forces with Nathans after meeting in an editing studio some years ago, where Leder was putting finishing touches on a film he was then working to complete. Nathans had a sneak peek into the church and compelled Leder to see what was inside. Their chance meeting evolved into a friendship, and when Nathans needed someone to help run the business end of the venture, Leder jumped on board. “It seemed like it would be fun,” the previous Wrightsville Beach Magazine editor said. “I enjoy a challenge!”
What an undertaking it was, too, considering the amount of work that had to be done. Selling the structure as an event venue, especially a wedding venue, neared the impossible. Leder found a creative way to circumvent it. He asked local architect and artist Rob Romero to draft watercolors for him, proposing what the finished space would look like.
“When the church was a construction site and the courtyard was a junkyard jungle, I would show prospective brides the watercolors and share my vision with as much honesty and passion as I could,” Leder says. “Even while under reconstruction, the soul of that church was a powerful presence.”
Leder’s salesman abilities and sheer veracity for believing in the project shined. To date, BAC has 38 weddings booked in its inaugural season.
“We’ve done two weddings so far, and, in both cases, no one would leave,” he notes. “The guests danced like crazy until the very last minute of the reception. It was such a great party room, one of the best I have ever seen. No one wanted the wedding to end. They knew they were partying in the coolest nightclub in the South. It was awesome.”
When brides rent Brooklyn Arts Center, they not only receive sanctuary space, but the Church Manse next door. It once served as housing quarters for the St. Andrews’ pastor and has been redesigned as a tranquil dressing space for bridal parties. Brides also get to use the private garden and courtyard behind the Manse as part of the rental, perfect for a cocktail hour.
Though the sanctuary is a seamless transition into a wedding venue, one of its other arms of operation may seem rather surprising. The nonprofit sector of BAC is the 1888 Skate Club, which offers kids an alternative option to skating the open streets of Wilmington. The vice president of the indoor skate club is Momentum Surf and Skate shop owner Hunter Ford. Ford’s transition into BAC also grew from a friendship endured with Nathans, when Ford often served him at Deluxe.
“He always came into the restaurant when I was bartending, and I always talked about my dream to open Momentum,” Ford says. “When I actually did it, he was impressed, saying I was one of the only bartenders he knew that followed through on his dream.”
Ford’s dream redirected once Nathans showed him St. Andrews and asked for suggestions on what to do with the space. “When I first looked at the building, it was raw!” Ford remembers. “Dirt floors, lots of debris! [Nathan’s] son, Lucas, worked for me at the time [at Momentum], and we got the ball rolling by putting a business plan together for the skate club.”
1888 presents 3,500 square feet of custom-made stairs, rails and ramps in a heated and air-conditioned facility, which will constantly be monitored for safety. It gives kids a different opportunity to not only harness their talent and goals in the sport but to be around like-minded kids in a positive setting.
“We really want to offer kids a different place to go that doesn’t put them or others in danger,” Ford says. “We also want to deter bullying, and we will have skate guards monitoring the indoor club at all times.”
A nonprofit, 1888 memberships are a mere $25 a year. Open seven days a week, from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily, kids can skate for $5 per three-hour session. Ford has also included lessons and camps into the business plan, many of which are already slated for summer 2011 for ages 7 to 17. Camps will be offered in three two-hour sessions every Tuesday through Thursday, and an all-girls camp will be offered three times throughout the summer.
“We are in need of sponsors currently,” Ford says, with plans to redirect monies directly back into the community. “We will offer scholarships and tutoring as part of our outreach and community partnership.”
1888 Skate Club will hold events that are family-friendly and give positive reinforcement to youth, including the Battle of the Shops taking place May 22nd from noon to 6 p.m. It will showcase 10 shops from the tri-county area, all of whom will compete for bragging rights in a friendly competition in BAC’s indoor club. Bands will play throughout the day, and there will be a sample sale with skate-brand reps on site. Discounts on gear will be offered, from shoes to clothing to accessories.
“We also plan to have a skate fest in November,” Ford says. “We hope to get permits to block off Fourth Street and have live music, competitions, demos and other entertainment. . . . I’m stoked about  because of what we are doing for the north side community and Wilmington as a whole.”
Included on that platform is opportunity to generate even more intense music appreciation and a true spark of revival for touring bands hitting the Wilmington scene. The vaulted ceilings in Brooklyn Arts Center will carry melody throughout its rafters to an impressive if not staggering concert-going experience—one Wilmington has been ready to endure for quite a while.
“We intend to be a regional and national venue for concerts,” Leder explains. “We’re thrilled to add our voice to an already impressive cultural scene.”
Filling a capacity of 600, BAC could be Wilmington’s version of Asheville’s Orange Peel—at least in space. The only thing that needs to follow suit is groundbreaking booking. Leder is working with the Penguin’s program director, Beau Gunn, and IBX Promotions’ Adam Higgins in bringing bands to the city.
“Wilmington has needed an indoor venue that size for years now,” Gunn says. “It is going to prove to be a place that artists want to play in. The rich history between those hallowed walls will set the stage for some great concerts.”
The bill has been filled already with BAC’s debut: Old Crow Medicine Show on May 25th. Tickets went on sale last week, and in a few hours flat, sold out.
“The BAC is as important to the music scene of Wilmington as the Greenfield Lake Amphitheater has been so far,” Gunn continues. “The amphitheater can only host shows four-and-a-half months of the year. BAC will now give us an option to host mid to major artists year round.“
Gunn has already utilized BAC for Penguin-sponsored shows in June, as Greenfield Lake Amphitheatre dedicates its venue to the annual Shakespeare on the Green theatrical performances. Lined up so far are Galactic on Wednesday, June 15th ($20 adv/$25 day of) and Hayes Carll with Scott Miller on Friday, July 22nd (tickets TBA).
What it takes to bring larger artists into town is a booker with a penchant for taste and ticket sales, as well as someone who can go against Live Nation’s House of Blues in Myrtle Beach. They have a stronghold on many bands likely to tour within so many miles of their venue; Wilmington lies within the stipulations. Still, Live Nation has the power to reprieve some acts should they want to play here. Someone with a good bargaining hand could be a savior to local music lovers wanting to save a buck from traveling out of town to see larger shows. Brooklyn Arts Center is positioned to play among those contenders now. Leder says they’ll bring in whatever the bands need in terms of advanced light and sound equipment.
Brooklyn Arts Center hosts a grand opening and kickoff concert with a free show from Atlanta’s Ponderosa (read about it here) this weekend at 516 North 4th Street. The 1888 Skate Club is open everyday except for days when weddings or other events are booked on premise. Potential sponsors for 1888 Skate Club or folks looking for a space to host an event or wedding can contact Richard Leder at (910) 538-2939.