For nearly a century, Saratoga Springs was the summer place to be for New York state’s political maneuvering class.
From the time the newly formed Anti-Nebraska (think anti-slavery) Party held an aborted nominating convention in the village in 1854 through the Republican renomination of Gov. Thomas Dewey at Convention Hall in 1950, Saratoga hosted more than two dozen major political conventions.
The Republicans and sometimes the Democrats found the Spa City a convenient gathering spot to hash out their differences and pick their nominees — to say nothing of the unwholesome fun to be found in the streets outside the town hall or convention hall.
Future president Theodore Roosevelt was a prominent figure at a couple of the gatherings at the new Saratoga Convention Hall in the 1890s, and future presidential candidates Al Smith and Dewey were both nominated for governor in the city.
The GOP held its first city convention in the ballroom of the Grand Union hotel in the summer of 1870 — and after that, right through the eve of World War I, Saratoga Springs regularly beat out Syracuse and Utica, which before that had usually seemed like the most central places to meet.
At that 1870 convention, Stewart Woodford was nominated for governor by a deeply divided party, but lost, setting a pattern that would be repeated many times.
In 1910, Teddy Roosevelt — an energetic reformer who wasn’t the Saratoga type, really, and by then was a frustrated former president — chaired the state Republican convention. He oversaw the nomination for governor of his protege, former U.S. Attorney Henry Stimson.
While Stimson would go on to serve as Secretary of War and Secretary of State, and to toast the defeat of Japan in the dining hall at the Adirondack League Club, 1910 was not to be his year. He lost to incumbent Gov. John Dix.
The Republicans also renominated Dewey for governor at the Convention Hall in both 1946 and 1950 — and of course the former prosecutor repaid Saratoga with aggressive moves against the city’s gambling culture and the visibility in that culture of organized crime figures like Meyer Lansky.
So maybe it’s not surprising that after that there were no more major party political conventions, unless you count the state Conservatives’ meeting in 1966.
City Supervisor Matthew Veitch talked about the history of convention centers in the city the other night.
The enthusiastic amateur historian said the Convention Hall, built on Broadway next to Congress Park, cost $100,000 in 1893 dollars. With seating for 5,000, it may have been designed by the famed New York City architectural firm McKim, Mead & White, though Veitch has found nothing definitive in his research.
By the 1960s, the hall and the city itself were losing convention and tourism
business to newer and shinier places, and the building was deteriorating.
On Nov. 14, 1965, a couple of teenagers who were smoking started a fire inside the abandoned Columbian Hotel across Broadway and that fire spread out of control and across the street to the old wooden hall.
Firemen came from as far away as Mechanicville, but the city’s ladder truck was still out of service after a deadly ladder collapse a couple of months earlier during a fire at Saratoga Hospital. Convention Hall was a goner.
It would take nearly 20 years and a bunch of urban renewal plans, followed by urban renewal demolitions, but today’s City Center opened at the other end of downtown — the northern end — in 1984.
With an expansion in 2011, it remains a convention and meeting draw, and has helped fill Saratoga’s hotels and restaurants through the upstate months — you know the ones I mean — that always feel longer than the summer months.
“It has been a driver of the city economy,” Veitch said during his illustrated talk, held — of course — at the City Center. “It has been an unqualified success.”
There have been no political conventions there, though contractors’ expos, gun shows and conventions of the Association of Veterinary Technicians pay the rent.
The old Convention Hall site, meanwhile, became the home of the YMCA for decades, and is now where the high-rise Park Place condominiums tower over Congress Park.
Stephen Williams is a Gazette reporter. The opinions expressed in his column are his own and not necessarily the newspaper’s. He can be reached at 885-6705 or firstname.lastname@example.org.