Universal Preservation Hall renovation eagerly awaited

Taken from article written by Bill Buell, printed in the Daily Gazette, April 9, 2017

Saving Universal Preservation Hall back in 2003 was a wonderful example of community activism at its best, but the job always remained a work in progress.

And in 2012, Teddy Foster, a former insurance executive who had become the volunteer director at UPH in 2009, was concerned that all the hard work wasn't going to produce any long-lasting success.

"Things weren't going well, I felt like I was running out of options and I didn't want to be remembered as the woman who failed this project," said Foster. "It was getting to the point where we were going to have to close our doors."

The doors at UPH will be closing soon, sometime in May or June, but only for 14 months of extensive renovation work. The venue, built in 1871 as a Methodist Church in the High Victorian style, will then re-open in late 2018 or early 2019 under the protective wing of Proctors in Schenectady. A phone call in 2012 from then-UPH board president Wallace Allerdice to Proctors' board president Anthony Mashuta set the ball in motion, and following an official announcement in July of 2015 of a "strategic alliance," Proctors CEO Philip Morris and Foster have been working as a team.  It was at that time that Morris hired Foster to run a $4.3 million capital campaign to raise money to pay for the venue's renovation.

"Our partnership with Proctors is one of the best things that ever happened to UPH," said Foster. "Right from the start I think we all really liked each other. I scheduled an hour to show Philip and the Proctors staff around the place, and they were there for four and a half hours. They climbed over every inch of the building. I think it was love at first sight."

The building has continued to host a series of events over the years, including church services, weddings, meetings for various community groups and small theatrical and musical shows. The building has had some work completed to help stabilize the structure, but plenty more needs to be done, and with no heat or cooling services, putting together too big a schedule was always problematical.

"There was no heat, so we really are a seasonal venue, and in the summer the second floor can get pretty warm up there," said Foster. "So we had some limitations, but I'm very excited about what we're doing, and when we're done it's going to a game-changing opportunity for us. What we are going to be able to bring to the city, a real cultural center, is the best thing to happen in downtown, and I've lived here for 30 years. Working with Philip and Proctors has given me with an environment that I can thrive in and I appreciate that.."

Universal Preservation Hall boasts more than 12,000 square feet of performance and public areas, including a spacious and ornate main hall on the second floor with a white wraparound balcony. Among the prominent men to have spoken in the space are William Howard Taft, Frederick Douglas, William Jennings Bryan and Henry Ward Beecher. E. Boyden & Sons was the architectural firm that designed the building, which includes a bell tower that is the tallest structure in Saratoga Springs.

UPH was originally built as a Methodist Church, and a century later it was sold it to a small Baptist congregation which continues to hold its Sunday services in one of the smaller spaces. In 2003, the building was in danger of being demolished before church members and a group of Saratoga Springs residents, including Skidmore College professor Tom Lewis, businessman Jeff Pfeil and Rev. Dr. Minnie Burns, joined forces to save it.

It was back in 2011 that Proctors took over another group with financial issues, the Capital Repertory Theatre in Albany. Maggie Mancinelli-Cahill retained the artistic control of what was produced at her theater, but Proctors took over the administrative duties. That's what will happen at UPH, which also retain its own separate board of directors. The current UPH board, however, was voted in by the Proctors board, and it is Morris, the CEO of Proctors, Capital Repertory and UPH, who oversees everything.

"I was a little worried about how people would respond to Proctors being involved in UPH, but there is plenty of enthusiasm in the community about it," said Morris. "Everyone seems ecstatic about it, and I think that's great. It is a remarkable building."

Morris is going to give the main hall a new look by using the theater in-the-round design.

"We were doing a sight-line study and what we discovered is that the hard seats, the ones where you have to lean over the balcony and turn your head to see, became beautiful seats when we went to theater in-the-round because you're only 20 feet away," said Morris. "It changed everything so we decided, 'yes, let's do this.' And if someone insists that they want the stage in front, it's not permanent and we can change things around."

Morris sees UPH as more of a musical venue than a theatrical one.

"I don't imagine we're going to see two or three-week runs of theater like we see at Cap Rep," he said. "The windows are beautiful but they're hard to make dark, and the configuration makes it hard to do that kind of theater. That room wants music in it. I just think it's a musical room first and then a theater space second or third."

Whatever it's used for, Saratoga Springs Mayor Joanne Yepsen says UPH's bright future is great news.

"Before I ran for office I was on the fundraising committee that launched the first campaign to save the place," said Yepsen. "The city is thrilled that this wonderful, historic building is being saved, and that it will be used to promote the arts and other cultural events."

The arts are a big part of Saratoga's attraction according to Yepsen, who just last year launched the city's first arts commission.

"UPH is critical to our downtown core, and fits in perfectly with the goals of our new arts commission," she said. "We're going to do everything we can to support them and encourage them to expand and complete the renovation process. The partnership with Proctors will really help take UPH to new heights."

Foster and operations manager Mary Beth McGarrahan are currently the only two UPH employees, and will soon move their office off-site while the renovation work is on.

"We do have a fundraiser, 'Shaken and Stirred,' coming up at Saratoga National Golf Course on May 18, and all that money will go to our capital campaign," said Foster. "UPH is going to be that place downtown where everybody can go and support the arts, and everybody can use. When I first got involved in this I was an ignorant preservationist who didn't know much about saving old buildings. I quickly became a passionate preservationist. Now, with the help of Proctors and others, I'm not looking for an exit strategy. It really is a beautiful building, and now we have a wonderful future ahead of us."

for complete article, link is https://dailygazette.com/article/2017/04/09/universal-preservation-hall-renovation-eagerly-awaited