A second act for UPH
Aug. 24, 2015
Teddy Foster stands in a large open hall framed by spiral staircases of walnut and ash. A 45-foot-tall ceiling soars overhead, while stained-glass windows and Gothic arches accent the walls. Outside, a bell tower pierces the skyline of Saratoga Springs.
Ten years ago, shortly after the old Methodist church now known as Universal Preservation Hall was saved from demolition, Foster walked into the hall for the first time. A 1995 graduate of Skidmore’s University Without Walls program with a B.S. degree in business, she recalls that the derelict building, constructed in 1871, “looked bombed out.”
Money had been raised to stabilize it structurally, but much more work was required. When the recession hit in 2008, pledges dried up and the nonprofit UPH organization ran out of money. “It got really ugly,” recalls Foster, who joined the UPH board in 2006. Three years later, as other board members began “jumping ship,” she became board president.
She says, “You’re remembered not for how you start something, but how you leave it. I didn’t want to be remembered as the woman who let down Universal Preservation Hall. So we got busy.”
In short order, performing artists Colin Hay, John Sebastian, and Max Weinberg, drummer for Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, were brought in to play at the venue. “We lost our shirts, but if we hadn’t had that music series we wouldn’t be where we are today,” says Foster, explaining that the high-profile concerts created a public awareness of UPH as a viable venue. It also inspired the enlistment of several new board members, many of whom had attended the music series as patrons.
While raising her two sons, Foster gained experience as an executive-level volunteer. She also says, “I credit Skidmore as one of the main reasons I’m where I am today and have achieved any kind of professional success. I loved every minute of my studies and finished in two and a half years.”
Despite its restricted capacity during renovations, Foster’s leadership has helped the hall showcase a diverse group of events at the space since that initial music series in 2010, including performances by the Nacre Dance Company, a reading by author Rick Moody, Pilates exercise classes, business expos, songwriting workshops, and the annual Electric City Couture Fashion Show.
In 2012 she guided UPH in forging an alliance with Proctors Theatre in Schenectady. This summer, the two venues launched a $4.3-million capital campaign to complete the UPH renovations just as Foster’s stock has risen from volunteering as the board president to being named as the full-time, paid director of the capital campaign. It is a position she says she is excited to fill. About $1.3 million has already been raised to support the capital campaign and the goal is to raise the balance of funds by next spring, close down for a year-long reconstruction project, and host a grand re-opening in the spring or summer of 2017.
When UPH completes its transition, Foster hopes to unveil an 800-capacity main hall, as well as additional spaces that will together host more than 200 events year-round and go a long way to fulfilling her vision for Universal Preservation Hall as “the cultural center for all of Saratoga, right in downtown.”
Foster is not the only person with Skidmore connections committed to the UPH. Tom Lewis, professor emeritus of English, was among the first to recognize the importance of saving the building, a task he accomplished in partnership with developer Jeff Pfeil.