UAlbany is one of the jewels in the State University of New York system of 64 educational institutions statewide. The system was the vision of Governor Nelson Rockefeller from the early 1960s. To create the University at Albany he started largely from scratch, and appropriated land from the Albany Country Club for what we know today as the Uptown Campus.
The last vestige of the Country Club is Indian Pond in the southeast corner of the Campus. It’s a currently a pretty little body of water – but it’s had some rough times (at one point it was barely more than a puddle). In the early the late 1950s and early 1960s the neighborhood kids used it as a fishing hole (Were there fish? Who knows?) I’m told it was referred to as “Lake Inferior” (kids say the darndest things). My husband alleges he caught a whale with a stick, safety pin, string and bait from his baloney sandwich when he was about 8. Sometimes I call him Ahab.
The Country Club
But back to the Country Club. The Club was formed in the late 1880s, first incorporated in 1890 and became a membership corporation in the 1894. It was one of the first 30 country clubs in the nation. (Remember, at the turn of the 20th century Albany was a city of enormous wealth concentrated in the hands of a few.) The first clubhouse was a re-modeled old tavern, set in the middle of about 100 acres, and accessed with difficulty via a bramble-filled trail from Washington Ave.
Hard to believe, but one of the primary activities of the newly-formed Club was fox-hunting. Yes.. red jackets, pounding hooves and packs of howling hounds. (Oscar Wilde described fox hunting as “The unspeakable in full pursuit of the uneatable”.)*
According to the Club’s website, some members wanted a new location. “.(in) 1897… the Club purchased the 18 acre Knowles farm property off the Western Turnpike (Western Ave.) called “Wellhurst”, directly south of the original tavern location. After the move $26,000 was expended on the renovation of the house, adjacent buildings and the grounds. A piazza was added around the house and a dam built across the stream that traversed the property, in order to make a lake that provided swimming, boating and skating. Tennis courts were installed and gradually improved”.
Golfing began in 1897 with a 9 hole course. “Early participants were ridiculed as “British Cranks”.” But soon golf became a thing, the Pine Hills Trolley line was extended westward to the Club, and it thrived. In 1902 Albany’s pre-eminent architect, Marcus Reynolds (the D&H Building, the fire house on Delaware Ave, etc.) expanded and remodeled the clubhouse in a very, very proper English Tudor style. Additional property was acquired and a regulation 18 hole golf course established. Over the years there were significant improvements. In the late 1920s a swimming pool was built.
And so for decades the Club was site of society luncheons, dances and glittering balls, archery, bridge, tennis and golf tournaments. (As I scroll through old newspapers, my favorite event is an open air production in the early 1900s of Shakespeare’s play “As You Like it”, by the Coburn Players, a touring company owned by the inimitable actor Charles Coburn who dominated films as a character actor in the 1940s.)
Life was Good – Until It Wasn’t
In 1960 Governor Rockefeller announced he was taking the Country Club land for the new University campus. All hell broke loose among the well-heeled 500 members of the club, including Mayor Corning. A year later the action to take the land by eminent domain was underway; now the price had to be established. The State’s initial and second offers were rejected. Litigation reached the Court of Claims where the Club demanded $5.3 million. The Club’s final ask was reduced to just over $4 million. That court action was still under way when the Club was ordered the club to vacate the premises by Jan. 12, 1962.
And that’s why the Albany Country Club moved to Voorheesville where it remains today.
*By the mid-1880s through the mid-1890s fox hunting was all the rage among the wealthy in America, even in the North, including Albany. Local newspapers of the time mention fox hunting across the area around Whitehall Rd. Well-dressed society women had their riding habits custom made.
Copyright 2021 Julie O’Connor