HOW ALBANY GREW

(From the Spring 2018 “Capital Neighbors” newsletter by Tony Opalka, Albany City Historian)

Did you ever wonder where the name South End/Groesbeckville Historic District Came from?

The Southend/Groesbeckville district in the southeast corner of the city, surrounds the Schuyler Mansion. It includes the area between Lincoln Park and Second Avenue from about Franklin and South Pearl Streets on the east, to Eagle and Elizabeth Streets on the west. The question is particularly timely because the Preservation League of New York State just published its annual list of “Seven to Save,” endangered historic properties across the state on April 10th, including Albany’s South End/Groesbeckville Historic District because of its large stock of abandoned and deteriorating buildings (many of which could possibly be restored).

It should concern us all that this part of Albany’s historic fabric continues to suffer decline, as it illustrates part of Albany’s period of growth from about 1850 to 1900.

This article, however, is one of my occasional stories about how Albany got into the “shape” that it’s in and how the name Groesbeckville fits into that narrative.

We’re all familiar with the term “South End,” in part because of my many tours and talks in the South End. I’ve gotten into lively discussions with attendees about what defines the South End — somewhere between Madison Avenue and the Port of Albany. So many people in the city today can trace their roots to this part of the city (myself included), but the South End means different things to different people.

Long before the term South End was used, the name Groesbeckville had already come to refer to the part of the town of Bethlehem immediately adjacent to the southern city line, which until 1870 remained as it had been since incorporation of the city in 1686.

At South Pearl Street, a small remnant of that line is Gansevoort Street, now a two-block long street that runs from the southbound entrance ramp to 787, to South Pearl Street about a block below Fourth Avenue. Originally called South Street, it separated the city from the Manor of Rensselaerwyck and, after 1793, the town of Bethlehem.

By the middle of the 19th century, however, the area along South Pearl and parallel streets Broad, Clinton, Elizabeth and others, as well as east-west streets all the way to Historic Cherry Hill below Second Avenue, originally called Whitehall Road, had become fully urbanized, both within and without the city. The map below, from 1866, shows the old city line and the area immediately adjacent to it along South Pearl Street designated as Groesbeckville, an unincorporated hamlet
in the town of Bethlehem.

As early as 1861, citizens of Albany petitioned the Common Council to apply to the New York State Legislature to extend the city boundaries to the north and south as they then existed:

“Without an increase of territory this city cannot longer maintain its rank in population or importance; while just outside of its limits suburban settlements are springing up without such municipal regulations and controls as are requisite to prevent the accumulation of nuisances and of nuisances to us and to their own people. … While portions of the adjoining towns now thickly settled or occupied for business purposes enjoy the protection of our Fire and Police Departments, and participate in almost every benefit of our city government, to nearly as great an extent as property in the city, justice seems to demand that they contribute to the support of such government…..”

Sound familiar?

Five years later in 1866, residents of Bethlehem submitted their own petition to the Albany Common Council requesting that the area bounded by the river, the old city line (Gansevoort, and roughly Woodlawn Avenue and Cortland Street in western Albany) all the way to Allen Street extended southward to the
Normanskill be annexed to Albany.

Not wanting to be left out, residents of Watervliet along the north boundary of the city, submitted their own petition, asking that a portion of that town be annexed to Albany, also in 1866. This would have corresponded to the present-day boundary with Menands, but extending westward to a northern extension of Allen Street, somewhere in present-day Colonie. This area included the Van Rensselaer Manor House (about where Nipper is located today), the Erie Canal and Lumber District, and the existing hamlet of North Albany.

Ironically, the “lumber barons,” whose businesses were located along the Erie Canal in the town of Watervliet, but whose residences were located along Ten Broeck Street, petitioned the Common Council in 1867 to NOT annex part of Watervliet, stating that “in their judgment it would materially increase their taxation both in said districts (business and residential) and in the city, without any corresponding benefits to compensate therefore.”

Well, the forces of annexation won out, because on April 6, 1870, the New York State Legislature passed a law annexing parts of both towns to Albany, although a much smaller land area than originally proposed. Rather than go all the way to
the Normanskill, the new line separating Bethlehem from Albany ran a zig-zag line from the river all the way to Allen Street as if it were extended south of New Scotland Avenue. On the north, the annexation included North Albany but a zig-zag line that ran in some places within the Patroon’s Creek all the way west to Russell Road near Westgate Shopping Center.

At the same time, the City of Albany gave Watervliet all the land as far west as the Albany-Schenectady County line — what is now the University, Washington Avenue Extension and a good portion of the Pine Bush.

A year later, Watervliet ceded it to Guilderland.

It would take another 100 years for Albany to achieve its current boundarie

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What was there? Sunnymede Cottage

In the mid-1880s after completion of the Washington Park the Commissioners of the Park determined there needed to place for the Superintendent of the Park to live to be able to oversee the Park. They decided it couldn’t be in the Park itself (a residence would mar the grand vistas), but needed to be close. They purchased a piece of land a couple of blocks away on what was called the “Alms House Road”, to the rear of the Albany Penitentiary, (that’s what we know as Holland Ave. today), just on the corner of the New Scotland Plank Rd.

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At that time there was almost nothing there, except the Almshouse (about where the College of Pharmacy is today), a cluster of buildings (including an industrial school and a smallpox hospital) and a small farm surrounding the Almshouse. and the Penitentiary.

5An adorable fairy tale cottage was built with an almost fairy tale name, “Sunnymede”. Land was set aside for greenhouses, a nursery garden, storage buildings and barns. The Commissioners of Washington Park were given authority over all parks in the city; the cottage became the home of the City’s Superintendent of Parks and the Parks Dept.

Soon, the early 1890s, the Dudley Observatory was constructed down the road on So.Lake Ave. (demolished in the early 1970s for the Capital District Psych Center). Then came the Albany Orphan Asylum* on Academy Rd. (then Highland Ave.), Albany Hospital across the way and the New Scotland Ave. Armory* in the early 1900s. In the 1920s the Medical College re-located from Eagle St. to the Hospital. In the 1930s the Penitentiary behind Sunnymede was demolished. Albany Law School, the College of Pharmacy and Christian Brothers Academy (now used by the Pharmacy College) moved from downtown at about the same time and they were joined by a NYS Health Dept. lab. on New Scotland Ave.

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Even after the construction of the Veteran’s Administration Hospital in 1951 behind it (on what had been the Penitentiary grounds), the Parks Dept. remained snugged into that little corner.

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14Finally in 1964, after almost 80 years, the City sold land to the Hospital for??? A parking lot of course! With the money from the sale it built a new Parks Dept. in Hoffman Park just off Second Ave. Today, there’s a Hilton Garden Inn and, yes.. a parking garage in that location.

*Orphan Asylum buildings and the Armory are now part of the Sage College of Albany campus.

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Robinson’s Corner – State and Broadway in Albany

Since the 1833 there’s always been a “round” building at the corner of State and Broadway (once known as Robinson’s Corner”). In 1831 the Albany Museum Building was constructed.   Because of its design it quickly became known at the “Marble Pillar” building as well (the term was used interchangeably with the “Museum Building”). It was the grandest of its kind in Albany; not a residence like the Schuyler Mansion and not a public building.   It was indicative of the new wealth coming to Albany as a result of the Erie Canal.  By 1830 Albany was on the way to what we now think of as a modern city (not just a sleepy little Dutch burg) and men of vision were willing to invest capital in the city’s future.

2The building housed a quasi–museum (not exactly the way we know of museums today) including a theatre and exhibition hall.  It did double and triple duty.  There were apartments and a restaurant, alleged to have been the finest in Albany of the time, called the “Marble Pillar”. It was often referred to as a “resort” and advertisements of the time attempt to lure visitors from all around the area. Between the “Museum” and the restaurant, it was probably the first tourist destination in the area.

Once the Canal opened in 1825, Niagara Falls (the first real tourism destination in America) became a sight-seeing mecca; you had to go to Albany to get on the Canal.  It was the stage coach depot to all points.  What better place for visitors to stop than the Marble Pillar resort? *

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In 1848 the building was enlarged and its multi-purpose use continued, including a restaurant.   When P.T. Barnum introduced Tom Thumb to Albany it was in the Marble Pillar building.

4A fire in 1861 required major restoration of the building, and it became a home for a dizzying array of businesses over the next 40 years,   including insurance companies, brokerage firms, banks, grocers, and carpet sellers. Even Western Union found a home. When Western Union moved in the late 1890s, the site became ripe for re-development.

 

 

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In 1902 the Albany Trust Co. bank purchased the site and constructed the building you see today.  It was designed by Marcus Reynolds.  Albany’s pre-eminent and prolific architect of the early 20th century.  He designed the D & H Building (now houses   State University Administrative offices), the Delaware Ave. fire house, the Superintendent’s Lodge at the Rural Cemetery, Hackett Middle School, and Albany Academy among others.

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The Trust Company building is on the National Historic Register.

 

 

*By 1830 visiting Niagara Falls had become a thing.   A wonderful book, called “The Frugal Housewife”, by Lydia Maria Child  (who was living in Boston when she wrote it)  counsels women against engaging in such extravagance.  (The book was so popular it was re-published 33 times in 25 years.)

 

Kenwood and the Convent of the Sacred Heart in Albany

The Convent of the Sacred Heart, Kenwood, on the southern border of the city has been purchased by a developer and is undergoing substantial renovation to become Kenwood Commons – “a serene island of tranquility and luxury in the heart of New York’s vibrant Capital District is being transformed into a very special community centered around art, culture and wellness offering the highest level of luxury housing, recreation and hospitality.”

So we thought it was time to tell you its history and show you some pictures so you can get better sense of its significance in our city.

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Kenwood

Kenwood was initially constructed between 1842 -1845 as a summer home for Jared Rathbone and his family. (Rathbone owned a large stove manufacturing company in Albany, was one of the wealthiest men in the City and had been mayor from 1838-1841.)  The house was built in the midst of  about 75 landscaped acres and named after Rathbone’s ancestral lands in northwest Scotland. The site for Kenwood was selected to take advantage of views of the Hudson and the Catskill mountains to the south. It was an extravagant summer “cottage”, of th type built  by many men of  similar wealth across the country at the beginning of the industrial revolution.

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The builders were a Mr. Smith who did the carpentry work and David Orr, the mason.  Orr would go on to be one of the richest men in the city, with vast real estate holdings, including a “mansion” on Philip St.  The house design was called a “Pointed Villa” – a romantic unrestrained Tudor Gothic style.

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In 1845 Rathbone died suddenly and in 1848 his widow Pauline married Assemblyman Ira Harris, a widower. The families blended; the Rathbones moved from their Elk St. home to the Harris house at 28 Eagle St., on the other side of Capitol and Academy Parks.  Kenwood was put on the market in the 1850s by Rathbone’s son Joel. It was purchased by the Roman Catholic order of nuns, the Sisters of the Sacred Heart.

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4The Sisters first came to Albany in 1852, opening a house and school on North Pearl Street. By 1855, a larger house was purchased; in 1859 the Society bought Kenwood. The Order established the Female Academy of the Sacred Heart on the site. The school was successful and construction on a new school began in 1866. The first wing of the building, extending from the northeast side of the Rathbone house toward the north, was completed in 1867. In 1868, a noviate wing was completed using parts from the dismantled Rathbone house.

The construction of the existing chapel was completed in 1870. It too is in a generally Gothic style and incorporated materials from an earlier structure.

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(In the 1870s Albany annexed a portion of Kenwood (including the first mile of the turnpike, the toll-gate, and the Rathbone estate).

Here are some images of the school and the convent in the latter part of  the 1800s.

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13Most of the original outbuildings survived well into the 20th century, including a gardener’s cottage, gatekeeper’s lodge, smokehouse and carriage barn. Other outbuildings were razed in the 1980s.

 

 

 

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In 1975 Kenwood Academy merged with St. Agnes Girls School (an Episcopal institution dating back to the 1870s on Elk St. in Albany) to form the co-educational Doane Stuart School. The campus was occupied by Sisters of the Convent of the Sacred Heart and staff and students of  Doane Stuart until 2009 when the School relocated to a new campus in Rensselaer, New York. The Kenwood sale was completed in August, 2017.

(Much of the narrative was prepared by Walter Wheeler, architectural historian at Hartgen Archeological Associate for the Historic Albany Foundation in 2012.)

LINCOLN’S ASSASSINATION AND THE ALBANY LEGACY

The assassination of Abraham Lincoln stunned the entire nation, but the events of that tragic night of April 14th had particular meaning for Albany, with repercussions for decades. When Lincoln’s funeral train made its stop in Albany and his coffin was carried to the State Capitol on April 26, many Albany residents were also consumed by other horrific events still unfolding in Washington D.C. as a result of that horrific night.

THE ATTEMPTED ASSASSINATION OF WILLIAM SEWARD

Often overlooked in history was the attempted assassination of William Seward, Secretary of State, that same April 14 evening when Lincoln was killed. Seward had deep connections in the Albany; he’d been a member of the NYS Assembly, 2 term NYS governor (he lived in the Kane Mansion  – the Schuyler Condos are located in that spot today), was elected U.S. Senator serving   over a decade until  he was appointed to Lincoln’s cabinet in 1861. Seward’s wife, Frances, attended the Troy Female Academy (Emma Willard) and had close ties with Albany Quakers and anti-slavery and women’s rights activists in Albany. His son Frederick attended high school in Albany and married Anna Wharton, daughter of a local druggist; for several years the couple live with the Wharton family on Hudson Ave in the 1850s while Frederick was the associate editor of the “Albany Evening Journal”.

John Wilkes Booth originally wanted to kidnap Lincoln. Having found no opportunity to abduct the President, Booth assigned conspirators to assassinate Seward and VP Andrew Johnson on the same night he intending on killing Lincoln.   Lewis Powell was dispatched to kill Seward in his bed (he was recuperating from an accident). Powell entered the Seward home on the pretext of delivering medicine, but was stopped by Frederick Seward.  Powell tried to shoot Frederick, but the gun misfired and Powell beat him severely around the head with the weapon. Powell then burst into the bedroom, jumped on the bed, and repeatedly stabbed William Seward in the face and neck..  A soldier guarding Seward wrestled Powell, but he was able to escape. The scene of the attempt was awash in blood.

(The plot to kill Vice President Johnson was abandoned.)

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In total 4 members of the Seward family were injured.  His son Augustus and daughter Fanny suffered minor wounds.  Seward himself revived, but was significantly unwell for many months; he never fully recovered.  Frederick was severely injured, unconscious for days and lingered on the brink for at least a month – his wife Anna was distraught.  William Seward’s wife, Frances, disposed towards ill-health, died 2 months later of a heart attack, consumed by anxiety from the tragedies of that night. In Frederick’s 1915 biography he indicates that the physical and emotional wounds never healed for his family.

CLARA HARRIS AND HENRY RATHBONE AND THE LINCOLN ASSASSINATION

zzzOn April 14, 1865 Major. Henry Rathbone and his fiancée Clara Harris were in the presidential box in Ford’s Theatre when John Wilkes Booth shot Lincoln. The Major grappled with Booth, who stabbed him with a knife and escaped.

Rathbone and Harris were both from Albany (step brother and stepsister). Rathbone’s father, Jared, an enormously wealthy businessman and former mayor of Albany, died in the mid-1840s.  (Jared built the estate Kenwood which became the site of the Convent of the Sisters of the Sacred Heart.).  Within a month, Louisa, the wife of Assemblyman, Ira Harris, died.    Harris courted Pauline Rathbone and they were married 3 years later.  The families blended and moved into the Harris home at 28 Eagle St, just south of State St.  In  1861 Harris was elected   U.S. Senator, succeeding William H. Seward.  Upon his arrival in Washington D.C.   Harris became the ultimate nudge. Lincoln biographer Benjamin Thomas wrote that Harris  was among Lincoln’s “most frequent evening visitors”   The President once claimed that he looked underneath his bed each night to check if Senator Harris was there, seeking another patronage favor.  Harris was often accompanied on these visits by his daughter Clara, who became a close friend of May Lincoln.  Mary also was also partial to Clara’s fiancée, Henry Rathbone (despite being step brother and sister, love had come their way.)

Lincolns-Death

After he was shot Lincoln was carried across the street to Petersen’s boarding house. Harris and Rathbone escorted a distraught and dazed Mary Lincoln to the house.  While Rathbone went into the room in which Lincoln lay dying, Mary was kept outside, with Clara at her side.  Rathbone finally passed out from loss of blood from his wound; Harris held Rathbone’s head in her lap. A surgeon realized Rathbone’s wound was more serious than initially thought. And he was taken home while Harris remained with Mrs. Lincoln.  Harris later stated:

“Poor Mrs. Lincoln, all through that dreadful night would look at me with horror & scream, ‘oh! my husband’s blood, my dear husband’s blood’ ..It was Henry’s blood (on Clara’s dress) not the president’s, but explanations were pointless.”

Rathbone and Harris married two years later and had three children. But the events of April 14 had effected Rathbone in terrible ways for the rest of his life. He had contracted several illness during the War that left him sick for months at a time, and a “debilitated constitution”. He continued have mysterious illnesses, as well as emotional outbursts and horrific headaches after the marriage. Clara became increasing fearful for herself and her children.  In 1882 he took his family and sister-in-law Louise on a trip to Germany. In December 1883, he killed Clara; attacking her with a pistol and dagger and then slashed himself, just as Booth had done to Lincoln and Rathbone. Rathbone barely survived and afterward contended there had been an intruder.  He was committed to an insane asylum until his death in 1911.   The children returned to America to the care of their uncle, William Harris in the wake of the horrific event which made international tabloid headlines.

WHAT ABOUT THE DRESS?

loudoncottageAt some point upon Clara’s return to Albany she took the blood soaked dress to her family’s summer house “Loudon Cottage” in Loudonville, an Albany suburb, and buried it in the back of her closet. But when was asleep at night she insisted Lincoln’s voice emanated from the closet. Anniversaries of Lincoln’s death supposedly triggered spectral events for both Clara and others.  Clara bricked up the closet, but people in later years still claimed to have heard gunshots, seen a blood soaked young woman standing with Lincoln, and manifestations of the paranormal.

In 1910 the eldest son of Henry and Clara, Henry Riggs Rathbone, had the bricks removed and the burned the dress an attempt to rid the family of what he perceived as the dreaded curse.

Albany’s Pemberton Corner

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We’re guessing only a few know where it is – N. Pearl St. and Columbia St.  in the heart of downtown. There’s a commemorative plaque that some of you may have noticed, but it doesn’t tell the whole story.

The huge Victorian pile you see today was constructed in the late 1800s, on the site of an ancient building that survived for almost 170 years.

2In the earliest days of Albany that corner of North Pearl was outside the north gate in the stockade that surrounded the city. Around 1710 Jacob Lansing, a baker and a silversmith, constructed a small building in that location.

It was said to have once been a trading post. Legend has it that it may have been occupied by the Sarah Visscher  (“the Widow Visscher”) who married into an Indian trading family,  and who may have run it as a trading post in the mid to late 1700s “it was especially distinguished as the lodging place for the Indians when they came to Albany for the purpose of trading their furs, too often for rum and worthless ornaments. There many stirring scenes transpired, when the Indians held their powwows, and became uproarious under the influence of strong drink. The house has survived the general sweep of so called improvement. It is now [1867] owned by John Pemberton, and is occupied as a grocery and provision store.”.. Joel Munsell

Unlike many of the old buildings that have been demolished we have an excellent description:

“Yellow brick; one and a half stories. The upper section was left unfinished for several years and was used during that time for the storage of skins and furs. No two rooms were on the same level. The ceilings were not plastered, but the beams and sleepers were polished and the jambs of the fireplace faced with porcelain, ornamented with Scripture scenes.”

“The parapet gable facade on Columbia Street had fleur-de-lis iron beam anchors that held the brick wall to a timber frame. The brick, laid in Dutch cross bond, formed a zigzag pattern called vlechtwerk (wicker work) along the upper edges of the gable.”  ..  Diana Waite “Albany Architecture”

5The Pemberton brothers – Ebenezer, Henry and John – purchased the building from Jacob Lansing’s great grandson in 1818 and started a grocery business at that corner.  Henry and Ebenezer died in the late 1850s, and John carried on the business, which came to be a well-known landmark in the city – Pemberton’s Groceries.

 

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When John died in 1885 his estate owned a large portion of that block on N. Pearl between Columbia and Steuben, which included several buildings to the north of Pemberton’s grocery store. The property was sold and 2/3 of the building you see on that block corner was constructed. The new Pemberton Building included stores and offices, but its primary tenant was Albany Business College.*

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8Pemberton’s store, operated by John’s son, Howard, survived on the corner until 1893 when it was demolished for an addition to the Pemberton Building to allow the Business College * to expand.  Despite efforts to save the building because of its historical significance, the amount offered by those who were interested (including John G. Myers, owner of a large department store on N. Pearl St., and the Albany Press Club)  could not match what  the  College was offering for construction of  the addition. (Such an Albany story.) Look at the building carefully; you can see the demarcation between the part of the building constructed in 1885 and the addition 8 years later.

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So.. we call it the Pemberton Building, right?  Well, that depends.  It was known as the Pemberton Building initially, but then someone named Brewster purchased, and it was known in the newspapers as the Brewster Building for a number of decades in the 1900s. But in general conversation and in my family it was called it the Pemberton Building (where several “greats” attended the Business College in the 1890s and early 1900s), we can’t find anything about Brewster (other than he was a real estate investor) and we need to honor our history. We’re sticking with the Pemberton Building.

*The Business College moved to Washington Ave. between Dove and Swan in the 1930s.

 

Thanks to Carl Johnson and his Hoxsie blog for some of the material in this post.

The Stanwix Hotel – the Oldest Hotel in Albany

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1.1Stanwix Hall stood on the east corner of Broadway and Maiden Lane. .It was built by the sons (Peter and Herman) of Peter Gansevoort. Gansevoort* was the “Hero of Fort Stanwix”; he lead the patriot resistance at the British siege of the Fort in 1777**.  Colonel Gansevoort was instrumental in guarding against British encroachment on Albany from the west through the Mohawk Valley, and setting the stage for the defeat of Burgoyne at Saratoga a year later.

1The Hall was built on the land on which Gansevoort’s Dutch great grandfather settled in the 1600s and on which he established a brewery. In 1832 the brewery was destroyed by a fire and the next year Peter’s sons, Herman and Peter, built the Stanwix in the same location on Broadway (then North Market St.). It was marvel- 5 stories and constructed from marble.  It housed offices, stores and meeting rooms. It was crowned by a huge awesome dome (48’ in diameter), which covered what was said to have been the largest ballroom (60’ wide) in the world at the time.

2.2.The year it opened it became the home of Mr. Whale’s Dance Academy for the sons and daughters of Albany’s elites. Classes were $12 for the season- lessons were provided Wednesdays and Saturdays and evenings.  Over the next 30 years the Stanwix was the site of glittering balls, assemblies, receptions and concerts with elegant catered suppers.   We have visions of women in huge crinolines stepping out of a row of carriages in the gaslight and whirling the night away in the ballroom with the men of the Albany Burgesses Corps in full dress military uniform.

 

 

2By the mid-1840s the Hall was transformed into the most elegant hotel in Albany.  It was, by all accounts, the classiest of joints.  It was located close to the train station and was the preferred destination of hundreds of travelers, including the rich and famous (and infamous).  When Abraham Lincoln came through Albany in 1861 on his trip to Washington D.C. for his inauguration, John Wilkes Booth was performing in the city and his rooms at the Stanwix would have overlooked the Lincoln parade down Broadway.

The Stanwix also was the site of an infamous murder that created a tabloid frenzy.  On the evening of June 4, 1868, in the main reception room, George Cole took out his pistol and shot L. Harris Hiscock dead. Cole was a Syracuse physician who served with gallantry and bravery in the Civil War. He’d been wounded and promoted to Major General. L. Harris Hiscock was a leading Syracuse attorney, a founder of the law firm now known as Hiscock and Barclay and Speaker of the NYS Assembly. Cole and Hiscock were close friends. During the War, Hiscock, a widower, and Mrs. Cole had an affair. Cole was tried twice. The defense was insanity; there was a hung jury and the case was discharged. In the second trial, in NYS Supreme Court the jury found reasonable doubt and acquitted Cole by virtue of momentary insanity.

The Infamy of the case seemed to enhance the Stanwix reputation.

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In the 1870s the Hotel was acquired by the Lansing family and continued to be the most splendiferous of its kind. In 1878 it was completely remodeled; the dome removed and 2 stories added. It was retrofitted with modern’ conveniences; steam heating and up-to-date plumbing. Even with the opening of Adam Blake’s Kenmore Hotel on North Pearl St. in the early 1880s the Stanwix maintained its social cachet and was the most expensive hotel in Albany. It continued to provide superior service, excellent cuisine and a superior wine list. Even into the late 1890s it was the still tip top – offering both an American (with meals) and European (without meals included) plans and still very expensive ($3 per night was very steep.)

11But in the early 1900s it met stiff competition by the new Ten Eyck Hotel on the corner of State and N. Pearl streets, and then the Wellington and Hampton Hotels on State St. were built.  By 1920, it was more of a banquet and convention venue and had become somewhat down at the heels. In the 1920s itwas the bus terminal in the city.

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16In 1933, a hundred years after it was built,  the hotel was razed to make way for a new federal building and post office. (It’s now the Foley Courthouse.) In the basement of the present building, at the end of the corridor, is a small piece of stone and a plaque inscribed, “This stone was salvaged from the debris of Stanwix Hall and placed here, the exact location where it originally rested in its former home.”

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* Peter Gansevoort also had a daughter Maria who was the mother of Herman Melville. While a teen in the late 1830s Melville was president of an Albany debate club that held its meetings in the Stanwix.

** The first time the Stars and Stripes ever flew in battle was over Fort Stanwix.  It was made from red flannel petticoats from officer’s wives and the blue coat of a soldier from Dutchess County

Getting from Here to There in Old Albany

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If you lived in Albany in 1840 and you wanted travel in the city you either walked or if you were well to do, rode your horse or carriage or rented from one of the scores of livery stables that dotted the city. So mostly you walked. While the City’s population grew rapidly after the building of the Erie Canal, the actual area occupied by Albany’s population pretty much stayed the same. Think of 2/3’s of the population of today crammed into a quarter of the area covered by today’s Albany. Everything was in walking distance.

2.2But the city WAS growing slowly. By the mid-1840s there came to be destinations just at the fringes of the Albany – not easily reached. The answer was the “omnibus” for locations that were only several miles away from State St. – the city’s hub. The omnibus was a horse drawn vehicle that could accommodate multiple passengers and traveled on a regular schedule (an innovation, believe it or not!). The omnibus was simply a streamlined version of the “stage coach” used for long distances. It was pulled by a single horse or team over dirt roads or cobblestone streets. There were less than a handful of regular omnibus destinations: the Albany Rural Cemetery and in the South End near the growing village of Groesbeckville in the town of Bethlehem (the Second Ave. area today) and beyond to the Mount Hope hamlet where homes clustered near the large Rathbone and Prentice estates on South Pearl, and then farther south to Kenwood knitting mills in Bethlehem.

By the late 1850s, however, the city was bursting at the seams and Albany finally started to expand to accommodate its ever growing population. (In 1855 the population was 57,000, almost 5 times greater than before the Erie Canal, but people and businesses were basically crammed into the same area.) A construction boom began as the city pushed westward, moving towards the wilderness near what would become Washington Park; the Bowery – an area of farms on what is now Central Ave., and to the north beyond the Lumber District to North Albany. By 1860 the population had grown by another 5,000.

It became clear the city needed a system of regular transportation to get from here to there. In the early 1860s, two groups of investors came forward to establish “horse car” trolley companies. (Horse cars has been running throughout New York City since the late 1840s.) The horse car was very different from the omnibus. To make it efficient and faster, the cars which (resembled the omnibus) ran on metal wheels on a system of grooved iron or steel rails. This allowed the horses to haul larger loads in all weather conditions and provide a smoother ride. (Think “horse railroad”.)

The Western Turnpike Railroad Co. incorporated in 1862. (Its parent company ran the toll road that we know as Route 20.) Its first horse car started regularly scheduled trips from South Ferry St. up Broadway to North Ferry St. (in the Lumber District) in June 1863. The Albany Horse Railroad Co. was also formed and its horse cars started running in February 1864. The cars were 12’ long, accommodated 10-12 passengers and trundled along at breathtaking 3 mph. Its first run started up State St. from Broadway, over Eagle to Washington and Central and Northern Blvd. (then Knox St.). Soon the Albany Company became dominant and added other lines; to the West Albany Railroad shops, up Clinton Ave., down South Pearl to Kenwood and into North Albany. Routes expanded rapidly; horse cars were running to and into Troy and Cohoes and Watervliet.

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4 (2)In the 1870s the original Pine Hills line began; it started at North Pearl St. and Maiden Lane, down to South Pearl St. up Beaver St. to Grand St., west to Hamilton St. north to Lark St. , south to Madison Ave. and then past Washington Park over Madison to Quail St. and then expanded to Partridge St. By the late 1880s horse cars ran over the old Greenbush Bridge to Rensselaer and over the bridge into Troy.

Initially there were 2 horse car barns: on South Pearl near Second Ave. and on the corner of Broadway and Erie St. in North Albany ( we believe one of the original horse barns on Broadway remains; the other Broadway barns were demolished for I-90). In 1886, a third barn was added on Quail St., below Central.. By the mid-1880s Albany had 30 miles of track, 71 horse cars and 400 horses owne by the two Albany horse car companies.

Depending on the route grade, there would be a 1 horse or 2 horse team. State St. cars required 2 horses and on Market Days (Wednesday and Saturday) when farm wagons clogged State between Eagle and North Pearl, a “midget” horse car (called a bobtail) was needed to avoid the wagons. In heavy snow horse cars could be fitted with runners to function as sleighs. (During the Blizzard of 1888 a team of 8 horses tried to pull a car up the hill; it didn’t work and the car was abandoned in the street.)

Generally there was a driver and a conductor to collect fares and keep order. In the winter there were small stoves in the center of the car and hay lined the floor; there were open air cars in the summer. The cleanliness of the horse car generally depended on the conductor. By the 1880s cars were larger and some could handle 20 passengers (and often more – having to stand on a horse car was not uncommon). Some lines ran cars every 20 minutes during high use periods. There were regular stops but you could hail a horse car and you could ask to be let off in front of your house. Our favorite story from a newspaper of the time: a woman and her son got on a Pine Hills line; after a couple of minutes the female passenger told the conductor to halt the car, so her son could run back to their house and get an umbrella. It did and he did, as the rest of the passengers waited.

Horse cars obviously depended on the horses; they represented a significant investment. The animals were generally well tended, but there is no getting around the fact that it was grueling work. Depending on the route and whether the horse was part of a double team, the horses were expected to travel 14-20 miles/day. The average life span of a horse was 3-5 years. Overcrowding posed problems. While teams were switched on routes as passengers waited, there are stories of some animals simply dropping dead in the street. At one point many of the animals of one company died from drinking contaminated well water in the barns. There were accidents – with pedestrians and wagons and carriages.

Nevertheless – horse cars were wildly popular and successful. They allowed the city to finally expand and they shortened the time of the commute as people increasingly chose to live farther from their place of business. The fare within the city was a nickel. While they made money for investors they were still expensive to operate. Horse car companies all across the country were looking for alternatives. Car systems involving electric cables and steam were tried, to eliminate the need for horses, but none were really successful.

4But a number of inventors were working on a more practical electric system. Frank Sprague is generally credited with the invention of the first viable electric trolley system (in Richmond in 1888), but it is Leo Daft* with Albany connections after whom the “trolley” is named. Leo devised a mechanism to collect electric current using a wheeled device on the car; the device was called a “troller,” after the way it was towed behind the car. Daft’s system proved less than practical and electric poles as a means of providing electric current, but the name “trolley” stuck.

 

4.4The first test of an electric trolley in Albany was on a Sunday in 1889 on State St. (much to the surprise of St. Peter’s Church parishioners who has not been told this would happen). Soon trolley poles dotted the city, as electric trolleys were phased in. The power plant was located on South Pearl and Gansevoort, near the location of an old Mohawk and Hudson railroad round house). The transition to all electric cars in Albany was completed in 1894. 5**

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In the next 2 decades, car routes were extended and new routes established with electric cars. The Pine Hills line was extended to S. Allen St., then to Manning Blvd and ultimately to the Albany Country Club (where the University at Albany is today) over Western Ave. This was the farthest point of the trolleys in the city; the trip from downtown to the Country Club took about 30 minutes (about what it would take today). As development started on Delaware Ave. above Lincoln Park (then Beaver Park) a line was added from Lark St. down to Second Ave. A route was added over Clinton Ave. (although a route through Arbor Hill, eagerly awaited by residents, never materialized), a new route in the South End over Broad St. and Trinity Pl. was established.

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7.6The Albany Railway Co. started buying competitors in Albany, Troy, Watervliet and Cohoes. The name was changed to the United Traction Company (UTC) in 1899. It commissioned anew office on the corner of Broadway and Columbia St. designed by the preeminent architect Marcus Reynolds (who also designed the D & H Building and the Delaware Ave. fire house). The building, although it needs some TLC, remains on that corner.

 

 

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The trolleys continued to be popular and lucrative; ridership grew as the population increased (by 1900 Albany’s population was 100,000) and new routes were added.

But the 20th century would take its toll on the trolley. If we recall correctly the first automobile in Albany made its appearance in 1901 (it was owned by a physician). By 1912 there are reports of parking problems in downtown. In 1913 Henry Ford’s assembly line was churning out Model-T’s at the rate of 1 every 15 minutes, and they were affordable for the working class. Larger vehicles (a/k/a buses or coaches) that could accommodate multiple passengers were not far behind. They could go anywhere and were not restricted to rails and overhead electric current.

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8There was also trouble in worker’s paradise as company profits rose. In May 1901 there was a strike by UTC workers who wanted a pay raise and union recognition. It turned violent and 2 people were killed by the 23rd National Guard, deployed by the Governor at the request of the county sheriff, to guard the trolleys driven by strikebreakers. (The 1901 strike is the pivotal event in William Kennedy’s “Ironweed”.) The end of the strike was negotiated with a modest raise for strikers and the UTC’s agreement to meet with labor representatives. Labor issues continued to plague the UTC for decades, from small walk outs to protracted negotiation and arbitration.


8.8

In 1921 a major wage dispute (the UTC proposed to cut wages on Troy lines) erupted into a strike of over 1,000 UTC workers. It started with violence in the late January; the newly formed New York State Police were deployed to protect strikebreakers running the trolleys in Albany, Troy, Watervliet and Cohoes. After initial clashes, the strike moved into a battle of attrition. For the most part trolley riders supported the workers. Private “jitneys” (think “gypsy cabs”) proliferated. The strike lasted throughout the summer; when it ended neither side has gained anything substantive.

(The strike helped end the longtime Republican machine rule over Albany; it was viewed as supporting the UTC over workers. In November 1921 Democrat William Hackett was elected mayor, with the help of Dan O’Connell – one door closes; another opens.)

13.2Buses began to run in areas of the city and adjacent suburbs in which residential development was growing exponentially, including New Scotland Ave. and Whitehall Rd. where there were no trolleys. By 1922 there were already bus companies serving these areas. It simply wasn’t financially feasible for the UTC to invest in trolley infrastructure. The UTC started acquiring bus lines and substituting bus service for trolleys. An owner of the Consolidated Care Heating Co. on North Pearl St. (it’s still there as CMP industries) which a had long history making parts for UTC cars) was experimenting with alternative vehicles- trackless trolleys.*** The new Versare Corp started to manufacture the vehicles; the UTC purchased at least one for its Western Ave. line. But the trolleybus, as it came to be known, didn’t catch on; it still required infrastructure to carry electric current, and once in place, it was difficult to re-route.

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In 1930 at the beginning of the Depression Albany’s population was now about 127,000 and had dispersed farther westward; real estate development had extended to Washington Heights (upper Washington Ave.), So, Manning Blvd, Buckingham Gardens (the area just west of So, Manning along New Scotland) and to Whitehall Rd. near Cardinal Ave. (the city line at the time). All these new homes were built with garages for the owner’s car. In 1927 a City Planning Commission was created to establish standards for this new development, including roads and traffic signals. (This was also the first attempt at citywide zoning in Albany.)

Throughout the Depression and into World War II trolleys continued to roll through the streets of Albany, but they became a much less important part of the UTC’s business model, which was now focused on buses.

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By the end of World War II the era of the trolley was over; the last UTC trolley ran on August  31, 1946, with Mayor Erastus Corning taking a turn on the throttle.  The #834 car did a full circuit of  the Belt line  route on a hot night and then returned to the Quail St. barn as a small crowd,  in the hot still night,  sang “Auld  Lang Syne”.

Private automobile ownership in the post War era was on the rise. The population pushed out into the suburbs and businesses followed. (The first shopping center in the area, Delaware Plaza, was established in Elsmere in 1955.) UTC profitability declined and it continued to be plagued by labor disputes. A 25 day strike in September/October 1967 was a crippling blow to a company already in financial toruble.

Similar financial problems were playing out among all the bus companies in the region at the same time. In 1970 the NYS Legislature created a public corporation, the Capital District Transportation Authority (CDTA) to provide regional transportation services as the UTC and other companies went out of business. It took over the operations of the UTC and the Schenectady Transit Company.

There are 2 vestiges of the glory days of the trolley in Albany besides odd fragments of track buried under layers of street paving materials that come to light now and then. Two trolley poles remain – there is one on Hamilton St., just below Lark and another, recently restored through donations of concerned Albany citizens, on Quail St., between Madison Ave and Western Ave.

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*Leo Daft was an English inventor and electrical engineer who married Catherine Flansburgh, with Dutch roots going back to the mid-1600s in Albany. Their daughter Matilda married another Brit, Alfred Williams and the family (including Grandpa Leo) lived in Pine Hills for least 3 decades. (Grandpa Leo’s son was my great uncle.)
** The last horse car, in the Lumber District, ran into the early 1900s. As we understand it, it was never discontinued when the others were because of an odd clause in an abstruse UTC contract. We’ve heard that the horse car ended up in the Ford Museum in Dearborn.
*** The Versare Co. was sold to the Cincinnati Car Corp. in the late 1920s; that company closed in the 1930s in the midst of the Depression.

The Women of Colonial Albany

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These short biographies come from calendar prepared by Stefan Bielinski of the Colonial Albany Project for Albany’s 1986 Tricentennial.  ( You should take a look at his Colonial Albany Social History Project )

Most of the women discussed here were the matriarchs of our city:

Alida Schuyler Van Rensselaer Livingston
Anna De Ridder Yates
Anna Von Rotmers Bradt
Anna Cuyler Van Schaick
Cathaline Schuyler Cuyler
Elizabeth Staats Wendell Schuyler
Elsie Wendell Schuyler
Engeltie Wendell Lansing
Magdelena Douw Lansing
Maria – a slave
Sara Gansevoort
Rachel Lambert Van Valkenburgh Radcliff

I have to admit I’m partial to Rachel Van Valkenburgh Radcliff, one of my 9th great grandmothers; a tough old bird and a workhorse.

Talk about Albany History – Rachel was the grandmother of Johannes Radcliff in – who was the second owner of the historic Van Ostrand- Radcliff House at 48 Hudson Ave. , the oldest structure Albany. And a little known fact, she was also a great grandmother (through her daughter Elizabeth) of James Eights who painted all those wonderful watercolors of Albany in the early 1800s. alioda.jpg

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The Most Prolific Albany Artists You May Never have Heard of – Meet the Van Zandts – Father and Son

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We’re pretty sure you’ve seen at least one of these pictures before. We love them; they’re cheerful and take us back to a time in our history. They were all painted by a father or son from Albany NY – Thomas Kirby Van Zandt (known as Kirby Van Zandt) or his son, William Garrett Van Zandt.

The Van Zandt family had roots in Albany going back to the 1600s; they were among the earliest of the Dutch Settlers. It appears the family lived in the city until about 1780 or so, and then purchased a farm near the New Scotland Plank Road in the town of Bethlehem. (The Van Zandt farm was probably close to what is now the intersection of Whitehall Rd. and New Scotland Ave.) Kirby married, Frances McCormick from the same vicinity. Archibald McCormick came from Scotland in 1787 and operated a farm about where the Academy of Holy Names is today, across from what is now McCormick Rd.

Thomas Van zandtKirby was born in 1814 and by time he was 30, in 1844, identified himself as a painter in the city directory. At that time he was living on State St. between Lark and Dove. He sounds like a young man who was fairly confident in his talent and his ability to make a living through his art. The confidence was not misplaced; he was very successful over 40 years. He specialized in horses and farm animals. The area outside Albany was still rural and scattered with hundreds of farm in the surrounding counties,. If you were a fairly well-to-do farmer, you would have the well-known painter Kirby Van Zandt paint your prize winning chicken or bull. Kirby also established himself as a horse-and-carriage painter catering to Albany’s wealthier citizens, like Erastus Corning and Kirby’s brother-in-law, Judge Van Aernum (the painting of the Judge and his sleigh is in the permanent collection of the Albany Institute of History and Art). In later years he specialized in horses and spent time in Saratoga at the horse tracks.

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A fast trotterThe Van Zandt paintings are referred to as “folk art”, but that isn’t meant to diminish the quality of the paintings. It’s a term that just describes their style. The Metropolitan Museum says these 19th century “ (folk)artists worked principally in the Northeast… Almost all of them favored strong colors, broad and direct application of paint, patterned surfaces, generalized light, skewed scale and proportion, and conspicuous modeling. Most developed compositional formulas that allowed them to work quickly, with limited materials and in makeshift studios.” This describes Van Zandt, moving from farm to farm and painting livestock and chickens in barns. In an era when photography was still a new thing, Van Zandt paintings were widely known in this area as way to preserve the image of your favorite animal.

But In several instances Kirby went out of his comfort zone; they involve Leland Stanford (Stanford University). Stanford and his wife Jane Lathrop were born in Albany. Although younger than Van Zandt, Stanford clearly respected Van Zandt’s talent and commissioned his work a number of times. In 1878 Stanford invited the noted photographer Eadweard Muybridge to his estate to settle an argument. Muybridge is a photographer important for his pioneering work in photographic studies of motion and early work in motion-picture projection.

05952rStanford, who loved horse and horse racing (the shared passion with Van Zandt) believed that at a horse ran all four legs left the ground and at some point it was suspended in the air. Stanford wanted Muybridge to capture this moment in the horse’s stride, an instance imperceptible to the naked eye. Muybridge took a series of photos. The plate itself was fuzzy and unsuitable for publication, so it was left to Van Zandt to strengthen the image. He reproduced the image twice, first as drawing of “crayon and ink wash” dated September 16, 1876, and again as the finished canvas in 1878.

Van Zandt also painted one of the few pictures of Leland Stanford, Jr., (when he was about 12 in 1881), 3 years before his too young death from typhoid when he was 15. It’s a picture of a bundled up boy and his dog near a frozen lake where people are skating, so it was probably painted in Albany on a Stanford family trip back East. It may be set in Washington Park.leland stanford

 

The Cantor Museum at Stanford University includes six paintings by Kirby Van Zandt and one by his son William. They include the Leland, Jr painting and Jane’s childhood home – somewhere on Washington Ave. between Dove and S. Hawk. (There are several addresses for their homes in the 1840s city directories so we’ve been unable to establish the exact location.) He also painted Jane’s father, Dyer Lathrop and Leland Sr,’s childhood home on Central Ave. just beyond the Albany city line. Of course he did several pictures of Stanford’s favorite horse, “Abe Edgington”.

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abe edgington with dog bill

As Kirby’s success grew, and he married and had a family, he moved to Knox St. near Madison, where he ultimately had his home and a studio in the building next door. But as Washington Park grew the Van Zandt properties were acquired for Park expansion. The family located to the farm on New Scotland where Kirby spent his final years before his death in 1886. The area was then known as Hurstville, and it must have been quite agreeable, since there was a horse racing track located about where Mater Christi church and school are today (the Pleasure Park trotting track existed from the 1860s to the early 1900s).

WilliamThis brings us to his son, William who followed in his father’s footsteps. William was born in 1867 while the family lived in Albany. He had his father’s talent and his love of horse and horse racing. William was actually a “starter” for the Saratoga races and a member of Albany Driving Club. (The Driving Club met at Woodlawn Park – where Albany Academy for Boys is currently located and held trotting horse races.) In addition to painting, William held several jobs, including Albany City vital statistic registrar and then assistant superintendent for art in the Albany public schools. He lived at the family farm in New Scotland, then in the city at several uptown locations and then spent the last 20 or so years in Guilderland. He passed away in 1942.

Portarit of a cow

sulky and driver 1909

Both Van Zandts were prolific artists and their painting styles are similar (we read somewhere that William always include 3  birds somewhere his paintings – we can find in some and not others). It’s probable the Van Zandts painted hundreds of paintings in their lifetimes. They’re in the collections of the Bennington Museum and the Fenimore Art Museum; many are in private collections and other smaller galleries. Sometimes you can find a show at a local museum, but folk art has never really caught on in a big way, which we think is a shame. It can tell us a lot about the lives of the people and objects who were its subjects and the people who made the art.

A gentleman's ride

A trotter

afternoon sleighride

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horse Portait

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the leoipard

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