Helsinki on the Hudson
Three years on, club is at center of city’s growing music scene
By JOHN TOWNES
When Club Helsinki closed its intimate, eclectic performance space in Great Barrington, Mass., and moved west to Hudson a few years ago, its owners hoped to play a role in the ongoing revitalization of their new hometown.
Today, nearly three years after Helsinki Hudson opened, the club is at the center of a busy music scene that’s taking Hudson’s creative economy to a new level.
“Things were already starting to bubble up in Hudson, and we wanted to help that process along,” explained Deborah McDowell, co-owner of the restaurant, lounge and performance space at 405 Columbia St. “I believe this also helped give others the courage to start new ventures and projects here.”
Getting Helsinki Hudson ready for business actually took more than five years of planning and construction.
McDowell and her business and life partner, Marc Schafler, bought the Helsinki property, which includes a connected cluster of several buildings along Columbia Street, in 2004. Together they had run the Great Barrington version of Club Helsinki since the mid-1990s.
A third partner in the business, Cameron Melville, joined them in 2005. Melville, a California-based music producer with a home in Columbia County, is a rock and blues organist who performs under the name Bo Hammond.
The Helsinki complex, a block north of the city’s main thoroughfare, Warren Street, is anchored by a brick structure built in 1863 as a sash, blind and door factory. Its most recent use before Helsinki Hudson had been as a bus garage and maintenance yard for the local school district.
Today, the Helsinki Hudson complex houses a full-service restaurant and kitchen, two performance spaces, a gallery and an outdoor dining area. To provide a comfortable stay for visiting musicians, it also includes guest housing and green rooms with showers and lounge space. It also has recording and production facilities, offices and other features.
The club’s busy schedule of performances, its acoustics and its associated facilities -- luxurious by the standards of most touring musicians – have helped to put Hudson on the map for performers and aspiring artists.
In the years since Helsinki started construction at its new home, several other major investments in Hudson have focused on music, including the advent of the Basilica Hudson performance space under new ownership near the city’s waterfront -- and the conversion of a former church into a recording studio run by Henry Hirsch, the longtime producer of Lenny Kravitz and other performers.
The result of these and other projects is a music scene that is more than the sum of its parts. In addition to Helsinki, many smaller venues along Warren Street, such as Spotty Dog Books & Ale, now regularly feature live music.
Over the years, Helsinki Hudson and its original incarnation in Great Barrington, Mass., became known for presenting a wide-ranging mix of performers. The club has featured local musicians, up-and-coming national artists and established names in rock, folk, jazz, roots and world music, rhythm-and-blues and other genres.
The roster of musicians that have played at Helsinki Hudson and in Great Barrington has included Ralph Stanley, Guy Clark, Shawn Colvin, Patty Griffin, Pete Seeger, Leo Kottke, Sonny Rollins, Mike Gordon of Phish, Levon Helm, The Blind Boys of Alabama, The Tom Tom Club, Odetta, Steve Earle, Mose Allison, Michelle Shocked, Burning Spear and many others.
“Booking is a complicated, full-time job, but our criteria is straightforward,” McDowell said. “We look for quality performers that we believe will appeal to audiences.”
The club, she added, works to develop relationships with musicians over time and make them feel at home during their visits.
“We get behind artists early, and they tend to come back as their careers grow,” she said, citing the singer Norah Jones as an example.
Although its entertainment offerings have given it a high profile, McDowell stressed that food has always been at the center of Helsinki’s business. Like its music, the club’s cuisine is eclectic, reflecting both the Southern heritage of executive chef Hugh Horner and influences from Europe and other cultures, with an emphasis on local ingredients.
“The restaurant is the heart and soul of this,” McDowell said. “Unlike some music venues, where the food is an afterthought, we view food as an art form in itself.”
McDowell said cultivating community is as much of a priority as commerce for her and her partners.
“We certainly want this to be a successful business that can support ourselves and our employees,” she said. “But our real goal is to foster a sense of community by providing a refuge where people can congregate together and enjoy good food, good music and the arts.”
Helsinki Hudson traces its origins to the Helsinki Tea Company, a café McDowell first opened in 1995 in Great Barrington.
McDowell, who grew up in Maine, said she had the goal of combining food and community from the start.
“At that time, Great Barrington was rather quiet, and I wanted to create a relaxed place where people could gather without TVs around,” she said.
She noted that it was a natural enterprise for her, as she grew up in a family of creative artists and members of the hospitality industry. (The name is drawn from the Helsinki Hotel, a business in Finland that her grandfather managed and that she visited as a child.)
Schafler, who is also a builder and designer, became her partner about two years after the café opened. They subsequently expanded by creating Club Helsinki, a music venue in a small adjacent space.
The club soon became a popular nightspot that presented more than 1,500 shows -- a mix of emerging and established musicians -- and other activities.
“Great Barrington was Helsinki's home for 15 years, and it was a wonderful experience,” McDowell said. “We became deeply entwined in the local community in ways I hadn't expected. It also helped to stimulate other activity in the town. We might have stayed there if we had been able to.”
But she said they were limited by the small size of the rented space Helsinki occupied, which prompted them to look for a larger facility that they could purchase and adapt to their vision of a multifaceted restaurant and performance space.
When the site in Hudson became available, they decided to buy it and move the business there. Their former space in Great Barrington could accommodate about 80 people; Helsinki Hudson can handle an audience about three times that size.
In addition to the opportunity to expand on their concept, McDowell noted that she and Schafler already had lived in Columbia County for many years. His family ran the former Camp Natchez in Copake. So Hudson was hardly foreign territory.
“Marc has lived around here all his life, and I've been here for 30 years,” she said. “As residents of this area, we were excited about having an opportunity to give Hudson a lift.”
Like many small cities that were once dependent on heavy industry, Hudson has had to contend with its share economic and social challenges, including poverty, a struggling working class and economic polarization.
But although these continue to be issues for Hudson, the city has been undergone a dramatic revitalization over the past two decades, spurred in part by an influx of creative people, many with ties to metropolitan New York City. (Hudson is a two-hour ride from Manhattan on Amtrak’s high-speed line to Albany.)
Hudson’s transformation has taken many forms, including new businesses and creative organizations and venues.
McDowell said that although Hudson reflects larger national patterns, it is also a singular community. She said there is much more intermingling and sense of common purpose among people in different economic situations and ethnic and social backgrounds than is the case in many localities.
“Hudson is a unique place,” she said. “In one sense, its history represents a typical tale of what has happened with the degradation of smaller cities across the country. But it is also a lively community that is an amalgam of what's best about this country. It's been experiencing a resurgence based on that.”
McDowell emphasized she and her partners see Helsinki Hudson as a resource for the entire community.
“We strive to be inclusive, and everyone is invited to be a part of what we do,” she said.
In addition to Helsinki’s culinary and creative roles, and its offer of job opportunities, McDowell said the club makes its space available for a variety of community events and activities, such as a benefit for Habitat for Humanity that was held in late January. The club also sponsors programs like a summer band camp at which local young people have an opportunity to interact with professional musicians.
Helsinki’s move to Hudson required a major restoration and conversion. It took nearly five years from the purchase before Helsinki closed its Great Barrington location in 2009, and it was another year before it reopened in Hudson in 2010.
McDowell explained that she and her partners were very meticulous about the design and construction of the new space. They used local builders, artisans and suppliers, and they incorporated green technologies and principles of adaptive re-use.
“We knew exactly what we wanted here, and we had very detailed ideas,” she said. “We also viewed this as creating a facility that would be a permanent legacy for Hudson. So we wanted to take the time to do it right.”
The extensive planning and work is apparent in the club’s lively interior, which incorporates a mix of brick and wood and other vestiges of its industrial origins with more polished contemporary elements and furnishings, including chandeliers and colorful lighting. The furnishings incorporate antiques and salvaged objects.
The first floor of the main building is divided into a restaurant and lounge and the primary performance space, which slopes slightly downward towards the stage. Between the two sections is a movable partition that can be opened or closed to accommodate audiences of different sizes. There’s also an open ballroom upstairs that is used for community activities and private functions.
Helsinki Hudson draws its audience from a mix of places: Hudson and Columbia County; the Berkshires; the Capital District and other adjacent regions as well as the New York City area and sometimes beyond.
McDowell noted that particular musicians develop followings of fans who sometimes travel considerable distances to see their shows.
“Recently, someone flew in from Texas to see a particular performer here,” she said.
She added that this has helped to raise the profile of Hudson.
“One advantage is that it introduces Hudson to people who had never heard of the city before coming here for a performance,” she said. “They discover everything else that Hudson has to offer, and they tell other people about it when they go home, which helps to spread the word.”