Renaissance Hall puts emphasis on culture, community

Renovation of former St. Mary's Church includes restaurant
The former St. Mary's Church on Eastern Avenue in Schenectady is now Renaissance Hall.
The former St. Mary's Church on Eastern Avenue in Schenectady is now Renaissance Hall.

Categories: Life & Arts

The former St. Mary’s Church on Eastern Avenue may not be used for Sunday services any longer, but it’s found new life thanks to Sandra Vardine.

Vardine, a Capital Region resident who owns Northland Transportation, has a passion for restoring historic buildings in the area.

She opened St. Mary’s, which she’s renamed Renaissance Hall, in late January and it stands out in the neighborhood for more than its towering architecture.

RELATED: Reasonably priced dinners at new Renaissance

In the heart of the Eastern Avenue neighborhood, there are a smattering of condemned homes and a few closed storefronts.

But it wasn’t always like that, according to resident Bob Harvey.

Harvey moved to the neighborhood in 1988 with wife, Priscilla. They liked the area and knew most of the community. But in 2008, shortly after Bob retired, they noticed litter piling up along the streets and heard more about violence in the neighborhood.

“People were afraid to live on their blocks,” Harvey said. So in 2009, he became president of the Eastern Avenue Neighborhood Association and since then has been trying to find ways to restore the area to what it was when he moved in.  

The change has been slow.

But that hasn’t deterred Vardine from seeing the potential in the 125-year-old building at 828 Eastern Ave. and in the community around it.

Before Vardine purchased the church in 2014, it sat vacant for several years, with a leaky roof that was leading to water damage.

“That was one of the first things we took care of,” Vardine said. She purchased the property for $60,000 but has spent several hundred thousand dollars for renovations.

“Because it just needed to be done,” Vardine said.

Her purchase was part of a grander project she calls the House of Angels Renaissance Project.

With it, she’s hoping to make Schenectady and the Capital Region more of a destination, using the historical pieces of the region to rebuild a culture and sense of community that was lost.

Community members like Helen Ann Saunders remember that sense well.

She was a lifelong parishioner of St. Mary’s and grew up two blocks away from the church.

Saunders was baptized there and went to the parish school.

During the last Sunday service of the church in late 2009, Saunders remembers families and long-time church members sobbing at the loss of the church.

“ . . . And now, these young people were losing this oasis of peace, refuge, direction, hope, and strength — a beautiful site of the practice of their faith’s heritage,” Saunders said.

But with Vardine’s project, the church is getting a facelift and is bringing more residents back.

Renaissance Hall, which St. Mary’s was renamed, is usually a flurry of activity.

Musicians play several evenings a week. The Renaissance Restaurant and bar brings in various community groups and people around the neighborhood.

The ground floor can fit up to 500 people, so Vardine plans on renting it out for weddings or large parties.

Vardine is also honing in on the various cultural groups in Schenectady.

There are already Latin Tuesdays complete with salsa dancing, but she hopes to add evening events to recognize the Polish community, as well as the Italian communities.

While the Hall has seen some successful events, Vardine said that it’s only just gotten started.

She hopes that the Rivers Casino will also attract people to the Schenectady area.

However, she’s hoping to provide people with something the casino can’t supply entirely.

“If you’re going to become a destination, you need the cultural aspect,” Vardine said.

On the ground floor, she already has a rolling art gallery filled with the work of local artists Nancy Hunt and Maureen Sausa.

But she’d like to make a more permanent gallery as well as an art school.  

It’s all a part of growing the cultural aspects of the community that are already there.

Vardine is also looking to renovate the convent and school on Irving Street.

With these buildings, she’s working with Better Neighborhoods Incorporated to create an artist gallery and school and is thinking of putting a bed and breakfast or a senior living center in the former convent.  

Vardine is also trying to get the church and the convent on the National Register of Historic Places.

Along Eastern Avenue, Vardine has found a small community of fellow “restorers.” Bonnie Novella and Muhmood Hakak are also working to turn dilapidated buildings into cultural centers and apartments.

With Proctors, Rivers Casino, Union College and other popular Schenectady attractions, Vardine and the rest of the “restoration” community hope to make the neighborhood somewhere people actually want to live.

During an interview with The Gazette, several Union College students stepped into the Renaissance Hall to ask Vardine if she would rent out the place to them for a large student-led event.

A year or two ago, Union College students wouldn’t have had reason to venture over to the neighborhood.

“It’s going to start making Schenectady look like a destination,” Vardine said. One that not only will raise the local housing market, but the community itself.

It’s something that Helen Saunders has already started to notice.

“We all need the good, the true, and the beautiful,” Saunders remarked, “People travel all over the world to see beautiful places of worship, and what man’s hands, under God’s guidance, have produced.  Here, in Schenectady, we have a few such magnificent treasures.  They need to be cherished and preserved.”

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