How a Syracuse business family used a doomed church to save the city’s symphony
Dan Feng had the old St. Peter’s Church building on James Street to himself on a quiet Wednesday afternoon. He played with the switchboard behind the stage to turn on the house lights in the cavernous lobby, then walked past rows of empty benches toward the front of the building.
“The acoustics were terrible here,” he said as he disappeared down a spiral staircase to the second-story balcony.
Not so bad now, though, after his family added sound treatments to the old building. The stage is also much larger than before, lengthened at the request of the local Syracuse orchestra.
The Fengs partly own the former church, now named Inspiration Hall, and donated the space to the Syracuse Symphoria Orchestra when the pandemic forced live music into an extended intermission.
The Fengs have supported Symphoria financially and otherwise for years, ever since Dan’s parents immigrated to the city from Taiwan in the 1960s and finally launched their tech company downtown in the late 80s.
“We don’t want to think, especially after the past two and a half years, where we would be without them,” said Pam Murcheson, executive director of Symphoria.
It’s not easy for the Fengs’ business: the family owns and operates Progressive Expert Consulting, a language-teaching technology company that has worked with Special Operations Command and the Air Force.
Dan’s mother, Betty Feng, is CEO. Dan is chief technology officer and his brother, Tim, chief operating officer. Youngest brother Mike is Vice President of Operations. Dan, Tim and Mike’s father, Francis, was previously COO. He died last year.
But Betty and Francis loved classical music, Dan said, and they instilled in the children a sense of community duty, driven in part by their Christian faith. Francis started a Bible study group at Syracuse University aimed at acclimating Chinese students to Syracuse.
Betty is over 70 now, so the children take care of the day-to-day operations of PEC. But she still sings soprano in Oratorio Society, a mixed choral group of Syracuse University students and community members. Mike is a member of the Symphoria Board of Directors.
“We always had music at home,” Dan said. Her mother had a classical background growing up in Taiwan, and her parents often hosted music teachers from Syracuse University in their home.
Betty and Francis went to events hosted by Syracuse Symphony, Symphoria’s predecessor, while pursuing studies at Syracuse University. In 1987, after obtaining his doctorate. in Instructional Design from Syracuse University, Betty started PEC, now housed in the building across from Inspiration Hall.
The Fengs purchased the building of St. Peter’s Roman Catholic Church on James Street in 2010. The Roman Catholic congregation that had used the church had by then dwindled, and in 2008 joined Our Lady of Pompeii on Ash Street.
Before buying it, there was speculation that the building could be torn down, Dan said, and turned into something that would make money. CNY Crossroads, Inc., a religious 501c3, bought it instead. The Feng brothers make up the majority of the nonprofit’s voting board, which also owns the former Rockefeller United Methodist Church on the east side.
From 2010 to 2020, 23 religious institutions in Syracuse closed or were sold or refurbished, including St. Peter’s. Nine were vacant, as of 2020.
When the pandemic halted Symphoria’s live shows in 2020, choking off the symphony’s revenue stream from ticket sales, the Fengs offered Inspiration Hall, rent-free.
“It was something we thought we could do,” Dan said.
The Fengs also lent their livestreaming equipment so the orchestra could sell tickets for concerts online. Over the past nine seasons, Symphoria has performed approximately 85 concerts at Inspiration Hall. They also perform at other venues, but Inspiration Hall was the home base for the early months of the pandemic and is the best venue for kids concerts, Murcheson said.
“That first full year of COVID… It was our home,” she said.
Since the start of the pandemic, the symphony has received funding through the Federal Paycheck Protection Program, the Closed Venue Operator Grant, the Employee Retention Credit under the CARES Act, and individual donations.
“What the Fengs and other donors have given us is time to bounce back,” she said.
And it’s nice to bring life to the old building, she says, which could have been razed in the past.
“A lot of people used to go to mass there,” Murcheson said. “Of course, the Fengs and Symphoria want our doors to feel open to the community.”
Dan was sitting on the benches under a stained glass window in the hall. A speck of colored light shone on the floor beside him.
His parents and brothers put down roots in Syracuse, Dan said. Next-gen plans will be theirs.
He pointed to small black letters on the panes, a commemorative note to a loved one in the family who purchased the window.
“It’s okay every once in a while to pause, reflect and remember why something is here,” he said.
Jules Struck writes about life and culture in and around Syracuse. Contact her anytime at [email protected] or on Instagram at julesstruck.journo.