Last January, former Southgate House marketing director Morrella Raleigh felt she and her father Ross Raleigh would never find a new location for what had become one of the country’s highest profile and most original music venues.
After a 35-year run, ownership issues with Ross’ sister forced the Raleighs from the Southgate mansion; while they retained rights to the name, finding a building to honor its legacy proved a daunting task. (The old mansion remains a music venue, operating under the name Thompson House.)
Morrella had nearly lost hope when her father’s conversation with a friend led them to Grace Methodist Episcopal Church on Sixth Street in Newport.
“From the outside, it doesn’t seem nearly as big as it is,” Morrella says, in the Lounge of the newly reopened and rechristened The Southgate House Revival. “Right away, I knew. Walking in that front room, and then coming upstairs, it was like, ‘Whoa.’ ”
At first blush, Ross liked the space but wasn’t particularly moved beyond the church’s naturally impressive atmosphere. Morrella, on the other hand, was immediately excited by GME’s potential to mimic the mansion’s physical and emotional intent.
“Music for our patrons is a spiritual experience and it has been for me my whole life,” Morrella says. “It seemed appropriate. Churches are gathering places and places of community. In the old place, people felt a strong sense of community, so I felt like this had the right feeling.”
A sympathetic banker secured their financing, and the Raleighs and an A-Team of contractors and workers spent five months non-stop retooling the church.
It wasn’t easy. The Grace had stood empty for more than a dozen years; the plumbing and electrical systems were shot and the boiler was scrapped for a modern HVAC unit. Spaces were assigned a use and designed accordingly with stages, bathrooms and bars. Through an incredibly united effort, Grace Methodist Episcopal Church was transformed into The Southgate House Revival.
“I was blown away by the outpouring of support for us and my dad was really blown away,” Morrella says, with a tinge of emotion.
“It made us doing this that much more important. We’ve learned a lot about ourselves in this process. It’s amazing how many bands from out of town have come through and said, ‘You don’t know how much we’ve missed you.’ ”
As Morrella envisioned, the Revival offers the old mansion’s three-room philosophy. The church’s main room became the new ballroom, appropriately christened the Sanctuary, while the former children’s space on the second floor houses the more intimate Revival Room. The space behind the Sanctuary is the even smaller but always free and active Lounge. A long narrow room adjoining the Revival Room will ultimately become the Gallery, a repository for cool artwork that was also a feature of the old site.
The flow of the physical space is obviously different, but the Revival’s energy remains intact.
The Lounge is perfect for the hushed reserve of singer/songwriters, but equally suited for raucous band hoedowns. The compact Revival Room offers a scaled-down capacity for acts looking to build an audience and the spacious Sanctuary, with its gorgeous stained glass windows, original light fixtures and pipe organ (crafted by Cincinnati makers and slated to be returned to working order in the future), is an ideal spot for major local, regional and national attractions.
One excellent new Sanctuary feature is the church’s old choir loft, a balcony above the stage area, which now serves as the bands’ green room.
There is still much to be done to complete Morrella’s vision of making The Southgate House Revival the crown jewel of downtown Newport. Construction was fast-tracked to accommodate the grand reopening last October (delayed a week due to a bureaucratic snafu), but Morrella — now tasked with the club’s day-to-day operations — is glad the Revival, which has hosted nearly 300 shows and more than 25,000 patrons since reopening, is in full swing despite its unfinished nature.
“When we closed, people felt like they were losing their second home, and now they feel at home here again. We can’t hear anything better than that,” Morrella says.
Assisted by the Campbell County Historical Society, Morrella has researched the church’s history (which will ultimately be available on the club’s redesigned website at southgatehouse.com), including a fascinating connection that provided a cosmic stamp of approval for the Revival.
“The old place was built in 1814 and the church was built in 1866, just after the Civil War; we’ve been calling this place ‘the new building,’ ” Morrella says with a laugh. “This was the first Methodist church in Newport — the original building was where St. Paul’s is now on York Street — and one of the founding members was Richard Southgate’s wife. The signs were definitely pointing to us.”
As the Revival plans were finalized, Ross was somewhat reticent, fearing the community might react negatively to the church’s bar conversion. Morrella assured him that churches have been repurposed as entertainment venues for years, but their real blessing came from residents after construction began.
“It was a concern of my dad’s; ‘Are people going to be weirded out by putting a bar in a church?’ I told him, ‘Trust me, we’re not the first to put a bar or nightclub in a church,’ ” Morrella recalls. “We had some little old ladies stop by when we were working that had attended church here and were really happy to see it. It made him feel better seeing these women coming by; they were like, ‘We were so afraid it was going to be torn down.’ ”
As Morrella relates this tale, it’s hard to miss the large tattoos on her clavicles, just below her shoulders; a lotus flower on each side, ornamented with a scatter of musical notes. The lotus is an enduring symbol of both timeless beauty and rebirth, due to its cycle of closing its petals every night and reopening in the morning, and music clearly possesses a similar cyclical timelessness.
Considering the rebirth of The Southgate House Revival, which appears ready to enjoy a run as long as its predecessor, the symbolism of Morrella’s body adornment couldn’t be more appropriate. ©