Tuesday, December 6, 2011

The Oldest Building (Formerly)

Plaque on State Street near the corner with South Pearl Street. Like most of Albany's colonial relics, the house referenced by this bronze marker is long since gone and Albany's oldest surviving building is a few blocks away on Hudson Avenue.

Walk east along the front of this building towards 74 State and you'll find a set of windows with a very interesting (though dimly lit) exhibit of photos tracing the history this corner from the original Dutch house where General Philip Schuyler was born to the succession of modern buildings that replaced it.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Albany Rural Cemetery & The Civil War

I've spent quite a bit of time in the Albany Rural Cemetery in recent months. Partly to do research for a book about this wonderful Cemetery, partly for my companion blog about it, and partly because it's just a beautiful place that I love to explore.

There are hundreds of Civil War burials at the Rural Cemetery. At almost every turn, one can find a monument embellished with swords, carved flags, caps, and other such soldierly emblems.

Video editing is not my favorite task, but I wanted to share the photos I've taken so far of these monuments, including the Soldiers Lot. So I've put together a simple video of Civil War monuments.

Many of these monuments have stories to be shared in future blog posts, but for now, they are gathered together in this slideshow.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Bicentennial Plaque No. 4 - The Progenitor

The fourth of the surviving Bicentennial tablets is mounted on the wall of City Hall (to the right of the main entrance). It commemorates Killiaen Van Rensselaer, a diamond and pearl merchant who never actually set foot on his holdings in the New World, but was an instrumental figure in Albany history nonetheless.

Killiaen Van Rensselaer on Wikipedia
The Bicentennial Tablets
Bicentennial Plaque No. 1 - Fort Orange

Monday, October 31, 2011

Haunted Halloween

As I wrote in last year's Halloween blog post - A Handful of Hauntings - I've always been frustrated by the lack of good local ghost stories. Surely Albany - with over four centuries of recorded history - should have better tales than oft-repeated urban legends like the Graceland Cemetery hitch-hiker.

And the ghost stories I do encounter are vague at best. Some downtown buildings like 100 State Street and the former DeWitt-Clinton Hotel are reportedly haunted, but details are maddeningly scarce.

Still, there are a few worth sharing this Halloween.

Saint Mary's Church, Albany's oldest Catholic Church, is a familiar site downtown...thanks especially to its wonderful angel weather-vane. Founded in 1797, the church is said to be haunted by a headless ghost with rattling chains. Tradition says the church was built on the site of a Dutch barn where Saint Isaac Jogues, a 17th-century Jesuit missionary, escaped from his Mohawk captors. Because Jogues was later killed and beheaded by the Mohawks, some believe this decapitated spirit is Father Jogues. I don't doubt there is a ghost, but I do have doubts about its identity.

The Red Lantern Ghost is said to haunt the intersection of New Scotland Avenue and McCormack Road. The story goes that people living in this area in an era before cars and traffic lights would see a mysterious red light moving along the road on certain nights. It was supposedly the phantom lantern of a man who would frequently travel this route at night until drowning in the Normanskill just a few blocks south. Who this man was and why he made nocturnal trips isn't explained.

The spirit of John Whipple, murdered at Cherry Hill and still haunting the historic house, is one of the better known local ghost stories. Less well known is the story of his murderer's ghost. Jesse Strang was hanged for the 1827 killing and his execution drew thousands of spectators to Gallows Hill. The site of this last public hanging was near Hudson Avenue and Eagle Street, an area now covered by the Empire State Plaza. It's said that for decades after his death, Jesse Strang's ghost haunted Gallows Hill. Workers building the Plaza were supposedly the last to see Jesse Strang. Clad in a shroud, he stared in confusion at the sprawling marble and glass complex being built over Gallows Hill.

Another execution site reportedly haunted by a hanged man is Lafayette Park at Hawk and Elk Streets. Years ago, Saint Agnes School stood near here and its halls were haunted by a man who swore he was innocent and vowed to haunt the site of his death until his name was cleared. Who he was and what he was condemned for is unknown, but this area is said to have been the site of a gallows. Saint Agnes School is long gone, but the ghost supposedly remains.

Just south of Albany, along River Road, is the estate of a family named Prentiss (or, as I've also seen it listed, Prentice). The family had its own private vault on the grounds (the existence of this vault is confirmed in a memoir of late 19th-century life in Albany) and there are stories of ghostly figures in burial clothes seen moving about at night and even conversing with each other.

The Albany Rural Cemetery is also haunted. I've yet to see the ghostly couple that supposedly drifts along its roads, clad in old-fashioned nightclothes. And the only dogs I've encountered are real canines being walked by their owners...never the mysterious black dog mentioned on various ghost sites. Still, I've had my share of paranormal encounters there...but that's a tale for another time!

Happy Halloween!

 And still more Albany ghost stores.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

The State Street Burying Grounds

Above - An engraving from Joel Munsell's "Annals of Albany" showing monuments in the State Street Burying Grounds.

Click here for a more in-depth exploration of the State Street Burying Grounds and the Church Grounds.
Before the Albany Rural Cemetery was established, the City's primary burial ground was located at the present site of Washington Park.

The State Street Burying Ground, founded in 1800 as an alternative to the overcrowded churchyards and private family graveyards, was located at the present park's northeast corner. Enclosed by a ten-foot high wooden fence, the grounds were divided into four large section for various churches, as well as an area set aside for strangers, African-Americans, and deceased persons not associated with any religious congregations. Graves from a number of smaller burial grounds were relocated here as progress encroached on downtown churchyards, raising the real estate value of land previously dedicated to the dead.

Within a few decades, however, the State Street Burying Ground was already in serious decline. The high mortality rate of the early 19th-century, combined with epidemics such as an 1832 cholera outbreak, had resulted in a badly overcrowded graveyard. The fence had suffered from neglect and vandalism, livestock wandered freely among graves, headstones were stolen or damaged, and immigrant gangs used the forlorn spot for violent brawls.

After the opening of the Rural Cemetery in 1844, the State Street Burying Grounds' condition became so pitiful that it was deemed "in the highest decree discreditable to the city authorities and the churches interested." A future Superintendent of Albany's parks later recalled that there was "a mouldy and neglected air about the place."

In 1866, Albany's Common Council addressed the matter of the Burying Grounds and passed a resolution to close it. All graves in it would be removed to the Rural Cemetery and reburied in a special lot set aside for that purpose. Before removal, "competent persons" would be engaged to copy all inscriptions from the monuments. A complete list of these inscriptions - which range from merely initials or first names to short epitaphs - would later be published along with a complete copy of the Common Council's resolution.

Permission was sought from and granted by the various congregations with sections in the State Street Burying Grounds for the transfer of the graves at the City's expense. The total cost to copy the inscriptions, exhume the remains, provide new coffins, remove all headstones, and transport the coffins and monuments out to the Rural Cemetery was about $45,000.

Above: A rows of headstones in the Church Grounds section of the Albany Rural Cemetery
The graves were moved to a section of the Rural Cemetery now known as the Church Grounds. Because it was difficult to match each headstone with its original coffin (and because some graves lacked headstones entirely), the markers were laid out in flat rows over the field. These monuments range from simple slabs bearing only names and dates to more elaborately carved stones featuring willow trees, angels bearing trumpets, to winged cherubs heads or skulls.

Above: An old headstone with a folksy carved angel in the Church Grounds at the Rural Cemetery.
In 1868, the land formerly occupied by the State Street Burying Ground became part of the newly created Washington Park, which remains one of Albany's most popular outdoor spaces.

The Church Grounds remain one of the most fascinating sections of the Rural Cemetery. Notable burials there include several of Albany's earliest mayors, an Oneida sachem, and an African-American veteran of the Revolutionary War.

Located deep within the Cemetery just beyond the western end of the Middle Ridge, The Church Grounds can be easily missed since, from a distance, it looks like an empty field. But it is well worth a visit and appears on Cemetery maps as Section 49.

Above: Modern Washington Park near the old location of the State Street Burying Grounds.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Press Conference Regarding Vacant Buildings

Via Historic Albany Foundation on Facebook:

Tomorrow-Monday Sept 12th at 2 PM-- a press conference with County Legislator Chris Higgins and others about a proposed Window and Roof Repair for Vacant Buildings. Be there! at 125 Jefferson Street, corner of So. Swan, site of the most recent building emergency.

The building emergency referenced is the roof collapse at the former fire station detailed in the previous post here.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Another Building Collapse - Swan Street Fire House

This morning, the Times Union has a report of a partial building collapse at the corner of Swan and Jefferson Streets. The building in question is a former Albany firehouse overlooking the New York State Museum and Empire State Plaza.

The yellow brick firehouse has been vacant for many years and, according to the TU, is privately owned. According to an official at the scene, it is the buildings roof which has collapsed. Not doubt the recent heavy rains - first from the remnants of Hurricane Irene and additional rains over the past few days - contributed to the damage. I'm no structural engineer, but the brick walls seem largely intact at this point. I could see debris in the otherwise empty interior.

The simple yellow brick facade dates to 1938 and was part of a Works Progress Administration project to modernize several existing firehouses. However, the building itself apparently predates the WPA and may have been built shortly after the 1867 reorganization of the Albany fire department. The location was chosen in part because the site sits atop a slope making it easier for horses to draw the fire trucks downhill.

The Americanus Engine Company Number 13 was assigned this station in 1867. The neighborhood just west of the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception was slowly being developed as new houses were built along Madison Avenue and parallel streets. When Company 13 disbanded two years later, Steamer Number 6 was assigned to the new station. Originally a steamer company, it motorized in 1918.

The decision to close this firehouse in 1986 was met with criticism and protests (including a demonstration outside the Governor's Mansion on nearby Eagle Street, one of the buildings covered by this fire station). The building was auctioned and has remained unused since.

As of 11:30 this morning, National Grid crews were on the scene, along with officials from the fire and building departments.

More as this story develops.

ETA: According to an updated story in the TU, the building will not be demolished and the owner is working with the city to stabilize the structure. The flagpole on the roof is being removed as a result of the roof collapse, but the tower near the rear of the building is said to be in no danger. The article also notes that the old fire house is actually several buildings combined within the yellow brick exterior. This can be see by the entrances on the Swan Street side; the smallest one was access for hose carts and the large for the horse-drawn (and later, motorized) fire trucks.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Bicentennial Plaque No. One - Fort Orange

Located on a retaining wall under the tangle of ramps just a few yards north of lower Madison Avenue, this plaque was the first in the series of bronze tablets erected throughout Albany during the City's Bicentennial in 1886.

This plaque was originally mounted on a granite base in the long-gone Steamboat Square near the foot of Madison Avenue (not to be confused with the modern public housing building of the same name located a few blocks south). Moved several times over the years (first in 1930 during the construction of the original Dunn Memorial Bridge and again in the 1970s with the building of I-787), it is virtually lost in a drab concrete wasteland behind the Holiday Inn Express on Broadway.

Despite its unappealing location, this plaque was designated the first in the series with good reason as it commemorates the origins of the Albany and, arguably, its most significant historic site - the first permanent settlement at Fort Orange.

Despite being designated a National Historic Landmark and excavated by archaeologists in the early 1970s), the Fort Orange site is now completely buried beneath the ramps and overpasses of I-787 and the South Mall Expressway.

It is a pity that this marker, the only tangible commemoration of Albany's earliest days, is hardly visible, except as a glimpse from a passing car.

The plaque reads:

Upon this spot washed by the tide, stood the north east bastion* of FORT ORANGE
Erected in 1623, Here the powerful Iroquois met the deputies of this and other colonies in conference to establish treaties. Here the first courts were held. Here in 1643 under the direction of Dominie Johannes Megapolensis, a learned and estimable minister, the earliest church was erected north west of the fort and to the south of it stood the Dominie's house.

*While the plaque is currently located on the site of Fort, it is no longer located at the exact spot of this bastion.

More on Fort Orange
The Bicentennial Tablets

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Trinity Church Demolition

Chuck Miller has an excellent set of photos documenting the demolition of Trinity Church, including the work to salvage the historic building's stained glass windows (which are believed to be Tiffany).

Trinity Demolition Photos

Added 7/15 - Chuck also has a blog post about the demise of Trinity Church to accompany the terrific photos:

The Final Days of Trinity Church

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Breaking: Church Collapsing On Trinity Place

From today's Times Union, the loss of another historic structure:

19th-century Trinity Church collapsing

This blog, from 2009, has a photo and addition information on Trinity (as well as another vacant historic Albany church):

Hope For Albany's Decaying Churches

ETA: The photo above was taken around noon today from the corner of Westerlo and Trinity Streets shows the area around the church blocked off by police. Heavy equipment was parked in front of the building, but no demolition had begun at the time.

According to the book, "Architects In Albany," the structures twin steeples originally featured decorative wooden gables and pinnacles.

This church was the work of architect James Renwick, Jr. whose works include New York City's Grace Church and Saint Patrick's Cathedral, as well as the castle-like Smithsonian Institute. Trinity Church, built in the late 1840s, was his only work in Albany.

WNYT's coverage includes a photo of the badly damaged interior.

The Historic Albany Foundation has long been concerned about the deterioration of Trinity Church and, in 2005, placed it on their list of Endangered Historic Resources.

CBS 6 has a video report on the collapse now:

Historic Albany Church To Be Demolished

Demolition of the structure was scheduled to begin tomorrow, adding another building to the long list of lost historic buildings in Albany. However, a photo just posted tonight on Twitter by Daniel Boyce shows work has already begun at the rear and Fox 23 News has more on the story:

Crews Tear Down Crumbling Historic Albany Church

7/13 Update - Photographer and blogger Chuck Miller has an excellent picture of the rear of the church as demolition work continues:

All Over Albany - What's Left of Trinity Church

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Independence Day at The Schuyler Mansion

On Monday, July 4, the Schuyler Mansion will hold an Independence Day Celebration from 11:00 A.M. to 4 P.M.

The event will include a balladeer, games, magicians, tinsmiths, ice cream, and other family-themed activities at the Mansion on 32 Catherine Street (South End).

For more information, contact the Schuyler Mansion at 518-434-0834

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

A Lord Interred In Albany - Viscount Howe (Part One)

It's not every day that one finds an English Lord buried underfoot in an American city. But walk through the massive bronze doors of St. Peter's Episcopal Church at the corner of State and Lodge Streets and look down. Set in the floor is a bronze marker which reads, GEORGE AUGUSTUS VISCOUNT HOWE IS BURIED BENEATH THIS PAVEMENT KILLED NEAR TICONDEROGA JULY 6, 1758.

A larger plaque of polished black stone hangs on the wall nearby and gives a little more information on the interment: BENEATH THIS PAVEMENT LIES THE BODY OF GEORGE AVGVSTVS VISCOVNT HOWE A DISTINGVISHED MAN AND SOLDER A FRIEND OF THE COLONIES KILLED ON THE MARCH TO TICONDEROGA JVLY 6 1758. This ornate memorial, designed by prominent Albany architect Marcus Reynolds, features Lord Howe's coat-of-arms and is of a similar design to monuments in the Reynolds family plot in the Albany Rural Cemetery.

Described by his contemporary Major-General James Wolfe as "the best officer in the British Army," George Augustus, 3rd Viscount Howe, was born in 1725, either at his family's home on London's Albemarle Street or their estate at Langar, Nottinghamshire. His family was quite well-connected as his mother, was the niece of King George I, and his father served as Governor of Barbados.

George Augustus began his career military career at the age of twenty, serving in the War of the Austrian Succession and would later be described as "the best officer in the British Army" by Major General James Wolfe. He would go on to introduce the Light Infantry into the British Army, training them for rapid movement in the wilderness of the American Colonies. His efforts would help shape the later Continental Army during the Revolutionary War.

In 1758, Brigadier General Howe took part in the disastrous attack by General James Abercrombie on the French-held Fort Ticonderoga. Howe's supporters, including the Prime Minister William Pitt, would have greatly preferred to have Howe himself leading the campaign against Ticonderoga, but Abercrombie's seniority and political connections put him in command.

Marching north from Lake George, Howe's regiment encountered the French in a skirmish close to Ticonderoga on July 6. The British won the skirmish overwhelmingly and with minimal losses compared to the enemy's. But one of those casualties was Howe. Shot at extremely close range, the 33-year old Howe was fatally struck in the heart. His adjutant later wrote, "Never has ball had more devastating effect ... he was hit in the chest, fell backwards and only the tips of his fingers twitched for an instant."

By most historic accounts, Howe's body was transported to Albany by barge under the care of his friend Phillip Schuyler, then a young fellow officer in the British Army.

Reports vary as to where Howe was originally interred; some refer to the Schuyler family vaults, others to either the Dutch Church or St. Peter's Episcopal. Certainly church records for the latter make note of related burial expenses and Howe had been a member of the Church of England. Some accounts say that Howe's body was first laid in the Schuyler vaults until a spot under St. Peter's chancel was prepared to receive his remains. Schuyler himself was a warden of the church.

A Times Union article from 2001 also contains a tantalizing reference to Howe having been buried in secret at one of Albany's forts before being laid to rest beneath the church, a claim said to be backed by the church's records.

A popular officer who was an ease among his peers and among the common people, he was mourned both in England and in the Colonies. A monument in his memory was erected in London's Westminster Abby with the inscription:


The monument is a large marble tablet atop a pair of lion's heads. A mourning female figure in classical robes rests atop the tablet.

About forty years after Howe's death, the original St. Peter's Church was demolished to make way for a new church building designed by noted Albany architect Phillip Hooker. At this time, Howe's coffin was exhumed and reburied in the new church around 1802. It is believed that they were temporarily placed in the Van Rensselaer family's private vault during construction of the new St. Peter's.

At the time of the first exhumation, Elkanah Watson (who was born the same year in which Howe was killed) attempted to obtain a rather morbid, if not downright souvenir of the Viscount and later chronicled the incident:

As the bones were then collected to be thrown into a promiscuous mass, I conceived the idea of getting possession of this skull of a Lord. I ascertained from Henry Cuyler, a British half-pay officer residing then at Greenbush, the precise spot where he was buried, which was also indicated by his coat of arms being placed on the E. wall, nearly over the tomb. I took the opportunity, to avoid exciting curiosity, when the workmen were gone to dinner, and with the aid of my man, we removed all the dirt and rubbish which covered the remains of a double coffin containing his ashes. The outer one made of white pine, had nearly moulded into dust; the inner one being made of mahogany, was with some exceptions sound, but in some places it had rotted. The weight of the earth had forced its way intermingled with his Lordship's bones. I removed the lid and found a thick rich silk damask in which his cold remains were enshrouded on his interment, apparently sound. In attempting to remove it, it crumbled into dust. I then perceived the object of my research within my grasp, resting in peace after slumbering forty-four years (44 years) within this damask. I raised it with great caution with my left hand and to my astonishment I found a fine set of shining teeth; the hair of his head in excellent preservation completely matted with powder and pomatum as if recently done by the frizure. The queue was very neat, the ribbon and double beau apparently new & jet black, but on touching it moldered between my thumb and finger. I concluded with Mr. Cuyler who alone was in the secret to send it to his family in England. On further consultation we thot that it would only open a fresh wound which bled nearly half a century ago and answer no valuable purposes.'

Whether or not he actually made off with the skull of Lord Howe isn't made clear, but the remains of the Viscount were respectably reburied beneath the second St. Peter's...only to be disturbed again.

To be continued....

Friday, May 6, 2011

The Angel At The Sepulchre

Perhaps the most famous monument in the historic Albany Rural Cemetery – and certainly one of the most written of - is Erastus Dow Palmer's heroic Angel at The Sepulchre.
Commissioned by Robert Lenox Banks, a Treasurer for the New York Central Railroad and, later Secretary to the Board of Directors of the Cemetery, for the grave of his first wife, Emma Rathbone Turner, the Angel sits alone in a circular plot atop a hill near the Cemetery's ornamental pond. A strikingly beautiful monument, it quickly became a draw for lovers of art who ranked the Angel as one of the world's great masterpieces.

Not that the contemporary praise for Palmer's Angel was unanimous. One critic regarded the both the face and figure as “a very fleshy and unangelic type.” In short, the Angel was too human and even "too American." On the other hand, at least one religious publication praised the Angel enthusiastically as “a royal herald” and the work of “an original and poetic mind.”
As early as 1894, concerns were raised about the damaging effect of the elements on the white marble Angel. The New York Times addressed the issue in an article, “Monuments At Albany.”
Art critics are much concerned over the future of Palmer's masterpiece, “The Angel at the Sepulchre,” which is one of the finest pieces of monumental art in Northern New-York. It is on the burial plot of Gen. Robert Lenox Banks in the Albany Rural Cemetery, and is of large proportions, being 7 feet in height. The figure is deceptive, appearing larger at a distance than when close to it. Chiseled out of one piece of stone, it stands a monument to the sublime creation of a master mind. What the critics fear is that, being of marble and exposed to the severe changes of this climate, scaling of the stone may set in and degeneration certainly take place. Already a part of one of the toes has disappeared, and this fact has caused the lovers of art to renew their entreaties that this work of art be placed under cover and preserved.
Those concerns were well-founded. Today, the elements have softened and worn the Angel's clear features and the white marble is crusted with scaly gray lichen.
Born in Pompey, New York in 1817, Erastus Palmer was one of America's finest 19th-century artists. Entirely self-taught, he began his artistic career carving small cameo portraits before moving on to marble. His works include The White Captive in the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Robert Livingston in Statuary Hall at the United States Capitol. The Albany Institute of History & Art in his adopted city includes an excellent gallery of his work, including the plaster cast of the Angel. His son, Walter Launt Palmer, was a respected painter best known for his snowy scenes and detailed interiors.
Palmer himself, lies in the Rural Cemetery in a family plot with a Roman-style marble monument just steps downhill from his magnificent Angel.