By ALEXANDER MACDOUGALL
When Chris Freeman was in eighth grade, his father took him to the Iron Horse Music Hall for his first concert at the venue, where he was immediately entranced by the atmosphere, sitting at one of the tables by the wall plastered with pictures of musicians while listening to the opening act.
“I remember just thinking, ‘If I can do that, if I can open the show at the Iron Horse, I’ll have made it,’” he recalled.
Now Freeman is about to do more than just open a show — next May, he’ll be reopening the 20 Center St. venue itself, not long after the 45th anniversary of the music hall’s founding and four years after former owner Eric Suher closed it during the pandemic and never reopened it.
As executive director of The Parlor Room Collective, the nonprofit organization that bought the Iron Horse in September from Suher, Freeman is overseeing interior renovations that will yield not only more space for patrons but spiffy new digs for performers, along with a new kitchen and restaurant.
In order to pay for these improvements by the time the venue is scheduled for its grand reopening on May 1, the Parlor Room is in the middle of a $750,000 capital campaign through which its board members are asking for donations from the community.
“We already have some amazing supporters that are helping this come together,” Freeman said. “We really are just trying to kind of rally community support to be like, this is a special place that Northampton has that nowhere else has.”
Once it reopens, Iron Horse plans on featuring acts spanning an electic array of genres and singer-songwriters to grace its music stage.
Improvements to Iron Horse will be extensive. During a walk-through of the space this fall, Freeman outlined some of the changes in the works.
Patrons can expect many improvements, including tripling the number of bathrooms and relocating them upstairs for greater accessibility, upgrading its HVAC and sprinkler systems, installing new furniture and revamping the seating layout, and updating menu offerings in partnership with Dave Schrier, owner of the Daily Operation restaurant in Easthampton.
“It’ll be a whole new menu, a whole new dining and overall experience here,” Freeman said. “He (Schrier) will also be helping us design the bar menu and drink lists.”
For artists, Iron Horse’s green room, the space where performers prepare and wait offstage, will undergo a complete overhaul. Additionally, the work calls for new private bathrooms with a shower for artists and a state-of-the-art sound and lighting system for the stage.
The conditions of the green room had been a subject of criticism by performers when the venue was under Suher’s ownership.
“It’s pretty known to be horrible,” said Randy Krotowski, who serves as president of the board for the Parlor Room. “We’re going to put a bathroom down there with a shower for the artists, and a whole bunch of infrastructure.”
Lastly, the organization plans on expanding the venue to next door, creating a new bar where concertgoers can hang out before the show starts. The space had been occupied by a Christian bookstore until Dec. 1.
“We’re going to add some accessibility to the stage, we’re going to redo the kitchen because that’s always been a nightmare,” Krotowski said. “And the only way we could redo the kitchen or bathrooms was to acquire the space next door.”
Freeman said that the planned changes to the venue, along with the fundraising necessary to implement them, were the result of the Parlor Room seeking community input on what people wanted to see when the music hall reopens for the first time since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We’ve had posts on Facebook where we asked what people are looking for in a revived Iron Horse, all the way to just people knocking on the door and telling me what they want when I’m sitting in here,” Freeman said. “Everybody knows how special this place is for our community as a whole, and everybody feels ownership over it already.”
The purchase of Iron Horse by the Parlor Room was the culmination of a series of efforts by the city to get Suher to either sell or reopen his music venues, beginning when the License Commission revoked one of his liquor licenses in February before returning it on the condition that he either reopen or sell his venues by September.
Before the deadline, Suher sold the Iron Horse to the Parlor Room for $150,000. He also sold the Green Room down the street to the Berkshire Farm Collective, a cannabis retailer, for $75,000, and transferred the liquor license for The Basement to downtown Cajun restaurant Gombo. At the September deadline, Suher also announced he was selling the Calvin Theater to The Bowery Presents, which runs 25 music venues in cities including Boston and New York.