The newly renovated Nathaniel Allen House — a former home and school that once served as a stop on the Underground Railroad, providing shelter to escaped enslaved people — is gradually opening as a center for arts and culture.
The Newton Cultural Alliance purchased the Greek Revival home in West Newton in 2012 and plans to provide performance, rehearsal, and office space for arts and culture organizations.
Managing Director Adrienne Hartzell Knudsen said the Allen Center’s new role will honor the legacy of the home’s former owner, educator and abolitionist Nathaniel Allen.
“He really had a forward thinking philosophy,” Hartzell Knudsen said. “So, one of the things that we hope to do with this building is to have some forward thinking kinds of creative activity.”
The alliance renovated the property with funding from the Newton Community Preservation Program, Massachusetts Historical Rehabilitation Tax Credits, the Massachusetts Cultural Facilities Fund, and private contributions.
The pandemic began six weeks before contractors had expected to finish the renovation, Hartzell Knudsen said. Once the state lifted restrictions on construction, she said the project’s completion was delayed until late December due to contractor schedule conflicts.
Hartzell Knudsen said it’s unclear when the center can safely host indoor performances, but she hopes to have outdoor concerts with small ensembles this summer.
The alliance plans to eventually hold theater and musical performances, as well as literary programs such as poetry readings and author talks. The performance space, located in what was formerly a carriage barn, has a capacity of 120 people without social distancing measures.
The group has installed recording equipment in the space so they can provide digital access to their performances, Hartzell Knudsen said, but the engineers and equipment is expensive.
“There are always going to be audiences that are not prepared to go out,” Hartzell Knudsen said. “They like the fact that they can sit in their living room and watch their giant screens.”
Steve Laven, a cellist and chair of the Repertoire Committee at Pro Arte Chamber Orchestra, said he was impressed by the center’s high ceiling and acoustics.
“It was just so alive but not too bright and very warm acoustics,” Laven said. “I really enjoyed playing in there.”
Laven said he recorded a cello concert using the center’s audio equipment, and he plans to release it online.
Julia Wong, a violinist and interim concert master of the New Philharmonia Orchestra, said she and her fellow musicians have held small group rehearsals of mostly string players in the center.
“There’s definitely kind of experimentation going on with placements of players, numbers of players and things that we can adjust in the environment to try to kind of add a little bit of nuance to the sounds that we’re making,” Wong said.
Hartzell Knudsen said she sees potential for children’s educational programming in spaces such as a science classroom on the second floor. She said the group plans to add landscaping to the center’s outdoor spaces so it can host weddings and private events.
The organization also expanded the basement and installed a geothermal heating and air conditioning system, Hartzell Knudsen said. The basement will include a green room for performers and an art gallery.
Artists Grey and Leslie Held plan to create and donate colorful fabric collages to decorate the grand staircase. The finished products, Grey said, will be several times larger than the collages he and his wife have created in the past.
Grey said the space provides the potential for more collaboration among art organizations.
“I just was blown away at the transformation of the Allen House,” Grey said. “I’ve never seen anything like it personally. We don’t really have an art center, so this is hopefully going to be a hub.”
Allison Pirog can be reached at email@example.com.