Portal to the Victorian Age - gone in the Age of Progress

The building has stood on Broadway for nearly 150 years. It has served as a ballroom, a vaudeville theater, a cinema – and presumably someday as a place for apartment dwellers. For as long as I can remember in this town (which granted is 1998 or so, but still...)  a fire escape clung to the Spring Street end of the building, and when the angle of the afternoon sun was just right, the light would catch the network of metal and crease the orange brick with a movingly malleable multitude of patterns. Even more significantly, for historical purposes, were the pair of doors that stood high above the sidewalk, guarding an opening in the brick wall through which the 19th century poured through. For as long as I can remember, you could lean back against the building, tilt your head up toward that hinged door opening and know a little bit of what life was like in the 1870s.

And now, quite suddenly, it is gone.

In the mid-19th century, Henry Hathorn purchased the Congress Hall Hotel - which stood, roughly, where Saratoga Arts is located today. By 1859, when Union Hall (later the Grand Union Hotel) hosted 3,995 visitors, and the United States Hotel welcomed 4,412 guests, Congress Hall Hotel topped them both, with accommodations for 5,399 people. In May 1866, the Congress Hall Hotel was destroyed by fire. Keeping the same name, a new brick building was put up in its place and opened for the summer season two years later. In addition to the hotel, Hathorn erected a ballroom on the corner across the street, where summer nights were filled with live music and dancing beneath a chandeliered dome, artfully decorated with cherubs and flowers

One weekend in June 1871, when village planners were otherwise occupied, a metal bridge was quickly and quietly erected above Spring Street, connecting the Congress Hall Hotel to the ballroom. For many years, the best-dressed and the well-heeled could be seen sauntering across the bridge, high above Spring Street on their way to the elegant ballroom. As much as anybody knows, the iron bridge stood as long as the hotel – which was razed in 1912.

Iron bridge over Spring Street, viewed from Broadway. date unknown (Bolster Collection)

Nearly 150 years after the walking bridge was built, and more than a century since its removal, the portal which led guests from the bridge to the ballroom was visible on the building's exterior; a 19th century relic hidden among the long brick building. I walked past the building the other day. And just like that, the portal to the 19th century was suddenly gone, replaced by a series of symmetrical windows, each cradling the glass frames of progress. There was no fanfare to save the vintage time-marker, and nobody there to wave goodbye.

 

An old Congress Theater time schedule, discovered by the building’s current owner during renovation. The schedule depicts an April 1957 screening of a James Dean double featuring “Rebel Without A Cause,” and “East of Eden,” with Sunday’s attraction featuring “Bride of the Monster,” starring Bela Lugosi, and (presumably) “Godzilla, King of the Monsters!” with Raymond Burr.  The Congress Hall ballroom was converted into the Congress Theater, which seated 1,400 and opened in 1919.