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Rocked Garden

[whitespace] The Rock Garden
Hall of Fame?: In its decades of use, the Rock Garden has housed a number of area notables, but because its bricks are unreinforced, it must come tumbling down, says manager Ed Havel.

Two weeks ago, a venerable practice spot was condemned by the city of San Jose, sending local bands the Odd Numbers, Swerver and Spitkiss scrambling

By Sarah Quelland

INSIDE THE ROCK GARDEN, behind a nondescript storefront in San Jose's SoFA District, boxes upon boxes of blueprints clutter dark, labyrinthine halls. Murals painted by building manager Ed Havel five years ago have long since been defaced, and endless graffiti blanket the black walls of the three-story building.

"It's basically like a big chalkboard," Havel says, plucking off a piece of drywall.

It's easy to get lost in the corridors of the building, more commonly known as "the Garden." At every twist and turn lies a door to one of 31 studios housed there, and in the evenings those walls shake with the crash of guitars and the pounding of drums and bass.

Today, though, the Garden is silent. On July 16 the Garden, located at 575 S. Market St. in downtown San Jose, was officially condemned for various building-code violations, and the 35 bands that called the Garden home hastily removed their equipment. They are the last of some 500 music groups that have passed through the Garden in its 20-year history as a rehearsal space.

The news doesn't seem to come as a tremendous surprise to anyone. "It's been an unsaid thing [but] we knew this would be happening," Havel says. "This place has been on the verge of shutting down many times over the years."

Code enforcement supervisor Jamie Matthews says the city came across the Garden while conducting earthquake-safety inspections of buildings downtown to identify sites containing unreinforced masonry. "We were surprised that the building was occupied," he says. "The owner had indicated that the building was vacant." Upon inspection, he says, they found "severe and immediate fire violations," including hazardous wiring, boarded-up windows and limited exits. In the event of an emergency, he says, "someone could be trapped in there. It's not occupiable."

Space Shortage

PROPERTY MANAGER Tom Shannon, who represents owner Pierce Reed Associates, which has controlled the building for 13 years, can't explain why Matthews thought the building was vacant. "City people have come down here all the time, so I don't know where he got that information." However, he acknowledges, "We knew all along that the city was going to shut some of [the unreinforced masonry buildings] down."

Shannon estimates it would cost about $500,000 to retrofit the building. And while the space has never been a lucrative business proposition, he laments the loss to the South Bay music scene.

"As far as musicians finding studios," he says, "I'm very sympathetic."

The void has been felt. Former Garden tenant Spitkiss rehearsed for last Saturday's gig at the Cactus Club in a church. The Odd Numbers/Not Hot crew are seeking refuge in the Dohrmann Building on South First Street. Others are making do or holding off for now.

The average cost of a studio rental at the Garden was $250 to $275 a month--a bargain for indoor space in the heart of Silicon Valley and considerably lower than other studios in the area. Comparable monthly rentals at Musicians Warehouse in San Jose run $350 to $550. Loud Mouth Studios costs close to $350, and the Practice Place in San Jose averages $400.

Even forgetting the expense, Leigh Newsome of Ghostlikesun says high rents are only the beginning of the problem.

"The other studios around are all booked up. We're trying all different possibilities, [but] there's not much around here." Another member of Ghostlikesun, Havel, shakes his head. "It sucks for me, too, because I'm out of an income now and a rehearsal space."

Phantom Menace

SITTING DOWN IN HIS sizable studio, which doubled as the Garden's office, the soft-spoken Havel toys with his keys while he reveals some of the Garden's colorful history. It began as a Salvation Army building, and the studio he rehearses in used to be a basketball court. Throughout the course of its life, the space has functioned as a car dealership, a tire company and even a brothel in what was once downtown San Jose's red-light district. In the late '70s and early '80s it began to serve as space for musicians to rehearse, and in 1991 management duties were turned over to Havel.

Havel inherited a dark legacy. "This place was notoriously seedy," he says. Before Havel took over, "it was always kind of known as a drug hangout." Under Havel's reign, the place cleaned up considerably.

"There's a lot of history in here," Havel reflects while walking through the building. "A lot of people describe this building as a sick building. When you walk in, you get a sinking feeling." Havel quietly brings up the subject of ghosts, and at the very mention the air intensifies with an eerie chill. "There's probably a lot of stuff that I can't describe because I wasn't here," he says, but "when I come in late at night and there's no one here, there's chatter." He says others have described rattling and walking upstairs when no one else was in the building, whispery voices finding their way onto recordings and apparitions manifesting.

Odd Numbers drummer John Cummings is quick to point out that their room "had the chill of death in it."

"We've been here long enough that we know there's something going on," Havel says. "We know it's here, but nothing extreme has ever happened." He's not really joking when he suggests someone bring in Sylvia Brown to survey the situation inside this building whose fate is still so uncertain.

According to code enforcement supervisor Matthews, the Garden would need to be retrofitted for earthquakes, necessary repairs would need to be made and zoning would need to be approved before it could reopen. Until those requirements are met, he says, "the building will remain vacant."

Havel recently submitted a proposal to the owners to build a new 40-room facility where the Garden currently stands. "I have a full business plan," he says with some excitement, which includes a music shop, a lobby and a website service.

Property manager Shannon is less enthusiastic. The owners, he says, "have to decide whether or not they want to make the investment. This is not going to be an easy decision."

Looking toward an ambiguous future, Havel says he'd like to "make something good out of this place again, so it doesn't just end."

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From the July 29-August 4, 1999 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 1999 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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