Albany’s Pemberton Corner

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We’re guessing only a few know where it is – N. Pearl St. and Columbia St.  in the heart of downtown. There’s a commemorative plaque that some of you may have noticed, but it doesn’t tell the whole story.

The huge Victorian pile you see today was constructed in the late 1800s, on the site of an ancient building that survived for almost 170 years.

2In the earliest days of Albany that corner of North Pearl was outside the north gate in the stockade that surrounded the city. Around 1710 Jacob Lansing, a baker and a silversmith, constructed a small building in that location.

It was said to have once been a trading post. Legend has it that it may have been occupied by the Sarah Visscher  (“the Widow Visscher”) who married into an Indian trading family,  and who may have run it as a trading post in the mid to late 1700s “it was especially distinguished as the lodging place for the Indians when they came to Albany for the purpose of trading their furs, too often for rum and worthless ornaments. There many stirring scenes transpired, when the Indians held their powwows, and became uproarious under the influence of strong drink. The house has survived the general sweep of so called improvement. It is now [1867] owned by John Pemberton, and is occupied as a grocery and provision store.”.. Joel Munsell

Unlike many of the old buildings that have been demolished we have an excellent description:

“Yellow brick; one and a half stories. The upper section was left unfinished for several years and was used during that time for the storage of skins and furs. No two rooms were on the same level. The ceilings were not plastered, but the beams and sleepers were polished and the jambs of the fireplace faced with porcelain, ornamented with Scripture scenes.”

“The parapet gable facade on Columbia Street had fleur-de-lis iron beam anchors that held the brick wall to a timber frame. The brick, laid in Dutch cross bond, formed a zigzag pattern called vlechtwerk (wicker work) along the upper edges of the gable.”  ..  Diana Waite “Albany Architecture”

5The Pemberton brothers – Ebenezer, Henry and John – purchased the building from Jacob Lansing’s great grandson in 1818 and started a grocery business at that corner.  Henry and Ebenezer died in the late 1850s, and John carried on the business, which came to be a well-known landmark in the city – Pemberton’s Groceries.

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When John died in 1885 his estate owned a large portion of that block on N. Pearl between Columbia and Steuben, which included several buildings to the north of Pemberton’s grocery store. The property was sold and 2/3 of the building you see on that block corner was constructed. The new Pemberton Building included stores and offices, but its primary tenant was Albany Business College.*

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8Pemberton’s store, operated by John’s son, Howard, survived on the corner until 1893 when it was demolished for an addition to the Pemberton Building to allow the Business College * to expand.  Despite efforts to save the building because of its historical significance, the amount offered by those who were interested (including John G. Myers, owner of a large department store on N. Pearl St., and the Albany Press Club)  could not match what  the  College was offering for construction of  the addition. (Such an Albany story.) Look at the building carefully; you can see the demarcation between the part of the building constructed in 1885 and the addition 8 years later.

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So.. we call it the Pemberton Building, right?  Well, that depends.  It was known as the Pemberton Building initially, but then someone named Brewster purchased, and it was known in the newspapers as the Brewster Building for a number of decades in the 1900s. But in general conversation and in my family it was called it the Pemberton Building (where several “greats” attended the Business College in the 1890s and early 1900s), we can’t find anything about Brewster (other than he was a real estate investor) and we need to honor our history. We’re sticking with the Pemberton Building.

*The Business College moved to Washington Ave. between Dove and Swan in the 1930s.

Thanks to Carl Johnson and his Hoxsie blog for some of the material in this post.

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