PORTSMOUTH -- If all goes to plan, Herbie Hancock will be headlining the opening night of Elle’s in the spring of 2021. The iconic pianist and keyboard player just doesn’t know it yet.
Michael and Peter Labrie envision marquee artists like Hancock and Wynton Marsalis performing at the jazz club they are building at 135 Congress St. in downtown Portsmouth.
While it will be 18 months or more before the project is complete, work is underway on a $10 million renovation of the old YMCA building, which will include a contemporary art museum.
The Labries have already replaced all the beige bricks on the structure’s front facade, but they expect the upgrades and expansions around the back of the building -- featuring glass on two levels -- to capture more attention.
“Everybody is so excited about the front of the building being restored to its original 1905 look and feel, but I think most people are going to be wowed by the back,” Peter said during a recent tour of the building.
Call it a marriage of the historic and the modern, his brother said.
“On the exterior of the building, it’s obvious, the historic facade on the front and the modern facade on the rear,” Michael said. “But the transition within the space will also move from historic to modern as you move through the spaces within the building as well. That’s a lot of fun trying to pull that off.”
Sounds like jazz.
“Yes, exactly,” he said. “There’s a lot of similarities.”
With the sound of saws buzzing, Michael shared the vision for what he and Peter aim to create within the 23,230-square-foot building, a venue that will hold 600 people. Plans include VIP areas for club patrons and visiting musicians, and plush seating areas throughout so customers can listen to live music free of restrictions.
While formal seating will front the stage, the club’s sound and video system will allow visitors to wander and socialize. It’s a setting the Labrie brothers hope will attract people who want to linger -- and spend money on food and drinks.
“We’ve allowed the space to kind of take the lead in our design, in our floor planning,” Michael said. “It’s more the concept of how we want the experience to be, how we think listening to music and enjoying your friends and your cocktails should be, rather than sitting in a theater seat for three hours looking ahead at the stage. It’s going to be movement. You’re going to be able to get up.”
The private rooms will be available for weddings, movie screenings, corporate meetings and other events.
“Any way we can extract money from the community to help pay for this, we will,” Michael says with a grin. “We’re putting a lot of money in here.”
During a recent visit, a large pile of wood -- old growth timber salvaged from the construction project -- sat on the floor in front of where the stage will be. Structural steel exposed during the renovation will become part of the design.
“We’re repurposing anything that we can. At any chance we get, we want to leave things in place where we can tell the story of the history of the building because people really get a kick out of knowing those stories, being able to tell those stories,” Michael said.
The building stretches over five levels, including a full basement. To finance the project, which includes two new elevators, the Labries set up a line of credit secured by other assets, which allows them to bypass “the costly and cumbersome construction loan building process,” Michael said last week via email. “We find that building out of pocket in this manner gives us far more flexibility and autonomy.”
Using that method allows them to take advantage of historically low interest rates and make adjustments as needed with their contractor, rather than being restricted to a set price, he said.
“We will likely put permanent financing in place with Newburyport Bank when we have completed the project,” Michael said.
The brothers like to say they “slept in Rye, but grew up in Portsmouth,” said Michael, 57. He and Peter, 50, operate the River House Restaurant in Portsmouth, which they opened in 2009 in the former home of the Stockpot on Bow Street, and the Atlantic Grill in Rye, a restaurant they built from scratch that opened in 2014. They also own four buildings on Bow Street adjacent to the River House they plan to renovate.
The Labrie family are long-time patrons of the arts so a jazz club seems like a natural progression. The River House has been the title sponsor of the Prescott Park Arts Festival’s summer concert series for the past decade. The grandmother, Rose Labrie, co-founded the Prescott Park Children’s Art Festival.
“I love jazz. I love blues, too. My brother is more of a blues guy,” Michael said. “But I love jazz. It’s what I listen to. So between the two genres, there’s a lot of overlap. Rather than rock 'n' roll, we may have some chamber music in here or something like that.”
The Labries are music fans but not musicians, though Michael used to play the trombone and owns a saxophone.
“I wanted to take up the saxophone so my wife bought me a saxophone. It looks great. It looks really good,” Michael says with a laugh. “I even bought a package of lessons, but I’ve yet to schedule any of them.”
The saxophone already has worked some magic, however. It inspired Michael’s father-in-law, Al Zarlengo, to pick up the instrument again after 40 years. He now performs in a swing band in Tennessee.
“He’d come up for Christmas, and he started picking my saxophone up and playing it. And he got the bug again. Now he’s practicing two hours a day, and it’s an important part of his life again,” Michael said.
Now the 80-year-old musician is moving to the Granite State.
“We just put a house under agreement in Rye so he’s moving up here in part because he wants some access here. Maybe we’ll have him in the house band,” Michael said.
“I told him maybe he could sit in with Herbie or something.”