It’s a new season at Knox Building
Thursday, December 20, 2018
By GUY D’ASTOLFO
The Knox Building is taking entertainment to a new level.
Better make that plural, because events now take place on three floors.
At street level, the building at 110 W. Federal St., downtown, continues to house The Federal restaurant and bar.
But the second floor has been turned into an urban performance space for concerts and parties, with brick walls and a vintage tin-plate ceiling.
And one level above that, the Funny Farm comedy club stages weekend shows in a cabaret room that doubles as the home of the Youngstown Cinema movie series.
What: Lemon Grove Winter Solstice Party
When: Friday at 9 p.m.
Where: Second floor of the Knox Building, 110 W. Federal St., Youngstown; enter through The Federal bar and restaurant
Tickets: $12 at the door; $10 in advance at eventbrite.com
Built more than a century ago, the Knox Building had a long run as a 5-and-10 department story during the city’s heyday, with retail space on every level and a small restaurant on one of the upper floors.
Jacob Harver, who opened the Lemon Grove bar-restaurant in 2009, headed up a purchase of the Knox Building in 2012, and has been slowly transforming the long-abandoned upper floors for public occupancy. His efforts are finally taking shape.
“We opened the original Lemon Grove in 2009 and quickly realized that all of the things we asked it to do didn’t fit in that small space,” he said. The Lemon Grove was originally two doors down, in the space now occupied by O’Donold’s Pub.
“We did comedy and music and art, and were a coffee shop, bar and restaurant, all in one place,” said Harver. “Trying to run a movie theater in the same space as a restaurant didn’t work. That’s what’s great about having several floors. You don’t have to compromise.”
Acquiring the Knox Building not only provided ample space, but long-term security, he said.
After a few false starts, Harver partnered with brothers Dan and Joey Martini to run the restaurant. That was six years ago, and it allowed Harver to turn his focus to the rest of the building.
A lot of work has been done on the upper floors. Decades’ worth of clutter has been cleared, windows have been replaced, fire alarms installed, walls painted and a ticket booth and bar have been added.
Still, the space retains an authentic rough edge that adds to its warehouse charm, with exposed brick and high ceilings.
Harver has booked concerts and art shows on the second floor – which has been dubbed the Lemon Grove – in recent years, but his efforts got a huge boost in September when the Funny Farm Comedy Club started doing weekly shows on the third floor.
Harver hasn’t limited his efforts to the Knox Building. In recent weeks, he has been driving a pedicab – a pedal-powered open-air taxi – in downtown Youngstown.
Pedicabs are a common sight in big cities, and Harver had been looking to get one for Youngstown’s entertainment district. He purchased a used one from a dealer in Virginia and has been shuttling patrons between bars and restaurants, Covelli Centre, Powers Auditorium and the new Doubletree Hotel, for a small fee.
“We’ve always been a close-knit community down here, and the pedicab connects the businesses,” said Harver, who expects even more riders once the downtown amphitheater opens next summer.
Next up at the Knox Building is the annual Winter Solstice Party, which will take place Friday on the second floor. The event will include four bands, plus visual artist Ryan Johnquest, who will provide a unique projection mapping light show to add to the atmosphere.
Harver has been throwing solstice parties at the Lemon Grove for at least a decade, but this year’s event will be the biggest one so far.
“The Lemon Grove space is a great room, and the sound is great,” he said. “Visually, it will also look awesome, and it will be an amazing show for the solstice.”
The music lineup is impressive, with Pittsburgh’s indie-experimental act the Van Allen Belt, long-time Youngstown favorites Rebreather and another local act in Whiskey Pilot. The show will be Van Allen Belt’s first since returning from a tour of Europe.
The headliner will be Pittsburgh-based hip-hop duo Grand Buffet, in their first Youngstown show since 2009.
Youngstown was once a regular stop for the wickedly funny act 10 to 15 years ago, with memorable shows at Cedars and the old Nyabinghi.
In recent years, Grand Buffet has been mostly invisible, although both members – Lord Grunge and Jackson – have returned as solo artists.
Friday’s reunion show should be ... grand. But Lord Grunge points out that they haven’t had a single rehearsal (he blames Jackson for this), so he’s not certain if it will turn out OK.
In an email, he offered two possible scenarios:
“Two seasoned veterans, legends of the game both, who are so deeply ingrained with the magical and mighty ‘it’ that made them become a band in the first place will take to the stage cold, for the first time in years, and still kill it as easily as they brush their teeth.” Or...
“Two miserable, middle-aged has-beens who don’t especially like each other anymore and should have the dignity of fading into obscurity quietly, will give a painfully sloppy, uninspired attempt at a performance.”
With his sharp and cynical wit, Grunge summed it up:
“It’s a win-win for anyone in attendance, though, because both scenarios are equally Tweet-able.”
One thing that will never change is that Lord Grunge loves Youngstown, with all its warts and weirdness.
“It’s got a style and a flavor all its own ...and it’s been way too long since I visited,” he said.