On Sept 30, 2016, BCCO’s longtime rehearsal space at First Congregation Church Berkeley suffered a damaging fire. My recollection below describes the events of that day from BCCO’s perspective, as we sought to find space for 200+ people the following Monday and beyond.
It was Friday midday, and I was having lunch at our kitchen table in Alameda. I’d been through the newspapers and reached for my iPad to see what was up. On Twitter, the berkeleyside.com newsfeed carried an alert, not 10 minutes old, that a fire had broken out at the First Congregational Church on Channing and Dana. In the next half hour I got emails from alert chorus members – Kris, Gaby, Ken – and the berkeleyside feed was updated with more information and stunning photos of what turned out to be an engulfing 3-alarm blaze. Streets around FCCB had been closed, and the entire area was filled with dense smoke. Worst of all for us, some of the photos showed the entirety of the roof above Pilgrim Hall – where we rehearsed – in flames.
Our fall rehearsal season had begun Sept 12. We’d had two rehearsals at FCCB and then one across the street at First Presbyterian to make room for some Cal Performances’ rehearsals in FCCB. Our next rehearsal was in three days, but from the photos, it was clear we wouldn’t be at FCCB. Could we find a space on short notice on a Friday afternoon? I sent an email to the BCCO board, and we decided to take a two-pronged approach: find a space for next Monday, then worry about a longer-term solution.
I called three institutions in short order – First Pres, where we’d been four days earlier; Arlington Community Church, where we hold our all-day rehearsals; and St John’s Presbyterian Church on College Ave, the site of our last spring benefit recital.
The Arlington space was most like our FCCB home, a hall we convert into a rehearsal space by setting up folding chairs and a conductor’s podium. The two churches have sanctuaries where Ming, our music director, would be at the front of the space near the altar, with singers arranged in fixed pews around him. That idea appealed to me…
But first, I managed to reach administrators at all three churches on the first try, an unusual occurrence. All three were immediately responsive and very accommodating to our request for space. The fire at FCCB had clearly shocked everyone, and they were all generous about helping. Some had already heard from other organizations that would be displaced from FCCB and were looking for space, not only for rehearsals but also concerts and other public events. We were lucky to be looking for Monday evenings, a relatively less sought-after time.
Soon I had three offers of space for Monday. I didn’t expect such a high success rate. But we only needed one. I wound up calling back the Arlington and First Pres to decline, as Arlington wasn’t as centrally located and First Pres was a little less desirable because it’s hard to hear and be heard from the pews in that space. In firming up our plans with St John’s it became clear that Monday evenings were regularly free for rental.
We’d formed a committee of volunteers from the board and our erstwhile Concert Venues Committee to assess options for where to hold rehearsals after the next Monday. Across the weekend, this group considered a number of sites in Berkeley, Oakland, and Albany/El Cerrito. It soon became clear that places of worship offered us the most options. We focused our assessments on four features – central location, facilities (for parking, restrooms, etc.), acoustics, and cost.
I had twenty minutes of nerdy fun taking our chorus roster and uploading all singers addresses into a private google map so we could see graphically where everyone lived and what constituted a central location for rehearsal space. This showed how wise we were to have FCCB as a home – it was right in the middle of the blue dots on the google map!
We developed a list of six or eight reasonable possibilities for rehearsal spaces, but I had become quite partial to St John’s as a long-term choice. It was in Berkeley, just a few blocks from FCCB, had a parking garage under the sanctuary, was on a bus line connected to BART, and was reasonably priced. The coming Monday rehearsal became our test case. Perhaps if that Monday rehearsal was successful, we could rather easily transition into making it our regular home.
The first rehearsal at St John’s did turn out to go well, no chairs needed to be set up, parking proved manageable, but – and what really sealed it – comments from chorus members and most notably Ming were enthusiastic about the space. The pews were arranged around Ming in a more accommodating way for the chorus than at First Pres. We could hear other vocal sections!
St. John’s Presbyterian has now become our regular rehearsal space. In the days after Sept 30, I called and then visited the church office. BCCO has been very lucky to be assisted there by administrator Nelly Coplan, who remembered when BCCO had rehearsed at St John’s regularly in the 1980s. She still had a manila folder in her filing cabinet with our rental records from that era. Nelly and the other staff at St John’s have been gracious and welcoming. They seem as glad as we are to be rehearsing at St John’s again.
Meanwhile, BCCO’s own connection to the FCCB fire was a decidedly minor part of a catastrophic event for FCCB. The fire on Sept 30 burned away the entire roof of Pilgrim Hall which also suffered water damage and structural instability as a result. Remarkably, the adjoining sanctuary space suffered fire only at one corner of the roof above the altar; most of the space including the organ suffered relatively minor damage.
As of this writing, March 2017, it looks like the sanctuary will reopen in early summer, but Pilgrim Hall has required more extensive cleanup (asbestos, lead) and then rebuilding that may stretch to several years. On the day of the fire, quick action by church staff helped evacuate everyone including a children’s pre-school on the premises, and nobody was injured.
BCCO’s former assistant conductor, Derek Tam, now music director at FCCB, became a conduit for us on information about the fire. Church offices have relocated to an undamaged part of their site, and services are being held at another place of worship nearby. Meanwhile, the music community has had to deal with the temporary unavailability of FCCB’s sanctuary, an acoustically premiere space in the Bay Area, especially for classical music.
In the weeks after the fire, Derek arranged a benefit concert for FCCB at nearby St Mark’s Episcopal Church which drew the participation of many local performing arts groups. BCCO singers formed a large contingent of volunteers to help spread publicity and staff house front positions. Hopefully with the continuing support of the Berkeley community, FCCB will continue to make progress towards restoring its facilities to full operations.
[photo by Paul Marcus/Shutterstock.com]