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Sunday, 29 November -0001 19:03

Boomerang: The Way We Were

SARATOGA SPRINGS – Saratoga Springs is steeped in history, rich with memories of a bygone era when gamblers spilled into the Spa City to visit the historic race course and casinos, where men of considerable sway and power came to launch political careers in a town brimming with money and influence. Long before the sidewalk cafés and quaint mom-and-pop shops that line Broadway today, before the grand hotels were torn down and fires decimated and destroyed large swaths of downtown, Saratoga was a power unto itself in Upstate New York, a destination location that drew visitors from all across the country. While the race course, casinos and hotels did their fair share to attract visitors, conventions and special events held at the old Convention Hall overlooking Congress Park helped make Saratoga attractive to visitors year-round, and remained a huge asset to the city until it burnt down in 1965.

 

“The building was built in the 1890s in an effort to expand the season in Saratoga and to bring in conventions,” said Hollis Palmer, local author and historian. “It was successful in many ways,” he added.

Located at 262 Broadway, the hall was constructed in 1893, a 5,000 seat venue designed to host conventions, sporting events, concerts and activities. The grand brick building was a key landmark in the Spa City, instantly recognizable thanks to its two, tall domed-towers topped with decorative cupolas. Instead of the traditional bleacher seating common at the time, the hall’s interior was outfitted with comfortable, individual seating on a floor and balcony level, further increasing the venue’s appeal.

For Saratoga native Jerry Grolley, the venue was a regular hangout spot while growing up as a teenager.

“It had a space upstairs that was used as a youth center,” Grolley recalled. “Live bands used to play there; I was a drummer too, so I’d go upstairs to play the drums all the time there with my friends.”

 The hall played host to professional musical acts as well, long before the Saratoga Performing Arts Center would hold sell-out concerts at the Spa State Park.

 “My father sold 45s and LPs, so he always got involved when they had concerts [at Convention Hall] because he would sell his records there,” said Harvey Fox, owner of N. Fox Jewelers in Saratoga Springs. “I remember going to see The Brothers Four there – that was a real big thing.”

The hall was also largely known for hosting sporting events, especially basketball games at the high school, college and professional levels.

“Saratoga was a big basketball town until the Convention Hall closed,” said Grolley. “We played all of our ball games right there.”

Fox also remembers playing basketball at Convention Hall.

“I remember that very well,” said Fox. “I played basketball there with my fifth and sixth grade basketball team from Caroline St. Elementary School. I even saw the Harlem Globetrotters there once.”

But success at Convention Hall was not destined to last. On November 14, 1965, the Columbia Hotel, located across the street from Convention Hall, caught fire.

“It was so weird,” remembered Fox. “It was a really windy day, and the fire blew right across the street.”

Flames from the Columbia Hotel leapt across Broadway and lit up Convention Hall. Fire companies from all over the area – including companies from as far away as Schenectady – rushed to the scene.

“I lived on Caroline Street when I was growing up, and my mother took me to the second floor where my bedroom was facing Broadway,” said Fox. “I could see the flames from there.”

While firefighters fought for hours to stop and contain the blaze, it was too late to save the Broadway buildings. Both the Columbia Hotel and Convention Hall were destroyed in the fire.

“That really was one of the biggest losses in Saratoga,” Grolley lamented, “and they never rebuilt.”

It wasn’t until the mid-1980s that Saratoga would once again boast a convention center downtown to attract year-round visitors and events to the Spa City. But for some, Convention Hall continues to loom large in memories of days gone by, a reminder of old Saratoga Springs and the way we were.

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