Thursday, 29 August 2019 13:54

History of Saratoga - Congress Hall: Putnam’s Vision

By Charlie Kuenzel | History
Columbian Spring. Image from the George Bolster Collection. Columbian Spring. Image from the George Bolster Collection.

The grand hotels of Saratoga Springs, in the 19th century, were the most visible indication that our city was the number one tourist destination in the country. The hotels were huge in size, eloquent in style and known throughout the country as “the place” to be in the summer season. Gideon Putnam built the first hotel in the village in 1802 and it was then known as Putnam’s Tavern and Boarding House. This initial hotel had the capacity to house 70 guests. In 1802 Saratoga Springs was not in need of large hotels because it was a small fledgling destination but as our popularity grew, it didn’t take long before Putnam needed an “overflow” for his first hotel and began to plan and build a new hotel. The new hotel would be called Congress Hall. The Congress would be located on the eastside of Broadway, stretching from the south-east corner of Spring Street to East Congress Street (the entry to Congress Park today).

Gideon Putnam began construction of Congress Hall in 1811 with the name coming from the nearby famed Congress Spring that was a well-known asset in the early village. While working on the north façade of the hotel, Gideon fell from the scaffolding and was seriously injured. Putnam suffered for months from those internal injuries until he died on December 1, 1812. Congress Hall was three stories tall with 196 feet of frontage on Broadway and two wings that went down Spring Street and East Congress Street for a length of sixty feet. The front side of the hotel had 17 columns each thirty feet in height that framed a very beautiful porch that gave guests a place to sit and observe the activity on Broadway day and night.  For this period in Saratoga history the Congress was a very large hotel that had a capacity to accommodate 150 guests. Early ownership of the hotel preferred to make this destination a house of temperance and religious activity. 

In 1814 the hotel waspurchased by Grandus Van Schoonhoven who worked on the property until 1815 to further match the original plans set forth by Putnam. At this point in city history the Congress Hall was the largest hotel in Saratoga Springs until the United States Hotel was constructed and opened in 1824. Van Schoonhoven was joined in business by his nephew in 1822 and then again joined by others in 1823. In general, the hotel was leased to many different proprietors during the period from 1823-1855. In 1819 the village of Saratoga Springs was declared a special township with the right to self-govern. In that year the town decided to allow certain “pleasures” to be introduced in the village. In the summer of 1819 the Congress Hall introduced billiard rooms, an orchestra for concerts at night and allowed men to play cards in their rooms. These new additions made Congress Hall a desired location for dancing and other flirtation activities of the day. In 1822 Frank Johnson, a prominent band leader, came to provide the music for the dances called “Saratoga Hops” that would continue for years as a much-anticipated event of each season. 

After midnight on May 30, 1866 the original Congress Hall burned in a very rapidly spreading fire that also destroyed the nearby Hamilton Spring and Bath House. The management had been working to prepare for the Congress Hall to open for the summer season of 1866 on June 1st. The original hotel was constructed of wood and was very susceptible to catching fire from the many open flame devices used in that time. Henry Hathorn was the owner at the time of the fire and began to immediately make plans to re-build. The new hotel would be constructed of brick and be much larger and grander than the original. 

The new larger Congress Hall would be rebuilt in 1868 and would extend 416 feet down Broadway with two right angle wings, 300 feet in length with a rear courtyard in the middle. The entrance to the hotel revealed a lobby with a grand staircase and 16-foot-high ceilings on the first floor. The piazza on the Broadway side was 20 feet in width that would hold countless rocking chairs for guests to rock away the summer days while fueling the gossip of the day. As the new Congress Hall was planned and constructed it was evident that the hotel needed a large ballroom to compete with the other larger hotels in Saratoga Springs. Property that was not part of the original footprint of the hotel needed to be purchased to allow for the ballroom. The needed property would be found on the north side of the intersection of Broadway and Spring Street. The building that would house the ballroom still stands today but is composed of retail on the first floor and condo housing on the floors above. Henry Hathorn connected the hotel to the ballroom with a convenient iron pedestrian bridge, made in Troy NY, that passed over Spring Street. This passage-way allowed women to maintain clean silk shoes and hems of long dresses during inclement weather as they walked above an unpaved Spring Street. The metal bridge was further dressed up with the addition of carpeting, Chinese lanterns and an awning used during rainy weather. 

During the summer of 1869 the Congress Hall hotel was prepared to host the first suffrage convention with Susan B. Anthony in attendance. By 1873 the new ballroom allowed the hotel to offer many great forms of entertainment during the summer season featuring Friday night balls with famous orchestras and performers. A travel guide in 1874 defined the Congress Hotel as the spot for American aristocracy to spend their Saratoga summers, that offered no barriers to the mixing of average people to high society. It has been noted by some travel guides, and a few historical accounts, that many felt that during this time that the village of Saratoga Springs taught the average American how to take a refined, civilized vacation. Undoubtedly, Congress Hall provided a location and an atmosphere for that education. As the years went on and the city approached the 1900’s, Congress Hall began to fall from favor with the vacation crowds and went into bankruptcy on May 9, 1904.

Between the summers of 1904 and 1911 many attempts to re-open and re-organize Congress Hall eventually failed. Congress Hall was closed forever and sold to the City of Saratoga Springs in 1911 with demolition to follow. The land on which the hotel stood was added to expand Congress Park and was just a foreshadowing of the eventual demolition that would take down the other two giant hotels, the Grand Union and United States. Vacation styles in America were changing and so would Saratoga Springs as it continued to re-invent itself to remain the “summer place to be.”

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