hill country observerThe independent newspaper of eastern New York, southwestern Vermont and the Berkshires




A grand church, saved by the arts

Spa City landmark finds new life as performance space


Contributing writer

The massive brick edifice that became the Universal Preservation Hall never crumbled to the ground in the physical sense, but it has become known in the past decade as a phoenix of a structure.

When the grand old church was officially condemned by the city in 2000, it could easily have gone the route of the wrecking ball. But a group of local preservationists -- as well as its longtime occupants, the Universal Baptist Church -- saw the potential for a revival.

Today, Universal Preservation Hall still provides space for the Baptist congregation’s Sunday morning worship services, but it also functions as a performance and community center, hosting events that range from weddings and lectures to ballroom dance classes, movie screenings and concerts.

The 140-year-old church on Washington Street, a block west of Broadway, was saved from demolition through the efforts of a core group of supporters who organized a nonprofit arts group a decade ago to take charge of the building. Among the early leaders of this effort were Jeff Pfeil, a local developer and former president of the Saratoga Springs Preservation Foundation, and Tom Lewis, a Skidmore College professor of English who has long been involved in the city’s historic preservation efforts.

Teddy Foster, who succeeded Lewis last year as president of Universal Preservation Hall’s board of trustees, said fund raising began in earnest in 2000 and has so far yielded $2.5 million that has been spent on crucial structural repairs.

But she said another $2.5 million will be needed to complete the basic requirements of operating as a full-scale community center. Among those needs are the installation of an elevator, sprinkler system and a fire escape.

“It’s such a worthwhile project,” Foster said. “We have to finish it. This is the perfect place for the community, and it’s right downtown.”

Although repairs and renovations to the dilapidated structure started in 2003, it wasn’t until this year that the hall began hosting regular performing arts events. These events, in turn, have helped to raise awareness about the ongoing efforts to preserve the hall.

Foster said this year’s performances have also helped to raise funds for the needed work ahead.

“Before each performance, we asked how many in the audience were there for the first time,” she said. “Usually 90 percent of the people raised their hand. … That’s a huge achievement.”

Long decline, slow rebirth

The two-story Victorian Gothic structure, built of brick and sandstone, began its life as a Methodist church in 1871. In addition to church functions, the building hosted public meetings and forums. Among those who spoke at the church in its early decades were President William Howard Taft, Teddy Roosevelt, William Jennings Bryan and Frederick Douglass.

Foster said the church continued to thrive until the 1960s, when much of the city went into decline.

“All the big hotels burned, and the Methodists bought a facility outside of town,” she explained. “The church was vacant until the Baptists bought it in 1976.”

Foster said the Universal Baptist Church, historically an African-American congregation, allowed many community uses of the building, with activities ranging from 12-step meetings to a food pantry.

“It was a robust and thriving congregation, but they never had the wherewithal to preserve the building,” she said.

But it wasn’t until nearly 2000, when the building was condemned by the city, that concerned citizens banded together with the Rev. Minnie Burns to try to save the structure. The result was formation of the Saratoga Springs Universal Preservation Hall.

“What makes us unique is our partnership with the Baptists,” Foster said.

From the beginning, she explained, the preservationists sought to preserve a space for the congregation by creating a new chapel on the ground floor of the building. The partnership between a religious congregation and a secular arts organization, some say, could be a model for saving other grand old churches.

With the money raised so far, the group has been able to stabilize and repair the roof and stop water leaks that were causing structural damage. The church’s bell tower, the tallest structure in the city, used to sag to the east but now has been lifted and straightened.

“The building was a hard-hat area for many years,” Foster said. “We had to put up wooden scaffolding from the basement to the roof just for repairs to be done. It was scary.”

With the major work to stabilize the structure accomplished, the hall was able to start fulfilling its mission to the community, so the meetings, concerts and weddings began.

The first floor holds space for the office, chapel, community room, and a “green room” for performers. On the second floor is the spacious Great Hall for larger performing arts events. The basement is used for storage.

The community room can host up to 200 people.

“Even in our unfinished state, we’ve been doing lots of weddings,” Foster said. “You don’t have to do a lot of decorating, because the place is so beautiful. The ceremonies are usually in the chapel, followed by cocktails in the community room and the receptions in the Great Hall.”

Dance and music

The hall now has a resident dance company, Nacre, which offers classes and performances throughout the year.

And within the past year, the hall has begun hosting performances by nationally known musical artists such as Colin Hay, John Sebastian and Max Weinberg. The hall recruits the big talent by partnering (and sharing revenue and expenses) with Andrew Meader, a Glens Falls promoter, and his company, The Applause Factory.

“We’re increasing awareness by bringing in more performing artists,” Foster said.

So far, the hall has drawn rave reviews from both audiences and performers.

“Because a couple of local stores have loaned us furniture, we have an awesome green room,” she said. “And our acoustics are excellent. We recently had acoustic groups perform in the Great Hall, and the sound was amazing.”

Foster runs a local health, nutrition and weight-loss business, Take Shape for Life, but has been involved in the effort to save the hall for most of the past decade. She became the Universal Preservation Hall board president last year.

“It’s very difficult for me to go out and do a capital campaign,” she said. “I’m not a fundraiser or a preservationist. … I tell people I’m an accidental preservationist.”

But because of the work that remains to be done, Foster said the hall has yet to reach its full operating potential. The hall is not currently handicapped-accessible, and it’s restricted in the number of people it can hold.

“If we can get an elevator and fire escape, we’ll be cooking with gas,” she said. “A sprinkler system would expand our market, because we could fill the hall to capacity. Right now, fire code laws restrict us because we have no fire escape.”

She also aims to add climate control throughout the building and heat on the second floor – and to revamp the front entrance, creating what will be called a “community plaza.”

“We recently built center steps so people can actually enter through our center doors,” Foster said. “It’s great for brides.

“And the basement’s as dry as a bone,” she added. “We feel great about the repairs. The building is spectacular; I give a lot of tours. But we really need to get the rest done, and I’m the kind of person who believes that success is the only option.”


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