If you weren’t born here, why did you come here?
The answer to that question might depend upon when you arrived. Neil and Alexia Howard, the new owners of old The Colony Hotel at 21 Rock City Road, are hoping they arrived at the dawn of a new era in Woodstock, which they would like to help usher in.
Neil Howard, an actor, musician, singer-songwriter reared in the San Francisco Bay area, noted that although it was a matter of fortunate timing to have been in town when the building was announced for sale, the idea of such a place was a shared goal for over a decade.
“When we first met and started dating in San Francisco, we wrote down things we envisioned for our lives further down the road,” said Neil’s wife Alexia. “We got married ten years ago next April and I remember we had owning a music venue or bar type situation, an ‘entertainment place’ definitely on that list, all that time ago.
“Now, obviously, a lot has happened in the meantime but when we first came to Woodstock, our first night out was to see Tom Pacheco at The Colony and we were captivated by that beautiful room — two stories, the balcony area — a magic room for all types of music.”
Alexia said she grew up just outside of London, England, confirming an impression made obvious by her accent. She moved to Chicago in 1999, then to San Francisco, where she met Neil in 2003 at the Hotel Utah, where he was performing at an ‘Open Mic’ session. Here, before they moved, together, to New York City in 2005, we may find some clues to their vision for The Colony.
The Hotel Utah, formerly known as Al’s Transbay Tavern, built in 1908, is an historic waterfront site on Frisco’s Barbary Coast. It became The Utah Hotel when it was acquired in 1977 by screenwriter Paul Gaer, who put in a stage for “music, experimental art, writers, comedy, and theater.” The Howards see these chords as similar to those playing in the theme of Woodstock’s background. There are many towns in upstate region which offer surroundings of natural splendor, they observe, but the magnetism which sets Woodstock as a town apart from other communities is its history as an arts colony, in which most residents, whatever their profession, tend to take pride. While each town in the region may have a special character of its own that functions on many levels, the couple is intent upon building on the unique creative tradition of this one, as part of the greater upstate community, to contribute to a human culture that isn’t just beamed in from “media central” but lives and breathes locally.
Noting that they wouldn’t have met without a place like the “Utah,” Alexia commented that Neil wouldn’t let her come to shows he played for their first three months because he didn’t want her to become a “groupie.”
“I didn’t phrase it that way, Lex” Neil laughingly protested. “But The Utah Hotel had a soul. It has perhaps the oldest ‘Open Mic’ on the West Coast. It’s where Joe DiMaggio and Marilyn Monroe used to hang out in a section of the bar that had a pillar where she didn’t have to see her reflection because she was tired of her looks being her defining factor.”
Neil, whose music, along with some clips from his acting career can be found at neilhowardmusic.com, happened to be here with Alexia at the right time to purchase The Colony because of his involvement with area theatrical venues, including a role in Performing Arts of Woodstock’s production of Oscar Wilde’s “The Importance of Being Earnest” last year, for which his performance as Algernon Moncrieff was singled out as “particularly strong” in WAMC Radio’s review.
Alexia spends her weekdays in Manhattan’s financial sector as a food markets analyst for a moderately sized firm. Although the Howards observe that it will “definitely be a music venue that serves food, first and foremost, rather than a restaurant with live music,” she has an unusual insight into the foods aspect.
“I’ve been looking at trends in health and wellness and we’ve got a big change going on at the moment with heavily processed, pre-packaged foods on the decline and fresher, healthier foods with less additives and fillers coming on,” she said. “I’ve been writing about this for ten years and it’s only now that it’s really starting to happen.” (e.g. the Campbell Soup Company’s pledge, last week, to eliminate monosodium glutamate [MSG] and other additives from its children’s products.) “I think what’s going to happen is a consumer-led revolution — we’re already seeing this — with products labeled “GMO Free” coming up in a massive way. I had people from the ‘Non-GMO’ project on a conference call not long ago and the problem for consumer demand is getting it through the regulatory system. It’s really encouraging that consumers are voting in the stores for plainly labeled non-GMO products.” These changes are driven by worldwide demand, as Alexia pointed out in a 2012 interview, with nations like China and Brazil strongly influencing American corporate decisions.
Beyond the menu, other “refreshments” are in store for The Colony, which has its own lengthy history, starting in 1871, when a hotel was built atop Overlook Mountain which burned down in 1878, was rebuilt but burned again in 1924, never to be rebuilt. The Colony Hotel was built on Rock City Road (named in honor of the town’s bluestone quarries which helped furnish sidewalks for a City about 100 miles south) as a waystation to accommodate visitors headed for the Overlook Mountain House which overlooked the influential artist’s community founded in 1903. Opened in 1929, The Colony closed with the onset of World War II and stood empty and dormant except for a brief period in the late 1980’s, until reopened in 2000 by Jim (Harri) and Marianne Harrigfeld in the form most current Woodstockers have come to know it.
Although Neil has experience behind the bars of some clubs as well as on their stages, the couple’s knowledge of the business is, thus far, limited. They credit a network of local people who do have such experience with helping to clear the way. “Getting that team in place, of really good people who have been through this process before, has been key to bringing the vision together,” Alexia noted. “The hotel portion will take significant work to get open but we really want to do that in the mid-to-long term. There’s a beautiful basement level for a second bar and room for billiards and other games and entertainments. Those are things we can get done over the years. There are other plans for the space that we’ll unveil as time goes by but the excitement for me is the learning what works by doing. If you think about it, there are so many different groups of people — either in the village or in the area — that have different musical tastes, want to hear different types of bands or other kinds of live entertainment, that are open to discovery.”
“I have a sense that, for so many creative types of all sorts in this area, there’s a desire for a meeting place; an every night bar with comfortable hours and consistency,” Neil added.
“I think Woodstock is ready for changes in a positive, creative direction,” Alexia agreed. “We’re looking forward to being a part of that.”