In the 19th century, Saratoga Springs, NY was one of the most popular destinations in the country. The city’s Gilded Age hotels, famous thoroughbred racetrack, exclusive gaming clubs, and spas boasting of waters with curative powers attracted the Who’s Who of New York City, Boston, and Montreal.
The fortunes of this resort community, like those of many others, declined during the Great Depression and in the years that followed. By the 1960s, urban renewal was bulldozing Saratoga Springs’ history. Rundown buildings and entire neighborhoods were being cleared to make way for the shopping plazas and pedestrian malls, new housing units, conference centers, and hotels that policymakers said would revitalize the City’s downtown.
According to architectural critic Ada Louise Huxtable, Saratoga Springs was following a nationwide pattern of “esthetic and environmental erosion,” but as she wrote in 1968, “Saratoga’s unique architectural history makes its transgressions a special study of environmental abuse.”
The City, however, beat the odds, although the winning formula did not happen overnight. Government agencies, in coordination with the local bank, civic groups, private individuals, investors, the local newspaper, and non-profits, worked tirelessly to revitalize the downtown by capitalizing on the City’s historic assets.
Huxtable’s article put Saratoga Springs in the national spotlight. Later that year, the City’s mayor established an Aesthetic Zoning Board to oversee changes to the cityscape. In 1974, with the local bank playing a lead role, a Plan of Action committee opened its doors on Broadway (Saratoga Springs’ “Main Street”) to draw the community directly into the process of developing ideas for how to improve quality of life in the downtown. In 1977, the City-funded Saratoga Springs Preservation Foundation began to implement façade restorations, which had an immediate visual impact on downtown.
Three decades after the movement began, Saratoga Springs has come back to life. Julia Stokes, the former director of the Saratoga Springs Preservation Foundation, attributes its success to “the people and their willingness to all sit down at the table.” And while Saratoga Springs is today a desirable place to live, Stokes reminds us that it is continued “civic involvement” that ensures the vibrancy of place. So, what are you waiting for? Join a zoning or planning board, shop at the farmers market, volunteer for a local organization—and see what happens to your community.