LANSING, N.Y. –– There are few things more quintessential to small town America than the modest but venerable town church. They host life in their pews, soothing the sharp bite of sorrow, and celebrating moments of joy. Every Sunday morning service is a kind of performance –– one that speaks to the souls of attendees and nourishes their spirits.
However, as times change, so does small town America. The modest but venerable town church has in many places given way to new suburban buildings with modern design and plenty of parking, or consolidated with larger and wealthier congregations, or simply closed as people moved away or moved on. For those churches, the pews sit empty, and the pulpit is still –– the performance is over.
Once in a rare while, though, an old church finds a new life. For the Faith Bible Fellowship Church building on Auburn Road in Lansing, a new performance will lift spirits beneath its rafters once again, thanks to the Savage Club of Ithaca.
Haven’t heard of the Savage Club? Don’t worry, a lot of Ithacans haven’t.
“It’s one of Ithaca’s best kept secrets!” said club President Jack Roscoe. “It’s (a group) dedicated to enhance life through music, spoken word and fellowship.”
As with many things in and around the area, the Savage Club has origins on East Hill amidst Cornell’s hallowed halls. In 1895, the Cornell Glee, Mandolin and Banjo Club went to London to root on the university rowing crew team in the Henley regatta. Even more so than now, that was a time-consuming and costly endeavor. When they arrived in London, a local organization named the Savage Club gave them housing and set them up with a concert venue so they could raise money through ticket sales to buy their fares back to Ithaca.
As for the club’s behavior, there’s nothing Savage but a surname. According to Roscoe, the Savage Club of London was a typical English literary club, named after Richard Savage, an obscure port, on the theory that even the lesser-liked deserved to be given a hearing. Among its members are W.S. Gilbert of Gilbert and Sullivan, Charlie Chaplin, and King George VI. The Cornellians enjoyed their visit, and when they came back, they wrote for permission to establish a Savage Club in Ithaca, and 125 years of continuous operation later, they’re still going strong.
“There’s 40 of us, a lot of long-term members, many who have been around 40, 50 years. There’s a deep sense of camaraderie in the club. We gather around when someone is sick,” said Roscoe.
For a while, the Savage Club’s primary events were the concerts they would give at Cornell reunions, a tradition going back to the 1920s. However, in more recent years, the club has taken on a more philanthropic role. In 2005, it incorporated as a non-profit, raising and donating money to youth pursuing the performing arts in order to foster the Savage Club’s vision of life and encourage young people to engage in performance throughout their lives.
“We raise money in our concerts, and we donate it to young people with musical interests. From our own funds, we have donated $35,000 over the past five years. There are some organizations in the county that do the work we like to sponsor, like Running to Places (theater), Vitamin L chorus, Triphammer Arts, the Ithaca Opera and Flight Voice Academy, where we help pay for tuition for vocal students,” said Roscoe. He’s been a member for about fifteen years, and president for a decade.
“Little Apple Fall Follies is our other big endeavor. LAFF is a concert the Savage Club has been doing for eleven years with the Ithaca Rotary Club. We raise money through ticket sales and advertising for our sponsorships and grants. We did have to cancel it this year because of COVID, but that concert has raised $122,000 since it started, and is responsible for all of the rotary club’s community grants, as well as renewing the Savage Club’s coffers.”
As organizations go, the Savage Club is not a wild, scandalous affair –– the organization and its 40 some-odd members are not about to turn a former house of worship into an adult frat house. Think of it as more of a local, mature Glee Club.
“We basically get together as a group once a month, have dinner and our business meeting, and have our entertainment, we get up and perform – singing, poetry, magic,” Roscoe said.
“He continued, “the club has a folk music offshoot, a rock and roll band, a jazz group and men’s chorus that rehearse independently. We perform across the county, at nursing homes, Longview, Kendal…we always do New Year’s Eve at Oak Hill Manor, from 3 o’clock through the ringing in of the New Year. It’s always a treat to see people start waving their hands and smile when we start. Music penetrates and lasts in the mind for a long time.”
In all of its 125 years of existence, the Savage Club has never had a permanent home. According to Roscoe, for years they’d find a restaurant that wasn’t open on Sundays, park a piano in their parking space and meet there. In more recent years, they rented storage for all their historic memorabilia at the South Hill Business Campus and were able to use its conference rooms for meetings.
“We always had it in our mind to get a clubhouse, a place we could have as permanent –– we plan to be around for another 100 years. Having a home has been on our bucket list,” Roscoe said. “We ran across this church and had a look at it. We couldn’t have designed a more perfect space; it has everything we need. The sanctuary space seats about 100, it still has all the pews and beautiful woodwork, very nice sound, it doesn’t even need paint. The basement is a community room for meals and office space, and it has a pretty big parking lot. We made an offer and they pretty much accepted it right away.”
Roscoe said the Savage Club is looking to close on the building in one to two weeks and start moving in right away.
For those worried about the church’s historic integrity, don’t be. Apart from some concrete patching in the basement to fix old water damage, putting on new gutters and refinishing the floor, there won’t be any significant changes to the building. It will be the club’s meeting and dinner space, rehearsal space and occasional performance space for the club and similar organizations. The Lansing Star reports that the special use permit from the town was unanimously issued, on the stipulations that performances end by 11 p.m. and that no one park on the road.
While COVID-19 is putting an indefinite delay on plans for an opening concert, Roscoe says the first event will likely be an outdoor chicken BBQ later this month, after the deed is in their possession and the move-in has commenced.
“I miss getting together. The COVID experience has put an end to our meetings and singing and we don’t have any rehearsals. But our rock band still plays at local watering holes and wineries. We’re really looking forward to an end of this social isolation so we can started up again,” he said.
So in sum, a venerable, modest former church built with good intentions is starting a new life with a modest, venerable organization with good intentions. An unusual pair? Perhaps. But maybe it’s a match made in Heaven.