By Tom Dalton
SALEM — Ames Hall, with its marble staircase and stained-glass windows, is one of those grand relics of Salem past that survived time and the wrecking ball.
This 1898 concert and lecture hall inside the Salem YMCA, where President William Howard Taft once spoke, has certainly changed over the years. The balcony is gone, and, years ago, the hall was converted into a gymnasium. But unlike the Paramount Theatre and other architectural treasures that have disappeared, Ames Hall stuck around long enough to make a comeback.
This week, the Salem YMCA announced a $3.5 million capital campaign to restore the historic hall and to make it the centerpiece and performance space of a Creative Arts Center at the Salem YMCA. The board of directors began investigating this fundraising goal more than a year ago, during the dark days of the recession, and emerged convinced there is community support for this historic restoration.
Two Salem natives, retired Salem State College President Nancy Harrington and businessman David Ives, have agreed to co-chair the campaign, which kicks off next week with a reception inside the 112-year-old hall.
"Fundraising was never my favorite thing in the world, but this sort of tugged at my heart strings," said Harrington, who grew up a block away from the Essex Street facility. "When I was a kid in my high school years, I lived on Lynde Street, so I spent a lot of time at the Y."
Harrington actually spent a lot of time inside Ames Hall, which was home to The Salem Philharmonic, the Harriet James Dancing School and to "Teen Town," a Saturday night program of movies, bowling and a weekly dance. Harrington, at one point, was president of Teen Town.
The scope of the project will depend on the amount raised, but plans call for the renovation of the original Essex Street entrance, restoration of the marble staircase, reconstruction of the balcony, installation of an elevator for handicapped accessibility and space for youth arts programs.
"We think this is terrific," Mayor Kim Driscoll said. "That marble staircase is breathtaking, and to be able to enter the new Ames Hall ... through the grand entrance really demonstrates some of the impressive traits we have in our downtown architecture."
Ives, CEO of Northshore International Insurance Services, who also went to the downtown Y as a boy, wants to see the Salem facility become a center for the creative arts.
"I think the Y is really about developing a positive self-image," he said. "For some children, that comes through swimming or basketball, and for others it might come through music or performing arts. And it all flows from the objective of giving the child and young adult an opportunity to gain self-confidence in an area that interests them."
The Salem YMCA will remain committed to physical fitness and athletics, according to Executive Director Debbie Amaral, but hopes to create a first-class performance space, build a pottery studio, and add programs in music, painting, wardrobe and scenery design, and other arts.
Since last year, the Salem Y has been home to the YMCA of the North Shore's Theatre Company, which has staged three productions at Ames Hall. Its latest undertaking, "The Music Man Junior," will be performed here over the last two weekends in May.
The Theatre Company has involved more than 400 children from Salem and other communities. "The Music Man Junior" has two casts of more than 100 children.
The capital campaign is also being led by a leadership team that includes Salem businesspeople and residents: Richard Blazo, Bill and Ann Leaver, Rob Lutts, Alan Hawryluk, Maura McGrane, Betsy Merry, Christine Sullivan, and Patricia Zaido.