Historic Buildings Find New Purpose as Banquet Halls

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio — There’s one reaction that Kelly Fertig loves to hear when guests first walk into Stambaugh Auditorium’s Christman Hall: gasps.

She relates the story of a wedding rehearsal a year or so ago. As the bride’s family was coming in, the mother let out a very audible gasp. She had not seen the venue before that night and stopped in her tracks as soon as she entered the 2,500-square-foot room.

“And [the bride] looked to me and said, ‘That’s my favorite part,’ ” says Fertig, the auditorium’s director of marketing. “Youngstown has that stigma and people don’t expect to come into a building like this and see the original architecture and beauty.”

Stambaugh Auditorium opened in 1926 and recently completed a renovation and restoration of the Christman Hall and the Tyler Grand Ballroom, two of its most-used spaces for banquets, weddings and meetings.

“We get a lot of people who tell us they haven’t been here since their graduation in 1960-something,” Fertig says. “They’re happy we’re still here and providing events for the community. … They’re thrilled that it looks the same, but functions even better.”

Throughout the Mahoning Valley, several of the buildings that serve as reminders of the area’s heyday have taken on new lives as banquet halls. Many of the spaces have been restored to their original state with the bonus of some modern amenities.

At Stambaugh, projectors and a a lighting system controlled from touchpads were added to the Tyler Ballroom. Down the road at the B&O Station Banquet Hall, the former ticket booth was converted into a bar. And at The Hippodrome in Warren, a new elevator and bathrooms were critical parts of the building’s renovation, as was repairing the facade.

“The draw for people is keeping the nostalgia,” says Hippodrome co-owner Bill Axiotis. “We did things like update the bathrooms, but we also found a medium between the two. We’ve had success with it [at The Mocha House], so we weren’t scared of doing it at the Hippodrome.”

Axiotis and co-owner Nick Liakaris also bought the former Chase Building in 2011. The bank branch moved out last year and the two are working on developing a second banquet hall in the nine-story building, built in 1927.

When Powers Auditorium was donated to the Youngstown Symphony Society in 1968, the building, the former Warner Theatre, was in disrepair and slated for demolition. Thanks to a donation from Edward and Alice Powers, the building was saved and reopened a year later, with almost all of its features, from ornate mirrors to its crown molding, restored.

“It was a yearlong process. Just under a year, actually – 364 days from donation to when we reopened,” says Leslie Williams, administrative assistant at the DeYor Performing Arts Center. “It’s majestic and grand. You won’t see this at other banquet facilities. The uniqueness is a major driving force.”

Many of the historic buildings that double as banquet centers display details rarely seen in architecture today. B&O Station has solid-wood bars.

Powers has blue-and-yellow tile that dates to its construction.

The arches in the Christman Hall in Stambaugh Auditorium feature intricate moldings.stambaugh banquet crop

Almost all feature a grand staircase, often the defining element of the venues.

“The brides love the staircase in the back. It’s where the wedding party is announced and they come down and make an entrance,” says Susie Carfano, assistant to the director and event planner at the Butler Institute of American Art. “You’re not just in a plain room with froufrou decorations. People can walk around and enjoy the art.”

Adds Wendy Swick, The Butler’s public relations director, “You don’t have to decorate. There’s already an ambiance with the glass, the marble and the paintings.”

What also seems to be a powerful force, especially in the wedding business, observes B&O manager and event planner Amy Komara, is clients’ drive to one-up each other. Having a ceremony or reception in a building that was built, in some cases, more than a century ago – as is the case with the B&O – is often one of the best routes.

“For weddings, people are always trying to do something not ordinary. … They don’t want a square with four walls,” she explains. “The building speaks for itself. It has character and what we offer is different than other banquet centers. They fall in love with the building.”

But using buildings that are so old – the newest venue in this group is Powers Auditorium, built in 1929 – does present some challenges.

Powers, for example, wasn’t designed with banquets in mind. The lobby is L-shaped with high ceilings that create an echo chamber. Some electrical outlets there, Williams notes, aren’t compatible with the plugs commonly used for events.

“We have to make accommodations for that, even going as far as using extensions cords sometimes,” she says. “We probably lose the majority of people because of the logistics of the space. There’s nothing we can do about that because this is our building.”

That doesn’t necessarily mean business is bad. Many of the Valley’s landmark buildings report banquet bookings are on the rise. At Powers, three wedding receptions were booked for this summer, down from six a few years ago, but the fall and winter schedule is among the busiest Williams has ever seen.

The Butler usually does about a dozen weddings a year, Swick and Carfano say, although that number has been down this year and is expected to stay low next year.

At the B&O, weddings are the primary events, along with some fundraisers, art shows and festivals. Komara estimates between 40 to 45 weddings and receptions are held at the old train station annually. The remainder of the schedule is often used to fill in the gaps.

“The concept is if we’re not doing a wedding, what else can we do? Some of the events we do here, we do on our own just to keep things going,” she says.

For venues such as the Butler Institute and Powers Auditorium, providing banquet and reception space comes as a secondary offering, often to support the organizations that operate the buildings. Events at The Butler begin at $6,000 with the proceeds used to support its operations.

“We’re a museum first. We don’t change the exhibitions for events,” Carfano says. “It’s a service we provide. It’s not what we are.”

In downtown Youngstown at Powers, renting the space was born “out of necessity,” Williams says.

“The building is kept primarily for the orchestra and everything else is secondary. We’ve grown into this business because it seems ridiculous to have this building and do nothing outside of the six or seven times the orchestra performs,” she continues.

And that purpose – keeping the buildings in use – seems to be a driving reason for opening up the historic buildings to public use. It’s better, all agree, to have something, even if it’s used just a dozen times a year, than to have an empty parking lot.

“I don’t see how you could waste something like this. A lot of people said, in the year before we got it, ‘Tear it down,’ ” Axiotis says of the Hippodrome. “The end result is something that could never be replicated. You couldn’t afford to build like this today.”

Adds Stambaugh’s Fertig, it provides a window into Youngstown’s past and, perhaps more important, its future.

“There’s a sense of pride about our history,” she says. “It’s important for all of these places to stay open and keep people coming through the doors, showing the next generation that Youngstown isn’t going away. These older spaces are reinventing themselves to reach out.”

Pictured: For one wedding last year, say the Butler Institute of American Art’s Susie Carfano and Wendy Swick, the bride asked to have her table positioned so she could see John Singer Sargent’s “Mrs. Knowles and Her Two Sons” throughout the wedding reception.

Copyright 2022 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.