This time last year, the venerable old building at 10th and Spring Garden streets was a Spaghetti Warehouse, cramming ’em in daily with sickeningly huge plates of cheap pasta. The restaurant is history, but starting next month, three of Philadelphia’s longtime entertainment and nightlife entrepreneurs—with the help of some major out-of-town players—hope to keep the place packed with much tastier fare of the musical variety.
The building’s being transformed into Union Transfer, an all-ages, indie-rock-centric concert venue designed to fill a niche between such smaller rooms as Johnny Brenda’s and Kung Fu Necktie and larger joints like the Electric Factory and the Tower Theater; going for that sweet spot where intimacy and amenities collide. It opens Sept. 21 with the reunited Clap Your Hands Say Yeah; the fall also brings Odd Future, Wild Flag, Mogwai, Gillian Welch, St. Vincent, Boris and Kurt Vile, among others, to the venue.
UT’s co-owners? Avram Hornik and Mark Fichera of 4 Corners Management, whose stable of Philly bars includes Drinker’s Pub, Lucy’s and Noche; R5 Productions honcho Sean Agnew, who’s been promoting shows around town since the mid ’90s; and Bowery Presents—the N.Y.C.-based promotions company that operates such esteemed clubs to our north as Bowery Ballroom, Music Hall of Williamsburg and Mercury Lounge.
“It’s been a dream team of people working together—people who have a great understanding of the market, what people want, what the bands want, and what a great live music venue should be,” says Hornik, who’ll oversee UT’s day-to-day operations.
It’s an early morning last week, and Hornik’s walking around the still-unfinished space as construction workers prepare to remove three central support columns that reach to the cathedral-like rafters some 60 feet above. In its distant past, the aesthetically impressive building was a railway baggage depot, and Union Transfer is keeping much of that vintage interior intact—the warm wood walls, teardrop chandeliers and stained glass windows are being restored. They’ll sneak in a few modern touches, too, such as a large video projection of an old railroad station flipboard on the lobby wall that’ll announce upcoming shows.
“You walk in and it feels good already, so we didn’t really have to force very much onto the space,” says Hornik, who touts the 200 parking spaces behind the building and the central location in the city as further reasons why they grabbed the spot.
While the building was large enough to make UT a 2,000-capacity venue, the owners instead chose to divide the space to provide for a large lobby, a separate bar/party area, big bathrooms, a coat check, a no-fee box office, backstage dressing rooms, a huge load-in area, and a bi-level performance room that can fit anywhere from 600 to 1,000 people (the uniquely constructed stage can be moved up to 25 feet, depending on the show). On the ground floor, there’s multi-level viewing areas and a back bar; above, there’s a horseshoe-style, 21-and-over balcony with a bar and some grandstand-style seating. “Sight lines and sound come first,” says Bowery Presents General Manager Jesse Mann, who claims UT’s high-tech sound system is the best in the city. “People are going to be blown away by the clarity and resonance and separation,” he says.
In charge of booking the space, Agnew’s bringing in indie-rock, alt-country, hip-hop, underground metal and more, and he looks forward to doing shows at a proper venue. “Where you basically walk in and flip on the switch and you don’t have to load a PA system down the steps or spend three hours moving daycare furniture out of the way,” he says, referring to the basement of First Unitarian Church, where Agnew and R5 have put on punk and indie shows for more than a decade. Despite the new gig, Agnew says R5 will continue doing shows at the Church (as well as the Barbary, Johnny Brenda’s and elsewhere).
“The idea is to keep bands that have some familiarity with DIY at the church, and have the bands who are kind of beyond that over at Union Transfer,” says Agnew, who adds that tickets for UT shows will essentially remain at established R5 prices (generally in the $12 to $20 range) “because now we have the auxiliary income [from liquor sales, concessions and parking] so we don’t have to live and die by ticket prices.”
And even with the still-shaky economy, Hornik says the time is right for a new music venue in Philly. “People are still demanding entertainment, that hasn’t changed,” he says. “They always want a place to go where they can hang out, be entertained for a good price, have all the comforts they want, and be treated kindly and with respect. That’s what we’re all about. Hopefully we’re able to provide that for a long time."
We’re going to say it: This moment RIGHT NOW is the most exciting in Philadelphia’s storied music history. Truthfully. No exaggeration. Gamble and Huff be damned.
PW's Holiday Guide 2014