Faced with an evolving cityscape and several deteriorating buildings, Bethesda Episcopal Church is selling three pieces of prime real estate — including a 104 acres overlooking Saratoga Lake — to fund a new parish hall adjoining its iconic Washington Street sanctuary.
The congregation recently closed on a deal that transferred its historic parish hall to the owners of the Adelphi Hotel on Broadway and will soon close on another to also sell them its rectory. Bethesda is also under contract to sell the sprawling land of the former Ensley farm to a developer looking to build homes, but church leaders declined to identify the new owner until a sale is completed.
The Rev. Marshall Vang, Bethesda’s interim rector, said the decision to sell the properties was made after years of deliberation and discussion within the congregation, including a survey of its 425 members. The overwhelming response was to fund a new, modern parish house that could be tactfully built on the half-acre lot adjacent to the stone church.
“Clearly, there was an overwhelming consent to build a new parish house,” he said.
All three buildings being sold by the church are in varying states of disrepair. The worse of the three is the vacant farmhouse at the terminus of Ceder Bluff Road, about a quarter-mile from the lake in the town of Saratoga.
But the properties located just a block from Broadway in downtown Saratoga Springs are also showing marked deterioration. Both have dated wiring and fire alarm systems, which are hazards identified by the congregation.
Also, the structures no longer serve Bethesda in the manner fitting to the congregation. For instance, the parish hall is located across from the church on the opposite side of an increasingly busy Washington Street — something that has caused concern for the safety of children attending programs there.
The rectory — vacant since the Rev. Thomas Parke died in 2012 — is in close proximity to the rear of the Rip Van Dam, which is being modernized into a six-story, 176-room hotel and 200-seat banquet facility. Coupled with the bustling environment on nearby Broadway and the deteriorated condition of the building, Vang said it made little sense to restore the structure for Bethesda’s next rector.
“Concerns regarding noise, traffic and environmental issues made it even more unattractive to spend money on it,” he said.
The parish house was sold for $1.15 million during the spring and the stone rectory on the other side of Universal Preservation Hall followed shortly after, netting Bethesda $1.05 million. Vang said the church negotiated primarily with Toby Milde, the president of Richbell Capital, who spearheaded an effort to purchase and undergo an extensive multi-million dollar renovation of the Adelphi in 2012.
Attempts to reach Milde were unsuccessful Thursday.
The congregation has worked out a lease to use the hall until 2017. Work is already underway to clear some of the contents accumulated over the course of more than a century.
Vang said the 19,000-square-foot parish hall is slated to become a conference center for the Adelphi, while plans for the rectory include transforming it into an accommodation of sorts. He said the developer is also planning to utilize the land in the rear of the buildings to extend a walkway from the hotel to the parish hall.
Built during the mid-19th century and originally known as the Washburne, the parish hall served as a boarding house until it was purchased by famed Gilded Age financier and Yaddo founder Spencer Trask. The building was being converted for church use when Trask was the lone casualty in a horrific passenger train collision on New Year’s Eve in 1909.
Katrina Trask, his widow, was awarded $32,000 in a settlement from the New York Central Railroad. She dedicated the lion’s share of the settlement to a trust for the betterment of what was then the village of Saratoga and the remaining $7,500 to complete the transformation of the Washburne “for the common good of the village.”
“I hope it is needless for me to say that it would not be conceivable for me to use it, no matter what my stress might be,” the heartbroken widow wrote to then-village president James McNulty in December 1910. “It must be dedicated. And I am sure that the most fitting dedication is to give it to the town to which Spencer Trask devoted many years of zealous service and which in the end he sacrificed his life.”
The rectory was constructed in 1856, according to county records, and owned by the Wiggins family for many years. It was purchased by Bethesda using funds presented to the Rev. Irving Rouillard as a wedding gift in 1920.
The Ensley farm was deeded to the congregation in 2004 and was originally envisioned to house a youth ministry. But like the properties on Washington Street, the cost of renovating and maintaining the home proved to be too much.
“The vestry unanimously voted to liquidate that asset and use that money toward the new parish house,” Vang said.
The sale of the farmhouse property could transform a vast swath of undeveloped land overlooking the east side of Saratoga Lake. Town officials were recently contacted by a developer about the property, but no formal plans have been submitted.
“It is developable,” said Ian Murray, chairman of the town’s Planning Board. “I couldn’t speculate on the number of lots though.”
Meanwhile, Bethesda’s vestry is moving forward with plans for the new parish hall — an undertaking that won’t be simple or inexpensive. The project will require the congregation to design a new structure that blends into a design originally crafted by renowned architect Richard Upjohn in 1842.
Vang said the sale of all three properties isn’t expected to cover the cost of construction, meaning Bethesda will have to wage a fundraising campaign for its largest capital project in more than a half-century. The congregation also wants to determine what should be incorporated into the new hall — a facility that will be dedicated to serving the community as a whole.
“We’re building this new parish house not just for us,” he said. “We’re building this for the community of Saratoga Springs.”