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A Circus School Just Opened Inside A Gorgeous Logan Square Church

By Gwendolyn Purdom in Arts & Entertainment on Aug 31, 2016 7:12PM

The figures now soaring above the dramatic stained glass windows in a 109-year-old Logan Square church building aren’t angels—they’re trapeze artists, tightrope walkers and other aerial acrobats. After a yearlong relocation process, Aloft Circus Arts reopened this week in the former First Evangelical Church space at the corner of Kimball and Wrightwood avenues.

Founded by circus performing vet Shayna Swanson in 2005, Aloft started out in a small Humboldt Park garage. Once the company and school outgrew that space, they set up shop in a loft space on Fulton Street in 2007. When their lease ran out last summer, Swanson says she was terrified they wouldn't be able to find an affordable rental alternative equipped with the square footage and high ceilings necessary for things like climbing aerial silks and swinging from a trapeze. But then the idea to buy a property instead crossed Swanson's mind, and the former First Evangelical was one of the first places she came across in an online search.

"I walked in and started crying," Swanson told Chicagoist Tuesday. "When I first saw it I was like, 'This is it!'"

The former church has ceilings that reach heights of nearly 40 feet in some places, a balcony that's perfect for tramp walls (a circus activity that involves bouncing off a trampoline and running up and off walls), and the aforementioned stained glass windows that maintain the historic church's charm, according to Swanson, but leave out anything too religious that might feel exclusionary to new students. Unlike some other properties Swanson had considered, this one is easily accessible by public transit and more visible in general. Plus, because the church had been continually occupied for its entire century of use, it was well-kept. Its congregation moved to a space further west, Swanson said.

Swanson and her team were able to put a down payment on the $1 million building, at 3324 W. Wrightwood Ave., and then launched a crowd-funding campaign on Indiegogo to help pay for things like rigging, leveling the church floor and zoning changes. They raised more than $60,000.

"We didn’t have a lot of extra money to do this crazy renovation process so the fact that the building was as good as it already was was a big selling point for us," Swanson said.

A crazier renovation might also have upset Logan Square neighbors, whom Swanson is eager to engage with. When a public meeting was held to discuss Aloft's zoning change, some community members expressed concern that the building's historic character might be compromised, but Swanson says now that they've officially moved in, very little has been changed.

"We’ve managed to maintain the building really, really well," she said, "and basically, if you were walking by you wouldn’t know that this wasn’t a church so I don’t think that the community has even had much opportunity to realize what’s going on in here."

Swanson hopes to change that by adding children's classes that would encourage nearby parents to check out the space. Aloft held its first adult classes in the space on Monday and its first eight-week class session starts next week. Already, more than 600 students are signed up for this week's $10 "taster" classes designed to introduce the different activities and formats without requiring someone to commit to a full session. The circus school's monthly cabaret show, El Circo Cheapo, is having its last run this Saturday at the old, Fulton Street location.

While the neighbors are still getting to know Aloft, Swanson says she hopes their community-focused mission and respect for the building's history will prove they're the right fit.

"[The church and surrounding community members] didn’t really want to sell it to somebody that was going to turn it into condos, which was great for us because we could have very easily been outbid by a developer—and there were a number of developers that did offer them more—but they didn’t want to see their building go that way," Swanson said. "They wanted someone in there who was going to do something for the community. All the stars were aligned when it came to this."