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

Sunday, September 27, 2015

The Albany History Race

Yesterday was the second Albany History Race courtesy of the Albany Public Library.  Thanks to Christopher and Paul for taking part as Team Assiduity.

Finding Your Past - Albany History Race 2015

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Everything Old Albany On Flickr

 For an extensive collection of Albany photos - ranging from long-demolished buildings to vintage advertisements (and everything in between), visit the Albany...The Way It Was group archive on Flickr.

Thousands of photographs are sorted into albums by topic (such as Civil War, Washington Park, Banks, Maps, and more).  It's a treasury worth exploring.

Also, for terrific discussions on Albany history, please consider joining the Facebook group.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Henry Johnson To Receive Medal of Honor

The long effort to posthumously award Henry Johnson the Medal of Honor for his service in World War I has been successful. 

Article from All Over Albany

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Seriously Endangered Church of The Holy Innocents

In 1850, Albany lumber baron William H. DeWitt built a memorial to four of his children who died quite young.  In addition to a splendid marble tombstone in the Albany Rural Cemetery, DeWitt also erected a little stone church in their memory; the Church of the Holy Innocents.

Built at the corner of North Pearl and Colonie Streets, it was a short walk from the DeWitt home to the church which was designed by Frank Wills.  In the 1860s, a matching chapel was added to the south side; this addition designed by Edward Ogden and William L. Woolett.

Holy Innocents served as an Episcopal church until the late 1940s.  Until 1980, it was home to a Russian Orthodox congregation (hence the distinctive blue "onion dome" which replaced the original steeple and bell around 1960.

Vacant since 1980 and currently owned by Hope House, this beautiful building has suffered greatly from neglect.  It is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and cited by the Historic Albany Foundation as one of the city's most endangered buildings, it is also one of the oldest church structures in Albany.  

Yesterday, the rear wall of the church collapsed.  Despite the damage and the decades of neglect, Historic Albany Foundation states that the building can be stabilized and saved.

Albany is one of the oldest and most historic cities in the United States, but much of our tangible history has been lost to neglect and demolition.  Several years ago, the equally historic Trinity Church was demolished after part of the structure caved in. 

Please, let's not lose the Church of The Holy Innocents, too.  Call the City of Albany and let them know this historic church must be stabilized and saved, not reduced to yet another empty lot and yet another empty hole in the city's cultural and historic fabric.

Office of The Mayor, City of Albany - 518-434-5100
Hope House (current owners of the site) - 518-482-4673 - Kevin Connally, Executive Director

Photos are from the Albany...The Way It Was collection on Flickr

Albany...The Way It Was Facebook Group
Albany...The Way It Was on Flickr

Times Union article

Sunday, January 11, 2015

The Step Stone of The Church

Volume One of Joel Munsell's Annals of Albany contains a description of an old stone which marked the location of the First Dutch Church on Broadway near the foot of State Street.  The stone survived until 1850.  The stone - or at least an artistic rendering of it - is the kidney-shaped object near the left side of the "very rude engraving" above (click to enlarge).