By Barbara Pinckney
In the second half of the nineteenth century, four buildings went up in the Capital Region.
One was a church and speaker’s house, one was a town hall and meeting space, and two were music halls. All were splendid in their architecture and vital in their economic, cultural and artistic contributions to their communities. For years, they welcomed renowned performers and speakers. Teddy Roosevelt stood on the stages of two of them.
Yet these four buildings—Universal Preservation Hall in Saratoga Springs, Hudson Opera House, Troy Savings Bank Music Hall, and Cohoes Music Hall—were not immune to the economic pressures their cities faced over the years. Audiences dwindled, infrastructure aged and, in some cases, the wrecking ball loomed.
But in each of the four cities, concerned citizens recognized the importance of these historic treasures and refused to let them go. Now, these venues are no longer reflections of their community’s struggles, but symbols of their vitality.
Universal Preservation Hall
25 Washington Street, Saratoga Springs
Built: 1871; seating: 800
When Universal Preservation Hall signed an affiliation agreement with Proctors last year, Teddy Foster wept for joy.
“You have no idea,” said Foster, former president of the non-profit board that oversees UPH and now campaign manager for a $4.3 million effort to turn the 145-year-old Saratoga Springs church into a year-round performance venue. “We always felt that failure wasn’t an option because this building has the capacity to be one of the coolest places ever downtown.”
Under the deal, signed last July, UPH remains independent but is considered a subsidiary of Proctors and benefits from the Schenectady theater’s programming, marketing and financial expertise. If all goes as planned, the hall, which is now in very limited use, will close for a year starting this fall, for construction of a 13,000-square-foot performing arts space. The new venue, which will seat about 800 people, is expected to open in late 2017 or early 2018.
“We will be Saratoga’s downtown community living room, year-round,” Foster said.
Philip Morris, CEO of Proctors, said the plan is for seating to surround a center stage, for a layout unlike any other venue in the region. The hall will be in use at least 175 nights the first year, with about half of the events community-based and half performance-based. “It will be all kinds of things, although we will give a priority to music because that room just screams ‘music,’” Morris said.
This is a big step forward for a building that, 16 years ago, was facing a wrecking ball. The former Methodist church, said to be one of the country’s most significant examples of High Victorian Gothic architecture, was built as both a place of worship and a speaker’s house.
Many people of the day—including Teddy Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and such famous abolitionists as Fredrick Douglas and Henry Ward Beecher—addressed Saratoga Springs residents there.
In 1976, the Methodists erected a new church, and sold the building at 25 Washington Street to the small Universal Baptist Church. That congregation used the building until 2000, when it was condemned by the city because of its poor condition.
But a number of concerned citizens came together to save the building from the wrecking ball. They raised $3.7 million in private donations and used the money to stabilize the structure and re-engineer the steeple and roof.
In 2006, Universal Preservation Hall reopened for limited use as a performing arts venue. A lack of heating or air conditioning on the main floor cut its season to just a few months. In 2015, it hosted about 25 events, including concerts, weddings, dance performances and the Saratoga ArtsFest.
Supporters always had bigger plans, but when the recession hit in 2007, donations dried up. “We were struggling, so we decided to call Proctors and see if there was any way they could help us with programming ideas or something,” said Foster, who took over as board president in 2009. “We were trying everything possible to keep the building alive.”
Proctors, which already had an affiliation with Albany’s Capital Repertory Theatre, saw UPH as a way to expand its regional reach. “And when we looked at it we said ‘wow,’” Morris said. “It was beautiful.” He said his team saw great potential in such a unique venue, located in a city with a reputation for arts and culture but no downtown music or performance space. “We had a strong sense that there was a program that would be complementary to what we do [in Schenectady]and an audience that would be complementary to what we do.”
The relationship with Proctors not only gives UPH operational expertise and muscle in attracting shows, but experience in doing historic preservation—of which Proctors has done about half a dozen. “I think the affiliation took a young organization without a lot of skills in the field and moved them forward 20 notches at once,” Morris said.
The agreement gave UPH the backing to kick off the $4.3 million capital campaign to complete the building. So far, it has raised about $350,000 and identified about $1.4 million in historic preservation tax credits, leaving about $2.6 million. Leading the effort is Sonny Bonaccio, president of Saratoga-based Bonaccio Construction. Also assigned to the project are Lacey Theiler Reilly Wilson Architecture & Preservation LLP of Albany, Specialized Audio Visual Inc. (SAVI) of Clifton Park and Argyle-based Adirondack Studios. “It will be a spectacular event space when it is finished,” Foster said.
Hudson Opera House
327 Warren Street, Hudson
Built: 1875; seating: 300
While the Hudson Opera House is looking to the future with an $8.5 million restoration project that will open its upper floor for the first time in 54 years, its past as New York’s oldest surviving theater will never be forgotten.
“What I love about the building is its rich history, and you can feel that,” said Gary Shiro, executive director of the 161-year-old building at 327 Warren Street. “It is wonderful to be on the stage and know that is the same stage Susan B. Anthony stood on twice, to rally support for good causes. Where Ralph Waldo Emerson read one of his essays. And Brett Hart read his poems. And Teddy Roosevelt regaled the crowd with tales of his travels in Africa.”
Today, the Hudson Opera House offers a year-round schedule of arts and cultural programming for people of all ages, including concerts, lectures, readings, exhibitions and community events. It hosts about 1,000 events a year, serving more than 50,000 individuals and families. As many of the events are free to the public, most of the venue’s $650,000 annual budget comes from fundraising, memberships, individual donations and grants.
The $8.5 million capital project, which got under way in March, will create a 300-seat flexible performance space—seats not fixed in place—that will broaden the possibilities. “We will be able to have artists of a higher caliber, and most significantly will be able to expand our offerings in dance and theater, which have been nearly impossible to present on the first floor,” Shiro said. “We will be able to present film in a way we haven’t been able to before and accommodate larger community events as well as rentals.”
The upstairs performance space is expected to open in the spring of 2017. Shiro said some “very exciting” programs are planned for the initial season, although it is too early to name them. Opera is unlikely, however, for the building’s name is more symbolic than literal. It was built in 1855 as Hudson’s town hall and post office, with an upstairs performance hall that was used for “a little bit of everything” including lectures, readings, graduations, cooking demonstrations poultry shows and boxing matches. It also was a common ground where white and black citizens could meet. “You name it, it happened in that space,” Shiro said.
The name “opera house” was adopted in 1880, a few years after the Palais Garnier opened in Paris. Due to the enthusiasm for what was considered one of the most beautiful opera houses in the world, it became popular for community gathering places in the United States to adopt the name “opera house.”
The building operated as town hall, post office and meeting space for about 100 years.
But in 1962, it was abandoned, to sit vacant for 30 years. Then a group of local volunteers banded together to return the building to use as a multi-arts center. “These folks were merchants, long-time community members, new arrivals from the city, second homeowners—a real combination of folks who had the tenacity to believe that a building of this history and potential ought to do something more than just sit there and rot,” Shiro said.
Over $3 million was invested in a series of 12 projects to stabilize the building, and re-open the first floor. The work now under way will be the final phase of reconstruction. It will include an elevator, to make the second floor accessible to people of all abilities for the first time. The rebirth of the Hudson Opera House has had a big impact on a part of the city that many had given up on. Within three years of its 1998 reopening, three restaurants had opened “within 50 paces of our front door,” Shiro said. Art galleries and other shops also have sprung up along the block.
Troy Savings Bank Music Hall
30 Second Street, Troy
Built: 1845; seating: 1,100 National Historic Register: 1989
In many ways, the Troy Savings Bank Music Hall is the same as it was when it was first built 141 years ago. It still has its original seats and its original stage. But some things are changing, including the types of artists who stand upon that stage and the people who sit in those seats.
“One of the things we’ve really tried to do over the past few years is broaden the diversity of our programming,” said Executive Director John Elbaum. “A lot of people know the hall for classical music, or maybe jazz. But really, we are doing a huge spectrum of entertainment and education that appeals, I think, to the entire community.”
The music hall, which closes during the summer because of lack of air conditioning, will launch its 2016-2017 season September 14, with 1960s pop star Donovan. Other notable names on deck include Peter Yarrow and Noah Paul Stookey of Peter Paul and Mary; Black Violin, which Elbaum described as “kind of classical music mixed with hip hop; and the Gibson Brothers, international bluegrass stars who hail from Ellenburg Depot in Clinton County. There also is Albany Pro Musica, the hall’s chorus in residence.
No matter which show you choose, or which of the 1,100 seats you occupy, you will feel close to act. The music hall’s unique acoustics—which allow performers to forgo wearing mics if they choose—are world renowned.
“There is a very intimate feeling to the hall,” Elbaum said. “You really feel a connection between what’s happening on stage and you in your seat, and the performers notice that. They feel a connection to the audience and they get energy from the audience. They can literally have a conversation with someone on the balcony from the stage without having to raise their voice.”
Those acoustics did not exist when the music hall opened, above the Troy Savings Bank headquarters at 30 Second Street, in 1875. In 1890, the bank bought a large Odell organ, valued at the time at $12,400. Accommodating it meant building a platform over the stage, along with a cove for support. The cove acted like a natural orchestra shell and, when combined with other physical characteristics of the hall (its narrow, shoebox form; 61-foot ceilings; padded wooden seats that absorb a minimum of sound; thick, plaster surfaces and ornamental detailing) created an almost perfect acoustical environment. “It was kind of a happy accident we have the hall that we have today,” Elbaum said.
The organ is primarily a showpiece now, occasionally played as part of Troy’s Victorian Stroll. It was partially restored in 2006, when the Organ Historical Society convened in Troy, but is not in top form.
The music hall has been in use almost continuously since it was built, although some times were busier than others.
In the first half of the twentieth century, the stage was graced by such world-renowned artists as opera singer Lillian Nordica, Russian composer Sergei Rachmaninoff, and pianists Myra Hess, Vladimir Horowitz and Artur Rubenstein. Troy was considered a must for every great musician on tour in America.
But as the century progressed, the city’s industrial dominance declined and so did its ability to attract and support the arts. Community leaders began looking for ways to save the hall and, in 1979, a group of private citizens formed the Troy Savings Bank Music Hall Revitalization Committee. The committee’s receipt of grants and support from Troy Savings, the city and Rensselaer County led to the creation of the Troy Savings Bank Music Hall Corp., the non-profit that operates the hall today.
In the fall of 1979, The Benny Goodman band ushered in a new age for the music hall. Elbaum described the list of performers who have appeared since then as “really a who’s who of [the]twentieth and twenty-first centuries.” Names include Elvis Costello, Wynton Marsalis, Steve Martin, Lily Tomlin, the Indigo Girls, Lea Solonga and Ferrante & Teicher.
For many years, getting equipment—such as Ferrante & Teicher’s twin pianos—into the third-floor hall was a struggle. There was no freight elevator, so everything had to be hauled up from the alley. “So you could be walking down the alley and see a piano 30 feet in the air hanging by a thread, like in a cartoon,” Elbaum said. “They did that for years and years and years. It boggles the mind.”
A freight elevator was one of the changes made to the hall during a 2007 renovation. Other improvements included expanding storage space near the stage, which Elbaum said has allowed for larger groups and greater flexibility in programming. More recent upgrades include a lighting truss with state-of-the-art LED lights, and, just this spring, a digital main sound console.
The music hall operates on an annual budget of about $1.2 million, which is funded through grants, fundraising, ticket sales, memberships and the leasing of the hall to users such as Albany Symphony Orchestra and Troy Chromatics.
Cohoes Music Hall
56 Remsen Street
Built: 1874; seating 385 National Historic Register: 1971
It is said that the ghost of Vaudeville star Eva Tanguay haunts the Cohoes Music Hall, despite that she was supposedly booed off the stage during her first performance there.
Cohoes Mayor Shawn Morse and Holly Brown, executive director of the Palace Theater—which in September will take over management of the venue—are not sure about that. But they know there is something special about the country’s fourth oldest active music hall.
“You know what, it is haunted with great things,” Morse said. “I’m not a ghost believer but I do believe that people can feel certain things. And when you go inside a place like that, you can’t help but feel the history and the excitement. And we’re going to bring that back.”
At the moment, the music hall, which cost $60,000 to build in 1874, is costing the city at least that much to maintain every year while largely dark and silent. Last year, under former Mayor George Primeau, it was given a $250,000 facelift, including a paint job, new sound system, and new seats. The city is working with the historical society to put a marquee on the four-story brick building.
Now, under the deal with the Albany-based Palace, the Cohoes Music Hall is ready to return to life as one of the region’s premier performance venues. Brown said the history of the hall and the manner in which the city has maintained it were a large part of what made it attractive. Its size, with seating for up to 385, also was enticing.
“The Palace is a 2,800-seat theater,” she said. “There are a lot of shows out there that are not suited for a theater this size but that we would love to be able to bring to the market. Having the ability to program a venue of a different size is a great opportunity.” She noted that music hall’s movable, bench-style seats add great flexibility. “So we have a lot of different options, not only in seating capacity but in what kind of experience we want to create,” she said. “Is it a cabaret-style setting? An open floor for dancing? We can get a bit more creative with that.”
The hall also is known for its acoustics, which allow a performer to be heard just using his or her voice. “It is one of the draws to any music hall,” Morse said. “Most people who come here listen to the acoustics and say they are some of the best they have ever been in.”
While Brown could not say who will appear once the season starts in September, she said a variety of things are planned, including concerts, comedy acts, family programming, movies and shows from Park Playhouse, which entered into its own agreement with The Palace three years ago. “They do their summer musicals in Washington Park but this gives them an opportunity to broaden their season beyond the summer, which will be fun and cool,” Brown said. The expectation is for about 60 performances in total, the first year, but double that thereafter.
The agreement calls for the Cohoes Industrial Development Agency to pay the Palace about $130,000 a year for the first two years. This includes support for two salaried positions at the music hall and some of the programming. The city will receive $2 per ticket during that time. In the third year, that increases to $3 a ticket.
In its early years, the Cohoes Music Hall attracted some of the top performers of the day. The list includes Sarah Bernhardt, Buffalo Bill Cody, George M. Cohan, Jimmy Durante, John Philip Sousa, Lillian Russell, Tom Thumb and of course Eva Tanguay. But by the middle of the twentieth century, as the Cohoes economy declined along with the textile industry, the music hall fell into disrepair and was no longer is use. In 1969, the city purchased it for one dollar.
It might have faced the wrecking ball, but instead it was added to the National Historic Register and restored. The hall reopened in 1975 with a performance of Irish playwright Dion Boucicault’s London Assurance, the same play with which it had opened 101 years earlier. For a while, the hall was home to C-R Productions, which staged musicals there, but that relationship ended in 2014.
Morse said that since the deal with the Palace was announced, interest in downtown Cohoes and Remsen Street in particular, has escalated. He is hoping the music hall’s revitalization will affect the city’s future in other ways, as well.
“We are hoping the music hall will work with our schools to bring back some of the arts and entertainment that have been lost because of budget cuts,” he said. “The arts are so important to the community of Cohoes.”