The Very Clever Catherine Blake and the Kenmore Hotel

Adam Blake Jr. , was the adopted son of Adam Blake Sr., enslaved by “The Good Patroon” at the Van Rensselaer Manor. That mansion was on Broadway in North Albany.

Adam Jr. was born free about 1830 and worked his way up from waiter to restaurant owner to hotel owner. In 1879 he opened the Kenmore Hotel on North Pearl St. (yes, that Kenmore that’s still there). It was the most modern and luxurious hotel in Albany at the time. Blake leased the building, but it had been built to his specifications.

Sadly, Adam died suddenly in summer 1881, at the age of 51, just a couple of months after his oldest son passed way. One can only imagine the grief of his widow Catherine – her husband and first born child had died within 6 months. Catherine was barely 39 , and had 3 daughters and 1 son, all under the age of 10, to raise.

But Catherine was tough. Many people thought she would sell the hotel, take the money and leave. She didn’t despite a number of offers. Now was her opportunity. She ran the hotel for the next 7 years, still under her husband’s name. The Kenmore thrived. And Catherine became well-known and liked in Albany. It’s clear that she and Adam had been partners in business and in life. But few people knew that the best hotel in the Capital City of the largest state was managed by an African-American woman.

In addition to the Kenmore she went into real estate development, and bought land and built houses in a couple of areas of Albany. She became one of the richest women in the city. But like her husband she never forgot those who hadn’t fared so well. She was instrumental in the establishment of the Women’s Exchange, a place where talented women (Black and white) with skills , like fine needlework, could sell their items (think an 1880s brick and mortar Etsy).

In 1887 she pulled off one of the smartest business moves ever. A father and son named Rockwell wanted the Kenmore desperately. She turned them down repeatedly. They finally managed to secure a lease on part of Hotel to try to force her out. Not deterred, Catherine went to building owners surrounding the Hotel, including the new YMCA on Steuben. She secured access to top floors and a couple of ground floor businesses. She broke through walls on the top floors to create hotel rooms, moved the office and some other rooms like parlors on the ground floor, AND the main entrance. The Rockwells were left with a little island in the midst of a Hotel that now covered upper parts of a city block, and almost no access to their island.

Clever Mrs. Blake had outwitted the Rockwells. But about a year later Catherine decided to sell. Because she had enlarged hotel it was worth more, and she cut a slick and lucrative deal for hotel furnishing and contents, and of course, the reputation and goodwill of the Kenmore.

Despite her wealth Catherine wasn’t insulated from racial discrimination, which increased even in the North after the Civil War. In an 1884 letter she noted that many white Americans continued to think of Black Americans as “lazy, stupid and thriftless”.

Catherine and her children remained in Albany for a number of years. Her son Carroll Blake went to Cornell and obtained an engineering degree in the mid-1890s. Two of her daughters married. By 1900 Catherine and one daughter were living with her son and his wife in Brooklyn.

Copyright 2021 Julie O’Connor

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