Donations were flowing into the effort to restore the imperiled Universal Baptist Church when it was feared the historic structure might face demolition.
The grass-roots effort to transform the downtown Saratoga Springs building into Universal Preservation Hall — a nondenominational performance hall — even received an anonymous $1 million contribution in 2003 that allowed the massive renovation to get under way. The project made dramatic progress in a short period of time and has since allowed the hall to start hosting events.
“And then the recession came along,” said Teddy Foster, president of the organization’s board of directors. “Our pledges trickled to nothing and we felt all we could do is maintain this building.”
Now the effort to transform the hall is at a crossroads. With only limited capital coming in and roughly $3 million needed to complete the job, several of the hall’s board members began reaching out to other organizations for advice.
Among them was Proctors, the Schenectady renovation success story that was at a similar crossroads just over a decade ago. At the time, Proctors hired Philip Morris as CEO, who envisioned transforming Proctors into a regional destination and later oversaw a $30 million upgrade that turned it into the theater it is today.
Now Proctors, under Morris’ leadership, is considering whether it should join with Universal Preservation Hall to help complete that job begun more than 12 years ago. With $32,000 from donors from around the Capital Region, Proctors is doing a four-month, two-part study to determine whether it can feasibly partner with the hall to help deliver a top-notch regional performance place to downtown Saratoga Springs.
“We would love it to be for Saratoga what Proctors is in Schenectady,” Morris said during a news conference in the cavernous Great Hall on Thursday in Saratoga Springs.
Of course, the church on Washington Street has come a long way since the days it was facing almost certain demolition. During the late 1990s, many feared the building that had been left open to the elements was beyond salvation. Gaping holes had opened in the roof and loose bricks were falling from the exterior. The interior was covered with pigeon droppings.
“You have no idea how close this building was to falling down,” recalled Charles Wait, the president of Adirondack Trust and a member of the hall’s board of directors.
The renovations have since corrected much of the damage that was done after the dwindling Baptist congregation could no longer maintain it. At first glance, the church almost seems like it’s been restored to its former grandeur.
But closer scrutiny reveals the work that remains. Aside from basic cosmetic work in the interior, the building’s Great Hall still lacks heat and there’s no elevator; it is also has a limit on its capacity because it lacks a sprinkler system or the proper number of fire escapes.
Morris said the building is still a church by design and lacks the electrical system it needs to be a top-notch venue for theater or music. And the interior needs tight-quarters equipment used for sound and lighting, much like Proctors.
“It needs to be equipped like a battleship,” he said.
With the proper work, Morris said the hall could become a leading attraction in the city. And one that draws people year-round.
“It’s bringing the building from saved to fully functional,” he said.
Under preliminary discussions, Morris and Foster agreed the hall would maintain its own identity much in the same way the Capital Repertory Theatre does in Albany. The professional theater group was close to faltering before saving $200,000 annually by turning over its administrative functions to Proctors in 2011.
Morris cautioned that nothing is etched in stone at this point. He said the study will show how the two entities can best proceed to help the Universal Preservation Hall finally realize its potential.
“It’s about bringing it to a place where there are no surprises,” he said.