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Bringing back history

"The outside has looked like downtown Baghdad," joked Lewis. "We had no choice but to put the money we had raised into ensuring the integrity of the structure."

Those improvements include structural work, the installation of heating, new flooring and some electrical upgrades (much of the original wiring was installed in the late 1920s by volunteer labor), not to mention closing gaping holes in the roof.

Once the matching funds are raised and the entrance is finished off, Lewis estimated about $1 million worth of work will remain before Universal Preservation Hall can potentially become the city's premiere year-round event space.

His optimism is largely because of the grand hall, located on the second floor. While capacity is limited to 300 now, once new flooring is installed and balcony repairs are complete, it will hold 700. Already, the hall has seen significant repairs of its ceiling, stained glass windows and electric work, but much remains.

"Pretty much anywhere you look, we have work to do," said McGarrahan.

That hasn't stopped the hall from playing host to weddings, receptions, performances and concerts. On a recent Sunday afternoon, about 130 turned out for a recital by the Nance Dance Company.

Lewis predicted that, in time, the room's heavenly acoustics and remarkable architecture will make it a much-sought venue.

"Not only does it preserve an historically black congregation in the center of the city.but it also does some wonderful things for the community," he said. "There is no community hall that is this size."

Downstairs, a smaller meeting space has been host to lectures, fundraisers and luncheons. A nearby room littered with tools and equipment will one day become an on-site kitchen for caterers.

Down the hall, a designated space for the United Baptist Church is already established. A mutually beneficial agreement has been worked out between the two groups that allowed the UPH to take control of the building while the church holds the land it sits on. The congregation will continue to worship in the historic church.

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