Search blog:
Subscribe to blog posts:

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Artifacts from the Hannah Callowhill Stage

In my previous blog post, I mentioned the presence of large holes for structural elements that were being dug around the perimeter of the inside of the building. What I didn't mention is that while I was there that day, I found the base of an old wine bottle sitting half-buried in a pile of dirt:
Photo on left taken on-site, photo on right taken at home after cleaning
This excellent site on dating old bottles informed me that since there are pontil scars on the bottom and no side seams, the bottle was hand-blown and therefore definitely pre-Civil-War, ooh! A few hours later, Matt also stopped by the construction site after work, combed through some of the soil with his hands and discovered pottery sherds.

He also took a closer look than I did at the walls of one of the rear construction pits, and recognized that a vertical line of bricks going down about six feet indicated the presence of a privy (in the lingo of my native land: a dunny) which could possibly date back to the very first construction on the property in 1740. Privies are rich sources of archaeological artifacts, being receptacles of not only what the archaeologists sometimes adorably term "night soil," but also household trash.

We resolved to return on Thursday night, after the construction workers had knocked off for the day, to see what else we might find.

Long story short: HOLY NIGHT SOIL.

See album on Flickr: Digging for artifacts at the Hannah Callowhill Stage

We found so much stuff, we went back on Saturday and found some more of it. And in between, and since Saturday, I spent every waking hour (and some of the hours I should have been sleeping) obsessively washing and sorting and matching and assembling and gluing. This was such a joy! I was one of those kids whose dad was always yelling "Don't touch that!" because I wanted to feel every cool thing in the world. I've been trained well to refrain from touching objects at museums, but that hasn't meant the desire has gone away. Finally, my grabby little fingers could handle the forbidden fruit as much as they wanted, because it was mine, I found it, on my property. Also, I'm pretty good at jigsaw puzzles, but I always found them pointless. Now at last I had multiple jigsaw puzzles with a purpose.

See album on Flickr: Prepping artifacts from the Hannah Callowhill Stage

If I believed wholeheartedly in fate, it would seem very fateful that Matt and I bought this property and spearheaded this construction and were on hand to rescue these objects. Remember that time we went to Egypt and geeked out on the archaeology there (and also found some very human looking bones in the sand at Saqqara)? Or that time we went on a dinosaur dig and found an allosaurus skull? This latest chapter seems extremely right.

I have learned a nightsoil-ton about mid-18th to mid-19th Century rubbish in the last few days while waiting for epoxy to set: a crash course in redware, slipware, creamware, stoneware, porcelain, and glassware, with some information on bones, pipes, and shoe leather thrown in. Here's an example of the reading I've been doing while taking breaks to use the modern equivalent of the privy. I also learned that Colonial people ate a LOTTTTTT of oysters and dumped all the shells in the toilet or used them as fill, and also that oyster shells look identical to pieces of pottery when jumbled up in a pile of 200-year-old night soil, and god I really hate oyster shells now.

Below is a slideshow of the end results of our work: photos of each of our finds. If you click through to the actual album on Flickr, I have tried to identify them and include links to information I've read in the titles and descriptions. If you have any further information to contribute about any of the items we found, we'd love to hear it in the Flickr comments:

See album on Flickr: Artifacts from the Hannah Callowhill Stage

Frequently Asked Questions

  • How old are these artifacts?
    This site about bottles found at Colonial Williamsburg notes that the shape of our most intact wine bottles date them to the mid- to late-1700s. (As I mentioned, the first building on the site was erected at 103 Callowhill between 1740 and 1745.) The redware pottery would also suggest a mid- to late-1700s origin for the oldest artifacts, as it is extremely similar to pottery found in other sites around Philadelphia that date from this period; see, for example, the pottery of Henry Piercy. (N.B. We also found four pieces of "kiln furniture" - pieces of clay that are used in a kiln to stack pots and keep them steady during firing, could there have been a kiln onsite once? Or perhaps waste from a potter was used as fill at some point.) Redware became less common after the 18th century after it was discovered that lead glaze is toxic, oops. We found one piece of stoneware with a maker's mark on it: Willets Manufacturing Company, which began creating stoneware in Trenton, NJ, in the late 1800s. In a pit closer to the front of the building, we found some newer items such as glass soda bottles and Bromo-Selzer bottles that date from the 1910s, which I'm guessing is approximately when the slab foundation was poured.

  • What information do you have about stratification?
    The majority of the fragments were recovered from piles of dirt that had already been extracted from the construction pits, so sadly most in situ information has been lost. Some of the more intact objects were located about 55 inches below the slab and dug out of the pit walls.

  • What are you going to do with these artifacts?
    We'll display them somehow in the space, of course, probably in the lobby/cafe area. There's too much for all of it to be displayed at once, so I guess some of it will go in our apartment too. Unless someone knows of a museum who wants to borrow it so more people can see it. We're not going to sell anything because (a) it's not worth all that much money, and (b) it's much cooler to use it to showcase the history and character of the property once the theater is complete.

  • Have you been contacted by museums or archaeologists about this?
    Goodness me, no. As far as archaeological finds go, this is very common stuff. Colonial privies are found all over this area (of some note is this description of a privy dig in Wilmington in 2008 which unearthed extremely similar artifacts). It's cool and exciting because it happened to us, in our theater, but there's nothing earth-shattering in these finds that hasn't been documented in similar sites hundreds of times before.

  • Are you going to excavate further?
    Goodness me, no. We are spending an obscene amount of money that we don't have to build a theater with an apartment we can live in. We can't delay construction for any reason without the construction project costing significantly more. If we had unlimited money, I would totally bust up the slab and dig out the entire property to find more privies, but as it is, I am literally skipping meals because my belt is so tight.

  • How did you take those photos?
    Yesterday I threw together a lightbox out of an Ikea Hyllis shelf, a few lamps I had around the house, some poster board, and some muslin cloth.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

The Hannah Callowhill Stage: Loan acquired! Construction begins!

Have you ever seriously said the words "I am going to spend about half a million dollars"?
Who am I. What is this life.
I had not, until I bought a theater. These are words that strike terror, and a good dose of imposter syndrome and existential anxiety, into my cheap little DIY artist heart.

Half a million dollars is the ballpark sum we will be paying to gut the property at 103 Callowhill Street, fix and prevent myriad structural issues with concrete and steel, raise the ceiling over the performance space to a height of around 20 feet, and build an apartment on top for Matt and me and our three cats to live in.

Half a million dollars probably does not seem like a ludicrous sum to people who live in New York City or San Francisco or Vancouver or Sydney. Hell, it's not even that crazy for Philadelphia. It is especially not a very large sum considering the finished building will include a commercial space and a second efficiency apartment for us to rent out. We're not spending half a million dollars on just a residence; the property itself is a business. But the words still feel very strange in my cheap little DIY artist mouth.

The problem we faced after purchasing the property last year was that, since we don't have half a million dollars lying around, we needed to convince a financial institution to loan us the money. It took fifteen months of trying! Oh my sweet God Money, it was awful, and I was not even a total noob at financing when we began. I had already been through two residential mortgages and a refinance, a failed refinance, and a failed 203K loan application. I had even paid off a couple of mortgages! I thought I knew what I was getting into.

SIDEBAR: Hey you guys, do you remember the mortgage crisis of 2008? Probably you do. I am actually writing an opera that mildly relates to it, right now. Everyone agrees that mortgage practices were bad when that crisis came around, right? Predatory lending is terrible! It destabilized the economy. Bad bad bad! Banks need regulations, otherwise they will do shady things. Cue: the Dodd-Frank Consumer Protection Act of 2010. Cue: real-world consumer consequences of that act. The failed loan applications that I mention above, and the stress of the last fifteen months? These were consequences of financial institutions complying with the recommendations of Dodd-Frank; the introduction of draconian new standards and verification requirements either disqualified us from loans or dragged out the loan application process for so long that it was virtually impossible to successfully complete. TL;DR: It is now much more difficult for people who aren't already filthy rich to get financing. On one hand, we should be glad that banks aren't giving out money to people who are unable to pay it back, like they did back in the day. On the other hand, WHY THE FUCK DO YOU EVEN NEED A LOAN IF YOU ARE FILTHY RICH. While I agree with the concept of regulations on lending, I see the situation as it currently stands unfolding into a future where only developers, corporations, and the very rich can afford to own land, while everyone else has to rent. I don't know what the solution is, but I do know that in 2008, it would not have taken us fifteen months and multiple failed attempts to get the financing we needed for this project. And I know from family, friends, and acquaintances experiencing similar frustrations—on much smaller and safer loans, even!—that we are far from the only people bewildered by this new reality where a good steady middle-class income, above-average cash reserves, and decent assets are no longer adequate qualifications for lending.

Now take all that whining and horror and increase it by several orders of magnitude with the realization that the loan we need is a commercial construction loan. It doesn't matter that the entertainment zoning variance expired (we will have to reapply when the time comes). It doesn't matter that we are also creating our primary residence. What matters is our intention, which is to create a mixed-use space. Welcome to the wonderful world of commercial lending!

Commercial lending means:
  • interest rates are 1.5% higher than residential loans
  • shorter terms
  • (in case I've lost you, those two previous points mean repayments are much higher than in a typical 30-year residential mortgage, so your income must be higher to qualify for the same loan amount)
  • lower loan-to-value ratio (meaning you can't borrow as much against the value of your asset)
  • higher loan fees
  • an appraisal must be done by a commercial appraiser and literally costs TEN TIMES as much as a typical residential appraisal
Banks see commercial loans as risky because borrowers are more likely to default on commercial loans than they are to give up their primary residence (no matter that it's the same thing in our case). Banks don't like "risky," especially post 2008. Most of the fifteen months were spent going to different institutions, explaining our plan, and being told, "Wow, this venture sounds so cool! I can't wait to visit your theater when it is completed! Aaaaand we don't have a lending product that applies to you, good day!" Banks like to give commercial construction loans to very rich developers who don't actually need the money and thus will be very good at paying it back. They don't like to give commercial construction loans to mom-and-pop artfucks with a crazy passionate idea for a venue.

At one point, we pinned a lot of hope on Wells Fargo, because they were "our" bank. All our accounts were with them, and both our previous mortgages, and our investments too! (Fun fact: we didn't actually open a single one of these accounts with Wells Fargo; over the course of about five years, they acquired all the institutions that held our assets and liabilities and suddenly we had five different Wells Fargo products, wheee.) They liked us, right? They knew we were a good bet and wanted to work with us, right? Wrong!! They were a complete waste of our time, and they pulled our credit reports three (!) times each and tanked our scores. Thanks for nothing, Wells Fargo! If we didn't like our financial advisor so much, we would absolutely tell you to go screw yourself and take all our business, such as it is, elsewhere.

Long story short: a chance encounter at the Weblinc Christmas party last year led us to JSK Financial Consultants, a firm which, as their front page says, accommodates institutions and individuals with creative “out of the box” financing solutions. In plain English, we promised them a 1% fee to find us an institution willing to play ball, and since they know lending people and are knowledgeable about different institutions' preferences and restrictions, they can do all the legwork without forcing us to play spin the bottle with yet another bank.

And thus, callooh callay, a couple of weeks ago, after about three months of exhaustive form-filling and hoop-jumping, we were approved! A bank said yes! A small local bank, that incidentally was just bought by Univest, which is still kind of local, but a little less local. (Do you think it too will be bought by the very non-local Wells Fargo eventually? Let's wait and see.)

And then we immediately received bills for: the aforementioned appraisal fee, building permit fee, zoning application fee, 1% origination fee, loan document fee, government recording charges, aforementioned fee to the loan consultant, MEP engineering fee, a $13.5K interest reserve, an expensive builder's risk insurance policy, our architect's final balance ... it was a spectacular hemorrhage. Suffice to say: goodbye cash. It was nice seeing you in my bank account for a few months after the sale of our Philadelphia house, but now we must part forever, and here's hoping I don't ever need you for a future emergency.

SIDEBAR: A week after we closed on the construction loan, I had the opportunity to talk shop with a guy who not long ago decided to buy a small theater (although it is 2.5 times the capacity of ours). The first thing he did when he heard I had done something similar was crack jokes about bottomless money pits, and much knowing, slightly hysteria-tinged mutual laughter was had. Although he also said that it was good that my theater was very small, and also good that it was in a large(r) market because it would be easier to run and make profitable. Here is a picture of me having this conversation, over crabs, as one does. 
Can you feel the squeeeee tonight? P.S. That's fellow Aussie Lezli Robyn on the left. Fellow theater owner in center.
Almost the moment the loan closed, we dove into demolition. We cleared everything out of the theater and invited some friends over to start the process of gutting. Many and massive thanks to Mike VanHelder, Megan Cullinane, Jeff Yucis, Art Shvarts, Luis Mercado, Jessica Lennick, and our Downingtown neighbor Melvin Rowland for showing up and attacking our walls and floors with hammers.

Melvin, I, and Mikey contemplate the destruction we have wrought. Photo taken by Matt from the stage.
After this act of stress release, it was time to turn our baby over to the professionals, who finished the demo. As I will explain below, the structural elements necessitate the complete gutting of the entire space. Nothing can remain, nothing will survive. We have to do it all from scratch if we're going to do this right.

I am standing where the stage once was. The slab foundation, as you can see, is a mess. But not as messy as it will be.
The first, ahem, stage of construction is going to be ugly and take a few months: concrete footings, pilasters, and steel I-beams will form what is essentially a giant cage on the inside of the structure, supporting the weight of an additional story and the ceiling of the theater, including the grid. Matt and I put our heads together and sketched out the skeletal results from the somewhat confusing structural plans:

Structural elements viewed from the southwest. The wall at the lower right is the storefront facing Callowhill Street.
In the rear of the building, framing the 20-foot-tall auditorium, will be eight fully grouted (i.e. filled with cement) pilasters of concrete blocks, with steel I-beams connecting them as dropped beams and ledgers. At the rear of the lobby, there is a steel frame (replacing the crumbling back wall of the efficiency apartment). Then at the very front of the building, another steel frame sits against the facade. At the base of each of these, a footing needs to be dug and poured that underpins the exterior walls (or is doweled into the walls in the case of the steel frame at the front). Each of the footings needs to be about three foot by six foot, and to get under the walls, it need to be about six foot deep. As of yesterday, the holes for these footings are nearing completion:

Welcome to my theater, isn't it beautiful? Very classic.
SIDEBAR: Some people seem quite surprised when they see how much structural work is being done to this building in preparation for the addition of a floor; after all, row homes seem to pop up floors all the time without all this trouble and expense. We, however, are governed by a few complicating factors:
  • Our building is very narrow (16 feet) and very long (100 feet - the new story will be 70 feet long). It is therefore a giant sail, which is not an ideal function for a building. Creating this interior cage prevents shear. You would be hard pressed to find a row home that pops up another floor that is 16x70 feet; additional floors are usually much more square to avoid this issue. (N.B. In other locations, one might choose to pop up two smaller floors at the front of the building to avoid the shear issue without sacrificing square footage, but we can't do this because there is a 38-foot height restriction for our zoning classification.)
  • Building code has changed significantly since most row homes were built: row homes are now required to be capable of standing independently of any adjoining structures. This building was obviously built prior to that regulation, but given the scale of our new construction, we must retrofit it to comply, especially since most of the building doesn't have any adjoining structures anymore.
  • Our walls are a hodge-podge mess: as I explained in the historical overview of the property—and as our contractor has confirmed in his excavations—our building consists of two 275-year-old buildings whose walls were eventually subsumed into a larger row home maybe 150 years ago. Would you trust those walls to bear the weight of a new floor, two adults, three cats, and a green roof?
  • Do you remember three years ago when a building in Philadelphia collapsed and killed six people and the contractors went to jail for manslaughter and the building inspector committed suicide? Licenses and Inspections sure does. Several people in the know have told us that we would probably not have been required to do as much structural reinforcement prior to 2013. But given that I have no wish to cause deaths and I am all for over-engineering, I am not complaining.
So there it is. We are off and away. It is scary as fuck. It is going to be a wild ride filled with unexpected glitches, expenses, compromises, and heartbreaks. But let me leave you with this one extra piece of information:

After closing on the loan, Matt and I celebrated by eating lunch on the floor of the lobby with the doors wide open, rendered shell-shocked and delirious by the crippling debt we had just agreed to shoulder. A group of three people passed by, catching our attention as they peered around the side of our building. We struck up a conversation; they were the owners of one of the empty lots on Front Street that adjoins our building, currently rented by a scaffolding company for storage of equipment, and they were checking the borders of their property because they had just listed it for sale. For $630,000.

I honestly thought they must had said $63,000 when I first heard the sum. As reference, we bought 103 Callowhill Street for $265,000 fifteen months earlier. We wished them well, but at that asking price, I wasn't sure it would sell.

I was wrong in the extreme. The next day, THE VERY NEXT DAY, while our friends were taking to our walls with hammers, two Russian men walked past the building, also curiously peering around the side. Again we struck up a conversation. They had just put in an offer for the empty lot: $700,000. Yes, $70,000 above the asking price. Cash.

This figure approaches what our lending bank's commercial appraiser listed as the final value of our completed building. But if empty lots around us are now selling for similar sums, I think the appraiser's final figure might have been a little low. Suddenly I don't feel so bad about spending half a million dollars in borrowed cash on this venture, or for risking so much buying this building in the first place. If we had hesitated, an opportunity like this might not have come up again in our lifetime, certainly not at this location.

That settles it, doesn't it?

I am going to spend about half a million dollars.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Contacted by a Brisbanite with ancestral ties to 103 Callowhill Street

I have some construction news about the Hannah Callowhill Stage, and it's good! But I don't want to tell you about it until after Friday, when (hopefully, if even mentioning it doesn't jinx me) the deal will be closed.

In the meantime, for all the lovers of historical minutiae out there, let me tell you with inhumanly wide eyes about an e-mail I got from a stranger named Lyndon Garbutt a few weeks ago. I'm reprinting it with permission here:
Hi Melissa

I thought I’d reach out to you, as I stumbled across your website/facebook post on the history of the Callowhill Stage building you are renovating and thought you may be interested in some further information.

To explain this random email - ironically I am researching the history of my own property in your home town, Brisbane.  My apartment was used by Madame Lotte Lehmann as her residence during her 1939 season at Brisbane City Hall.  I had googled ‘Lotte Lehmann’ ‘Brisbane’ and due to you having won an award and coming from Brisbane you were one of the hits.  It sparked my interest as I it looked out of place and I wanted to work out why.  I then noticed you were in Philadelphia and my ancestors were some of the original Quakers who settled there with William Penn.
Already I love this message and its Neal-Stephenson-like connections across time and space. The award he mentions is the ASCAP/Lotte Lehmann Art Song Competition; my piece for baritone and piano trio Black Thunder received an honorable mention back in 2009. I wasn't even aware that Lehmann had toured to Australia, but here she is singing a duet with a kookaburra in the city of my birth:

Oh my god, Lotte Lehmann is cooler than I will ever, ever be. Also, I miss kookaburras.
The next part of the message references my blog post on the history of 103 Callowhill Street. To recap: the first buildings on the site were erected by Benjamin Mifflin between 1740 and 1745.
When I noticed Mifflin and your reference to his journal, it prompted me to check a book on one of my ancestors, a well known Patriot (for Delaware at least), John Clowes. John was a business partner of Benjamin Mifflin and Mifflin’s diary records a few days/weeks spent at Clowes’ whilst looking at buying land there - which I think became his residence once he relocated from Philadelphia to Sussex County. Mifflin would later marry John Clowes’ mother-in-law - so in other words I am a direct descendant of Benjamin Mifflin’s final wife - who happened to find your post searching for Lotte Lehmann and her time in Brisbane.
I am here for this kismet.

The next part refers to this newspaper clipping.
So the information I have for you is that the article you identified as Mifflin publishing in the Philadelphia Gazette (referring to excrement) was part of what I understand to be a long running political affair where Clowes and Mifflin were outspoken against suppression of the opinion of juries during colonial times in Sussex County (thus the reference in the article you posted re Sussex on Delaware). Both Clowes and Mifflin, despite their status as wealthy businessmen, spent time in jail for their outspoken views.

The book on John Clowes, Broadkill Patriot makes reference to an article from the Pennsylvania Journal of 10 January 1771, which had the following six lines:

Let Wilkes and M’Dougal, and Mifflin and Clowes;
Those strugglers for freedom, dame liberty’s spouse;
But what’s the effect?-You see each of them fail,
And each one by turns have experienc’d jail!
Like men in a bog, when releasement they think,
The longer they struggle, the deeper they sink!

According to the author Wilkes was a reference to a British radical, who became a symbol for opposition to tyranny. New York Patriot Alexander Mcdougall was a general who opposed British restrictions on trade. All of these men experienced jail for their beliefs.

Needless to say both Mifflin and Clowes were regarded as patriots during the American Revolution. The John Clowes book indicates that Mifflin left his final wife, Sarah, a widow. She was executor of his estate.  Mifflin in the mean time was the official appraiser for one of my Clowes ancestors’ estates (either John Snr, or John Jnr), so I may have a copy of Mifflin’s signature in my records if that would be of interest.
Oh this delights me in all sorts of ways. It's always very cool when historical research is connected to the present not just by physical objects and words, but by living people! And in this case, a living person who clearly has the same love of historical details and the 18th Century penchant for putting all kinds of things into verse. I am pleased that, through the Penn Library, I was able to track down the full text of the 1771 article and provide Lyndon with the entire poem. And he, for his part, was able to provide me with a photo of Benjamin Mifflin's signature from his records, as mentioned:
That is a lot of loops. I like it.
But there's one more little coincidence yet to report.
The other irony is that one of John Clowes’ children (i.e. a grandson of Mifflin’s final wife Sarah) married the daughter of John Hazzard, who is credited as having piloted General Washington across the Delaware River in 1776 to beat the Hessians - the painting portrayal of which you had chosen to flag your summary of your building’s history.
I threw Washington Crossing the Delaware into my blog entry to illustrate the War of Independence, because the Hannah Callowhill Stage is located near the Delaware River, and because it's a cool painting. Little did I know that EVERYONE IN COLONIAL AMERICA IS APPARENTLY RELATED TO EACH OTHER, AND ALSO TO ME THROUGH MY BUILDING.
The wedding is recorded in Sarah Mifflin’s granddaughter’s diary from the 1780s/1790s, which is regarded as a very rare document, given the limited number of American women, let alone in rural areas, who were literate enough to keep a diary.  The diary makes quite a few references to Sarah (as grandmamma). This document was the feature of Women’s History Month in Delaware a few years back:

So great!

I have been sitting on this for a few weeks because of a paralysis born of a high amount of stress and grief, but now that the clouds are parting and I'm grinning looking over this again, I'm inclined to think that everything is going to be OK.

Sunday, March 06, 2016

The Hannah Callowhill Stage: Eyes on the Prize

Eyes on the prize, Melissa. Eyes on the goddamn prize.

What's the prize? The Hannah Callowhill Stage, with two apartments on top, one to live in and one to rent out, making this whole crazy theater venture financially viable.

What's in the way? A sum of money that doesn't seem all that astronomical if you live in Sydney or San Francisco, or if you earn maybe twice as much as we do, or if you're not in the arts. But to us, it's staggering. And it's money on top of what we paid for the property already.

Most of our "progress" in the eight months since my last significant Hannah update has involved talking to contractors. The general pattern in our interactions with contractors seems to be:
  1. We meet a contractor. They seem nice enough.
  2. The contractor decides if they are interested in or able to do the project. Most contractors are either too big (too busy, or our project will not net them enough profit) or too small (cannot handle structural steel and/or foundation underpinning that the plans require).
  3. If they are interested, the contractor will informally say that they think they can complete this project within our budget, because it really does seem reasonable, but they will need to look into pricing in more detail before giving a thorough estimate that we can use for financing purposes.
  4. The contractor spends a few weeks going over the plans and itemizing their costs, and eventually realizes that this project is going to cost way more than we all thought at first glance.
  5. Matt and I get very disheartened, and I probably cry a little in private.
The first estimate we got was so mind-boggling, Matt and I straight-up shut down for a month. I couldn't talk about it. I couldn't even negotiate with it, because it seems like such a waste of breath to tell a contractor, "Ssssssso, yeah, this estimate? Can you do it for, say, half as much? Because, ummmmmmm HOLY SHIT LOLOLOLLLLL *weeping*"

After months of this dance, however, we may have made a breakthrough this week. I don't want to jinx anything, but we believe we have found a contractor that is a fit for this project. He's competent and knowledgeable (having seen some of the cheap hackwork already in the building, I have no desire to go down that route, especially given the structural elements), and unlike a few of the contractors I've met, he looks me in the eyes when talking to me (as opposed to speaking exclusively to Matt, HEY MEN, DON'T DO THIS—WE NOTICE), and is willing to work with me as someone who can DIY some of the work, especially when it comes to finishing. Many contractors, understandably, are loath to let commissioning clients perform work or have too much input on their own project. It's the same in a lot of industries. You've seen variations on this, right?

But in this situation, (a) I swear, I am pretty good and pretty game at this construction stuff, and (b) we don't have a lot of choice because of financial constraints. I know, those are probably the same justifications and excuses every client uses in this situation. But this contractor believes me, and I think we're going to get on. (As an aside, I am thinking of taking the ICC National General Building Contractor exam—just for shits, since it's not necessary for any certification in Pennsylvania or Philadelphia. I have a copy of the latest International Building Code, which I know my way around reasonably well, taking the exam forces me to bone up, and the knowledge might afford me at least a small amount of cred when working and talking with people in the industry.)

So onto the next hurdle, and it's a big one. Acquiring the money.

In the throng of the Weblinc Christmas party last year, one of Matt's bosses introduced me to a man and told me to explain the Hannah to him. I had no idea who this under-dressed stranger was or what he did (I assumed he was in construction), but I drunkenly did as I was told. The next week, he gave me a call; as it turns out, he's a banker, and he has contacts in the financing industry who can help us get a construction loan in what might be the worst possible time so far this century for non-ultra-rich people like us to qualify for a construction loan. (He also connected us to our contractor, so top marks for this guy.) I filled out a stack of forms in January, marking the third time we have filled out a financing application related to this property. I have become depressingly accustomed to this grind.

There's an uncomfortable chicken-and-egg conundrum when it comes to construction loans. Contractors want to know how much money you can borrow so they can tailor their budget accordingly. Banks want to know what the contractors have budgeted so they can tailor their loan and draw amounts accordingly. It's a stressful dance to figure out how to get everyone on the same page at the same time without having a nervous breakdown looking at the number of zeroes in the rapidly skyrocketing totals. At some point, we hit a ceiling where we realized that the amount we qualify to borrow will be significantly less than the amount of the construction.

And so, we had to make a decision. Do we go all-in?

All-in means that there is a good chance that following this through to completion will zero us out. We'd be betting everything we have on red. We'd be putting all our eggs and chickens in the same handbasket and hoping it's not going to hell. No savings, no investments, no retirement—everything into the Hannah. And more than that, we'd be going into debt, because we still need the construction loan (assuming and hoping like hell we are approved for the amount we asked for this week).

  • When this property is complete, there is a good chance it's going to be valued in the $1 million range, based on current property prices in the area. That's far more than the total cost of the purchase + construction, so if everything goes well, it's an excellent investment. (Also, we'll qualify for the 10-year property tax abatement, so at least we'll have a decade to figure out how to turn a profit before taxes on a million-dollar property kick in.)
  • We're in our mid-30's. We are extraordinarily blessed (#blessed) to have investments and retirement funds and cash. To be honest, many of our friends are not in this position. Even if our bet fails, we still have time to start from scratch and be OK by retirement. Also, we don't have children, which gives us some leeway in taking a risk like this.
  • We're following an entrepreneurial dream, which I believe is a far more worthwhile pursuit than playing it safe by amassing cash. What is the point of hoarding cash if you aren't doing what you want to do when you're still young enough to do it?
  • This goes against every piece of advice I've ever been given about money and risk in my entire goddamn life. 
  • What if President Trump invades Russia and tanks the world economy, and global warming becomes so pronounced that the tidal Delaware River bursts its banks and completely floods out the neighborhood? I mean, we'll all be fucked in that scenario, but I feel like I will be extra bitter about it if I threw every drop of my liquid assets into building a beautiful theater home on a riverbank.
After much keening and hand-wringing, I have made peace with the idea that we're going to go all-in. And surprisingly, after I came to terms with it, I felt a huge sense of relief. There was so much energy and agony going into making the decision to jump, the sickening free-fall doesn't seem so bad by comparison. I just hope my parachute opens.

Please open. Please.

Meanwhile, I'll just keep my eyes on the prize. And work on my opera. I'll be way better at this hands-on construction business if that's out of the way.

Monday, February 22, 2016

The Lola Ridge songs, in one convenient blog post

Three generations of women composers at the Volti Choral Institute: me (duh), high school senior Morgan Orsolini, whose choral work Awaken Again was among those performed, and the incomparable composer/pianist/conductor Sue Bohlin

A few weeks ago, I returned to frigid Philadelphia from California and immediately came down with a nasty case of the flu. My bad for procrastinating getting a flu shot this year until I forgot about it, but I'm also feeling some animosity toward the lady who open-mouth-coughed on me at the Saint Louis Airport on the trip home. I'm sure it was her. 

Then my cat Tripoli passed away last week. She was about 14 and it was her time to go, but both Matt and I are still a bit choked-up over it.

It's time to get back on the horse, though, especially since I am in happy possession of the results of my California trip: live recordings of all of my Lola Ridge songs. To recap: back in 2014, I composed a treble choral setting of an excerpt from Sun-Up by Lola Ridge, a poet whose path from growing up in New Zealand to attending college in Sydney to immigrating to New York mirrors my own journey from Brisbane to Sydney to Philadelphia. She didn't begin writing poetry until she reached America in her thirties, which recalls my own "late" start as a composer in my mid-twenties, a sacrilege in the youth-obsessed world of classical music. And in another parallel with my career, the subject matter of her work was more often than not political and focused on social justice. I wrote about my connection to her and the composition of that first song, It's Strange About Stars in a blog entry at the time.

Bob Geary, the Artistic Director of San-Francisco-based choir Volti (I was their Choral Arts Laboratory composer-in-residence a couple of years ago and wrote The Oath of Allegiance for them) picked up what I was putting down, and approached me about commissioning a couple more songs to complete the set. I wrote Shadows over a cradle... a few months later for a young women's choir he directs, Ancora, then completed Different kinds of shadows last fall for the Volti Choral Institute.

The Choral Institute is a weekend-long gathering for high school choir groups; there's an SATB camp in the fall and an SSAA camp in the winter. Several high school choirs of an exceptionally high standard gather north of San Francisco (near Bohemian Grove!) and spend a weekend learning new music, rehearsing, and participating in workshops. It was wonderful, in all senses of the word. As someone who grew up at a girls' school singing in girl choirs, I felt so completely at home watching these talented and enthusiastic young women sing. And I was so overwhelmed and proud to be their composer—and a woman composer among young women. I tried to inspired them to compose their own works one day (see photo above—one student has already written her own remarkable choir piece, which her choir performed while there!), but more than that, I wanted them to see that the world is theirs if they aren't afraid to express themselves and look beyond whatever boxes society wants to build for them. In part, the proximity to Bohemian Grove made me want to rant: LOOK! OVER THERE! The most powerful men in the world are TERRIFIED of you! The patriarchy has spent thousands of years LITERALLY BURNING TO DEATH women who dare to express themselves and work together and fulfill their potential. They are so scared of you, they have banned you from their ritual costume parties; why else would they do so if you weren't full of such power and potential? They don't want you to rock the boat. ROCK. THE. BOAT. ROCK IT.

I tried to say some of this in a speech toward the end of the weekend, but I got emotional and I'm not sure it came out right.

Nevertheless, here are the videos from the final performance of the Lola Ridge songs, after only a few hours total of rehearsal. The titles above link to the pages on this website where you can download the score (for free!).

Shadows over a cradle...


It's strange about stars...

Different kinds of shadows

*     *     *

Coincidentally, just after I got home, my pre-ordered copy of a new (and the first ever) Lola Ridge biography arrived in the mail: Anything That Burns You: A Portrait of Lola Ridge, Radical Poet, written by Terese Svoboda. It is meticulously researched (over 150 pages of footnotes and bibliography!), and so far a fascinating exploration of a feminist leftist revolutionary whose voice was so ahead of her time—and most importantly, it's a great read. Pick it up: