There’s a circus-like house in Allston — complete with an indoor basketball court, movie-projector room, pillow loft, and multiple art installations — whose ethos can best be summed up with a bit of poetry, which is printed out on labels on the wall of the second-floor bathroom:
VIDEO: Inside the New Allston School of Art
“Whilst sitting here/Nothing better 2 do/Replace ze toilet paper/4 those who have yet to pooh.”
Er . . . okay, as poetry goes, it’s crap. But it does embody the “doing for the sake of others” communal philosophy that is a central theme for the New Allston School of Art (NASA), as the three-story home is affectionately referred to by its inhabitants and visitors, named for the artist-nurturing atmosphere present within. That altruistic spirit of giving courses through the dark-green “Philadelphia”-style house, preached by the abode’s landlord and master of ceremonies, known simply as “Gonzo.” (He asked that his real name not be used.)
Gonzo, a 32-year-old former duck-boat driver turned software designer/engineer from Saratoga, New York, conceived, owns, and helped build NASA, and is its omnipresent Mr. Roarke. It is in some ways a quasi-halfway house for his down-and-out (or merely down) friends and acquaintances, and also a pulsing, nurturing womb for those artistic types who intrigue him. The common thread among all its residents, though, is a quality of communal uplift, in which admission to tenancy in the house is based on a long interview and application process. Gonzo also asks every prospective tenant the same question, one he considers more important than whether they can pay rent or have good references: “How can you better the lives of the other people who live here?”
NASA has been home to more than 40 different people during his ownership, including some local bands (the current house band is the Cashed Fools), a dancer for the Boston Blazers, a cellist who occasionally plays with the Dropkick Murphys, and many of Gonzo’s friends who needed a place to stay when life didn’t work out exactly the way they’d planned.
Almost 10 years ago, fresh out of Boston University, Gonzo bought the house in such a state that, depending on the weather, visitors would have been advised to bring their umbrellas (or snow boots) inside with them. “You could see a lot of daylight through the roof,” recalls Gonzo. “We redid everything.” Over the past decade, Gonzo and scores of helping hands have transformed the once-crumbling building into a haven for artists and those who need to rebuild their lives.
Take Mark, another friend of Gonzo’s who was going through a tough time (he requested we not use his last name). Gonzo convinced him to stay at the house for a few days to think things over. “This house is therapeutic,” says Gonzo. “That’s why so many broken hearts from failed relationships come here. You don’t have to be alone when you come home from work, and there is always something to occupy any free time. No one is ever bored.”
Lincoln Logs and secret lofts
A small horde in surgical masks rumble by, holding cans of spray paint and recently painted silver cardboard boxes. Three girls swing eight feet off the ground in a hammock, nervously watching the bolts as they strain under their weight. Several couples follow the moves of a female instructor giving an “ecstatic dancing” lesson.
And that’s just what’s happening on NASA’s third floor.
Yes, it has a dainty front porch and the old woodwork of similar 100-year-old two-families in this Allston neighborhood off of Comm Ave (Gonzo requested the exact address of his Shangri-La also remain a secret). But it is definitely the only one whose front lawn boasts a retro-orange plastic bowling-alley bench and whose driveway showcases an old trolley car re-outfitted with strobe lights and a sound system worthy of MTV’s Pimp My Ride.
Inside, NASA pulses with energy — at various hours of the day, college frat guys might be clustered around kegs while girls in long, patterned skirts dance in the halls and Harvard faculty sip wine at the table. Some will sit on the gleaming wooden floor and some on the cushy velvet-covered couches, listening to the Cashed Fools’ “Bluesadelic Funkacide” in what once was a parlor. An Italian girl in the incredibly well-stocked kitchen hands out bowl after bowl of spaghetti, intermittently draping yards of homemade pasta on every imaginable bit of space, from pieces of furniture to light fixtures. The stairs, hallways, walls, and ceilings serve as forums for uplifting slogans, such as “Leave it better than found” and “Help yourself by helping others.”