Researched and written by Vicki Allen
If art is a window to the soul then one can glimpse the soul of the Riverbend through the plate glass of a cavernous, somewhat spooky former furniture store that houses the Jacoby Arts Center.
That 100-plus-year-old building on a stretch of downtown’s Broadway, where some structures are empty and in disrepair but others are finding new life, captures the essence of Alton. The Jacoby embodies the historic, post-industrial, creative, quirky spirit that separates the Riverbend from the suburbs.
The Jacoby Arts Center evolved from the Madison County Arts Council, which used state grants and matching grants to help support artists and arts organizations in 17 counties. The MCAC sponsored popular ArtEast annual tours of artists’ studios and other venues in the Alton and Edwardsville areas, and Arts in the Park brought free Saturday art classes to children through partnerships with the cities of Alton and Edwardsville.
The council was operating out of the Lewis and Clark Community College campus, but was looking for its own facility when C. J. Jacoby and Co, Inc. donated the 44,000 square-foot building to it in the spring of 2004.
With a hasty fix-up of the building that had been vacant for six years, the new arts center started holding classes for children and adults that summer and had its official opening in September.
It took untold hours of labor, much of it volunteer, to get the building up to code and accessible for its new role in showcasing the area’s creativity. Linoleum was stripped to reveal original wood floors, and new wiring and plumbing were installed and the roof was replaced.
The neon Jacoby’s sign, a landmark on Broadway, was meticulously restored in 2006 and celebrated with a street party. Several grants, along with private donations, helped finance the many improvements.
The arts center also relied on fundraisers, such as the annual “Arts and Champagne” dinners. In January 2008 supporters kept on their coats, hats and gloves for “Fire and Ice” after the old boiler furnace died. For $10 at the door, hardy folks received spicy appetizers and chilled martinis, and money was raised, with the help of a grant, to install two new furnaces and air conditioning for the main and lower levels.
Work is ongoing make use of the Jacoby’s space for artists’ studios, classrooms, rental venues for weddings and other events, a commercial kitchen, a bar, and a gift shop offering a variety of items made by local artists. The building’s lower level also houses a ceramics studio, and there are plans to upgrade restrooms and office space.
St. Louis architectural firm Trivers Associates in 2007 prepared a free master plan to improve the building’s flow, lighting, acoustics and other upgrades and expansion into the upper and lower floors. In 2010 an anonymous donation of $102,000 was used to develop artists’ studios in the lower level. The second and third floors, with views of the nearby Clark Bridge, are still untapped resources.
The Madison County Arts Council had been the arts center’s overseeing organization, but in 2009 the arts council’s board voted to adopt the Jacoby Arts Center as the organization’s legal name.
The Jacoby family continues to nurture the arts center with donations that have helped the grand old store evolve into a full service venue for artistic expression, entertainment and education.
“Our family is thrilled to see the conversion of the old Jacoby Furniture building, donated by Jack and Don Jacoby at the closure of the generational family business, into a real asset for all in the community to access,” Kip Jacoby and Karen Jacoby Sinunu said in an email.
“Jack well remembers his grandfather, Casper, sitting him on his lap to explain the virtues of serving our community. We know Casper would be delighted to see the legacy of his store’s building as it serves the Alton community in such a remarkable and valuable way,” they said.
The Jacoby Furniture store opened on Broadway in the late 1890s. For years the store had a morgue in the basement, a funeral chapel on an upper floor and sold caskets, providing a suitably haunted atmosphere to this day for Halloween-loving Altonians.
The original section of the building has 14-foot tin ceilings, hardwood floors and massive columns that offer a distinguished setting for art displays, music and theater. While home from college during the mid 1940s, Jack Jacoby wrapped and plastered the building's original 1890s cast iron columns to create the distinctive modern sculptural forms to update the store.
Musical performances have ranged from classical to jazz to country to Motown to gospel, and the Jacoby is always broadening its offerings. Theater includes musicals, comedy improvisation, contemporary works and classics.
The building’s funky urban atmosphere appeals to artists and performers.
Ed Reggi, who performs comedy improvisation around the country and is founder and owner of the Paper Slip Theatre in St. Louis, said the venue reminds him of the “storefront theaters” of New York City and Chicago.
“I just love performing in that space. I can see everyone’s reaction, and I imagine it’s the same for them watching us on stage,” said Reggi, who also praised the Jacoby’s “diverse, eclectic audience.” At the Jacoby, he said, “People come in casual, relaxed, and they’re ready to have a good time, so they’re going to have a good time.”
Nashville singer-songwriter Daryl Wayne Dasher spoke of the first time he played the Jacoby and felt “the energy of the history, of the three rivers that haunted the region, and of the building itself.”
“The moment I walked through the doors I got an immediate sense of the strong community bond that keeps the heart of Alton beating,” Dasher said. “I can’t wait to experience that again.”
The arts center hums with classes and summer camp series involving drawing and painting, pottery, textiles, photography, music and theater. Galleries can be packed for an evening performance and full of children and proud parents for an afternoon art display, making the Jacoby an integral part of life in the Riverbend.
But the arts can be fragile. State grants dwindled with tightening government funds and the 2008 economic recession hammered donations and fundraising for several years.
In 2014, the community almost lost the center when it became mired in debt from building renovations and conflicts among board members who had different views of the Jacoby’s purpose and future. The board resigned, except for one member who maintained the center’s status as a 501c3 non-profit organization.
Dozens of supporters then kicked in contributions to pay off debt, a new board was formed, and more attention was paid to trim costs and expand programs that generate money such as music and theater performances, renting space for artists’ studios and events, tuition from education and camp programs, and holding art parties for children.
The Jacoby is back on a solid financial footing, but overhead on the building is high, costing more than $5,000 a month to keep the doors open. The Jacoby Board of Directors is always striving for more supporting members, volunteers and backing from the community to keep the center’s role in the Riverbend evolving and expanding.
“With expenses as high as they are we scrutinize every penny that we spend, prioritizing improvement projects and making sure that we’re meeting our mission to nurture and promote arts in our community,” said board president Dennis Scarborough.
“The way we measure success is not just by our financial stability, but more importantly through the number of people we reach and the quality of their experience,” Scarborough said.