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A Facelift and a Future

Stand Up Straight: The future Universal Preservation Hall’s steeple engaging with the atmosphere.

Saratoga Springs’ Universal Baptist church has seen better days. The building was condemned in 2000, but in 2001 a group of community members convened with the Saratoga Springs Preservation Foundation and resolved to save the building.

Saratoga Springs Universal Preservation Hall, now a formal nonprofit organization, found a solution that lets the Baptists worship in a smaller chapel on the ground floor and creates a large performance space in main sanctum of the church on the floor above. To one of the hall’s board members, Jennifer Armstrong, it’s a “fantastic soaring space” complete with beautiful stained-glass windows, a balcony and wonderful acoustics—all features which will remain in the adapted space.

“There had to be a way to preserve the building and the congregation at the same time,” said Armstrong. And with the new plan, they were able to have it both ways as well as retain and enhance the building’s place in the community. The new performance space will hold more than 800 seats for almost any sort of presentation, including film, theater and music.

Built in 1871, the brick-and-stone building was first occupied by a Methodist congregation, who later sold it to the Baptists. So this next step is just one more in the building’s evolution of purpose.

“Its almost like if preserving the building meant turning it into a hamburger joint, we would do that, but this is the use for it that makes the most sense and that seems to be the best and highest purpose for the project,” said Armstrong.

“The restoration of the building is sort of phase one; making it a performing arts center is then what happens once the building is restored,” said Armstrong. Plans for the performance center are thus somewhat fluid still. “Right now we’re making sure the roof is OK.”

It just so happens that the church has been called one of the nation’s earliest and finest examples of High Victorian Gothic architecture. So, to the preservationists, saving the building was a no-brainer.

To art historian James Kettlewell, the church is very Victorian in the way it combined elements inspired by Italian and German Gothic architecture. That “was a tremendously influential style because it introduced order into the chaos of Victorian design,” said Kettlewell.

Victorians were attracted to Gothic architecture partly because it mimicked nature through stylistic elements like broken patterns. “Look down any avenue of trees, and you’ll find the branches overhead, particularly elm trees, form a pointed arch,” offered Kettlewell. “To go down North Broadway in Saratoga Springs is like going down the nave of a Gothic church.”

The church is simply an important feature of the city’s skyline, particularly with its high belltower. “To many of us it adds a powerful impact on the built environment. Its absence would create a great hole, its presence creates a drama on the skyline,”said Kettlewell. “It is a victory when such buildings are saved.”

Restoration work is rolling forward, and after an anonymous $1 million gift, fund- raising is underway. Conservative estimates place the cost at about $3 million and construction is projected to finish near the end of 2005.

It is the re-invention of the space which will most directly benefit the community. To Armstrong, the benefit is clear: “Imagine in the future, being able to park your car somewhere downtown, go to dinner to a wonderful restaurant on Broadway, and then walk to the concert hall. How great is that?”

—Ashley Hahn

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