Tuesday, December 7, 2010

The Albany Bicenntennial Tablets - Part One

1886 was a celebratory year for Albany. It marked the 200th anniversary of the granting of the Dongan Charter, the municipal charter issued by Governor Dongan which separated Albany from the colonial estate of Rensselaerwyck and created it as a city.

Among the many commemorations, a series of 42 bronze plaques were placed throughout Albany through the efforts of a committee headed by architect Walter Dickson. The Bicentennial Tablets were created by William Hailes (a maker of stove and machine patterns whose shop stood at the corner of Broadway and Hamilton Street) and placed at sites significant to Albany history.

The plaques varied in size from small (about 16 x 7 inches) to large (about 32 x 40 inches) and marked such places as the site of Fort Frederick atop State Street's steep hill, historic churches and private residences of note, original names of streets, and the courses of some of the old streams that once flowed through the city. They commemorated events such as the ride of Symon Schermerhorn who carried the news of the Schenectady Massacre to Albany, visits by George Washington, and the planting of an elm tree by Philip Livingston.

The tablets were part of a celebration of Albany heritage that included proclamations, sermons, hymns, parades, visits by Mohawk chiefs, and an evergreen "triumphal arch" built across Broadway complete with a wooden replica of the old stockade gates.

A numbered list of the plaques was published in various late 19th and early 20th century guidebooks to aid visitors to Albany in retracing the paths of the city's history.

Almost 125 years have passed since the Bicentennial Tablets were set in place and, gradually, many of the plaques disappeared as buildings were torn down and new structures raised. Streets were widened, paved, and repaved and the plaques set along curbs lost or destroyed.

More than half of the original 42 plaques are gone. At least one of the current plaques is a replica replacing a lost marker noting the home where Governor DeWitt Clinton died in 1828. The majority, though, are lost and forgotten. Only about a dozen survive and some of those are now very difficult to find.

Looking at the original list of markers is a poignant reminder of how much of Albany's early history was not preserved. So many of the places commemorated by the plaques were gone by the time of the Bicentennial and many of those that still stood intact as of 1886 are long since gone.

To be continued...

Plaque Number 1 - Fort Orange 
Plaque Number 4 - The Progenitor
Plaque Number 29 - The North East Gate
Plaque - Old Saint Mary's
Plaque - Lydius Corner
Plaque - On Broadway

Monday, November 22, 2010

Wacheka Albanya (Sophie High Dog)

The little girl's grave lies among the elegant monuments of Albany's elite and wealthy. The white marble headstone has toppled and lies propped against its base. The inscription is beginning to weather away and tall grass often half-hides the grave.

The child who was known as Sophie High Dog or Wacheka Albanya was Sioux born in South Dakota around 1890. Too little information is known about her early childhood or family, but she was brought to Albany at the age of five as an orphan. It was later claimed that she had been "thrown away," simply abandoned by her parents.

Wacheka had initially been sent to the Indian Industrial School in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. The Carlisle school's purpose was to assimilate Native American children in white society and its history is one of abuse and tragedy. Wacheka, however, came to the attention of the Albany Indian Association and was termed "too delicate" for a boarding school where hundreds of children died of disease and harsh treatment. The Association, which was founded in 1883 to aid in solving the so-called "Indian problem" through eduction, had the child brought to Albany and placed her in St. Christina's Home. St. Christina's, which operated under the auspices of the Episcopal Diocese of Albany, was located in Saratoga Springs and served as a summer home for the Child's Hospital.

Described as a "bright and earnest" child, she soon became a favorite of caretakers who referred to her in the sentimental language of the era, as a "sweet flower out of rough forest soil" even as they sought to erase all traces of her Sioux heritage with a white Christian education.

Meanwhile, the delicate health that had first won the sympathy of her guardians worsened. Her body was weakened by measles and tuberculosis and she passed away on February 13, 1900. Four days later, William C. Doane, the popular Episcopal Bishop of Albany, presided over her funeral at the Cathedral of All Saints.

Her obituary is a sad one which reflects the prejudices and misconceptions of the day, describing her parents as a "drunken" Sioux father and a "dissolute half-breed" mother. It was accompanied by a picture of Wacheka in fashionable child's coat and bonnet.

She was laid to rest in the Rural Cemetery, her grave paid for by the Albany Indian Association.

The people who arranged for her care, those who paid for her education and, later, mourned her with a lavish funeral acted no doubt believed they did right for Wacheka. They probably meant well and their actions were the product of their era and its cultural values.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Owner of Iconic Miss Albany Diner Dies

Clifford Brown, owner of the Miss Albany Diner, passed away yesterday.

Read more about the Miss Albany here.

State Street Fire

An fire broke out before dawn in one of the buildings on the old Wellington Row block of State Street below Eagle Street. The building is vacant and, like the rest of the row, awaiting redevelopment.

CBS6 has a brief piece on the fire here. Additional details will be posted if they become available.

The building on fire is the one at the left of the Wellington in this photo taken in early 2009:

Albany (NY) Daily Photo Blog - Shells

Saturday, October 30, 2010

A Handful of Hauntings

Let me begin by saying that I certainly believe it ghosts. Not just because I've always enjoyed reading good ghost stories, but because I've had enough ghostly experiences of my own.

And one thing that I've often found frustrating is the lack of good historic ghost stories in Albany. Not that there aren't some (and I'll mention a few below). But so many of the spooky tales I hear every year are the same old stories told in cities across the country.

The pretty young hitch-hiker who asks to be dropped off at a cemetery and turns out to be long deceased is a good example. I've heard that story quite a few times and it seems every town has its own version. Here, it usually involves a girl picked up at night on Lark Street and dropped off by Graceland Cemetery on Delaware Avenue. And then there's the abandoned Forest Park Cemetery just across the Hudson River. Do I believe it's haunted? Absolutely! But I also don't believe 99% of the ghastly tales told about it. Again, most read like variations on the same old stories told about old cemeteries.

But, given Albany's size and history (it is one of the country's oldest cities and oldest continuously settled regions), it just seems as if there should be more tales of historic hauntings than oft-repeated urban legends.

Some might it's because so much of Albany's past has vanished as old historic buildings are replaced with newer structures. But, as two of the stories below show, ghosts can linger at a site long after new buildings take the place of those they knew in life.

Still, there are some ghost stories here worth telling. Some are well-known, some are hardly mentioned.

The House On Ten Broeck Street - Among the many handsome old houses on Arbor Hill's Ten Broeck Avenue, there is one tall brownstone that is the site of a very unusual haunting. The ghost that walks it uppermost floors seems to have no connection to the building itself. The house, with a door flanked by white columns, was built in 1859 by a gentleman named George Dawson. In the mid-20th century, though, children who lived in the house reported seeing a strange man whenever they ventured to the top floor. The mysterious and solemn figure, who often appeared in otherwise empty hallways, gave no hints as to his identity or why he haunted this once-elegant house. But he wore the clothing of a 17th-century Dutch soldier, complete with a metal helmet similar to those currently on display in the New York State Museum. Perhaps this man met his end or was buried on the steep hill where the house stands in the 1600s (at the time, the only permanent Dutch settlement nearby was Fort Orange nearly a mile and a half to the south) and continued to haunt the site itself, even after the brownstone was built centuries later.

The New York State Capitol - Probably Albany's best known haunted site, the State Capitol has at least three ghosts within its imposing walls. The first is William Morris Hunt, a Boston artist commissioned to paint murals in the Senate Chamber. The murals' beauty was short-lived, however. There were structural problems with the Chamber's ceiling and, when the ceiling was replaced, the murals were lost within a tiny crawl-space. Hunt was greatly distressed over the loss of this work and disappointed at the lack of further commissions from the State. It's believed this loss contributed to the depression which led him to drown himself in New Hampshire in 1879. There are stories of a disembodied voice in the Senate Chamber which, on at least one occasion, has said "William Hunt is behind the door." Perhaps a reference to the door leading to the crawl-space where his murals have long since deteriorated. The second is a man named Samuel Abboot. A veteran of the Civil War, he was the night-watchman on duty - and the only fatality - when the Capitol was damaged by a massive fire on the night of March 29, 1911. His body was found in badly burned hallway near where the fire had started. Since then, employees and visitors have seen an older man in a watchman's uniform making his rounds in the upper halls, even checking on one young woman working too late one night. The third spectre is that of a distraught man who jumped to his death from one of the majestic sandstone staircases. I've personally experienced all three of these spirits, having heard a slurred male voice say the name "William" in the Senate Chamber, smelled a heavy and very strong odor of smoke and wet ash while standing in the exact spot with Abbott's body was found, and felt a sudden cold current of air inside my coat sleeves near the spot of the suicide.

The Lincoln Park Gully
- What could be one of Lincoln Park's most scenic spots, the gully is a dirty and desolate place. Once the site of the Beaver Creek and Buttermilk Falls, its mossy shale cliffs are hidden by dense trees and littered with trash. The ravine's still air is fouled by the smell rising from a grate. Below the grate is a ghost of sorts...the last remnants of the creek and falls rush through an old stone and brick culvert. The stream once provided water-power to mills and breweries, but became so contaminated with waste that it was buried and integrated into the city's sewer system in the 1800s. But this smelly, neglected place is haunted by ghosts of a paranormal nature, too. In the 1620s, a party of Dutch soldiers and Mahican warriors en route to attack the Mohawks were instead ambushed and massacred by the Mohawks at Buttermilk Falls. One of the Dutchmen was burned alive and his leg and arm carried back to the Mohawks as proof of their victory. The others - at least four from the Dutch party and an unknown number of Mahicans - were hastily buried alongside the creek. Even now, in what may be one of the city's oldest hauntings, dark shadowy figures have been seen moving through the ravine in broad daylight and an eerie sense of being watched by something unseen is often reported by those who brave the smell and trash to venture into the gully. I have personally seen two such figures.

The Legs Diamond House -
The story of Prohibition-era gangster Legs Diamond is well known in Albany, due in no small part to William Kennedy's novel "Legs." The notorious bootlegger was shot to death in the small upstairs room of a rooming house on Dove Street. Later occupants of the house have reported the sound of late night footsteps and voices on the stairs leading to the room where Diamond was gunned down on December 18, 1931.

President Lincoln in Loudonville -
On the night of his assassination, Lincoln was join at Ford's Theatre by a young couple with Albany connections, Henry Rathbone and his fiancee, Clara Harris. Rathbone, who was slashed in the arm by John Wilkes Booth, and Clara, who was the daughter of Senator Ira Harris, were troubled by the Lincoln assassination for the rest of their lives. And Ira Harris' country home - now part of a quiet lane in Loudonville - is said to have been visited by the slain President's ghost many times by Clara Harris and numerous later occupants at guests at the cottage.

SUNY Plaza -
Like the Ten Broeck Street brownstone, the stunning structure on Broadway is also haunted by a ghost that seems to predate the structure itself. A woman in clothing which predates the former Delaware & Hudson Railroad Company building by at least a decade has been seen walking its halls. She might have some connection to the hotel which previously stood on this land.

The Old State Education Building - The grim story associated with the massive columned building on Washington Avenue is another one of Albany's better known hauntings. It tells of an Italian laborer who vanished while the building's foundation was being laid. His lunch and other personal effects were found where he'd last put them and it was believed that he'd somehow fallen into the excavations and his fate literally sealed when concrete was poured in over him. Whether or not the foreman realized the missing man would be entombed in the foundations varies, but most stories say he knew and didn't want to delay the work. Since then, employees venturing into certain areas of the basement have told of object being mysteriously moved, of unexplained chills, and a shadowy man just barely glimpsed out of the corner of one's eye. Some discount this haunting as an urban legend, but I grew up hearing the story that there was a body sealed in the foundation from family members. My great-grandfather worked on the construction of the Alfred E. Smith Building across the corner from the Old State Education Building. He heard the story from coworkers, old-timers who had previously worked to build the State Education Building and passed the sad tale of their lost member on to young laborers.

Other haunted sites around Albany include the Russell Sage campus on New Scotland Avenue (some of the older buildings were part of the Albany Orphanage and it's said that at least several children remain as ghosts), several houses that are now part of the College of Saint Rose (including a little girl who died in a fire), the Cherry Hill Mansion in the South End (the ghost story there is well-known and dates back to the infamous 1827 murder), the Schuyler and Ten Broeck Mansions, the Albany Rural Cemetery, the former DeWitt-Clinton Hotel, and the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception.

But, despite these stories, it just seems like there should be many more....if you know any ghostly tales from Albany's history, please feel free to share!

And Happy Halloween!

More Albany hauntings 
And still more Albany ghost stores.

(Photo: An old iron gate in the Albany Rural Cemetery)

Monday, October 25, 2010

Central Warehouse Fire

The massive white hulk of the Central Warehouse is both a landmark and an eyesore. A familiar part of Albany's skyline...especially to commuters on 787...the Warehouse caught fire this past Friday and, as of this writing, continues to burn from within. The photo above was taken about twenty-four hours after the fire began and a large house can be see directing water at the upper stories on the south side of the building.

The eleven-story Warehouse was built around 1927 and was, at that time, a state-of-the-art facility for cold and dry storage of meats and other foods.

With its steel and concrete design insulted with cork and cooled with ammonia, it's said it could hold enough food to feed the entire city for three months. En route to the nearby Livingston Avenue Bridge, a spur of railroad actually diverted right into the building to allow goods to be unloaded from trains directly into the Warehouse to be moved to storage areas via large freight elevators. The tracks enter the Warehouse on the western side and reemerge from the second floor on the east side.

It wasn't only meats that passed through this facility. During the height of operations, everything from cranberries for local supermarkets to flour bound for West Africa.

Later, after warehouse operations had all but ceased, its cavernous floors sometimes served as storage for toys donated to area charities at Christmas. For a time, a small store remained open on the ground floor. A cold, white-tiled relic of the building's original use, it sold wholesale packs of chicken and meat, mostly to restaurants.

In the early 1980s, the building made headlines when its then-owner Richard Gerrity has a massive sign painted on one of the exterior walls. The huge logo proclaimed the Year of The Bible to passing motorists...and became the subject of a court case because it violated then-current laws governing billboards and outdoor signage.

In the late 1980s, ninety-eight cases of butter valued (at the time) at $3,000, vanished from the Warehouse where it was being stored after being issued by the U.S. Government to the Albany County Emergency Food Task Force.

For the past decade and a half, though, the building had changed owners a number of times. At one time, it was sold by a bank for $1 (and back taxes of $120,000). At the time of the fire, it was been offered for sale at over $4,000,000.

The signs of neglect were obvious even from a distance. Graffiti was visible on upper stories. A court had to order bankrupt owners to keep the power on in the building to prevent leakage of ammonia from the cooling pipes and thereby endangering surrounding neighborhoods on either side of the Hudson River. The painted signs on the exterior walls faded to illegible shadows. Plaster rained from the facade on windy days. It was becoming a modern ruin.

It became a property with some potential, but many obstacles. As a cold-storage facility, it was obsolete and unneeded. The cost to renovate the building for any sort of reuse was higher than most investors would be willing to risk...not to mention potential environmental issues associated with the dormant refrigeration systems. The cost of any drastic reuse - such as conversion to an aquarium or art space or even a new train station - was equally high. Demolition of the building had been frequently estimated at at least $1.5 million dollars (roughly the amount the current owners paid for it a few years ago).

As of today, the building is in a smoky limbo. The fire which has burned through the weekend has, so far, not weaken the exterior walls and there is reportedly no threat of a collapse. The steel and concrete were simply built that solid. As the fire spread downward through vast empty spaces and deep elevator shats from its apparent origin on the upper floor to create an inferno in the ground floors, it has undoubtedly gutted much of the interior. Whether or not this derelict, but impressive part of Albany's skyline can or should be saved will remain to be seen.

Photographer Sebastien Barre ventured inside the derelict Warehouse and documented its ghostly interior (as well as the spectacular skyline views from the roof) in a 2009 photoset. On Friday, he returned to document the fire. Kudos to him; between his tweets from the scene and his impressive photos, he did a much better job capturing this story than much of the "official" media.

Also, All Over Albany has an excellent collection of photos and stories about the fire, as well.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Special Abraham Lincoln Exhibit

This coming Sunday, September 19, visitors to the New York State Museum will have a special opportunity to view a handwritten draft of the Emancipation Proclamation. The document will be on display in the Museum's Huxley Theater from 9:30 a.m. until 5:00 p.m.. There is no charge for admission, though donations to the Museum are always welcome.

The display is a part of a ongoing program at the State Library, Forever Free, which focuses on Lincoln, the Civil War, and the Emancipation Proclamation.

For details and a complete listing of Forever Free events, see the New York State Library's site:

Forever Free: Abraham Lincoln's Journey to Emancipation

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Madison Avenue Collapse

Yesterday afternoon, a brick row house at 600 Madison Avenue between New Scotland Avenue and Robin Street collapsed as a crew excavated the adjacent lot. The lot had been vacant since a serious fire in late 2007 gutted the brick house at 598 Madison Avenue. Despite the efforts of historic preservationists, the fire-damaged house had been demolished and, as of yesterday, new construction was underway on the site.

No tenants were at home at the time of the collapse, but the building and their possessions were a complete loss. This afternoon, as demolition crews tore down the wreckage, at least one worker was picking through the debris to retrieve a few items for the residents...college textbooks, a lamp. Framed pictures and clothing could be see still hanging in what was left of the upper apartments.

All Over Albany - Madison row house collapse
Times Union - Construction leads to destruction

On a personal note: I was sitting on a rock beside the lake in Washington Park directly across the street from 600 Madison Avenue yesterday afternoon. As I texted a friend, I felt a tremor and wondered if it was a small earthquake or a passing truck. What I felt was the row house collapsing at that moment. Oddly enough, I did not hear a sound.

Monday, August 23, 2010

The Oldest House

For many years, the Quackenbush House on Broadway at the foot of Clinton Avenue was believed to be the oldest surviving house in the City of Albany. Built between 1730 and 1746 for Colonel Hendrick Quackenbush, it is certainly one of the oldest buildings in New York State.

But a shabby former restaurant supply shop half a mile south on the edge of Albany's oldest park, in fact, predates it by several years.

48 Hudson Avenue is not much to look at now and it's certainly not as handsome as the well-maintained brick Quackenbush House. The windows are boarded over. The walls are covered with grimy siding. A cumbersome brick wing extends from the rear. Gaps in the structure reveal wood beams and protective tarps. The front is obscured with scaffolding. If one gets close enough to peer through the dusty windows, there's a glimpse of a very old wooden beam propped on sawhorses.

But what lies within this dreary exterior is an historic treasure, a discovery all too rare in Albany these days.

Hidden inside these walls is Albany's oldest house. Behind the unattractive store facade are the remains of a Dutch-style anchored gable house with it a steep pitched roof still visible within the later shell. Original clapboards still cling to at least one wall. Inside are remnants of distinctive jambless fireplaces, insulating mud bricks, shards of colonial-era pottery, slots that would've held leaded windows, and a molded anchor beam. All of which make this a time capsule full of local history, a prime example of the type of houses that once lined early Albany's streets.

For many years, it was generally believed the original house on this site was built by Johannes Radliff, a shoemaker, in 1759. But mortgage documents from that year refer to an existing house "formerly Van Ostrande" and, more importantly, recent tests of wood samples taken from the building's ancient beams date the structure to 1728. Historians have concluded that this house was built by Johannes Van Ostrande, a member of Albany's Common Council and probably occupied by him from the late 1720s until he sold it to Radliff.

It would've have probably been one of the first houses built when the young city's stockade expanded south, standing not far from the Ruttenkill creek and the site of the area's first permanent Dutch building, old Fort Orange.

A century after it was built, the Van Ostrande-Radliff House was owned by one Jared Holt who converted the property into a factory producing waxes, mainly for furniture finishing. A brick extension was added to the rear of the old wood frame house. A photo from the end of the 19th-century shows a later owner's name - George T. Stoneman - painted above the second-story windows. Eventually, in the 20th-century, it became Saul Equipment Company and its first floor showroom stacked with commercial-sized pots and heavy restaurant china.

Over the years, though, it was believed that the original building was long gone. Few seemed to realize that the 18th-century house was gradually enclosed by newer walls which preserved it.

The building was purchased several years ago by Brian Parker, a man who had previous experience restoring a similar structure (the 1723 Pieter Winne house in nearby Bethlehem). Parker recognized the potential significance of the closed restaurant supply store and, after buying the almost derelict building, began the slow process of tearing down interior walls to reveal portions of the original house within. It was also Parker who arranged for the wooden beams to be tested, confirming that the Van Ostrande-Radliff House indeed dates to the late 1720s.

Albany's history spans four centuries, but sadly, so few of its earliest historic structures has survived. Colonial and Revolutionary War-era buildings have been almost completely eradicated over the years. Some sites that survived into the 20th-century were destroyed and replaced by modern structures like the Empire State Plaza and Times Union Center. The little house at 48 Hudson Avenue is one of the rare survivors of Albany's past.

The building to the right also has its own history which I've briefly written about here.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Albany Rural Cemetery - Elsie's Grave

The Albany Rural Cemetery is filled with monuments to young children. 19th-century infant and child mortality rates were high and, even among affluent families, it wasn't uncommon for children to die of illness well before adolescence. Their monuments are usually small and often decorated with lambs or doves or likenesses of sleeping infants.

This poignant monument, which bears the name Elsie, stands on a hill not far from the Cemetery's main entrance on Broadway and features a little girl's boots and a straw hat complete with carved ribbons. The hat is propped at the base of a branchless tree trunk, a popular Victorian symbol of a youth cut short by death.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

In memory of three orphans

A century after their death, an anonymous benefactor has provided a headstone for three young woman who drowned on an excursion to St. Agnes Cemetery.

From the Times Union

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

HAF Sidewalk Sale

This weekend, the Historic Albany Foundation will be holding a Summer Sidewalk Sale at the Architectural Parts Warehouse on Lexington Avenue. The event, which will be held from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Friday and Saturday, will feature a 10% discount on all purchases with an extra 10% for HAF members. For details, contact HAF or chheck this blog post at the Times Union:

HAF Sidewalk Sale

Sunday, August 1, 2010

A Relic of A Road

Its name...Road Street...has a rather redundant sound to it. Not that there's even a street sign identifying this little alley between the south side of Sheridan Avenue and the base of the steep hills beneath Elk Street.

And there's not much to identify. Until a few years ago, this narrow lane wasn't paved. Broken glass and trash litter the ground around the shady trees. Mosquitoes buzz in the shade. A small park is nestled just above a sharp bend in the road, but it's usually deserted. On a recent summer day, the park opposite an old livery stable was nearly empty. No children escaped the heat in the colorful and very inviting spray pool. The only signs of life in the park came from a pair of homeless men smoking in the shadows. At the other end of Road Street, there's just a parking lot and a steep flight of stairs connecting Sheridan Hollow with Elk Street above.

But this small unmarked street is actually a surviving remnant of Albany history, a road that predates the Revolutionary War.

This area, a steep ravine separating much of downtown Albany from Arbor Hill, was once the path of Fox Creek. This creek, which was once actually home to wild salmon and was also called the Vozenkill or "the third kil," was eventually part of a canal that has long since been "arched over" and incorporated into the sewer system.

The main road through the Hollow - or Gander Bay, as it was also known - was called Howe Street (after Lord George Howe, a British General killed at Fort Ticonderoga during the French & Indian War), then Fox Street and Canal Street, and was eventually renamed Sheridan Avenue in honor of Civil War General Philip Sheridan who was born in this area in 1831. The area itself was, historically, was one of the City's poorest and dirtiest regions.

The narrow lane that is now Road Street first appears on a British Army map from 1758 and probably follows a previous route that, like many such old roads, in turn followed a Native American path. Road Street would have allowed westbound travelers and animal-drawn vehicles to bypass the much steeper grade of the other east-west roads such as modern State Street (which, after several gradings, has a much gentler incline than in previous centuries) and easily connect to the Kings Highway beyond the western gate of the Albany stockade.

In 1762, Albany's Common Council resolved that a "Publick Street remain in the Foxes Creek, beginning at the East end of Messrs. John & Gerrit Rosebooms Lott and run up as farr as the Schyt Bergie till it is ordered otherwise..."

(The Schyt Bergie was the town's dung heap. The manure hill was located somewhere between the present Western and Central Avenues, well beyond the old stockade.)

Originally, this "Publick Street" began near Pearl Street and ran westward along Foxes Creek, makes a sharp bend near present South Swan Street, and continued west towards modern Lark Street.

Presently, all that remains of this old road is the wooded lane running west from the parking lots at South Swan Street and along the edge of the Sheridan Hollow Park (also known as Bayhill Park).

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Old St. Mary's

Bicentennial Plaque on the wall of Saint Mary's Roman Catholic Church overlooking Pine Street between Lodge and Chapel Streets. Dozens of such plaques were installed on sites of historic note during the 1886 celebration of Albany's charter.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Right On Time (Again)

After many months of being stuck at nine, the clock in the City Hall tower is now repaired.


Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Monday, July 5, 2010

The King's Highway

Sign near City Hall at the corner of Eagle Street and Corning Place.

Originating as a simple woodland trail, the King's Highway was the primary road between Albany and Schenectady via the sandy pine barrens.

It was first used as a trading route by the Native Americans bringing furs and other goods to the Dutch at Beverwyck and, by the 166os, had expanded into a wagon path became the main land route between the Hudson and Mohawk Rivers. It was most likely the route taken by a wounded Symon Schermerhorn on the bitterly cold night in 1690 when he rode to warn Albany of the bloody French and Indian attack now called the Schenectady Massacre.

In the mid-1750s, the King's Highway, which was sparsely populated, was considered a haven for thieves and so dangerous that militiamen would escort travelers along it. During the Revolution, it was said to be a hiding place for Loyalists.

By the late 18th-century, though, a stagecoach line was established to carry passengers for three cents a mile with a one-way trip being about sixteen miles. Small taverns, such as Isaac Truax's Halfway House midway between Albany and Schenectady, provided lodgings and meals for travelers. It was said that murders were committed at Truax's and, indeed, excavations on the site in later years did uncover skeletal remains in the cellars. Excavations at other inn sites along the old King's Highway have revealed less ghastly artifacts such as oyster shells and clay pipe stems.

By the early 1800s, travel on the King's Highway declined with the construction of the Western Turnpike (now Route 20) and the Albany-Schenectady Turnpike (now Route 5) and the road through the Pine Barrens was largely abandoned. Today, parts of it can still be traced as part of the trail system in the Pine Bush Preserve.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Independence Day Memorial Plaque

Almost hidden in the greenery in front of University Plaza is a low railing. The iron spikes enclosed a white marble plaque. The marker is very old and barely legible, its antique lettering badly worn with age. Fortunately, a small second marker to its left translates the faded inscription:

The following is the wording that was placed on the memorial stone immediately adjacent to this plaque: The Declaration of Independence was first read in Albany by order of the Committee of Safety July 19, 1776 in front of the City Hall then on this site. This memorial of the event was placed here by the citizens July 4, 1876.

At the time of the Revolutionary War, Albany's first City Hall stood here along Broadway. At the time, this key thoroughfare was call Court Street and ran parallel to the Hudson River just steps away. The City Hall erected in the early 1740s was built to replace Albany's earlier public meeting place on the same site, the 1686 Stadt Huys.

It was at this City Hall that Benjamin Franklin presented the Albany Plan of Union, the first formal proposal to unite the Thirteen American Colonies, to a congress of representatives of the northern colonies and delegates from the Iroquois Confederacy.

In 1776, in the days immediately following its July 4 approval in Philadelphia, copies of the Declaration of Independence were distributed to and read before the public in major cities throughout the rebelling Colonies.

In 1876, a committee was formed in Albany to honor the 100th anniversary of American Independence. The Centennial Memorial Tablet Committee met "to procure the erection of a permanent memorial at the spot where the Declaration of Independence was first publicly read in Albany."

$100 was earmarked for the project and, at the cost of $80, the marble tablet with gilt letters was commissioned and set above the door of the former City Hall.

Before a gathering of "two or three thousand" Albany residents, the plaque, which was covered by an American flag, was unveiled by Visscher Ten Eyck whose grandfather Matthew Visscher has stood before the old City Hall to read the Declaration a century earlier. The plaque was greeted by hearty cheers from the crowd, patriotic songs, chimes from the steeples of nearby churches, and a 100-gun salute.

Today, many historic sites still include a reenactment of the original reading of the Declaration of Independence as part of their Fourth of July celebrations. As the Saratoga National Historic Park, site of the pivotal 1777 battles, a ranger in period costume reads the Declaration, followed by cheers of "Huzzah!" It would be a wonderful tradition if such a short, but meaningful ceremony could be held here in Albany, right beside this historic Memorial Plaque, as a reminder that July 4 is about more than just fireworks and cookouts.

Happy Independence Day!

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Renovated Cathedral To Re-Open

On May 29, the Roman Catholic Cathedral of The Immaculate Conception will re-open after a year-long effort to renovate the interior of this historic Gothic church. The Cathedral, which was built in the 1840s, has been undergoing massive restoration work to stabilize the stone exterior and restore the interior to a late 19th-century color scheme while modernizing the worship space. Yesterday's Times Union has additional details with an excellent photo gallery showing the work.


Thursday, May 6, 2010

Fire - and support - for Lark Tavern

Early this morning, Tess' Lark Tavern, a very popular gathering place on Madison Avenue was devastated by a fire which caused "extensive" damage to the historic building which, in an ironic historical footnote, was built in the mid-19th century as a firehouse.

The Lark Tavern has been a beloved part of the Lark Street/Center Square area of Albany for decades and has been active in many fundraisers. In a great example of "giving back," fundraisers are already being planned to help the Lark Tavern and its staff.

If you would like to make a donation to a fund set up by Matt Baumgartner, please check his link for details.

Samson Contompasis of the Martketplace Gallery is organizing a fundraising event to be held at the Gallery on May 22. Contact him at themarketplacegalleryny@gmail.com if you would like to donate work or otherwise lend a hand.

According to Steve Barnes' Table Hopping, the Tavern was responsible for much of the food and beverages for tonight's Champagne In The Park benefit for the Lark Street BID. If anyone can help cover for the loss, there is information in today's blog.

Also, All Over Albany has an excellent roundup of news coverage of the fire and fundraisers.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

May 2 - Albany History Fair

"Bricks, Posts and Beams: Sustainable Structures of Albany's Past" will highlight Historic Cherry Hill's coming restoration efforts. Highlights: restoration tour of the historic house, tours of the Edward Frisbee Center for Collections and Research, music by Tamarac, exhibits, presentations on the history of the South End by city historian Tony Opalka and the restoration of the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, family games and more.

When: Sunday, May 2, noon
Price: Free
Phone: (518) 434-4791

Sunday, April 25, 2010

The USS Slater returns

This weekend, the World War II Destroyer Escort USS Slater returned to its summer dock at Albany. Located near the Port of Albany and the landmark U-Haul Building with its revolving rooftop truck, the ship will once again be open for tours beginning April 28.

For more information on the ship, tours, and other events, please see the website, ussslater.org

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Burgoyne Plaque

Plaque at SUNY Plaza on Broadway at the foot of State Street noting the route traveled by the British officer following his loss at the pivotal Battle of Saratoga. His objective had been to capture Albany, not come here in defeat. However, because of his standing as an officer, "Gentleman Johnny" was a guest at the Schuyler Mansion during his stay here as a prisoner.

For further reading, John Burgoyne at Wikipedia

Friday, March 26, 2010

Liberty Park

It doesn't look like much, really. A tiny patch of grass, a couple of benches, a pair of trees. Nor are there great views to be had here, just parking facilities, the Albany bus terminal, and the back of Plaza Row with its fades ghosts signs for old blacksmith shops and electrical supplies.

But this lonely little green space on Hudson Avenue between Dallius and Liberty Streets is, in fact, Albany's oldest park.

Maps of Albany from 1848 identify it as a park and it can be outlined on maps going back as far as 1770. The park, known as Hudson Park (that name now refers to a neighborhood further uptown) and Diagonal Park, itself may date back to 1808.

Tradition also says that this was once the site of the Patroon's garden, part of the vast Rensselaerwyck "colonie" established in 1630 by Killiaen Van Rensselaer. Records from the late 1640s identify a three-year lease for a garden identified as being just north of "the ground where heretofore the trading house of the honorable patroon stood, and to the east of the churchyard." The patroon's house, which was destroyed by a flood in 1666, was occupied by Killiaen's son, Jeremias who was buried in said garden in 1674.

However, the well-researched The Patroon's Garden and Liberty Park, Albany, New York by Paul R. Huey discounts the connection between the garden and the park.

Ownership of the land that became Liberty Park, however, can be traced to the Wendell family, whose mills stood along the Beaverkill within modern Lincoln Park, and later in part, by Benjamin Knower, a respected Albany businessman whose waterproof hat factory still stands in the village of Altamont. The Patroon's Garden and Liberty Park gives an exhaustive list of the many owners of the lots at the site over the years.

Also of note is the proximity of this park to the oldest house in the city of Albany, the Van Ostrande-Radcliff House just a few yards north at 48 Hudson Avenue. Indeed, the archeological remnants of other 18th-century buildings may still preserved beneath Liberty Park itself since the land has been comparatively undisturbed for so long and one can only hope that this significance will be respected when plans for the nearby Albany Convention Center move forward!

Saturday, March 20, 2010

On Broadway

Bicentennial plaque affixed to the Old Post Office and Federal Building on Broadway at the foot of State Street.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Upcoming at the AIHA

On March 21, the Albany Institute of History & Art will be hosting the Muhhekunnetuk Family Day Festival.

The day's events will include a 2 p.m. performance of the Gunstwork Puppet Theatre's play, Four Wishes, and a lecture - The Two Hendricks - Unraveling A Mohawk Mystery - by Eric Hindraker.

For additional information, please see the AIHA's site.


Sunday, March 14, 2010

Lincoln Park Plaque

Plaque at the base of a tree just behind the tennis courts at Lincoln Park. It's interesting to note that this plaque stands in a park named for President Lincoln while there is a park named for President Washington just a stone's throw away.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Roof Collapse At Third Precinct

According to a story posted this afternoon by CBS Albany, part of the roof of the historic Third Precinct building on North Pearl Street has collapsed. The collapse now threatens the long-vacant building as other parts of the structure may have to be torn down to prevent further hazards.

The Historic Albany Foundation has long identified this distinctive former police station as an endangered property. The dark brick and white-glazed terra cotta building is just several blocks north of the Palace Theatre and was designed by Walter Van Guysling who also designed the Hudson River Day Line Office and the R.H. Wing building on lower Broadway.

The photo above was taken last September.

Edited - The Times Union has a more detailed article on the collapse at the building.

TU - Historic police station collapses, fate uncertain

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Lydius Corner

The northeast corner of State and Pearl Streets. The storefront space above this plaque most recently housed the Fusion Cafe and is now being prepped for a Subway sandwich shop to move in.

The corner was named for a fur trader, John Lydius, who own a house here in the 18th century, as well as a residence in Montreal.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Courthouse Tour - February 23

On February 23, the Historic Albany Foundation will be sponsoring a special tour of the imposing Art Deco James T. Foley Courthouse. The tour will be lead by Chief Deputy Clerk John Domurad. It is for members of HAF only, but nonmember slots will be available for $10. Contact the HAF for details.

Historic Albany Foundation

Friday, February 19, 2010

The Cathedral Restoration

A view from the corner of State and Lodge Streets showing the spires of the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception further south on Madison Avenue and Eagle Street.

The colors of the spires are mismatched because of a massive ongoing restoration of the historic church. The lighter spire to the right in this picture has already been restored. The original crumbling stone was removed and replaced piece by piece and the deteriorating brick core was replaced by a modern steel skeleton. The original stone had been cut and laid improperly, causing it to flake away. The clock, bells, and cross atop the steeple were also restored. The darker spire to the left (partially draped in a black protective covering) is awaiting similar work.

To read more about the restoration project, please click here.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Flags In Peril

When I was very young, I used to enjoy taking the free tours of the New York State Capitol. One of the most memorable features was the room filled with case after enormous case of historic battle flags. Now, these flags are in desperate need of preservation and restoration. CBS6 has a news feature on the condition of the flags.

New York's Civil War flags at risk

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

The City Hall Fire

Today's Times Union has an article recalling the massive pre-dawn fire which destroyed Albany's City Hall 130 years ago today and the effort by firefighters to save priceless civic records.

Albany City Hall Fire

Saturday, February 6, 2010

New Book - Architects In Albany

Architects In Albany, a new book edited by Diana S. Waite, highlights the city's architectural past from brownstone cathedrals to the futuristic SUNY campus. Published by Mount Ida Press, profits from the book benefit the Historic Albany Foundation.

Today's Times Union features the book.

Also, the main branch of the Albany Public Library will host an lecture by Historic Albany's Susan Holland and architect Bill Brandow at noon on Tuesday.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

A Must-Read Blog By Don Rittner

Don Rittner discusses the potential tourism draw of local history and how other cities have made use of their heritage and archaeology.

Such Promise, But No Vision

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Recommended Link

The Albany County Hall of Records has an on-line gallery of photos taken in and around Albany in the 1930s and 1940s. Presented as slide show, Buried Treasures is well worth a look if you'd like a glimpse of Albany years ago. Some of the places shown are now long gone, others are still with us.

Buried Treasures

(And thanks to Carl of My Non-Urban Life for tipping me off to this terrific collection of pictures.)

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Local History News Round-up

The former Philip Livingston school building at 315 Northern Boulevard will soon be put on the market by the Albany School District. The impressive 193os building is one of several historic school buildings currently being offered, others include the former Adult Learning center on Western Avenue (built 1901) and the 1875 School 17 on Second Avenue.

Read more at the Times Union:

New tenants sought for old school

Also from the Times Union, a follow-up on the possible inclusion of the Hudson Valley region as a part of the National Parks Service.

Hudson Valley plan wins key approval

Herman Melville

One of the many NYS historic markers which dot the City of Albany, this one stands on North Pearl Street in Clinton Square, a small plaza adjacent to the Old Dutch Church.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Valentine's Dinner Benefit at the Ten Broeck Mansion

For anyone who'd like a little historical romance for Valentine's Day, the Ten Broeck Mansion is hosting a special dinner to benefit the Albany County Historical Association.

According to Steve Barnes' Table Hopping blog at the Times Union, the dinner is $95 per couple and the full menu - which sounds delicious - is available in today's blog post.

For more information or reservations, please call 518-436-9826 and please note that the event is limited to sixteen couples.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Follow The Yellow Brick Road

A conversation with a friend on Facebook this morning about Edgar Allan Poe brought back some memories of a local legend that involves the author of "The Raven" and "The Cask of Amontillado."

When I was very young, a family friend told me that the "real" yellow brick road could be found right here in the Albany area. The conversation took place one night as we drove across the bridge over the Normanskill Creek between Albany and Delmar.

Now, I didn't believe for a minute that following said road would really lead me through a land of Munchkins, singing Scarecrows, sleep-inducing poppies, and witches good and bad to a Wizard in an Emerald City, but I was rather eager to see this fabled road. Unfortunately, for some reason, I never had another chance to talk to the family friend about the exact location. I asked others about it, but they seemed to think that I'd imagined the conversation or, worse, that I was a silly child looking for something that didn't exist!

I knew, however, that I had not misheard...that there was a real yellow brick road somewhere in the Albany area. Rather than argue, though, I let the matter go.

Until years later, when I looked down from the Normanskill Bridge and saw a smaller, much older bridge crossing the creek. It was closed to vehicles and roughly paved here and there with asphalt. But, peeking out from under the patchy asphalt, there was a yellow brick road.

The bridge was part of an old road, the Delaware Turnpike, connecting the city of Albany with smaller towns to the south along what is now Delaware Avenue. Not far from this crumbling bridge is another very historic bridge, the 1867 Whipple Truss Bridge. The Whipple bridge, which originally also crossed the Normanskill, was relocated to cross a nearby ravine when the Delaware Turnpike was rerouted in 1899.

And here's how the old Turnpike with its pale gold bricks connects to Edgar Allan Poe...a local legend links Poe and famous road that Dorothy followed to the Emerald City. It's said that Poe visited the creekside hamlet of Normansville...or at least passed through it and mentioned a "yellow brick road" in some obscure letter. L. Frank Baum somehow read this account years later and Poe's reference to the distinctively-colored Delaware Turnpike inspired his "yellow brick road" to Oz.

The provenance of the tale is sketchy enough and probably impossible to ever verify. But parts of it are plausible. Poe certainly would have traveled through this area en route to Sarotoga Springs. His 1842 trip there is a matter of historical record. And, perhaps, he did make mention of the road that took him through the Albany area in a letter now lost. Whether or not Baum ever had knowledge of such a letter is anyone's guess.

Even the history of this brick road isn't completely clear. The present paving of yellow bricks was laid in 1900 well after Poe's death and the old bridge only dates to 1913. The choice of color might have even been inspired by the popularity of Baum's novel...but perhaps the previous bricks were yellow, too?

Whether or not the connection between The Wizard of Oz, Edgar Allan Poe, and the old Delaware Turnpike is just a myth, the yellow brick road is worth a look. While it doesn't lead to any Emerald Cities...it is part of a lovely walking trail.


Saturday, January 2, 2010

Looking back on the Quadricentennial

Today's Times Union has an article assessing the 2009 Hudson Quadricentennial commemorations.


While last year's events certainly were not as large or elaborate as those held in 1909, but there were some memorable moments. For me, it was the Hudson River Heritage Festival held along the Corning Preserve in September.

I have to say that I rather miss the Quad year already and I would certainly enjoy more events recalling Albany history in the future.