The Look Ahead for Church Street School's New Home, and Renewed Life

Lisa Ecklund-Flores, director and co-founder of the Church Street School for Music and Art, at the entrance to the school's new home in the former Flea Theater on White Street. Photo: Carl Glassman/Tribeca Trib

Dec. 19, 2017

“My head started swimming.”

That’s how Lisa Ecklund-Flores felt when she first laid eyes on what will become the new home of Church Street School for Music and Art. On Feb. 1, the 27-year-old institution that she heads and co-founded will open on the three levels of the former Flea Theater at 41 White St., moving from its current Warren Street location.

It had been two years since Ecklund-Flores began “yelling from the mountaintop,” as she puts, warning that the school needed a way out of its financial squeeze, brought on by an untenable rent and the neighborhood’s soaring real estate market. No workable, affordable space to rent or buy had materialized by the end of the school’s fiscal year in August. With Church Streets $48,000 monthly rent plus monthly arrears of another $15,000, Ecklund-Flores said, “I realized we couldn’t go on like that.” Efforts, she said, to convince the landlord to discount the rent, reduce the arears or take back some of the rented space had all failed.

Just about then she walked into 41 White Street, vacated by The Flea in advance of its move to Thomas Street. “When I saw the space and the way it was laid out,” she recalled, “I realized it really could house all of our programs without me having to go through an extensive renovation or a long period of time of trying to do a capital campaign.”

She saw that the two former performance spaces could be used for recitals or, with the addition of acoustical partitions, could be divided into classrooms. Going down to the lower second level Ecklund-Flores went from one small room to the next, turning lights on in what had been dressing rooms. “There’s like 10 little rooms, as if somebody had built me practice rooms. I couldn’t believe it!”

“The thing that’s great about that space is that it can accommodate all of the things we do here in a really beautiful way,” she said. “Nothing has to change about our operations.”

And then there is the monthly rent: At $25,000, it is a yearly savings of about $200,000.

The new space is 1,500 square feet smaller than the current one and in the beginning some after-school lessons will be given at PS 234. “We have to be creative about how we use the space,” she said.

In the next few days the school is expected to sign its lease with owner Benchmark Real Estate Group, which bought 41 and 45 White Street after The Flea’s departure. The all-black spaces will need to be painted (“yellows and blues and ivories, so that everybody feels like it’s the same place”) and new floors put down. But any major renovations, yet to be determined, have to wait at least until the summer, Ecklund-Flores said. For the coming spring semester, staff will be on hand to help get strollers up and down stairs at the entrance. The estimated cost of the move, much of it going towards the painting, Ecklund-Flores said, is $75,000 and “I’m scraping that together.”

This will be the school’s third move. It left its original home, up a steep flight of stairs at 311 Church Street, in 1996. Ecklund-Flores said she likes the idea of being back in the neighborhood where it all started, as well as the “old Tribeca” feel of White Street. But it’s farther from some local schools, and she said she is aware that this will mean some adjustments for families.

“We’re trying really hard to think of every nuance of that difficulty so that we can make that transition smooth for them,” she said. “I hope that they’ll come to us on White Street, just like they came to us on Warren.”