The old white house on McRae Road in the Bon Air area of south Richmond, Va. had been someone’s home for generations. Eventually it had been purchased by St. Michael’s Episcopal Church and converted into a school building, a kindergarten run by the church as part of the St. Michael’s School. When the church later built a larger, more modern school building, the parish made the house available to an ecumenical youth ministry for use as a drop-in center for neighborhood teenagers. It was spring, 1969.

The kids cleaned the place up, repaired walls, painted the interior, and solicited furnishings from the churches that had joined in support of this new venture. I was a seminary senior, about to graduate, and ready for ordination to two part-time positions in “youth work.” As noted previously here, I was already producing a local youth-oriented rock radio program on Sunday nights. And now I was to be the only “paid employee” at this youth center. Naive young pastor-to-be among some youth who knew more about sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll than I did.

The kids set the rules and the board set the hours. Tuesday through Thursdays, from 4 to 7. Friday nights from 4 to 11 p.m. Next, everyone involved knew we needed a name for the place.

Mike, one of the founding teenagers, suggested the name “Spanish Castle.”  No one offered an alternative that I remember. It seemed just a given. Spanish Castle. An adult on the BASY, Inc board asked what that meant. Mike explained that it was from the title of a recent Jimi Hendrix album, “Spanish Castle Magic.” That was that.

The sign was lettered in a kind of bold psychedelic art style, and the basic house rules were added in smaller letters, and for the next three or four years, as neighbors drove by the house, everyone knew its name. And eventually, its reputation…though not everyone had the same opinion about  that reputation.

Almost immediately there was some dissension in the ranks. The very first teenagers who had envisioned the idea of a place to go after school during the week, and maybe on Friday and Saturday nights too, had live music in mind. They had hoped for a place to rehearse and jam during the week and then to perform on a weekend night. The old house has seemed well-suited for that. The original large living room was separated from the equally roomy dining room by pocket doors. When those doors opened, the two rooms became one very good sized place to set up a band, with plenty of room for an audience.

Mike and his friends were excited about the possibilities. In the first days the house was opened, the drums, guitars, and amps were in place and Mike and his band were jamming.

In the meantime, furniture was arriving from people’s attics, dens, and basements. Old stuffed chairs and sofas, lamps, a big old stereo (radio and phono combo), and a Coke machine began to fill the two floors. There was a corner room on the second floor that I had my eye on for an office. It had windows on three sides, an old fireplace, and plenty of room for the desk and filing cabinet the church had left behind for us, plus the two large  odd-looking white plastic chairs that seemed like something out of  “2001: A Space Odyssey.” Perfect space for hanging out with the kids, and for the counseling I knew I would be providing.

I arrived on one of the first days the kids were painting and Steve and Dori greeted me. “You’ve gotta see this!” Steve said excitedly. I followed him upstairs and found that my “office” had been designated “The Black-light Room.”  They had painted the whole room black, with some day-glow art on the walls, and in the fluorescent fixture overhead…a black-light that created a “passion pit” you wouldn’t believe. Over the fireplace Steve the artist  had painted an unmistakable day-glow orange phallic symbol, exploding  in fireworks. In the interest of “letting be,” that is, artistic and youth freedom, the adults pretended they didn’t notice. (The black room would, over the next several months, prompt an additional “rule” in the house: everyone in that room was to be sitting up… no lying down, or the black light goes!  The rule had to be repeated countless times each day.)

My office desk was placed unceremoniously in the hall of the back stairway. But I wasn’t to spend much time there anyway.

I regret to this day the arrival of a gift from local Presbyterians. A church had closed in downtown Richmond and in the fellowship area of that old building there was a massive pool table. When that church’s own recreation center had been shuttered, neighborhood youth had been breaking into the building to play pool, and the Presbytery wanted to dispose of the table in the interest of safety. Did the Spanish Castle want it? I just can’t remember the process that led to our saying yes. I would hope that the youth voted on it.

The problem was that the table had a slate surface and its weight meant it had to go on the first floor of our house. And it had to go in one of the bigger rooms to have space for actually playing pool with long cue sticks. It had to go where the “audience” would have sat listening  to the bands. Mike and his buddies were not pleased with the decision. When the pool table arrived, the musicians felt displaced and disregarded. They soon left. The irony, of course, was that it was Mike and his friends for whom the youth center was created. It was Mike’s mother who had initiated the planning and who gathered the troops to find the building, raise the funds, and draw the kids together. Mike and his friends took their instruments and amps back to someone’s house and rarely frequented the youth center again.  (That said, they did play for at least two Spanish Castle fund-raisers. And Mike’s talent with his guitar, wherever  he practiced paid off. Today, a music professor,  he teaches guitar at a large university in Virginia.)

Next, the role of the faith community in setting up this youth center. And some controversy.

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