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Saratoga Weekend: Race course stays true to early architecture

Friday, August 10, 2012
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The clubhouse and grandstand at Saratoga Race Course are seen in this photo circa 1905. (Photo courtesy of the Saratoga Springs Public Library)
The clubhouse and grandstand at Saratoga Race Course are seen in this photo circa 1905. (Photo courtesy of the Saratoga Springs Public Library)

— The sloping grandstand roof, with its stately turrets capped with golden finials, is instantly recognizable as the Saratoga Race Course.

“There are no other turrets like that,” said Paul Roberts of Turnberry Consulting of London, author of a book about Saratoga Race Course architecture and history and a strategic development consultant to the New York Racing Association.

From the turrets to an 1840s ice house on the Oklahoma side of the grounds, walking through the race course and its backstretch is a stroll through periods of history, Roberts said.

Herbert Langford Warren designed the track’s signature piece of architecture, the Queen-Anne-style slate roof on the original 1892 grandstand, which also features a complex system of wooden trusses holding up the structure.

“Although modified by subsequent building campaigns, the visual power of Warren’s Grandstand roofline continues to dominate the track to this day,” Roberts and Isabelle Taylor wrote in their 2011 book, “The Spa: Saratoga’s Legendary Race Course.”

Sporting inspiration

Warren was possibly inspired by similar turrets on Boston’s South End Grounds baseball grandstand; he was a known figure in the Boston Arts and Crafts movement and went on to teach at Harvard’s School of Architecture, Roberts and Taylor wrote.

A few structures still exist from the track’s earliest days, decades before Warren designed the grandstand.

The first thoroughbred racing took place on a track that is still partially visible in Horse Haven north of Union Avenue. It was a trotting track starting in 1847, before John Morrissey started thoroughbred racing there for a four-day meet in August 1863, according to a history in the New York Racing Association’s 2011 capital projects booklet.

An ice house, farmhouse and barn with Greek Revival touches still stand from the days of the trotting track, according to NYRA. Horse Haven also is home to stables built between the 1840s and early 1860s.

Bigger and better

As Saratoga fans well know, the first thoroughbred meet’s popularity was so great that Morrissey saw the need to build a larger track and grandstand, which was completed in 1864 on the south side of Union Avenue.

The original grandstand doesn’t merit much architectural praise in the history books, unlike Warren’s 1892 rebuild, which is the oldest in use in American professional sports.

The grandstand has seen several additions, including the most painstaking in 1902, when Warren’s structure was split into three sections and two additions were placed between them to increase the seating capacity.

“You can see where it’s been added to, and it’s been added very well,” Roberts said.

That renovation happened under the direction of architect Charles Leavitt of New York City, who led a $1 million rebuild that also banked the track, added a one-mile turf course inside and rotated the entire grandstand to keep the late afternoon sun out of racing fans’ eyes, according to Edward Hotaling’s 1995 book, “They’re Off! Horse Racing at Saratoga.”

An addition on the east side of the grandstand was added much later, in 1965. Ironically, the 1965 addition shows its age worse than the 1892 and 1902 sections, Roberts said.

“I think it’s held up very well,” he said of the older construction. “It’s subjected to incredibly harsh winters.”

Unifying structures

The standing clubhouse is newer — in 1928 the current rectangular structure replaced an 1892 Queen Anne rounded building that stood separate from the grandstand.

Some historians and racing fans criticized the new steel-framed clubhouse, which at three stories tall stood above the grandstand and lacked the functional and decorative wooden trusses.

“The new Clubhouse made few architectural concessions to harmonize with the distinctive profile of the Victorian Grandstand,” Roberts and Taylor wrote.

The clubhouse designed by Samuel Adams Clark does include one special element that current racing fans seem to enjoy: the open porch on the west end surrounded by Doric columns.

The betting and food vendor area that stretches along the back of the grandstand and clubhouse was added in the late 1930s and early ‘40s and the entire structure was painted white to unify it, per the design of architectural firm Marcus T. Reynolds in Albany.

“The distinctive design aesthetic of crisp white paint and ornamental iron work has been integral to Saratoga’s environment ever since and has been echoed in subsequent construction,” the NYRA author writes.

Much of the metal work visible to visitors today, including cast iron horse heads and racing scenes, dates from that renovation.

“That is very well done, and there’s some individual detail that was done in the ‘30s and ‘40s,” Roberts said.

Other modern touches were added in the mid-to-late 20th century, according to the NYRA chronology. The paddock as it appears today was arranged in 1977, with fences to keep the public away from the horses, and a steel-frame saddling shed.

Modern comforts

Picnic benches first appeared in the backyard in the 1980s along with television monitors.

The Carousel pavilion, one of the newest elements and designed by Ewing Cole Cherry Parsky, was built in the late 1980s, attached to the back of the grandstand to house seating areas, monitors and food.

And in 2000, well within the memory of many racegoers, The Saratoga Associates designed three entrance pavilions through which every fan now passes at the Union Avenue and Wright Street gates.

Local residents and organizations have spoken up for the preservation of all the historic structures. The entire grounds are part of a historic district listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

In 2007, a group of preservationists got all the properties that make up the grounds added to the local Union Avenue Historic District in the city of Saratoga Springs, so that any exterior changes involving building materials are now subject to approval by the city’s Design Review Commission, said Bradley Birge, the city’s planning and economic development administrator.

The Saratoga Springs Preservation Foundation kicked in money to complete an inventory of structures and landscape features at the track, one of the first steps in the preservation process.

“It’s really [about] understanding the full history and development of the race course,” said Samantha Bosshart, executive director of the Saratoga Springs Preservation Foundation. “You might look at a stable and not realize it’s a stable that dates back to the 1840s.”

 
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