The Drake is saved, with a twist

A live performance venue is being built in Downtown Amherst, borrowing the name “The Drake”

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Lynus Erickson / Daily Collegian

By Mustafa Almutawa, Collegian Correspondent

In coordination with Amherst Business Improvement District (BID), the Downtown Amherst Foundation (DAF) is building a live performance and music venue called The Drake, filling a gap in the Amherst cultural and recreational scene: a space for live performance of all types.

The Drake will be located on the second floor of the bank building at 24 N Pleasant St., replacing the High Horse, a restaurant and bar which closed shortly before the pandemic hit in March 2020. Plans for the grand opening of The Drake are set for winter 2022.

The namesake of an old bar on Amity Street, The Drake is an attempt at nostalgia yet also a venture towards creating economic development, vibrancy and diversity in Downtown Amherst, expressed Gabrielle Gould, the volunteer executive director of DAF and employed executive director of Amherst BID.

“Save The Drake” and “For Willy, For Humanity” are two graffiti writings that have lived for years on the west side of the Amherst Cinema Building, commemorating an old bar inside the Drake hotel which closed in 1985. The latter graffiti refers to bartender Willie Whitfield, who operated the rathskeller (basement bar) at the Drake.

Unlike the old Drake, however, the new Drake is neither just a bar nor exclusive for a specific age group. The Drake aims to be an all-welcoming, rich arts and culture destination. “This will be Amherst’s first dedicated live performance and music space,” Gould said.

The Drake will be open for individuals of all ages, and will program all types of performances: live music, improv, spoken word, and comedy, to name a few. The venue will also work on hosting art gallery shows, community events, and science nights. “We’re really trying to cross the arts,” Gould said.

Still, in addition to being primarily a performance and community space, The Drake will also have a full-service bar that will offer beer, wine and cocktails operated by Lincoln Allen, who managed the bar at Amherst Coffee. The bar will serve “classic and original cocktails, and a small but solid lineup of local draft beer and a natural leaning wine list,” Allen said.

A jazz musician himself, Allen said, “the performance opportunities in Amherst were few and far between, and not many were ideal for a jazz setting.”

“The Drake can influence things with both regional and national acts as well as strong local music programming.” Allen said.  He is excited to “see the space develop a life of its own and become a cultural cornerstone of the community.”

Several local partnerships are involved in completing and running The Drake. Klondike Sound LLC of Greenfield, MA, is providing an integrated audio, sound and lighting system.

Together with DAF, Laudable Productions, a media production company based in Easthampton, MA, will lend its event planning expertise to program the performance space.

Working with professional event programmers and bringing state-of-the-art sound, lighting and staging, The Drake wants to be the place where people can see the next rising star while also featuring world renowned artists. Additionally, being a destination for visitors and locals alike, The Drake hopes to build a community, forge connections and drive collaborations.

The space is being designed by Kuhn Riddle Architects, a local design and architecture firm based in Amherst. The firm has been involved in all phases of the project starting form “the conceptual level,” according to Jonathan Salvon, a principal and owner at the firm.

Two of the architects directly involved in the design — John Kuhn, a founder of and principal emeritus at Kuhn Riddle, and Brad Hutchison — are also musicians on some level. “Between the two of them, they kind of bring the wealth of the practical side of what makes for a good performance space,” Salvon said.

Work is currently underway to demolish the former place occupying the site in order to create “a big, beautiful, open space,” Gould said. The new space can house around 130-150 people when seated, and 180 during not-seated events. The renovations will supplement the space with a stage, green room, dressing room, and a lounge.

As initial seed funding for The Drake, a total of $175,000, was awarded to the Amherst BID by the Massachusetts Office of Business Development’s Regional Pilot Project Grant. From its side, the Amherst BID contributed $80,000 to this project to “build state-of-the-art light and sound equipment for the stage,” Gould said.

Gould said The Drake has also asked for $300,000 American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds from the town of Amherst. ARPA is a federal financial aid that was signed into law to help economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic.

More funding for the project is sought through donations. The Drake is seeking $250,000, which it will match with a matching grant, bringing it to a total of $500,000. Donations can be made through Patronicity, or by check/cash to Downtown Amherst Foundation at 35 S Pleasant St., Amherst, MA 01002.

Mustafa Almutawa can be reached at [email protected].