Nancy Harrington can recall a time when Ames Memorial Hall at the YMCA of the North Shore was a thriving hot spot for all things entertainment in Salem.
“I grew up very close to the Y in downtown Salem, so [Ames Hall] was a very important part of my life growing up,” said Harrington, former president of Salem State College. “They used to hold teen dances, free orchestra performances, and lots of other activities.”
Those days may have ended almost 50 years ago, but now kids from across the North Shore can enjoy the historic treasure that is Ames Hall once again.
The YMCA, along with a group of local volunteers, raised over $1 million to renovate and restore the nearly 120-year-old building into an up-to-date creative arts center and a home for the YMCA Theatre Company.
Ames Hall “was a glorious center for years but couldn’t be kept up to the standard it was built to,” said YMCA chief operating officer Chris Lovasco. “Volunteers and staff recognized the potential in the facility and reached out to the community. They said that restoring the creative arts center would stimulate the current generation’s need to be creative, in addition to activities such as math, science, and physical activities.”
The Y is often perceived as strictly a swim-and-gym facility, but the organization offers a variety of programs to suit all kinds of interests and hobbies, like the theater company.
Harrington, along with David Ives, who also grew up in Salem, cochaired a capital campaign to raise the money for the Ames Hall renovation, beginning in 2010.
About 90 percent of the donations came from individuals and businesses throughout the Greater Salem community, according to Lovasco.
“The response was good,” said Harrington. So many people were willing to donate because “Ames Hall was an important part of their lives growing up, just as it was in mine.”
The construction process took just over one year, concluding earlier this month with a grand opening celebration Feb. 7 and 8. The weekend included performances by various North Shore community arts groups, children, adults, and staff from the YMCA, as well as a donor appreciation event. Guests were also able to enjoy the hall’s new balcony seating, larger stage and backstage area, and the improved lighting, sound, and climate control features.
North Shore YMCA’s performing arts director, Nicole Leotsakos, said it was great to see the reactions to the new space.
“People were overwhelmingly surprised at how beautiful it was,” she said. “They said it was breathtaking, gorgeous, and better than they had ever seen it. It’s just stunning overall.”
The YMCA Theater Company opened its first main stage show last weekend with the Broadway musical “Hairspray,” featuring youngsters age 12 and older. “Honk Jr.,” a musical adaptation of “The Ugly Duckling,” is slated to be performed by children age 6 and up Friday.
“ ‘Hairspray’ was a really great play to open the space with,” said Leotsakos. “It’s a really well-known show, but more so than having fun music or great dances, the message is really important. To me it’s about acceptance, love, bringing everyone together and sharing what you love, and that is also what Ames Hall and the YMCA Theater Company is all about.”
In addition to holding its own shows, the Y plans to rent the space to performers across the region. Also planned is a partnership with the Boston Ballet School of Dance to establish a dance program in the hall, and a music studio as well.
Leotsakos said the goal is to make Ames Hall a place the entire North Shore can utilize and enjoy.
“Salem is a town that prides itself on history and creative arts, and this just adds to that,” Lovasco said.
“I thought [Ames Hall] was beautiful as a child, and that’s what it is [again] now,” added Harrington.Lauren Spencer can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter at @laurenspencer6.