By Neil H. Dempsey
---- — SALEM — Col. George L. Ames would be proud.
One hundred and fifteen years after the Salem native and Civil War veteran’s $40,000 donation sparked its construction, the Ames Memorial Hall at Salem YMCA has been restored to its historic splendor — and it’s on the verge of again serving as a center for the arts.
“There was a lot of attention to the history. ... We restored as much history as we could,” said Chris Lovasco, chief operations officer at the YMCA of the North Shore. “It’s a wonderful space for kids to perform, but also, it’s a center for arts for the entire community.”
The hall was designed in 1896, built two years later and dedicated to Ames on Feb. 2, 1899. In the years since, it has hosted musical performances, public meetings, lectures, ballroom dancing, a basketball court and even a 1916 speech by President William Taft.
The center fell into disrepair after being converted to a gymnasium in the 1970s, and work to restore it began about five years ago, when the YMCA board of directors began looking into funding possibilities and making it a centerpiece of their Creative Arts Center.
A campaign co-chaired by former Salem State College President Nancy Harrington and local businessman David Ives raised $1.1 million in donations for the project.
Renovations are still underway, but the hall now features an expanded stage and backstage, a sweeping balcony, and new lighting and sound systems. It’s also handicapped-accessible and has air conditioning for the first time.
Much of the work focused on renewing original touches. Plaster molding and decorative details throughout the center have been restored, including on the stage’s dome. The marble staircase and original stained-glass windows have also been refurbished.
Additionally, the hall’s historic entrance at 290 Essex St. has been reclaimed via a property swap with Stephen Zisson Elderly Residence, which had used it for years. The residence has a new entrance next door.
Among other uses, the hall will serve as a home for the Y Theatre Company, which has served 600 to 700 children since in its inception in 2008, Lovasco said.
While kids haven’t been able to use the hall while work was going on, they’ve been allowed sneak peeks, said Nicole Leotsakos, director of the program.
“The kids that have seen it have been blown away,” she said. “It’s beautiful.”
Leotsakos said that performing and practicing in such a historic setting — and with so much new technology at their disposal — would make the children feel “really special.”
“The kids are just thrilled,” she said. “We’ll be rehearsing in there as soon as we’re allowed.”
The project was originally expected to cost $3.5 million, and not all of the improvements on the YMCA’s wish list were achieved. Among other things, Lovasco said he’d like to see the center get a grand chandelier and additional bathrooms, perhaps focal points for future fundraising.
“There’s capacity to expand,” he said. “Anything that we couldn’t afford to do, we’ve allowed opportunity to do for the future.”
The hall will be unveiled on Friday, Feb. 7, with a 7:30 p.m. performance by opera star Marquita Lister. Tickets cost $75, or $125 if you choose to attend a function an hour beforehand with hors d’ouevres and wine.
Then, on Saturday, Feb. 8, the center will host an Arts Day from 1 to 4 p.m. featuring performances by the Y Theatre Company, the Salem Theatre Company, Salem State University’s music department, the Cape Ann Improv group and Boston Ballet. Artwork will be displayed in an accompanying exhibit by the Salem Arts Association. Admission is $15 for adults, $5 for kids.
More information is available at www.northshoreymca.org.
Neil H. Dempsey can be reached at email@example.com.