Facelift and a Future
Up Straight: The future Universal Preservation Halls
steeple engaging with the atmosphere.
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.
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
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.
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?”