Thursday, October 12, 2017

Restoration Work Needed At Albany Rural Cemetery


“At the west, a short distance below, is a pear-shaped bit of silver, known as Cypress Water, in which is  a miniature island.”

(from "The Albany Hand-book for 1881" by Henry Pitt Phelps)

One of the most recognizable features of the Cemetery landscape, Cypress Pond (or Cypress Waters, as it was more commonly known in the past) turns 148 years old this year.  Among the monuments that overlook this pretty "bit of silver" are the bronze statue of "Contemplation" by Charles Calverley atop the grave of Dr. Jephta Bouleware, the pensive maiden marking the family plot of author Charles Fort, and one of the most photographed statues at Albany Rural - the John G. Myers angel.  Seven of the Cemetery's many roads and paths converge here.

The centerpiece of the South Ridge, if not the entire Rural Cemetery, Cypress Pond was created from a swampy patch of land dotted with natural springs.  A large stone slab covering the outlet at the north end of the pond bears the date of its creation, 1869.  The work was undertaken during the tenure of Superintendent J.P. Thomas who was known for numerous changes and improvements to the Cemetery, including the extension of the grounds to the South Gate.  While a small pond does appear on Cemetery maps from the late 1850s, this area of the Cemetery was, for the most part, a swampy area dotted with natural springs.

And what's in a name? The cypress is a tree long associated with cemeteries and can be found growing in many burying grounds. It has been a symbol of mourning since ancient times because, if cut back too much, the tree will not regrow. Its branches were gifted to grieving families in Athens and it was burned to clear the harsh odors of cremations. The trees have also been planted in great numbers in Turkish cemeteries for centuries

Early photos of Cypress Waters show the little island which formerly occupied the middle of the pond.  Some of the earliest views even show a little canoe near the island.  The wooded island was later replaced with a classically-styled fountain installed in 1950.

Unfortunately, Cypress Pond is now in urgent need of repair.  The fountain which replaced the little island has not functioned in several years.  Several sinkholes near the newly repaired shelter at the northeast corner of the pond required work.  The pond walls are unstable and tilting inward towards the water.

Work is being done in phases and, to date, the Cemetery has financed $21,115 towards these much needed repairs.  The final two phases of the project - replacement and reactivation of the fountain and the stabilization of the pond walls will require additional funds.

The fountain runs on water pressure from a gravity-fed reservoir.  It will be converted to an electrical source with a new floating aerating fountain similar to those seen in Washington Park, Buckingham Pond, and The Crossings in Colonie.  The work will included electricity and working water outlets in the areas around the pond.  The engineering work and design are completed and the project is now awaiting funding.

The buckling pond walls are hazardous, especially since the area immediately around the pond is a popular place for visitors to park and walk.

A more detailed illustrated report on the work to be done and funds needed can be downloaded here:  Cypress Pond Restoration Report PDF

If you would like to make a donation of any size to help complete the badly-needed repairs to the fountain and pond walls, please make a check or money order out to:

Albany Rural Cemetery
Cemetery Avenue
Menands, New York 12204

Please include a memo that the donation is for "Restoration of The Cypress Pond Area."  Or contact the Cemetery directly at  518-463-7017 or albanyruralcemetery@biznycap.rr.com with any questions or to discuss other donation options.  You can also stop by the office during business hours.  Donations are tax-deductible.

And, please, share and spread the word.  This post (with additional historic images of the pond) will also be available on Facebook at Albany Rural Cemetery - Beyond Graves (it will be pinned to make it easy to find) and on Twitter.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

James' Cancer Fight


As those of you who follow either my personal Facebook profile, my Albany Rural Cemetery Facebook page, or Twitter account might know, my partner of eight years has recently been diagnosed with throat cancer and, last week, underwent a temporary tracheostomy to relieve serious breathing problems that occurred as a side effect of the radiation treatments.

I affectionately refer to James as my research assistant though his assistance generally consists of carrying my backpack full of maps and notes, asking if it's time to go home for lunch, or making sure I don't tumble down various hills while taking photos at Albany Rural.

His cancer is in the early stages and, even with setback due to the breathing complications, his prognosis is good.  But this is still an incredibly difficult time for us.  I am acting as his full-time caregiver until he completes his treatments and completely recovers.

More can be read at our GoFundMe page.  If you can contribute or even just share the link, it would be truly appreciated.

James' Cancer Fight on GoFundMe

Thank you and Happy Holidays.

Paula

P.S.  I will post some updates regarding the preservation of the Church of the Holy Innocents as time allows.

Thursday, November 3, 2016

An Albany History Society?

There has been an ongoing discussion among people with a passionate interest in Albany's history about the possible formation of an Albany historical society.  Despite the fact that this is the oldest continuously chartered city with over four centuries of recorded history, there is not an actual historical society for Albany itself.  There are many admirable historic entities here, but they all have their specific focus (operation of an individual historic site, preservation of structures, specific ethnic heritages).  The goal would not be to replace existing historical organizations, but to provide a unified voice for those with a passionate interested in protecting, preserving, promoting, and otherwise sharing our long and unique history. 

If you are a Facebook user and would like to join the discussion, please visit the new group:

Unofficial Albany City Historical Society on Facebook

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Help the Albany Rural Cemetery

 

The history of the Albany Rural Cemetery is closely interlaced with Albany's history.  If you'd like to support the Cemetery, please see the link below for a list of ways (including the Annual Fund, membership in the Friends of the Albany Rural Cemetery, and volunteering).

Support Albany Rural Cemetery

"Over the years, many generous donors have made tax-deductible gifts to the cemetery and such support is needed now, more than ever. For the sake of “these exalted acres” and the many people who enjoy the parklike setting, a historic resource in the upper Hudson Valley, we hope to broaden our base of support." 

- from a letter to the Times Union by Frank Slingerland, President of the Board of Trustees.

And, if you enjoy the Cemetery's history, don't forget to like this page on Facebook:

Albany Rural Cemetery - Beyond The Graves

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Saturday, October 24, 2015

The Grim Past of Van Rensselaer Park

Located between the vacant St. Joseph's Church and the Ten Broeck Mansion (identified on the 1876 map below as the property of Thomas W. Olcott), Van Rensselaer Park is a small and pretty wedge of urban greenspace.

Framed by Ten Broeck Street, Ten Broeck Place, Hall Place, and Second Street, it features a modern playground and an elegant 19th-century iron fence.  Its history, however, goes back to the mid-18th century and the Patroons of Rensselaerwyck.

On October 31 1764, Stephen Van Rensselaer II deeded this parcel of land to the City of Albany specifically for the purpose of a cemetery.  At the time, this area was known as "The Colonie," though by 1808 it was annexed to the city proper.

Known variously over the years as the Colonie Burial Ground, the Arbor Hill Burial Ground, and the Van Rensselaer Burial Ground, the Patroon intended that the lot be used held by the city "on the condition that the same should not be applied to any private purpose or secular use, but should remain as a burial ground or cemetery for all persons in the manor of Rensselaerwyck."

The Van Rensselaer Burial Ground is not to be confused with the private vault which was later built on the grounds of the Van Rensselaer Manor House for the interment of the Patroon's own family and which was later torn down in favor of a large plot at the Albany Rural Cemetery.


As with the municipal State Street Burying Grounds at the western edge of the city, the little Arbor Hill Burial Ground eventually became an eyesore.  The streets around it were filling up with elegant new houses.  Construction and improvements to the surrounding streets altered the grade of the land around the old cemetery.  Removal of the surrounding soil raised the burial grounds edges to an embankment of some fifteen feet.  Bones and coffins were often exposed as sand was removed. Sometimes the remains tumbled into adjacent lots. The surrounding wooden fence was in ruins.

The well-to-do residents of Ten Broeck Triangle were not pleased to see gloomy old tombstones and exposed remains from their windows and stoops.  Local property owners, including Joseph Hall (the namesake of Hall Place), advocated for its removal.  

An 1844 report to the Common Council observed:

"The whole presents a neglected and ruinous aspect, which must be painful to the surviving friends of the dead, who are buried there, and a source of annoyance to a neighborhood daily becoming more populous, notwithstanding the obstacle to its growth which this burying ground presents.....would not be expedient to continue to use this ground for future interments. The public are becoming every day more convinced of the inconveniences and painful associations, as well as the unhealthiness of burying the dead in the midst of the habitations of the living, and it is to be hoped that the practice with us, as it is in very many cities, will be entirely discontinued. Apart from the other considerations, this ground, after all that may be done for its improvement, will still present an appearance of insecurity, which must deter most persons from allowing their friends to be buried in it. We are, however, bound to protect the remains of those who now lie there, and the question presents itself whether it is better to put the ground in as decent condition as possible, or to remove the remains to a proper place where they may remain undisturbed in future."

One expensive proposed remedy was a new fence of varying heights to enclose the forlorn graveyard.  Another proposal called for removing the old remains to a lot at the new Rural Cemetery and erecting a suitable monument over them.

We propose then, in place of maintaining at a heavy expense to the city the present unsightly burying ground on Arbor Hill, that the remains of those buried there should be carefully removed to the new cemetery and then deposited in a vault over which a handsome monument shall be erected – on the monument the names of dead may be inscribed and it will thus stand as a perpetual memorial. Neither the growth of the city or any probable contingency will ever disturb the remains there deposited – survivors will no longer be shocked by seeing the bones of their relatives bleaching in the sun, but will feel a comfort and joy in seeing the place of their repose surrounded as it will be by the most appropriate associations, and their own pathway to the grave may be made more cheerful by the thought that the same resting place may at the appointed time receive their own remains, as well as those of their friends.
 
In the end, neither plan was adopted.  On October 1, 1849, Stephen Van Rensselaer III deeded the land to the city again.  Now that the city held title to the land without the stipulation that it be used for burials, work began to clear the graves and transform the old boneyard into a small park (just two decades later, the State Street Burying Grounds would similarly be converted to Washington Park)

Relatives of the deceased at were given a chance to remove the bodies of their kin from the Arbor Hill Burial Grounds at their own expense;  a few were indeed transferred to the Rural Cemetery.  The rest would be disposed of by the city.  According to a 1901 column in the Albany Evening Journal:

A large underground vault was placed in the center of the plot and all bodies not claimed were put in the common vault and the spot covered.  The bones, or what remains of them, are now reposing within the confines of the park.

The articles and records make little or no mention of what became of the old headstones.  They might have been stacked inside the vault, recycled for paving and other purposes, or simply discarded.
 

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

The Friends of Albany History


If you're interested in Albany history on social media, please join the newly launched Friends of Albany History.

The Friends of Albany History on Facebook

(See also the previous post, Everything Old Albany on Flickr)