(From the Spring 2018 “Capital Neighbors” newsletter by Tony Opalka, Albany City Historian)
Did you ever wonder where the name South End/Groesbeckville Historic District Came from?
The Southend/Groesbeckville district in the southeast corner of the city, surrounds the Schuyler Mansion. It includes the area between Lincoln Park and Second Avenue from about Franklin and South Pearl Streets on the east, to Eagle and Elizabeth Streets on the west. The question is particularly timely because the Preservation League of New York State just published its annual list of “Seven to Save,” endangered historic properties across the state on April 10th, including Albany’s South End/Groesbeckville Historic District because of its large stock of abandoned and deteriorating buildings (many of which could possibly be restored).
It should concern us all that this part of Albany’s historic fabric continues to suffer decline, as it illustrates part of Albany’s period of growth from about 1850 to 1900.
This article, however, is one of my occasional stories about how Albany got into the “shape” that it’s in and how the name Groesbeckville fits into that narrative.
We’re all familiar with the term “South End,” in part because of my many tours and talks in the South End. I’ve gotten into lively discussions with attendees about what defines the South End — somewhere between Madison Avenue and the Port of Albany. So many people in the city today can trace their roots to this part of the city (myself included), but the South End means different things to different people.
Long before the term South End was used, the name Groesbeckville had already come to refer to the part of the town of Bethlehem immediately adjacent to the southern city line, which until 1870 remained as it had been since incorporation of the city in 1686.
At South Pearl Street, a small remnant of that line is Gansevoort Street, now a two-block long street that runs from the southbound entrance ramp to 787, to South Pearl Street about a block below Fourth Avenue. Originally called South Street, it separated the city from the Manor of Rensselaerwyck and, after 1793, the town of Bethlehem.
By the middle of the 19th century, however, the area along South Pearl and parallel streets Broad, Clinton, Elizabeth and others, as well as east-west streets all the way to Historic Cherry Hill below Second Avenue, originally called Whitehall Road, had become fully urbanized, both within and without the city. The map below, from 1866, shows the old city line and the area immediately adjacent to it along South Pearl Street designated as Groesbeckville, an unincorporated hamlet in the town of Bethlehem.
As early as 1861, citizens of Albany petitioned the Common Council to apply to the New York State Legislature to extend the city boundaries to the north and south as they then existed:
“Without an increase of territory this city cannot longer maintain its rank in population or importance; while just outside of its limits suburban settlements are springing up without such municipal regulations and controls as are requisite to prevent the accumulation of nuisances and of nuisances to us and to their own people. … While portions of the adjoining towns now thickly settled or occupied for business purposes enjoy the protection of our Fire and Police Departments, and participate in almost every benefit of our city government, to nearly as great an extent as property in the city, justice seems to demand that they contribute to the support of such government…..”
Five years later in 1866, residents of Bethlehem submitted their own petition to the Albany Common Council requesting that the area bounded by the river, the old city line (Gansevoort, and roughly Woodlawn Avenue and Cortland Street in western Albany) all the way to Allen Street extended southward to the Normanskill be annexed to Albany.
Not wanting to be left out, residents of Watervliet along the north boundary of the city, submitted their own petition, asking that a portion of that town be annexed to Albany, also in 1866. This would have corresponded to the present-day boundary with Menands, but extending westward to a northern extension of Allen Street, somewhere in present-day Colonie. This area included the Van Rensselaer Manor House (about where Nipper is located today), the Erie Canal and Lumber District, and the existing hamlet of North Albany.
Ironically, the “lumber barons,” whose businesses were located along the Erie Canal in the town of Watervliet, but whose residences were located along Ten Broeck Street, petitioned the Common Council in 1867 to NOT annex part of Watervliet, stating that “in their judgment it would materially increase their taxation both in said districts (business and residential) and in the city, without any corresponding benefits to compensate therefore.”
Well, the forces of annexation won out, because on April 6, 1870, the New York State Legislature passed a law annexing parts of both towns to Albany, although a much smaller land area than originally proposed. Rather than go all the way to
the Normanskill, the new line separating Bethlehem from Albany ran a zig-zag line from the river all the way to Allen Street as if it were extended south of New Scotland Avenue. On the north, the annexation included North Albany but a zig-zag line that ran in some places within the Patroon’s Creek all the way west to Russell Road near Westgate Shopping Center.
At the same time, the City of Albany gave Watervliet all the land as far west as the Albany-Schenectady County line — what is now the University, Washington Avenue Extension and a good portion of the Pine Bush.
A year later, Watervliet ceded it to Guilderland.
It would take another 100 years for Albany to achieve its current boundaries.