This week in 1919 Gov. Al Smith agreed to give up his plan to have the land behind the Capitol building and Swan St. used to construct a State Office Building, and allow a park to be established.
A whole bunch of buildings with some very venerable businesses were pushed out of the block of Washington Avenue just west of the Capitol in 1919. They included a well-known livery stable on the corner of Swan and State, several hotels and the famous Mason’s candy store near the corner of Washington and Swan, a favorite of the St. Agnes (on Elk St.) school girls. There were a lot of buildings and a street crammed into that small area between the Capitol, Swan St., State St. and Washington Ave.
But once the site was opened up, citizens of Albany came to a realization:
An article in “The American City” in November of that year, by Charles M. Winchester, the president of the Albany Chamber of Commerce, laid out the problems that led to these demolitions:
“Many years ago the available office space in the Capitol was exhausted, and in consequence state departments have been obliged to occupy rented quarters in business buildings and even in former residences on the streets adjacent to the Capitol. .. The Legislature at the session of 1918 finally appropriated $700,000 for the purchase of the block of land west of the Capitol, where the old buildings have been razed.”
“Following the removal of the old buildings behind the Capitol, the citizens of Albany and the state at large obtained their first real view of the stately Education Building. It was as if a curtain obscuring a beautiful picture had suddenly been torn aside. Formerly the only view of the Education Building had been from either end, or at most a very limited perspective. But with the removal of the old buildings it literally burst into view, and its hitherto unrecognized beauty caused the sudden awakening of the people to a realization of what they had been missing. It likewise brought a sober second thought that this beauty would in all probability soon be obscured again by a massive State Office Building which would effectually blanket it from the south.”
Soon the Chamber of Commerce, local architects and others were pressing for a park in place of an office building. A Times-Union article from 1919 said, “Strong supporters of the park site plan, instead of a state office building, as is now proposed by the legislature, are representative of all walks of life in Albany. Members of the leading business houses, professional men, including clergymen, doctors and lawyers, as well as the small house owner and rent payer are firm in their endeavor to secure a park that would protect the education building’s beauty and further set off the stateliness of the capitol itself.”
The effort was being led by clothier George T. Babbitt, who said, “Only the other day , … one of the minority, as he opponents to the plan are being called, telephoned me and said that Albany as a whole was trying to keep out a $2,000,000 building. I replied that if the state structure were erected on that site, forever shutting off the view of the magnificent Education building, Albany would lose $4,000,000 worth of beauty.”
Winchester’s article said that the former State Architect Franklin B. Ware had developed a plan by which would have set the Capitol as the center of a group of state buildings. His plan called for a new state office building on the south side of State St. between Hawk and Swan, “to balance and conform in architecture with the style of the Education Building.” It would also have had the area west of the Capitol dedicated as a memorial to those Albany citizens who gave “their service and their lives in the great war,” with a memorial colonnade along the western edge of the park. That plan was said to have considerable support, and Winchester said it was “the decided choice” of the people of Albany.
However, he noted there were others who favored the purchase of the new telephone building for state offices. “Nearly all of this building is already occupied by state departments.” The telephone building was apparently controversial, given that “its height obscures the State Building [the capitol] from the south and mars what was once a beautiful landscape setting. ‘Why didn’t Albany people protest in time to prevent this defacement of their State Capitol?’ is the question frequently asked by outsiders.”
Winchester concluded that “the matter has been brought to the attention of Governor Alfred E. Smith as chairman of the Trustees of Public Buildings, and it is hoped that they will see the force of the argument for the retention of the space behind the Capitol as a memorial park and that the new State Office Building will ultimately be erected to the southward to balance and be a fitting counterpart to the beautiful but hitherto unappreciated Education Building.”
That, of course, was not the end of it. While the plan to move the building elsewhere went nowhere, the building itself also didn’t get underway. Two years later, in 1921, there was still the promise/threat of an office building on the site. In April, a newspaper article said that work would begin “on or about May 1.”
“The site of the state office building is bounded by State street, Swan street, Washington avenue and Capitol place, and after the buildings on this site had been razed and the ground cleared an agitation was started to have the plot converted into a public park. This idea received widespread support from local officials and civic organizations, but when the war conditions made the cost of building materials so high the idea of constructing the state office building was temporarily dropped.
The park project passed out with the establishment of a commission of representatives of the city of Albany and of the state which was to insure cooperation between the state and the erection of state buildings. Evidently this commission gave its approval to the construction of the office building and rejected the park idea. It is the intention to erect an office building in which will be housed all the state departments now distributed throughout the city. Thousands of dollars are being paid out annually in rentals for this property leased by the state and the office building will make possible a great economy in the present cost of state government.”
Despite an impending appropriation, the building still didn’t happen. The vacated land was fashioned into a park in some way, though we don’t know how developed it was.
In 1926, the question of the park was apparently still not settled. A Times-Union editorial from Feb. 1 says the block bounded by State, South Swan, Chestnut and South Hawk was still favored. The T-U argued that the block to the west of the Capitol (bounded by Washington, South Swan, State and Capitol Place) should be excluded from consideration. “This site is sometimes suggested, but this subject was fully threshed out several years ago and the fact that it would be undesirable for the erection of a state office building was conclusively demonstrated. To locate the office building there would create a group of buildings that would be an architectural monstrosity. A structure on that site would spoil the perspective of both the Capitol and State Education Building. The park that has been created should ever remain an open space in order that the State buildings shall have a proper environment. The location of the new building on the block south of State Street will create a group of buildings located in harmony of sites and the existing park between them will give the necessary perspective to them all.”
But that was the year that Governor Al Smith finally got through a proposal for a new office building, still intended to “resemble in style and architecture the state education building. He also would see the state acquire the block bounded by Park place, Washington Avenue, Hawk and Elk streets as a site for a new executive mansion.” There was a shortage of office space in Albany, and rents were going up. This time, the building was for real, although it went in an art deco direction, rather than resembling the State Education building. It was completed in 1928, and is called the Alfred E. Smith Building (We don’t know if the idea of a new executive mansion was ever broached again.)
By Friend of Albany History, Carl Johnson, from his blog “Hoxsie” http://hoxsie.org/ . You can find it on FB, the Web and follow him on Twitter