CHICAGO — The Old Town School of Folk Music announced Monday it plans to sell its location at 909 W. Armitage Ave. in Lincoln Park, the old Aldine Hall that served as the school’s main location for decades.
The school used the historic building for 50 years, beginning when it moved out of Old Town. The school’s main location is now in Lincoln Square.
Proceeds of the sale will seed an endowment to be called the “Armitage Fund.” The school described the sale as “the beginning of a new chapter.”
“There’s been a conversation around selling the Lincoln Park location of the school numerous times over the years,” said Bau Graves, the school’s executive director. “When they opened in Lincoln Square in 1998 and again in 2012.”
The reason the school’s leadership has revisited the idea of selling the Lincoln Park location more than once is because it’s one of the school’s more valuable assets. Last week, the board decided the current real estate market in Lincoln Park makes it the perfect time to put the Armitage address on the market.
The building at 917 W. Armitage Ave., across the street from the Lincoln Park school, sold for $2.2 million in September, according to Cook County property records. Another nearby building at 910 W. Armitage Ave. sold for $3.5 million in 2015.
“We always thought we’d hang on to it since it kept serving students and we own it outright. So it was cost effective to keep the Lincoln Park location open,” Graves said. “But the school has now determined, having gone for 60 years without an endowment fund, it made sense to secure the future of the school in perpetuity by creating one.”
The board announced it was putting the Lincoln Park location on the market on Monday and fans of the school were surprised and disappointed by the news, with some wondering if the school was doing okay financially.
“The [909 W.] Armitage sale is strictly for an endowment,” Graves said. “The school is debt free, we paid the last construction bonds three years ago.”
Graves added the news came as a surprise to the school’s community because the board only made a unanimous vote about selling the building last Thursday. Had the board voted differently to keep the Lincoln Park location open, as it had in the past, there wouldn’t have been a need for an announcement at all.
“This is a very important decision for the financial future of Old Town School,” Graves said. “But I understand it affects our community on a deeply emotional level. Lincoln Park has been the mothership for decades, it’s emotional moving away from there.”
He says once a buyer is found for the Lincoln Park location, funds from the sale will be combined with smaller endowments the school has secured to create the “Armitage Fund.” Over the next few years, Graves says, the goal is to grow that fund so it’s around $10 million. The school will then use this endowment to help secure financial independence for its future.
“Once that money is set into an endowment that is forever, unless the board decides to change the charter,” Graves said. “With a $10 million endowment we can secure between $400,000 and 500,000 for the school on an annual basis, which will be useful to make sure the school can develop new programs and generate the same community that it has always had.”
Old Town said it plans to continue holding classes on Armitage Avenue until the sale is complete, likely in mid-2019. Most classes will then move to the Lincoln Square.
“As soon as we know who the buyer is, what their needs are, we can figure out our close out day for the Lincoln Park campus,” Graves said. “Clases will probably move over gradually.”
It’s also looking for Lincoln Park locations to continue offering its early childhood Wiggleworms classes.
“The Armitage building’s legacy will remain deeply honored in the future with the establishment of an endowment that we are calling the Armitage Fund,” Board Chairman Kish Khemani said in a statement. “The building has a rich history of music making and music makers. It will now help ensure the long-term success of Old Town School classes and programs.”
The building, which features a distinctive turret with the “The Aldine” written atop, became the school’s home in 1968, according to the school’s website.
It eventually became in desperate need of renovation, leading to a 1987 fundraising concert with star power.
“The highlight — and the most entertaining part of the capital fund drive was a January 16, 1987 concert at Orchestra Hall. Old Town School friends John Prine, Bonnie Koloc, David Bromberg, Stephen Wade, Corky Siegel, and Fred Holstein played for free,” according to the website. “Bonnie sang a number she had written for the audience, ‘With You on My Side.’ Win Stracke sang ‘Down by the Embras,’ ‘Methodist Pie,’ and ‘Wee Drappe O’t,’ backed by Studs Terkel and Jim Hirsch. Then the entire audience of 2600 people rose in tribute to Win the founder.”
The fundraising drive was successful, leading to the renovation that keep the building alive.
“Since its beginning, Old Town School has been defined by people coming together to teach and learn and appreciate music. The Armitage building provided a good home for music
makers, teachers and students. Now its legacy will help provide for future generations,” Graves said.
The school’s first home in 1957 was at 333 North Avenue. It moved to Armitage in 1968 and then opened the Lincoln Avenue location in 1998.
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