By Robert Downes
Everything old is new again at Union Street Station in Traverse City, where the popular music destination has had an extensive makeover.
The upgrade began last year when owners Dave and Kate VanOcker painted the exterior of the 114-year-old bar in a rich ocher-red. The new paint job combined with the buildings exquisite stained glass and etched windows gives Union Street Station a pleasant jewelry box look.
But the big change thats got every customer talking is the addition of 17 high-top tables which have done away with furnishings that were decades-old. Gone is an ancient row of booths, a wall of theater seats and the old tables which hosted thousands of beer glasses.
Getting rid of the booths has created a lot more room in the bar and improved the view of the stage, Dave says. Weve started holding a lot more early shows here, and the new tables make it possible for everyone to see the performers, no matter where youre sitting.
That wasnt always the case.
A lot of people liked the old booths, but they werent practical, Kate says. It didnt make sense to have eight booths with 16 people facing the door away from the stage.
LONG TIME COMING
Kate suggested making the change four or five years ago when she joined the staff as manager, but it was hard to do away with tradition in a place which is awash with local history.
The two-story brick bar and a building across the alley to the north were built in 1894 by Howard Whiting and Joseph Lautner. Originally, it was called the Whiting Saloon, and the family lived on the second floor. After the family moved out, there were tales of a brothel upstairs, Dave says.
Thereafter, the venue traded hands many times through the decades. Lautner purchased the building and turned it into Lautners Home Plate Restaurant, which had a run until 1962. His sister, Louise King took over and ran the venue until 1969, when it was purchased by Bill and Nancy Kurnik, who changed the name to the Cabaret and revived its saloon atmosphere. In 1972, Wayne and Beverly Amidon purchased the Cabaret and added night-time music and entertainment. Kevin Noble changed the name to The Union Street Station during his ownership from 1981-83, and the Perry Group had their turn from 83-87.
The bar fell on hard times and closed for a year, but after reopening in 1988 under the ownership of Todd and Debbie Perry, Union Street Station began bringing in national blues acts, establishing a name as a top destination for music in Northern Michigan.
Dave VanOcker came to Union Street during the Perrys tenure. A graduate of Central Michigan University with a degree in biology, he had worked as a bartender and waiter at The Embers in Mt. Pleasant, and subsequently at Giovannis in Interlochen, The Elk River Inn, and a stint at New Moon Records.
Todd and Debbie decided to sell the bar in 1999 and they offered it to me while I was bartending here, he recalls. It was a golden opportunity at a time when I was wondering what to do with my life.
Under VanOckers leadership, Union Street has brought in major rock and blues acts, including Kid Rock, Verucca Salt, The Young Dubliners, Kenny Olson, the Red Elvises and Govt. Mule, to name a few. He credits folk impresario Seamus Shinners for bringing in big acoustic acts such as Vance Gilbert, The Hackensaw Boys, Harry Manx and Chris Smither, which have created a popular niche of early shows.
VanOcker has a passion few of his customers know about, by the way: he has a love of black & white photography, creating fine art prints in his own darkroom, with subjects ranging from nudes to landscapes. Hes also a gifted graphic designer who does many of the posters lining the walls of the bar which promote upcoming acts.
A WOMANS TOUCH
Kate VanOcker came onboard as manager five years ago after leaving a similar position at Mackinaw Brewing Co. Originally from Bar Harbor, Maine, she spent three weeks in Northern Michigan on vacation in 1995 and was living here less than a year later. Dave was one of the first 10 persons she met when she moved to Traverse City. The couple started dating and were married three years ago.
Many know her, however, as Union Kate on the Omelette & Finster morning show on WKLT-FM, where she is in charge of the news reports.
Her job came about as the result of a chance meeting with the DJs at Union Street. I make jewelry in my spare time and Finster wanted to buy some for his girlfriend, she recalls. We started talking and after a few minutes they said they wanted me to come down to the station to be on the air. And then they said: By the way, be there at 4:30 in the morning, which has been quite shock. Today, I get up to go to work around the time that Dave is coming home from the bar.
She joined the station as a paid employee last July. Since then, former U.S.S. employee Kelly Greilick has returned to take on the duties of managing the bar, with Kellys son, Rick Thompson, becoming the night manager.
Business has been good over the winter, with the popularity of live music on the rise. But although Dave has a good management team and a staff that feels like family, ownership is still a 24/7 job which can require his presence at all hours of the day and night.
For the makeover effort, that included personally sanding the 114-year-old floor and laying on eight thick coats of polyurethene. Other improvements included spraying the bars bathrooms with truck-bed liner, bumping out the stage, installing new TVs, upgrading the kitchen, and sprucing up the classic wooden bar counter. The next thing wed like to do is get rid of the old barnwood paneling and plaster and take the walls down to the original sandstone brick, he says.
Despite the upgrade, Union Street Station still maintains its aura of tradition: two wall-sized copies of paintings by Renoir still deck the walls, as do posters of acts dating back to the late 80s. And the elaborate woodwork above the bar provides a glimpse into Traverse Citys heyday as a lumber town, more than 100 years ago.
One thing that hasnt changed however, is the VanOckers commitment to music. They dont plan to try becoming something theyre not, like a TV-oriented sports bar.
When you try to take every road, you go nowhere, Kate says. We got back to the roots of the bar which is celebrating the art of live music.