During a June community meeting hosted by the Austin Dream Project, Beethoven’s famous “Ode to Joy” wafted throughout the aging auditorium of the Catalyst Circle Rock Charter school in Austin, 5608 W Washington Blvd. That day’s rendition was played by the school’s Catalyst Circle Rockets, the school’s Ravinia-sponsored orchestra.
The student-musicians’ powerful sound reverberated throughout the large space, putting many audience members in a similar frame of mind as Edmund Siderewicz, Catalyst Network’s Vice President for Mission and External Relations: ‘Why shouldn’t this assembly hall be a more spruced up location for artists and the performing arts?’
The question has been on Siderewicz’s mind for a long time. It has also been a central focus of the three community partners that comprise the school’s Austin campus —Catalyst Circle Rock Charter School, Circle Urban Ministries and Rock of Our Salvation Church.
“There is a lot of history between us at Catalyst, Urban Ministries and Rock,” said Siderewicz, whose charter school has been working with the two since it was established 10 years ago.
“It means as much to us as it does to them to see this auditorium become a beacon for the community,” he said.
The auditorium is a holdover from the defunct Siena High School, which closed in 1970. The location was then re-opened as the San Miguel School around 1995 before closing in 2012. That year, at the invitation of then-Chicago Public Schools CEO Arne Duncan, the Catalyst Schools network the Catalyst School Circle Rock Campus at the site.
Despite the auditorium’s age, it is still very “solid” structurally, according to River Forrest architect Steve Saunders.
“I first saw the auditorium about five years ago and knew right away it was special,” Saunders said.
“You cannot build this space anywhere in Chicago again. It’s just never going to happen. You’re not going to have the budget. You’re never going to build this solid a building. This venue is ready to be a performing arts theater for the community, for the school, for the church. I think we all have an opportunity to spread the word that there is a secret in the Austin community and it’s [that] facility.”
Siderewicz says that he sees the venue, which seats approximately 970 people, as an epicenter for performing arts and live music in the community. It would host local acts, as well as internationally renowned classical, Jazz and Blues performers.
So far, local elected officials have responded to the proposed renovations favorably, with Aldermen Emma Mitts (37th) and Chris Taliaferro (29th) vocal in their support.
Siderewicz noted that the school was looking to raise roughly $3 million to fund the rehabilitation. He said an ideal time to begin construction would be early next year, which would allow the new and improved facility to reopen in June 2016.
“In some folks’ eyes, Austin is sort of a throwback community where the more negative aspects, like the crime, are the only things that tend to get mentioned,” said Rev. Robert Stevenson, Rock of Our Salvation Church’s pastor.
“However, if we complete the rehab effort on the facility, it will be one of the largest of its kind on the West Side. The facility will house plays, assemblies and concerts. This is exactly what the community needs to both galvanize the community and begin to shake that perception that there is nothing going on in the community but crime.”