On Another Note: Wyeth Crafts Creative Solutions
Perhaps you’ve heard that Chester-based architect Leonard Wyeth is the design mind at work on the restoration of Stony Creek’s historic Legacy Theatre. But did you know he’s also the founder and creative force behind Guilford’s renowned Acoustic Music fine guitar shop, the father of AcousticMusic.Org, and now promoter of a newly launched weekly YouTube series featuring local musicians?
Leonard’s passion for stringed instruments also plays into his fascinating museum at AcousticMusic.Org, where he shares exhibits of exceptional instruments and their place in music history.
Leonard’s launch of the YouTube series was inspired after the pandemic brought down the curtain on his free offering of a small performance space for local musicians, which he dubbed Thursday Night Music and held at his shop at 1250 Boston Post Road.
On another note, COVID-19 also figures into Leonard’s work as president of Connecticut Passive House, a group of professionals who promote adapting ultra-low energy buildings. Such buildings also mitigate the transmission of airborne viruses, by meeting stringent air quality standards.
Making Acoustic Music
“It started as a hobby that completely spiraled desperately out of control,” Leonard says of founding his Guilford shop nearly 20 years ago. “In 1995, I was involved with a number of local musicians, either playing background or helping with sound on various performances, ultimately helping them with recording their work. We all shared a kind of passion for guitars, banjos, mandolins—stringed instruments. And that’s where it started going a little crazy.”
Leonard notes the Connecticut shoreline is blessed with not only with a vibrant group of musicians, but also with a small cadre of instrument craftsmen he describes as “truly among the most talented and knowledgeable in the country at the moment.”
“So within our sphere of influence we’re not just musicians, but also these wonderfully historically knowledgeable instrument restoration people,” says Leonard. “And once you wander knee-deep into the history of stringed instruments, it’s a rabbit hole that’s difficult to leap back out of. It’s fascinating.”
One of the most fascinating aspects, for Leonard, is that a musical instrument such as a guitar is a beautifully crafted form of art that’s made to create another art form: music. With a bit of laugh, Leonard says his admiration for these instruments led to a “giant mistake”—starting to acquire them.
“And that has a natural path to sharing those with others and making them available to others by selling,” he says. “And by God, if there are no adults in the room to stop it from happening, it becomes a musical instrument shop.”
Acoustic Music opened its doors in September 2001, 10 days before 9/11, which, sadly, makes it an “easy date” to remember, Leonard notes. Acoustic Music began representing a fairly large number of individual luthiers, making it a destination shop for handcrafted, beautiful instruments.
“Most of the instruments—not all—are American made, either by American companies or individual luthiers or builders around the country,” Leonard explains.
Much of Acoustic Music’s success lies in an inventory of fine guitars sought by aficionados and musicians from across North America who can connect with the shop through AcousticMusic.Org
Another feature of AcousticMusic.Org is the museum’s rich photo archive of stand-out instruments and details of their place in history and music history, curated by Leonard. Many of the museum instruments on view have been resold or restored and put up for sale. But it’s the knowledge he’s passing on that is of most value to Leonard and those perusing the pages.
“They’re significant because when identifying and understanding vintage instruments, there’s nothing better than a photograph and a clear description,” he says of each exhibit in the museum. “That helps others to use it to correctly identify vintage instruments.”
Live Music Leads to YouTube
As a bricks and mortar business in Guilford, Acoustic Music has been the scene of some exceptional musicianship and live, invitation-only performances for very small audiences.
With connections to musicians in Nashville, California, and New York, “over the years, we had made friends with some of the world’s best guitarists,” says Leonard. “And usually, as a favor to us, they would come and give a very intimate concert in the shop—30 or 40 invited people, up close and personal, with some of these artists you wouldn’t possibly get to see in that sort of venue.”
Not to name drop, but Australian guitarist, songwriter, and singer Tommy Emmanuel is just one artist Leonard mentions among those who’ve come to Guilford to play. Many more are listed at the website.
“We really enjoyed it of course. It was much more for cultural reasons because of course nobody makes any money doing that, especially if an artist is used to playing to crowds of 20,000,” says Leonard.
With an eye toward helping others to become accomplished in their performance craft, Leonard also decided to open the floor of the shop up to local musicians for live performances.
“There are a whole lot of local musicians who are very good and who we think could really benefit from more people getting to hear them. So we came up with something we decided to call Thursday Night Music,” he says. “We needed something that could happen regularly, so we figured we would get a series going.”
The informal Thursday night set up was also a way to give back to local musicians who have supported Acoustic Music. The series’ 2020 schedule was set and rolling along, “and then, novel coronavirus wandered in,” says Leonard.
Rather than just scrap the series for the year, Leonard offered to record the performances and post them on YouTube, linked through AcousticMusic.Org. Thus was born the brand-new “Acoustic Music Presents” series. The series launched four months ago and features about a dozen performances, to date.
“If it’s just one song they want to do, that’s fine; if it’s a whole set they want to do, that’s fine,” says Leonard of each performer. “Putting it on tape, so to speak, takes a little bit of the live edge off, but by the same token it allows them to show themselves in the best light. And if we are putting it on tape anyway, it doesn’t matter when we record these things, as long as we release them on Thursday nights. So we’ve been kind of having fun with that, and it certainly takes lot of pressure off the artist.”
It also brings them to a much, much wider audience than could ever fit into the shop, and no doubt among them many high-caliber musicians who visit Leonard’s website.
Wyeth Architects at Work
Through his Chester-based Wyeth Architects, LLC, Leonard is immersed in another type of creative world which has brought him to this area of the shoreline for a significant project, the restoration and design of the new Legacy Theatre in Stony Creek’s historic “Puppet House” theater building.
Leonard’s design for the theatre is coming to life with construction underway now, and exterior and interior spaces are beginning to take shape.
“There’s a point during construction where the architects get all excited,” he says. “It’s way before the public can make heads or tails of what’s going on.”
The interior and accessibility designed into the theatre advances the space with modern touches while still preserving the sensibility of the historic site. For a sneak peak of the architect’s vision, take a virtual tour at www.legacytheatrect.org.
“You will be shocked when you go in there,” he promises.
Leonard’s homage to the building is also tied to his own experiences in that theater at a time when it was beginning to fall into disrepair. Back in the 1980s, he was helping to run sound for musicians performing at the venue.
“It was amazing, but the building was beginning to fall apart. It was in tough shape. I would go back for small concerts over time, and the building was slowly melting down,” he says.
Sustainable Design and Passive Buildings
“We’ve been very passionate about extreme low energy and long-term sustainability,” says Leonard of his team at Wyeth Architects.
The team recently turned its collective creative power and award-winning work toward helping new and existing structures across the state meet the challenges of COVID-19. Passive House strategies mitigate the transmission of airborne viruses by meeting ultra-high air quality standards.
The buildings are also incredible energy savers, as recognized by the industry itself. This month, Wyeth Architects’ Stonington passive house was awarded the 2020 Sustainable Architecture Award from AIA Connecticut. The brand-new, thoughtfully constructed 2,700 square foot house is all electric, using some photovoltaic panels to introduce power.
“For many months in a row, we’ve received from the owner a little [photo] of their electric bill, which is $9.11,” Leonard says.
Leonard is also president of the collaborative Connecticut Passive House, which brings together local architects and builders to adapt ultra-low energy buildings. The practice uses many principles initially developed by The Passive House Institute (PHI), an independent research institute founded in Germany in 1996 by Dr. Wolfgang Feist. Leonard says the simple explanation for Feist’s intent to establish PHI is that the physicist “hated paying power bills.” But, more importantly, Leonard adds, “he came up with whole string of calculations and scientific methods for designing building envelopes to perform efficiently, and proof that it works.”
Today, with climate change and global warming reaching a boiling point, passive design can be a game-changer, Leonard notes.
“Roughly, it comes down to this: Buildings use more than 40 percent of the world’s energy. If there’s going to be a turnaround, if there’s anyway to slow this down, it can’t be down without a major change to the way we build. So that being the case, obviously we’re doing everything in our power to change things,” he says. “And what we’ve discovered is this is really global. All the ideas generated around the planet, find their way around the planet. So there are a whole lot of good ideas out there. And we’ve come to realize, in a very short period of time, that without any magic or high tech we can build buildings that use a tiny fraction of energy compared to what is normally built today.”