From the street, you’d never think the homely, unadorned commercial building occupied by Portland’s S1 is home to a performance venue, a library of synthesizers and studio space for collaborative art practices. But on select nights crowds of creatively minded partygoers gather to dance to electronic music that isn’t quite like what you hear at a typical nightclub.

Several years ago, the facility opened in an expansive concrete basement beneath the Rite Aid in Portland’s Hollywood neighborhood. The basement had a spacious, industrial feeling that lent itself to the type of performances S1 wants to throw. But the basement was also expensive and S1 needed a space that was friendlier toward big, loud events. So they moved to a new location further down on Sandy Boulevard. That’s when S1’s problems with city code began.

Over the past five years, Portland has beefed up its occupancy restrictions. There was a time when you could hold an event with up to 300 people in buildings without sprinklers. Now, generally speaking, presenters need fire sprinklers if they want to host more than 49 people. S1’s new location isn’t equipped, so most of their events are capped at under 50.

The Synth Library at S1

The Synth Library at S1

Nick Hennessy

At a recent event, the room was arranged to make it feel like an intimate venue. There was a table where the DJs performed, plenty of room to dance and art projected on the walls. All 49 available tickets for the event sold out in advance. Several hopefuls had to be turned away at the door, but because people came and went over the course of the night, the number of people in the room never approached capacity.

In late 2016, 36 people died in an accidental fire during a performance at the Ghost Ship art space in Oakland, California. Local authorities in cities across America sprang into action. Nobody wanted the next Ghost Ship disaster happening in their city.

Louisa Jones from the Portland Fire Marshal’s office said that after the disaster, “they identified 14 to 15 buildings that were nightclub venues that did not have sprinkler systems.” Jones said the Portland Fire Bureau sees packed events with no sprinklers as rolling the dice.

In 2013, the fire bureau, at the direction of Commissioner Dan Saltzman, made a policy change requiring nightclubs to install sprinklers. At least two venues, the Alhambra Theatre and the all-ages club Backspace, could not bear the costs and closed.

For S1’s Felisha Ledesma, investing in a sprinkler system for their building isn’t really an option. It could cost from $60,000 to $100,000 dollars to install a system in a space that they’re only tied to by a five-year lease.

Between shows, S1 continues to host educational workshops, including modular synthesis classes for female-identifying and nonbinary artists. The education work is a cornerstone of S1’s mission, as is the belief that you shouldn’t always have to go to a bar to see live music.