Albany Public Market and Westgate Plaza: An Immigrant Success Story
Giuseppi Nigro -age 24 – and wife immigrated to America in 1904. They hit the ground running. In 1905, the Nigro family opened a little grocery store at 114 Green Street. Six years later, it moved “uptown,” to a space on the city’s outskirts, at 652 Central Avenue. J. Nigro & Son watched their quiet neighborhood grow into a busy hive of commerce, and grew with it.
In 1929, Nigro’s became Albany’s first WGY Food Market, also incidentally purchasing the first cash register from Henry Kass.
In 1933, Nigro bought the next door property (formerly home to a diner) and incorporated as the Albany Public Market (650-652 Central Avenue). (That building still stands, now Aaron’s Rentals.)
Nigro had grander visions for his successful little supermarket, and in 1947 he broke ground for an ambitious new Albany Public Market at 711 Central Avenue.
The gigantic new airplane-hangar-sized store opened (October 26, 1948) with a barrage of local excitement. The superlatives weren’t mere hyperbole – it really was the “largest food department store in the world.” Boasting an unheard-of 22,000 square feet of floor space, a warehouse that could hold 70 freight carloads of food, its own bakery, and a three-acre parking lot capable of holding 1,000 cars, the complex was an immediate sensation. (Then-VP Frank Nigro expanded on the hangar idea, claiming the building – twice the size of Albany Airport’s largest hangar – would house two B-29 bombers with jet fighter escort.)
A decade later, Albany Public Market would become the cornerstone business at the new (Nigro-owned) Westgate Shopping Center, with a store twice the size of the previous location.
Nigro coined the word “Westgate,”after reading a newspaper article about how Central Avenue (the Albany Schenectady Turnpike) was gateway to the West. Westgate Plaza was on the leading edge of mall shopping; despite it being entirely within city limits, it was, as a 1957 article said, “on the outer fringes of Albany.” Once again, it properly claimed the title of largest food store in the United States. The 711 Central Avenue hangar became King’s Department Store (and later on, OTB Teletheater/Nick’s Sneaky Pete’s, before it was razed to make way for Shop Rite).
Albany Public Market expanded over the next two decades, becoming the first largesupermarket chain in all of upstate New York. Constant advertising, smart publicity and clever promotions kept both Albany Public Market and Westgate Plaza highly visible to the shopping public. Every Albanian of a certain age remembers one stunt or another, be it Santa landing in a helicopter or a DJ broadcasting from atop the Westgate sign.
Albany Public Market was purchased by Weis Markets of Sunbury, PA in 1967, retaining the Nigros as directors and managers.
Eventually, the Nigros began concentrating their energies into lucrative real estate and banking operations. Best I can tell, Albany Public Markets ceased to be sometime around 1984-5.
From Al. Quaglieri’s Albany blog, Doc Circe Died for OUr Sins
The “LIFE” Magazine House of Albany: Edward Durrell Stone
On September 25, 1938 LIFE Magazine published a series of designs for 8 homes in 4 income brackets. One of the designs in the moderate income class was by Edward Durrell Stone. It became known as the “LIFE House.” In Albany. The Hockensmith Co., which was developing the Buckingham Gardens section of Albany, contracted with Mr. Stone and LIFE Magazine to obtain the plans for one of the moderate income homes ($2,000- $3,000) for construction in Albany, and built the house with some minor adaptions for the lot size by a local architect. George Hockensmith built many of the houses you will see today in the Buckingham Dr., New Scotland and Lenox Ave. area. Its real estate office was on the corner of Lenox Ave and New Scotland, and the pretty little structure is still there.
Most of us know Stone from his iconic designs for the Museum of Modern Art and University at Albany. They reflect an ultra-modern aesthetic on a large scale. But throughout his career he designed a number of private residences; one of those was a house in Albany on Buckingham Drive.
As the country started to emerge from the Depression around 1937 there was a huge uptick in the demand for housing. While Albany had suffered during the Depression, that pain was not as deep and lasting as other areas of the country. As the site of State government, many people held on to their jobs, and others tightened their belts and saved. Families continued to grow. By 1938 there was an explosion of residential development in Albany – primarily in the Whitehall Rd, Upper Washington Ave and upper New Scotland Ave. areas. But not everyone could afford a new home that cost $7,000 – $8.000 (the average price of a new home in Albany at that time.) Many of the builders were willing to hold the mortgages and buy out existing rental leases to stimulate housing growth.
The Buckingham Dr. house was designed to meet the needs of moderate income prospective home owners. It was a model of contemporary design, technology and efficiency (It was one of the “5-Star Homes” touted by the New York State Power and Light Company). It was a one story bungalow with 3 bedrooms, a kitchen, dining room and living and an attached garage (the latter was a stunning innovation). It used gas for heating vs oil or coal (a breakthrough in the late 1930s). The layout of the house was modern; rooms were meant to be more flexible and functional than older homes. The kitchen was designed around the “U-shape” with built-in (fitted) cabinets (architectural innovations from the late 1920s). Even the furnishings in the model house were modern; the living room featured “Swedish Modern” furniture in blond oak. There was such a focus on light and airiness in this compact house it was referred to as “The Apartment in the Garden”.
The Buckingham Dr. house was completed in February, 1939; hundreds thronged to the open houses for the model modern home of the future. They could see the house of tomorrow today.
Copyright 2021 Julie O’Connor
Recalling the Grocery Stores of Albany’s Past
The trick of time is that it passes slowly, and changes are incremental, so you can hardly notice it happening. The world of today looks mostly like the world of yesterday to us, and yet there have been a thousand little changes over the years that separate those worlds. When things change all at once, it seems a revolution, but when they change little by little, it just seems the passing of time.
Grocery stores are one example. Sure, 50 years ago, they were selling milk and meats, frozen foods and Cap’n Crunch, just as they are today. And yet everything about them has changed.
Grocery stores in the Capital District used to be numerous, to say the least. The 1870 directory for Albany alone listed 17 wholesale grocers. Retail grocers counted in the hundreds, at a time when Albany’s population was just about 70,000. In 1920, when Albany had 113,000 residents, there were 20 wholesalers and an even greater number of retailers, in every corner of the city.
Every neighborhood had several groceries in those days, and shopping for food was often a daily enterprise. The vast majority of these were small storefronts, usually the lower levels of residential buildings – you can often see reminders of them today, in places that long survived as neighborhood stores, as odd bump-outs on the fronts of brownstones, as enlarged entries and windows at the basement level.
Even when I was growing up in an older suburb in the ’60s and ’70s, they were still numerous. My first real job was working in one of them, one of the last of the high-quality butcher shops in the region, which was also a neighborhood grocery store.
Somewhere around the 1930s the supermarket concept was developed – a neighborhood store, but with more, and run by a central chain. There were A&P stores, and Grand Unions and Mohicans. For a while, there was a chain associated with the area’s seminal radio station, WGY Food Stores. But even as late as 1958, the chains barely had a hold. There was one A&P in Albany, one Albany Public Market, one Grand Union, four Empires, two Central Markets (later to become Price Chopper). Trading Post was the biggest chain in the city, with 5 locations.
The rest of the city’s shopping was done at small neighborhood stores with names like Gimondo, Femia, Sharkey Demaco, Rosenberg, and Tanski. Even the so-called supermarkets were very much part of their neighborhoods in those days, often repurposing previous buildings — such as the Central Markets location on Madison and Swan, which was built on the rather generous stone foundation of the Madison Avenue Second Reformed Church that had burned in 1930.
But with the move of population to the suburbs, the chains started to grow. Competition and demographics, and the willingness of Americans to drive absolutely everywhere rather than walk anywhere, contributed to bigger and bigger centrally-located, chain-owned stores, and the death of these tiny independents.
And the experience of shopping in them changed, too
The stores themselves aren’t the only thing about groceries that have changed. Almost everything else has, too, but in ways that are almost invisible. Everyone probably realizes that plastic grocery bags didn’t even used to exist, and that soda and milk came exclusively in glass bottles, and was all bottled nearby. Burlap has practically disappeared from anything but craft stores, but 40 years ago, potatoes, onions and oranges all came in burlap sacks. Meat was nearly always cut to order, and wrapped in brown butcher paper, tied with string, rather than laid out on a foam tray and stacked in coolers. Even something as simple as a box of cereal isn’t the same as it was four decades ago. The box itself is infinitely thinner for both environmental and economic reasons. The bag that actually holds the cereal used to be a satisfyingly thick, crinkly wax paper that would sort of stay closed; now it’s a thin plastic film that never will. Very little food came in any kind of plastic container at all.
Prices were not on little paper stickers (if those still exist) or posted on the shelves – they were stamped onto the ends of cans and boxes with heavy blue ink using a price stamper – the stockboy (that’s what we were) would spin the numbers on the stamper to the correct price, press it against the ink pad, and then punch the stamper against the top of the can or box. (This is now so archaic that it’s hard to even Google search for it.) When the prices needed to be changed (and in the days of inflation in the 1970s, that was often), the stockboy would clean the price off the can with a rag and nail polish remover so the new (higher) price could be stamped on.
(In the store I worked in, by the way, the markup from wholesale was 40%, much higher than the chains. That might seem outrageous, but that was money that paid local workers, sponsored the store’s Little League team, and built wealth in the community, rather than sending it off to a corporate headquarters in a remote land.)
When you carried your groceries up to the register, there were no scanners. The check-out clerk had to enter each item’s price into the cash register. Unmarked items weren’t usually a problem – the clerk knew the price of most things. Your receipt had prices but only categories that would describe the items, such as “Gr” for grocery, “Pr” for produce, etc.
The most subtle change in grocery stores, as in most stores, is the ambient music. Whereas now you can expect the odd experience of hearing The Clash sing “Lost in the Supermarket” while you are, in fact, lost in the supermarket, real music in retail spaces didn’t happen until the 1980s. For decades before that, there was something called Muzak, and its ilk: light, syrupy string arrangements of almost-identifiable melodies intended to give no offense and to set no pulse to racing. As a customer, it was just there. As an employee, it could make you insane. In the days before the Walkman was invented, I learned to play entire albums in my own head, note for note, so as to drown out the cloying melodies of the Muzak.
Today, the Albany area is, depending on how you count, down to three or four grocery chains with multiple locations (not counting Walmart or Target). Only one of them, Price Chopper, is local. Very few of them are within any of the city limits, catering almost entirely to the suburbanites.
But with the trend toward more and more downtown living, some form of the neighborhood store will have to re-emerge. Personally, I just hope it brings back burlap.
By Carl Johnson from All Over Albany.com
An Albany Gem – Lincoln Park Pool
Today Lincoln Park Swimming Pool opened for the summer and it’s time to tell you a little of its history.
Construction began in 1930. When it was completed it was one of the largest municipal pools in country and a model by which all others would be judged. The cost of the pool, the bathhouse and ancillaries was in excess of $100,000, (which would be about $2 million in 2017), a vast sum, especially in the beginning of the Great Depression. But the timing couldn’t have been better, since it provided affordable sports, recreation and entertainment when most people were down and out.
The pool we have today replaced a “swimming hole” in the upper part of the Park near Delaware Ave. called “Rocky Ledge” , created in the mid-1920s, from a large natural ravine and filled with water. But that proved impractical and dangerous.
Lincoln Park swimming pool opened on July 4, 1931; it was immediately wildly popular. On some hot steamy days in the 1930s daily attendance exceeded 16,000.
We estimate in the 85 years the pool has been open in the summer, over 60,000 kids in 4 generations in Albany have learned to swim.
It’s been open every summer except for one -1965. That year it didn’t open because of a terrible region wide drought, and the 1 million gallons of water it took to fill couldn’t be spared.
Little has changed over the years. The sand has been replaced by grass and there is no diving off the center dock. It draws fewer people than it once did, but it’s still an oasis in a crowded hot city for young and old, making wonderful memories.
When I was a kid on hot steamy days my grandmother would pack a picnic and take me and my brother on the Whitehall/Morton bus down to the pool at about 4 pm. We would swim and then my grandfather would meet us after work at 5:30 or so, and we would eat and swim some more. Back then, the pool closed at 8pm, and Grandpa would drive us home tired and finally cool enough to sleep that night in a world without air conditioning.
Copyright 2021 Julie O’Connor
Only Albany would have a “Spite Building”
From Carl Johnson’s blog post “Looking up State Street” July 6, 2017 in Hoxsie.org
We’re not sure of the date of this postcard, probably somewhere in the 1930s, but what’s interesting is how little has changed. The Plaza in the immediate foreground no longer extends State Street around the area where buses and trolleys congregated, and the Hotel Ten Eyck, the tall building halfway up the hill on the right, has been replaced by the Hilton Hotel tower. The tall tower behind the low buildings on Broadway is still there. Of course, a couple of other newer skyscrapers would now block the view up the hill a bit from here, but the major figures are still there. On the right, what was called the Federal Building and the Post Office (which it was before it moved into the adjacent building on Broadway) still stands, freshly cleaned we’re told, and is part of the SUNY headquarters, which also took over the Delaware and Hudson Railroad Building from which this view was made. Just beyond that, on the other side of Broadway, with the curved front and dome is the First Trust Company Building, showing the design of Marcus Reynolds from about 1904.
On the left, a row of commercial buildings that still stands today. The corner building is best known as the long-time home of Coulson’s newsroom. The two buildings to the left were locations for a paint business called Stoneman’s – the big oval sign proclaims “Country Gentleman Paints.” They started as a sailmaker and ship’s chandler named Matthew G. Stoneman in 1848. They also went by the name “Painteria.” To the far left, across the small opening of Beaver Street stands the Argus Building, once home to Albany’s Argus newspaper and general printer/publisher. Up the hill, on the left side of State Street you can see the lovely top of the Municipal Gas Company building. And, of course, straight up State Street, the Capitol, beyond which is the Alfred E. Smith State Office Building (which helps date this as post-1930).
Paul Nance provided us with some interesting history on the tall block of ugly on the left side of the card, The Beaver (so named for its location on Beaver Street, one can hope). He said, “Another significant change since the 1930s is the absence of 9 Beaver, the 13-floor brick hulk on the left side of the image. The so-called Spite Building had no access to the top three floors (“elevator plan to be submitted later,” according to the architectural plans), since their only purpose was to block the view from the Hampton Hotel’s rooftop garden. Notice the light showing through the top floors: the opening were windowless, providing a home for pigeons. The building was finally demolished in 1969.”
Glimpses of Old Central Ave. – Albany, NY
A wonderful look into old Central Ave. by All Over Albany using our Flickr Archive –AlbanyGroup Archive
Labor Day 2017 – the Faces of Albany Labor; We Built This City
If you want to see more pics, take a deep dive in our Flickr site: AlbanyGroup Archive
Creepy Clowns and a Trolley – Albany NY
When Santa could drive you on the Trolley (with 2 creepy clowns)
1936 – Whitney’s was an upscale department store on N. Pearl St. in Albany for almost 100 years, with a very large Christmas toy department.
(Whitney’s in downtown closed circa 1969.)