hill country observerThe independent newspaper of eastern New York, southwestern Vermont and the Berkshires


News & Issues June 2016


Plan to gut historic theater draws howls

City to replace Saratoga Music Hall with new court space

Saratoga Music Hall was set up for a sellout crowd in 2013 for the local premiere of “Small Apartments,” a film based on the book by Saratoga Springs native Chris Millis. This spring, city officials backed a plan to replace the historic theater with new courtroom space. Thomas Dimopoulos photoBy THOMAS DIMOPOULOS
Contributing writer



Saratoga Music Hall was set up for a sellout crowd in 2013 for the local premiere of “Small Apartments,” a film based on the book by Saratoga Springs native Chris Millis. This spring, city officials backed a plan to replace the historic theater with new courtroom space. Thomas Dimopoulos photo

A historic Saratoga Springs venue that has served as a community gathering space for the past 145 years may be nearing its last days.
Saratoga Music Hall, which sits on the top floor of City Hall, has been targeted by the city for conversion into a courtroom, and many area residents are not pleased.

“There’s nothing historic like that,” said David Wolf, owner of the Saratoga Savoy Center of Dance and organizer of the popular monthly Diamond Dance that has been held at the music hall for more than a decade.

“People are stunned,” he said. “They just can’t believe it.”
The closing of the music hall, a 300-seat theater where community events have been staged since City Hall’s construction in 1871, is being driven by the city’s effort to comply with a state mandate for more courtroom space.

Under a bill signed in 2013 by Gov. Andrew Cuomo that seeks to ease caseloads in overburdened municipal courts, Saratoga Springs transformed a part-time city judgeship into a full-time position. So since 2014, Saratoga Springs City Court has had two full-time judges.
The state Office of Court Administration informed the city it would need to modify its existing court space, which sits directly beneath Saratoga Music Hall, to accommodate the second judge -- and that it must do so at its own expense. The city faced fines if it didn’t file a draft plan with the state by the end of May to bring its courthouse into compliance.

So after evaluating five options, the City Council held a special meeting just prior to the May 31 deadline and unanimously backed “Option Five,” which calls for the conversion of Saratoga Music Hall into courtroom space.

“We really were under the gun to try to come up with a solution to a problem that none of us had control over,” said city Public Works Commissioner Anthony “Skip” Scirocco, whose department manages the music hall. “The first four options provided by consultants unfortunately didn’t cut the mustard. That’s when we started looking at Option Five.”

The other four proposals involved freeing up space on the second floor of City Hall, where one small courtroom currently exists, or building an addition to City Hall to house a new courtroom. Those plans either would not meet state requirements or were not financially feasible, the council decided.


Sensible solution?
Option Five develops more spacious court facilities on the third floor by converting the Music Hall. The resulting domino effect would see the current second-floor courtroom converted into council chambers for municipal meetings, providing more space than the limited capacity of the current first-floor council chambers.

So the city has submitted Option Five to the state for approval. Architectural consultants had estimated the range of cost for the five options at between $1.5 million and $6.2 million, with Option Five coming out somewhere in the middle of that range, officials have said.

But the final decision is up to the state, Mayor Joanne Yepsen said, adding that the Office of Court Administration “will get back to us in due time.”

The state agency will make a recommendation to the City Council, and that plan will then be forwarded to the state’s chief administrative law judge, who will have the final say, Yepsen explained. No physical changes to City Hall are expected before 2017.

The mayor described the conversion of the music hall into court space as an effort to “take care of our court needs and some of our City Hall needs at the same time.”

“We are bursting at the seams, and I would love a bigger City Council room,” Yepsen said. “If they come back and say this is not going to work for them for some reason, then there will be a new discussion.”

Council members say the music hall, despite its rich history, is seldom used.
“This is a great room in many ways, but it’s empty most of the time,” Public Safety Commissioner Chris Mathiesen said. “The city does not draw great income from that room. The upkeep for a room that’s so little utilized makes little sense fiscally.”

With the city needing more court space, the music hall is an obvious choice, Mathiesen said.
“This is a sensible solution,” he said. “I understand there are some people who are concerned about losing the use of the music hall. … In terms of a need for space for other functions of city government, it doesn’t make any sense whatsoever to start building big expensive buildings when we have an empty space upstairs.”

City officials say maintaining the hall as an entertainment venue would require costly improvements, such as installing better soundproofing and updating electrical and air conditioning systems – steps the council so far has not been willing to take on.


Unrealized potential
The music hall’s defenders, though, say the space is underused mainly because the city has done little to promote it or to make soundproofing and other needed improvements. The hall currently can’t be used at the same time as the second-floor courtroom, for example, because of concerns that noise would disrupt court proceedings.

Groups that already use the music hall argue there is a unique quality about the hall, both historically and culturally, and they are adamant in their support for preserving it.

At a public hearing hosted last month by the City Council, nearly two dozen people spoke for nearly an hour to protest the council’s decision to turn the hall into courtroom space. And an online petition titled “Save the Music Hall!” garnered more than 370 signatures in three weeks.
The lone voice in favor of the conversion at last month’s hearing came from Ardie Russell, the chairwoman of the Saratoga Springs Arts Commission, a panel created last year by Yepsen.
“The entertainment aspect the building has historically provided -- it may be time to let that go, and find a replacement in other parts of the city,” Russell said.

Wolf and others, however, say the court expansion would cost the city a performance space that could not be easily replaced.

“I know dancers,” Wolf said. “They care about the wood floors, and wood floors are the one thing that you do not see within 100 miles of this area. Find another place within a 100-mile radius that’s equivalent to this 7,000-square-foot hall, and I will give you money, because you will not find it. It’s only at Saratoga Music Hall.”

In addition to the monthly Diamond Dance, which brings hundreds of dancers to the city, the music hall also serves as one of the main venues for The Flurry, the three-day dance festival that draws about 5,000 people to downtown Saratoga Springs every February. The festival’s participants provide an economic impact estimated at more than $1 million by patronizing local businesses.

Paul Rosenberg, the Flurry’s founder and past president, said he was scouting the region in the early 1990s for a suitable venue for the festival when he was wooed by Joe Dalton, then the president of the Saratoga County Chamber of Commerce.

“He brought me over to the Music Hall and said, ‘This is exactly what you’re looking for,’” Rosenberg recalled. “We moved here and loved Saratoga ever since. Everybody loves it, especially that building. It’s a beloved space.”

In promotional materials for the city, the Saratoga Convention and Tourism Bureau touts the music hall, with its hardwood floors, cathedral windows and stage, as “the perfect location” for corporate dinners, receptions, weddings and other events.


Colorful history
Saratoga Music Hall has been around since construction of City Hall was completed, at a cost of $110,000, in 1871. The building was first known as Town Hall. (Saratoga Springs was not yet a city.)

The third-floor hall actually was used as a courtroom in 1872 for the sensational murder trial of Edward Stokes in connection with the shooting death of the New York City financier James “Diamond Jim” Fisk. The trial attracted large crowds and newspapermen from across the Northeast; Stokes ultimately was convicted of manslaughter in the case.

The original Town Hall Theatre was home to the Town Hall Players, one of whose members was George Hyde Pierce, the father of actor David Hyde Pierce, who grew up in Saratoga Springs and is perhaps best known for his portrayal of Niles Crane on the television sitcom “Frasier.”
Over the years the theater hosted conventions, minstrel shows, early movies, events associated with Saratoga Lake rowing competitions, and performances by actors such as Sarah Bernhardt, Raymond Hitchcock, and Irish tenor Chauncey Olcott. The theater also was the site of the founding meetings of the American Bar Association and the American Banking Association in the late 1800s.

More recently, well-attended city forums, council meetings and special events have been staged at the venue. Native Saratogian and author Chris Millis hosted the local premiere of the film “Small Apartments” at the Music Hall in 2013, and in 2014 the packed hall was the setting for a public debate on expanded casino gaming in the city.

The hall originally had a balcony that was demolished in the 1930s when City Hall was renovated. At that time, a floor shortening the room was installed just under the balcony, setting new dimensions for the hall. The space served as boxing ring in the 1970s, and in December 1993 it was rechristened as Saratoga Music Hall.

A framed playbill from the venue’s Town Hall Theatre days, for the May 1915 production of “Esmerelda” by local high school seniors, hangs next to the City Hall elevator.


Architectural gem?
Mathiesen questions the hall’s historical significance, given that the original space was modified in the 1930s. He is also critical of its lack of accessibility: The elevator leading to the hall has a maximum capacity of eight people, and the space otherwise depends on a pair of steep staircases bookending the hall that were initially intended for entry to the former balcony.

But opponents of the courtroom conversion say the loss of the balcony in the 1930s shouldn’t be used an excuse to do away with the rest of the music hall now. Jenna Caputo, a dance instructor at the Savoy, offered this statement from Wolf: “Just because the second floor of the hall has already been destroyed, and the hall was given a different name, does not mean it isn’t the same old hall.”

Council members cast their decision as a choice forced upon them by the state’s mandate for more court space.

“The last thing anybody at this table wants to do is get rid of the music room,” Scirocco said. “Because of the law, the problem is we have to provide a second courtroom.”

But Rosenberg said the city’s neglect of the hall now appears likely to lead to destruction of yet another architectural gem from the 19th century – like the grand hotels razed in past decades.
“It’s underutilized partly because the city does not make it known that it’s available, and they do not make it easy for organizations to rent it,” Rosenberg said. “At this very moment, the City Council may not value that space and want to do away with it. These buildings, they just disappear: the United States Hotel, the Grand Union Hotel. What I would give to see what those places were like, the ballrooms they used to have, and how valuable they would be now. “