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Running with the bulls (and bears) Skidmore's investment performance
Salvation Saratoga citizens preserve historic church
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Teachers' pets Faculty dog-owners wag a few tales

 

Partners in Salvation
Saratoga citizens preserve a piece of history
by Maryann Teale Snell

Mid-morning on a rainy Friday in July, two guys in Saratoga Springs are taking pains to remove an organ. It’s not a medical procedure, but still a surgery of sorts. For several weeks the men have been dismantling the massive Austin pipe organ at a 133-year-old church on Washington Street and packing the pieces into dozens of very long, hand-built wooden boxes. It’s a significant step in the transformation of the city’s Universal Baptist church—one of the earliest examples of High Victorian Gothic architecture in the nation—into a performing arts venue called Universal Preservation Hall.

“This thing has been a bear to get out,” says Tom Lewis, a Skidmore English professor and president of the UPH board. The instrument’s removal (which, he acknowledges, drew considerable flak from some organ enthusiasts) has revealed a pair of stained-glass windows that were obscured for more than fifty years, and opened up a fourteen-foot-wide area in the proscenium that will become the stage.

Lewis, one of several Skidmore relations involved in the project (others include UPH board members Jane Greenberg ’81 and Emma Dodge Hanson ’93, retired art history professor James Kettlewell, and first lady Marie Glotzbach), has lived in the area since 1968. He chuckles when asked why he got involved in saving a church in Saratoga’s downtown. “It sounds corny, but I really like to make things a little better. The building was in bad shape. People were concerned about it. I was concerned about it.”

The building was condemned in 1999 because engineers feared its roof, deteriorating from years of neglect, would collapse. Baptist parishioners were sent across the street to hold their services at the Episcopal church. Lewis and builder Jeff Pfeil—a former president of the Saratoga Springs Preservation Foundation—began conversations with the Baptist church to work out a plan that would save the building, preserve the congregation’s place of worship, and create a structure that would serve the larger community well into the future.

The unique cooperative venture gives ownership of the building to the nonprofit Saratoga Springs Universal Preservation Hall, while the church retains ownership of the land beneath it. The first floor will house a chapel, plus a sizable community room. The upper floor—which has remarkable acoustics—will become a 7,000-square-foot, 700-seat auditorium for concerts, theater productions, film screenings, lectures, readings, and more. Considering that some Saratoga residents were in favor of gutting the church and using the space for a parking garage, this alternative is, in the words of Marie Glotzbach, “an inspired idea.”

Built in 1871 as a Methodist Episcopal church, UPH is visually mind-boggling. Everything about its exterior is grand: the asymmetrical roofline (a Germanic influence), the multiple granite arches (Italianate), the two brick steeples (one of which sports the highest spire in Saratoga). Inside, the space is vast (fourteen-foot ceilings downstairs and an upstairs sanctuary that stretches fifteen yards high) yet charming, with a wide, winding staircase; towering stained-glass windows; an immense horseshoe-shaped balcony; chandeliers; and, in the bell tower, the original ton-and-a-half bronze Meneely bell that once called members to prayer.

Jim Kettlewell, in his book Saratoga Springs: An Architectural History, noted that “other examples of High Victorian Gothic style are relatively rare” in town. In 1999 a joint program of the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the White House Millenium Council designated the church an official project of Save America’s Treasures.

When restoration work began three years ago, the first order of business was shoring up the roof and reinforcing it with several tons of steel. The work was time-consuming, costly, and offered little in the way of visual improvement. But now more obvious repairs are being made to the slate roof, masonry, and entrance steps; and soon the focus will be on details—like replacing a hammered-tin ceiling, painting the sanctuary (colored sky-blue several decades ago, it will return to its original crimson), and restoring the chapel’s altar and sixteen-foot-long pews.

Even in its current state as a construction site, with hard-hatted workers milling around and power tools running nonstop, the building has an awesome calm about it and exudes the sweet and comforting scent of history. But it hasn’t always smelled so pleasing. Volunteers have carted out “well over thirty tons of trash,” Lewis says, and professionals removed “$18,000 worth of pigeon guano” that had accumulated over the last century.

Lewis, who logs countless hours in UPH work, has been a principal recruiter of other volunteers. With a mere tour of the church, he lured in local alumna Jane Greenberg. “I was completely blown away. It’s one of the most beautiful spaces I’ve even seen. I said, How do I get involved with this, what can I do?” Before long, Greenberg—who was Skidmore’s director of foundation and corporate relations for over a decade—agreed to be UPH’s campaign chair.

Photographer Emma Dodge Hanson had heard people calling the building “a blower-upper instead of a fixer-upper.” When Lewis asked her to document the reconstruction in pictures, she brushed him off at first. Then he showed her the upstairs, and “it took my breath away,” she admits. “Now it’s the thing that turns me on the most about this town—it’s an amazing place.”

Albany-based John G. Waite Associates, one of the premier historical architectural firms in the country, has supervised restorations ranging from the Lincoln Memorial and Monticello to the Baltimore Cathedral. They weren’t interested in the church at first, thinking the job “wasn’t big enough, wasn’t sexy enough,” says UPH director of external affairs Shane Williams-Ness. “But when they saw it in person, they changed their minds.”

Douglas Gray ’73, who lives in New York City, got sucked in while attending his thirtieth reunion at Skidmore. “I parked in front of the church, conveniently located near Starbucks. I thought, Hmm, they’re converting that fabulous old church into a theater… I’ve consulted on a bunch of projects like that… I wonder who’s running it?” He found out it was Lewis. “I was an English major,” Gray says. “We had a lot to talk about.”

UPH set its campaign goal at $3 million. That may not seem like much, but coming up with the funds hasn’t been simple. “Usually you raise your money and then put your shovel in the ground and start the project,” Greenberg says. “We’re raising as we go, which means asking people to make payment on their pledges pretty immediately.” As Lewis says, “If we hadn’t gotten money right away, the building would have been nothing but a pile of 800,000 rose-colored bricks.”

Fortunately, he adds, “the building sells itself—that’s our biggest asset.” UPH got a lucky break last summer when an anonymous donor offered a $1 million gift. To date, the Baptist church has contributed $17,000, and the board has pitched in $240,000 [update]. Individual donations and grants from several local and state agencies had brought the total to $1.7 million as of September.

Asked to describe his favorite place at the construction site, Lewis has one breathless response: He likes “standing up in the balcony and looking down, with the light coming through the western windows and reflected on the floor, and imagining what’s going to happen, and knowing it’s not all that far off.”

Billed in its newsletter as “a lyceum for the twenty-first century,” Universal Preservation Hall is scheduled to open by December 2005, with a gala celebration in June 2006. Lewis won’t reveal much about the gala, except to say, “We’re planning the greatest thing. It is so cool.” He hints at a “festival for the whole community” that will feature some “significant household names.” Perhaps that old Meneely bell will herald something marvelous.

To learn more, go to www.universalpreservationhall.org.