Albany’s Postal Service

Article 1 of the U.S. Constitution gives Congress the power to establish post offices and postal roads. Ben Franklin was one of the geniuses behind creation of the U.S. Post Office (USPO), and served as the Post Master General during the Revolutionary War. The Post Office was seen as a critical element to bind the separate colonies together, facilitate interstate commerce and form as “more perfect Union”.

By the time Washington became president there were 75 post offices in America. Many of the major highways we know today were maintained as “Post Roads”. U.S. Route 9 from Albany to NYC was known as the “Albany Post Road”. Mail from major cities was usually delivered to Albany twice a week by contracted Post Riders by the late 1700s. In more remote areas mail was sent with whomever was making the next trip to the city. A farmer could leave a letter at the local tavern in the hope that someone would be going to Albany in the near future. In cities like Albany the PO might be located in a city hall, at that time on Broadway near State St. in the heart of the small city. Or the city’s Postmaster might have been a prominent grocer or inn keeper. We simply don’t know. That’s where the mail was left when it came from Boston, NYC, Hartford, Saratoga, Bennington, etc. And that’s where recipients had to go to retrieve their mail.

William Winne – the Penny Postman

Enter the “Penny Postman”. In Albany it was William Winne. Mr. Winne was the city’s penny postman, and a well known figure on Albany streets for about 4 decades. You could enter into an agreement with Mr. Winne, and he would pick up and deliver your mail for for a couple of cents a letter. Someone m gu, created a silhouette of Mr. Winne that became synonymous with the Penny Postman for centuries.

William Winne

As the city grew more contract postal carriers went into business.

The Exchange Building

And then came Albany’s population explosion following the opening of the Erie Canal. A more “official” PO located in the newly built Exchange Building on the corner of State St. and Broadway was opened. By now there were PO boxes. And if you didn’t use the services of a paid postman you could find your name on a list published in a newspaper that told you there was mail to be picked up. (The newspaper listings were divided between male and female names.. which I never understood.) And so the PO remained with some improvements.

Exchange Building on right

Postage stamps were first issued in 1847, but until 1856 other methods of payment were legal. And mail from other cities arrived by train and boat to downtown. By the 1840s the use of the telegraph expanded people’s ability to communicate, but as the country grew government funded mail delivery was still critical.

Civil War

The Civil War was the catalyst for major changes. Millions of men went to war, and boys sent letters home to Mom and Mom sent letters and cookies and hams to their sons. Mail volume grew exponentially. So there were major improvements. In Albany the most important was the creation of a paid postal carrier service. Initially there were 5 Albany “post men”. All Civil War vets. This was before the age of the civil service merit system, so these jobs were patronage positions. (My grandmother’s Uncle Charlie had served bravely at Gettysburg – so he got one of the jobs.)

Federal Building

By 1880 the Albany PO moved into the new Federal Building which took the place of the old Exchange Building. (Today it houses admin offices of SUNY Central.)

Federal Building on corner of State St. and Broadway

As the country expanded west settlers in far flung settlements sometimes had to travel for days to collect mail at the “County Seat”. For a brief time the legendary Pony Express filled the gap, traveling where there were no railroads. And private companies like Wells Fargo and American Express used railroads and stage coaches to ship the mail and packages, began in the 1840s and 1850s. It’s worth noting that men from Albany, including one former postmaster were involved in the founding of these companies. In Albany County small spur railroads delivered the mail into villages like Slingerlands and Voorheeseville that had their own tiny post offices.

Rural Free Delivery

In 1896 a new service of the USPO changed America. Rural free delivery was enacted by Congress. It ensured those who lived in rural areas would get their mail delivered to their homes without schlepping into the closest village. (Over half of the US population still lived outside cities at the time.)

Rural Free delivery in West Albany

And so when it came to selection of a site for the new Union Station by the New York Central Railroad it had to be next to Post Office. If you look carefully at old photos and postcards you can see the mail wagons on RR mail platforms and chutes from the PO from above with large bags of mail.

Mail bags on platform at Union Station

Parcel Post

The next innovation in 1913 changed America again- Parcel Post. For years private carriers had charged exorbitant fees to deliver packages. With the advent of the new service new markets opened to city merchants. Whitney’s and Myer’s Department stores on North Pearl could reach homemakers in Preston Hollow and Coeymans. Even women in the city could see an ad in the newspaper, and write a letter or make a phone call to order a new blouse or a table cloth. And it could be delivered within a day or so. Business boomed. (Mr. Sears, who by now had bought out Mr. Roebuck, made a fortune with his catalog – Amazon 1.0.)

Governor Sulzer’s wife accepts Parcel Post package
Mail order dept. Albany Hardware and Iron, State St.

Airmail

Regular airmail in Albany began in the mid 1920s, and flying of mail at night in 1930 after the new airport was built in Colonie. And so we had the framework of the USPO we know today.

Albany’s Art Deco Post Office

The last major change in Albany was the building of a new federal building on Broadway in the early 1930s. (Today it houses the Foley Courthouse.) The Post Office was on the first floor. It was an Art Deco marvel. It was housed in a huge space -all marble, glass and brass with beautiful ceiling murals. It almost felt like you were in a church or a great museum.

Interior of old Post Office, now the Foley Court House

Copyright 2021 Julie O’Connor

Squire Whipple and His Bridges

Squire Whipple

Squire Whipple was born in Massachusetts in 1804, and studied civil engineering at Union College. He remained in Albany and became known as the father of iron bridge building in the mid-1800s in America. He invented the Whipple Truss Bridge and the Whipple Bowstring Bridge.

In 1847 he literally wrote the book that would become the “bible” for iron bridge builders across the world.

Many his bridges have disappeared .. but one example survives around here. It’s the small footbridge over the Normanskill Creek between Albany and Delmar near the Normanskill Farm.

It was built in the late 1860’s, but moved and preserved over the years. Whipple patented his bridge design, but New York State took the design “for the public good”, and built Whipple design bridges all over the state , including the Erie Canal, because they were a terrific design and cheap to build. Whipple bridges are simple, elegant and surprisingly modern looking.

Squire Whipple died in 1888 and is buried in Albany Rural Cemetery in section 41, Plot 19.

Julie O’Connor

Copyright 2021 Julie O’Connor

Albany’s Whitehall Palace and Whitehall Road

The origins of Whitehall Rd. are somewhat murky, but it may originally have been a narrow track through the forest used by the Mahican Indians who lived along the Normanskill Creek. Its use as a dirt road for early colonial settlers probably dates back to the early 1700s. We know that about 1750 there was a barracks, stable and drill ground constructed for British troops during the French and Indian War near corner of Delaware Ave. (It’s location in old genealogies is identified as 150 yards west of Delaware Ave., on Whitehall Rd.)

In the late 1750s the site was enlarged by Col. John Bradstreet. Bradstreet was dispatched to Albany as deputy quartermaster for the British forces in North America. It was one of two storage depots – the other was in Halifax Nova Scotia, but Albany was the closest spot to the upstate frontier in the war with the French in Canada. (That’s probably when it acquired the name Whitehall. At that time Whitehall in London was the home of British government offices. The Albany site was often the home of British military government – where British commanders in North American, Lord Loudon and then Lord Amherst, and their officers often stayed while in Albany.

Bradstreet became great friends with General Philip Schuyler. The route from the Schuyler home on South Pearl and State St. and then new Mansion in the Pastures, would have lead down to “Whitehall Rd.” and then west to what is now Delaware Ave. (It became Second Ave. circa 1873.). It was the route used by Bradford and Schuyler used to travel to each other homes. The area west of Delaware Ave, intersection was called the Normanskill Rd. until about 1800.

At some point Bradstreet purchased the property from the Patroon (along with about another 20,000 acres scattered throughout the area) since it was part of the Manor of Rennselaerwyck. Despite his close relationships with American colonists, Bradstreet sided with the British in the Revolutionary War, and departed for New York City, where he died in 1774.

The property passed to John Bradstreet Schuyler (son of Philip Schuyler) in Bradstreet’s will. During the Revolution is was thought to be a hideout for Tories who came down from the Helderberg Mountains. Supposedly, this was the area where the British attackers massed before they invaded the Schuyler Mansion, attempting to kidnap General Philip Schuyler in 1781 (the raid that left the gouge in the Mansion staircase).

In 1789 the Broadstreet house and property were purchased by Leonard Gansevoort. He was from an old, and Albany Dutch aristocratic family and had amassed great wealth. He had a long career in politics and the law, had been a member of the Continental Congress, was the brother of the Revolutionary War General Peter Gansevoort (the “Hero of Fort Stanwix”), and the great uncle of author Herman Melville. Documents indicate that the legal work for the purchase was probably handled by Alexander Hamilton.

After a large fire swept through much of downtown Albany in 1793 destroying the Gansevoort home, they moved to the Whitehall property, Gansevoort enlarged it quite substantially, turning it into a proper mansion, designed for entertaining on a large scale. It was “statement” home meant to impress. It was immense (supposedly (100 ‘ x 70’), with two wings and four verandas on two stories running front and back. The Great Hall gave way to a grand dining room, a family dining room and a library; the other wing held reception rooms and a grand ballroom. Off to the side was the “Dood Kamer”, which, according to Dutch custom, was a room reserved for laying out the dead. The second floor including bedrooms and family sitting rooms. The Whitehall “Palace” as it came to be known was richly paneled with mahogany and other exotic woods. It was filled with imported china, silver, and silk and damask for drapes and upholstery. There were formal and wild gardens, riding trails and extensive farmland in the thousand acres surrounding the property. It was a self-contained compound, with many out buildings and stables. (Think of the historical documentaries about British grand houses – that was the Whitehall Palace. ) And to run the vast Palace, there were, in 1800, 13 people enslaved by Gansevoort.

In 1810 Gansevoort died and the property passed on to his daughter Magdalena, married to Jacob Ten Eyck. She continued her father’s lavish lifestyle for the next 20 or so years. There are stories of streams of carriages of the Albany wealthy making their way over the Bethlehem Turnpike (Delaware Ave.) to glittering events at the Palace. As Magadelena and Jacob grew older they remained in the house, but started to sell off their land. Many of the farmers who purchased the land over the years were German (Kobler, Friebel, Etling, Klapp, Werker and Swarts. If you look carefully you can still see 3 or 4 older residences in the neighborhood that were original farm houses.) By the mid-1830s the street name appeared on maps appears as Whitehall Rd, and extended to the New Scotland Plank Rd.

In 1883 the Palace burned to the ground; by then it was referred to as the Ten Eyck Mansion.

A smaller house was built at 73 Whitehall Rd., surrounded by an area then known as Ten Eyck Park/Whitehall Park. This area was bounded by what is now Matilda St., Ten Eyck Ave., and Whitehall Rd. In 1909 the building was the Washington Hotel, but has been a residence for the past century.

By 1911 the Whitehall Park Development for “working men” was established on Sard and McDonald Roads, and residential development in the Whitehall Rd. began in earnest and continued steadily for the next 50 years. Within 5 years that area, which had been part of the town of Bethlehem was annexed into the city of Albany. It would not be until the 1960s, after a number of annexations through the decades, that both sides of Whitehall Rd. from Delaware Ave. to New Scotland Ave. would become part of the city.

Copyright 2021 Julie O’Connor

Albany’s Strand Movie Theater

The Strand was a classic, old school gorgeous and elegant movie house on North Pearl and Monroe Streets, close to the First Reformed Church. It started off in the era of the silent movies, and would have an orchestra and/or an organ to provide the background music, performances and sing-a-longs for the audience. It was built by and owned by Warner Bros. for decades (along with two other movie theaters in the city – the Madison in Pine Hills and the Delaware on Delaware Ave (now the Spectrum).

The Strand was the first theater in the City to show Al Jolson in “The Jazz Singer”, the first widely successful “Talkie. Once it made the transition it had a couple of of renovations and to Talkies, and endured for another four decades until its demolition in 1970. The Strand was one of two first run movie theatres in the city showing the block busters of the day. It also served as a venue for a variety of live events over the years- from beauty contests to cooking shows.

Copyright 2021 Julie O’Connor

Albany’s Empire Theater

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The Empire Theatre on State St., above South Pearl St. in the early part of the 20th century.
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It was the biggest and most popular burlesque and vaudeville (but mostly burlesque) theater in Albany, from about 1900 to the early 1920s.
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And it was one of the two theaters where you could see Yiddish Theatre. (The other was Harmanus Bleecker Hall – Albany Public Library is in that location today.) Albany had one of the largest Jewish populations in America in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Some estimates put it between 15% – 20% of the total population of the city.

By 1900 this large immigrant population came from eastern Europe (Poland, Rumania, Czechlosovakia) and Russia. But the immigrants shared a common cultural language – Yiddish. Large Yiddish theatre and opera companies came up to Albany from New York City at least once a month.
The early 20th century burlesque shows included beautiful girls, scantily clad, but mostly, like vaudeville, they were broad farce. (Not strippers.) You could still laugh at the slapstick and admire the beauty and dancing even if your ability to speak English was limited. And if you spoke English, so much the better.
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The Empire hosted huge stars. Before Fannie Brice became a Ziegfield Girl she came to Albany in “The College Girls”  And this is where she met and married her first husband, Frank White, an Albany barber.
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Another favorite was Mollie Williams, one of the most enterprising of all the stars of burlesque. She was one of few Jewish stars of burlesque. By 1912, when she was in her early 30s, she owned her own company, and produced her own shows, touring all of the Northeastern U.S. Even the women in the audience seemed to love her.
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(After the Empire closed Mollie starred at the Capitol Theatre on Chapel St. In 1924 she became an American sweetheart. She included a skit in her act that championed raises for US. Post Office workers. They got the raise and when Mollie came to town they hosted parties in her honor. Mollie’s other dubious claim to fame – a very young vaudevillian, Milton Berle lost his virginity to her.)
The Empire closed in 1922.
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Copyright 2021 Julie O’Connor

Albany’s National Training School for Certified Nurses

The School was established circa 1890 as the Eastern New York School for Certified Nurses. Its founder was Dr. William Stillman, a graduate of Albany Medical College. At that time there was no other nursing school in the city; Albany Hospital’s nursing school didn’t open until 1897.
The role of nurses came to the forefront in the Civil War. But for a number of reasons it still wasn’t consider a totally respectable position for a woman in the late Victorian Gilded Age (unlike being a school teacher). But times changed, as they do, and progress marched on.
By 1901 the New York State Nurses Association was founded, the first state nurses association.
The National School was not-for-profit, and trained women in all aspects of nursing, including public health. By the second decade of the 20th century the importance, and value of school nurses and nurses in county and city health departments and “well-baby” clinics was firmly entrenched.
It was also a school open to all women. Reports from the early 1900s tell us that in 1905 at least 3 African American women were graduates.
The Spanish Flu pandemic in 1918 drove home the importance of nurses, as did the thousands of nurses who volunteered in Europe during World War II. Women of all ages flocked to the front. Albany Hospital established and staffed a hospital for recuperating soldiers in Portsmouth, England.
By the 1920 the World War had not only proven that it was acceptable for “nice” girls work, but they got the job done.
In the mid 1920s the School was located at in a brownstone at 285-287 Lark St. Each 6 month course was packed with young women, who learned all aspects of nursing according to standardized scientific principles. The curriculum included didactic and clinical components.
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Copyright 2021 Julie O’Connor

Hampton Hotel Roof Garden

Roof garden restaurants began to be a thing in the 1880s. They were a way of beating summer heat, and creating small oasis in a crowded city.
The roof garden atop the Hampton Hotel on State St. just above Broadway was constructed in the early 1900s.
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There was music and dancing at the Hampton Hotel roof garden. You would have a spectacular view, Hudson River breezes, and there is a description of hundreds of tiny electric lights at night that made it seem like a fairyland.
It was designed to attract the middle and upper classes of Albany, and well-heeled hotel guests.
But I can imagine a young clerk or factory worker saving up to take his girl, maybe she was a store clerk, for a special night. She would be dressed in her best- maybe he gave her a small flower corsage. It might have been a romantic, magical night. A once in a life time experience, never to be forgotten.
Copyright 2021  Julie O’Connor

The Washington Park Refectory

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The Washington Park Refectory was the place in the Park where you could get light refreshments. Delicate sandwiches, ice cream, ices, lemonade and soda in the Summer, and cocoa, coffee, tea and pastries in the Winter.
 
It was built to look like a Swiss chalet, using the “stick motif” style of the original Lake House, east of Englewood Place. It was said that as you sat on the broad piazza (veranda) there was an unobstructed view, looking the Great Meadow, to Willett St.
 
The Refectory was in use until about the late 1930s, but had begun to deteriorate. During World War II it was closed, since much of the Park was given over to Victory Gardens.
It was demolished in the 1950s. By then a small snack bar had been added to the Lake House.
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Copyright 2021  Julie O’Connor

Albany Medical Center Hospital Hospital: a Brief History

Albany Med has played a key role in the City for about 170 years. Today, its mission is more critical than ever.

The Hospital was established in 1849. One of the founding physicians was Alden March, a farm boy from Worcester, Mass, who came to Albany after getting his MD from Brown University in 1820.

In 1834 he’s said to have established a first for New York State a practical school of anatomy and surgery, in this city. Several years later the Medical College (the fifth in the U.S.) was founded; it located on Eagle St.
Over time the need for a public hospital became apparent to Dr.March and several other local physicians.
Some histories say the first hospital was established in 1849 on Madison Ave. (then Lydius St.) on the corner of Dove St. (The building is still there.)

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First Hospital Building on Madison

By 1851 a new site was located on the corner of Eagle and Howard Streets, in the abandoned county jail. (The previous building became the site of the cholera hospital, a deadly infectious disease.)  The Albany Convention Center is on the Howard St. site today.

Eagle and Howard

Hospital on Eagle and Howard

In the late 1880s and early 1890s it became clear larger facilities were needed. By 1898 Albany Hospital moved to New Scotland Ave., where it has remained for over 120 years.
(That building on Howard St. subsequently housed the American Humane Association, the precursor to the American Humane Society. It originated the “Be kind to animals” slogan.)  The building was finally demolished around 1940.)
The new Hospital was a sprawling complex when it was built, with a nursing school and nurses dormitories. As we know, it dominates the landscape today, and is perhaps the largest employer in the City.

Hospital on New Scotland Rd. – circa 1900

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Hospital circa 1930

Hospital circa 1950

So thank to Dr. March, who understood the need to provide medical care to all Albanians, rich and poor, and a space where generations of doctors, (and then nurses), could obtain the needed clinical training.

Copyright 2021 Julie O’Connor

National Library Week – The Catholic Union Library in the Old Arsenal

Before Albany established a library system in the 1920s, and built the Harmanus Bleecker Library in 1924 on the corner of Washington Ave. and Dove St, as the main branch, the Common Council supported a number of independent libraries. These libraries were then available to the public, as well as members of the various organizations, like the YMCA libraries and John Howe’s independent not for profit library in the South End on South Pearl St.
One of the least remembered, but most used was the Union Free Library. It was housed in the Catholic Union building on Eagle St. and Hudson Ave.
The building previously contained a State Arsenal that opened in 1859, and housed most local military offices throughout the Civil War (although the barracks and training ground were located in an area surrounding Holland and New Scotland Avenues intersection).
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By the late 1880s the arsenal had outgrown its usefulness. In 1887 it was sold at auction by New York State. The purchaser was the Roman Catholic Diocese, and the building became the Catholic Union.
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The Union was, in essence, a catholic community center, providing space for the various parishes located mostly in the South End. It brought together congregants from the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, the mostly French parish of the Church of the Assumption on Hamilton St., St. Ann’s, St. John’s, the mostly German parishioners of Holy Cross on Philip St., and later the immigrants of St. Anthony’s in Little Italy.
It included lecture rooms, a large hall, kitchens, classrooms, a gymnasium (Al Smith is said to have walked from the Governor’s Mansion, and stripped down to his undershirt to shoot hoops), and a library. By the early 1890s the library held about 3,500 – 4,000 volumes and began to receive city funding.
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(By the mid 1930s the privately owned Eagle Movie Theatre was opened on the ground floor in one corner of the Building.)
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As immigrants of all faiths crowded into the South End the library grew and usage increased. By 1929 the John Howe library was constructed on Schuyler St. as part of the city system, and city funding for the Union Free library ceased. But the library was still accessible local neighbors for many years.
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The Catholic Union building was demolished in the mid-1960s for the Empire State Plaza. The end of an era.
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Copyright 2021 Julie O’Connor