Circle Continues as Recording Studio is Demolished for Elementary Program

October 4, 2018 / Andrea Wenger
Elementary students watch the demolition of the music studio at the former MennoMedia building, which is being renovated to house Eastern Mennonite K-5 program. Photo by Heidi Byler.
Elementary students watch the demolition of the music studio at the former MennoMedia building, which is being renovated to house Eastern Mennonite K-5 program. Photo by Heidi Byler.

“Will the Circle Be Unbroken?” asked — and sang — the 2018 Eastern Mennonite School Touring Choir in spring of 2018. It was the last recording made at the 37-year old Alive Studios.

With the renovation of the the former MennoMedia building for Eastern Mennonite Elementary School (EMES), the musical circle will not be broken, even as the recording studio was demolished in late September.

Music is an integral part of all our programming at EMES,” says music teacher Joy Anderson. “This renovated space is going to ‘hear’ the sounds of children making music daily, whether it is in class or at a community gathering, lunchtime prayer, or outside. It’s a beautiful continuation of the studio’s legacy to renovate the building into a new place to nurture young voices.”

The studio and MennoMedia warehouse were built in 1981. When EMS purchased the MennoMedia building in 2017, the school hoped to avoid demolition of the studio. “It was extremely well built — like a bunker — and one of the best studios in the region,” says Mike Stoltzfus, director of business affairs.

A diverse group of artists — many with Mennonite connections, but not all — recorded there over the years including EMS choirs, Eastern Mennonite University Chamber Singers, the folk-rock group Reunion Vocal Band and Valley artists. According to “legend,” a notable recording artist to use the space was Dave Matthews Band in one of their early demos. [This, and other stories from the studio, will be explored in a future article].

Stoltzfus led efforts to avoid demolition. The team explored repurposing the space, collaborating with area universities, joining with others to create a commercial recording studio, or even moving the studio to another site. “In the end, nothing we explored made sense from a financial perspective,” says Stoltzfus.

With the studio down and other demolition complete, renovation can begin. The main building and former warehouse will house classrooms with natural light and convenient access to water and kitchen equipment for hands-on learning. On the southwest side of the building, where the studio actually stood, there will be a mix of green space, play area, offices, and, eventually, a community gathering space.

Maria Archer K-8 principal who has led the elementary school since it launched in 2005, has an additional personal full-circle connection. “I actually recorded a demo tape in that studio in 1985… when I had visions of becoming a country music singer,” she says, remembering singing into a microphone while playing piano. “I remember Abe [Rittenhouse] saying, when I recorded my original song ‘Like a Fire,’ ‘I can hear Kenny Rogers singing this one.’ I think he was trying to be encouraging.”

Archer and other school leaders are encouraged today by the progress on the Let the Children Come campaign. More than $3.2 million in donations and pledges came in from generous donors by July 1, 2018. Paul Leaman, head of school, is committed to raising an additional $1 million by January 1, 2019. The immediate goal is to complete classrooms and offices; longer term the project will include a community gathering space, which is integral to the elementary curriculum and will be available as a rental facility for the community.

The Future and Why We Sing

EMS is committed to keeping the circle of strong a cappella singing alive and flourishing, according to Paul Leaman, head of school. “Singing together builds community, is key for faith formation, helps us memorize Scripture references and other text that will serve us for a lifetime, and honors our Creator,” he reflects.

Read more about at “Why We Sing” by current music teacher and choral director, Jared Stutzman, and watch a Wednesday morning music chapel when students 6-12 sang the four-part a capella song, “When Peace Like A River,” and the worship song, ‘In Christ Alone.

Follow the progress of Let the Children Come campaign here.

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