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 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).