Albany’s Whitehall Park – Own a Piece of the American Dream

At the turn of the 20th century American cities were crowded unsanitary and unhealthful places. They were grappling with issues caused by dense urbanization and industrialization.

Albany was no exception. Social reformers (mostly wealthy women – think Eleanor Roosevelt) set out to make changes. In Albany one of those was a Mary Vanderpoel Hun, the wife of the wealthy financier and magnate Marcus Hun. She was one of the leading lights of the social reform movement in the city. As a member of St. Peter’s Church she one of the forces behind the philanthropic funding of the Albany’s only settlement house, Trinity Institution, for immigrants. She was active in a variety of other programs and social reforms. (In her later years she would be one of the founders of the American Foundation for the Blind.)

But in the first decade of the 1900s her eye was fixed on poor housing conditions in Albany. There was a shortage of moderate priced decent housing, and often people were crammed cheek to jowl in tenements with no electricity, inadequate heat and no bathrooms. But many in the city were oblivious to the horrendous conditions, so Mrs. Hun took a number of the rich and powerful men on a tour of Albany’s slums, and the Chamber of Commerce got involved.

Grange Sard (one of the richest and most powerful men in the city and president of Ransome, Sard and Co.,, (manufacturer of Acorn stoves, wildly popular and sold across the country) decided to do something. Around 1911 he incorporated a group of like-minded local men with deep pockets to create the Albany Homebuilding Co. They purchased a large tract of land in the town of Bethlehem just on the city line, on Whitehall Rd., west of Delaware Ave., that had once been part of the Ten Eyck Farm. Another smaller tract was purchased in North Albany (it’s called Lawn Ave. today), near North Pearl St. Both areas were located close to trolley lines (the fare at that time was a nickel).

The company’s purpose was to construct “modern, sanitary dwellings in locations away from crowded streets and at the same time within easy access of the business sections of the city. The company has foremost in its mind the idea of housing families in clean and airy houses with the best possible environments, believing that good homes mean good citizens.” It saw its efforts as of great civic importance, as well because “the man who owns his own home is a more interested citizen” and “homes were needed to improve the condition of working men and their families”.

This was a new approach to home building for working men and their families. There had been residences constructed by some factories for their workers, and developers had focused on building houses in proximity to the West Albany Stockyards and the New York Central railroad shops, but nothing had been built with the intent of providing housing for the “everyman”, regardless of where he worked.

The company was capitalized with $100,000 and shareholder return on investment was limited to an annual 5%.

By 1914, 24 two and one family detached houses on Lawn Ave. had been constructed, sidewalks poured, trees planted and the street paved. There were 39 single family homes in Whitehall Park, on Whitehall Rd. and what would become Sard and McDonald Roads (William McDonald, a wealthy banker was VP of the Company). All houses had gas, electricity and hardwood floors, a bathroom and a cellar.

“The company has arranged its selling scheme so that the man whose ready resources are limited stands on an equal footing with man who has more”. The property could be purchased on an installment plan, through payment of rent. (The availability of mortgages as we know them today wasn’t a really thing in the early 1900s.) The down payment was less than $100 and a modest monthly rent was charged that was applicable towards the purchase price of the home. The company paid for water, taxes, insurance and repairs. When the renter was ready to purchase, those costs would be included in the purchase price. After 40% of the purchase price had been paid through the rental process he would be given the deed, and a mortgage arranged with a local savings bank for the remaining 60 %. The goal was to permit the buyer to own the home outright within a decade or so.

Yet these were social reformers – do-gooders, so before a house could be sold or rented the good “character and the integrity” of the applicant has to be established, including references.

But the developments were successful. The houses cost between $1,900 to $3,400. (At the time the average wage was about $550- $600/per year and a dozen eggs cost about a quarter.) There were many styles -2 story, bungalows and cottages – and sizes to fit individual family needs. The supervising architect was Addison Worthington from Michigan, whose work had been featured in a number of trade journals as well as “American Home and Garden”; he specialized in a style I would call the lower cost cozy cottage. Lot frontage ranged from 27’ x 35 with a depth from 85’ x 100’ and setbacks of a minimum of 20 ft., trees and cement sidewalks.

The goal was to allow men to “bring up their families where they can have the advantages of light and air, keeping the facilities and comfort of the cities.”

The company had plans to expand to other areas, but it wasn’t necessary. Whitehall Park generated an explosion of construction of modest homes and bungalows in the neighborhood. The area was annexed by the city and by 1921 Public School 23 (now ASH) was built (it was for years, the jewel in the Albany school district crown), which triggered even more development.

The south side of Whitehall Rd., part of the old Ten Eyck Farm, sold off rapidly. Much of the north side was owned by land speculator James Weaver who died in 1914, and after lengthy legal wrangling, those lots started to sell around 1918. Some developers were merely land speculators, selling lots, while other were home builders. They created the first real subdivisions in the city. The area around Rose Ct. was called Ideal Heights.

The trolley line was not extended to Whitehall Rd., although a bus line was approved in the early 1920s. But by 1917 Henry Ford was selling over ½ million Model T cars a year, at a price of $345. The developers in Whitehall Park made room for garages.

The demand for housing in this area of the city countinued for another 30 years or so. My 30 something grandparents purchased their land on Holmes Ct. (on the other side of School 23) at a fire sale price just as the Depression was reaching a peak in 1931, but didn’t build until 1937. But throughout the Depression years of the 1930s houses continued to sell in the Whitehall Rd. area and banks gave the area a good rating when granting mortgages.

Copyright 2021  Julie O’Connor

A Brief History of Albany’s New Scotland Avenue and How it Grew

At the beginning of the 1800s there was nothing on the New Scotland Plank Rd. but farmland, woods and fields. The first buildings we know are an inn, the Log Tavern* at the corner of Krumkill Rd.-a stopping point for the farmers going to and from the city, and a couple of farmhouses. The Plank Rd. was a toll road with several tollgates – one just beyond Ontario St. and another near what’s now the Golf Course.

3In 1826 the Almshouse (poor house) was established in the area that today is bounded by New Scotland Ave., Holland Ave., Hackett Blvd. and Academy Rd. (Back then the other 3 streets didn’t exist.) The next building to be constructed, in the 1840s, was the Penitentiary. (The VA Hospital is there now; built in the late 1940s, after the Penitentiary was razed in the 1930s.)

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In the 1870s William Hurst established Pleasure Park, a popular and successful horse race trotting track and picnic area near Whitehall Rd. and New Scotland Ave. (He later went on to own the Log Tavern.)

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2But Albany was growing – moving west, out Lydius St. (now Madison Ave.). In the early 1860s the area around the intersection of Madison and New Scotland started to see development, and a little stub of New Scotland Rd. from Madison to Myrtle Ave. was known briefly (for about 15 years) as Lexington Ave. In 1871 Washington Park opened and the area became fashionable. By the 1880s the Park trustees decided build a house for the Park’s Superintendent, as well as an array of greenhouses, on what is now the corner of Holland Ave. and New Scotland.

zzzzYet development west of Myrtle Ave. was slow. In 1893 the Dudley Observatory ** moved from Arbor Hill to New Scotland and South Lake Ave. In the late 1890s Albany Hospital was bursting at the seams in its downtown location at Eagle and Howard Streets, and moved to New Scotland Ave. About a decade later the Albany Orphan Asylum moved to what is now the corner of Academy Rd. and New Scotland Ave. (from Robin St. and Western Ave.). Today the buildings house the Sage College of Albany. It was originally known as the Junior College of Albany when it first opened in 1959.)***

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5.1But within the decade residential and commercial growth exploded. Much of the land near the intersections of South Lake Ave. and Academy Rd. **** was owned by the Albany Driving Association, a private club that had a track for trotter horse races to the west of Academy Rd. The members decided to sell their vast tract of land (between New Scotland and what is now Hackett Blvd. and Forest Ave.) and established the Woodlawn Park development.

7Steadily residential growth pushed west. Yet there was no trolley service. The first bus service started about1914 – the “terminal” was at the intersection of South Allen St. and New Scotland. But this was a “suburban” area deliberately designed to accommodate the automobile as the primary means of transportation.

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By 1920 the Troop B Armory was constructed next to the Orphan Asylum. (Today it’s part of the Sage College Campus.) In 1921 Memorial Grove (the corner of South Lake and New Scotland) was created to honor the men who died in World War I.

7.1And that’s how New Scotland Ave. grew. By the mid-1920s there was a fire house, a public school, and Catholic Church. By the early 1930s St. Peter’s Hospital re-located to its current spot, from North Albany. The Depression initially halted residential development, but by the late 1930s the area beyond Manning Blvd. became a highly desirable location. It was zoned residential and the municipal golf course had been built just outside the city limits in 1931. Well-off families flocked to developments with enticing names -Golden Acres, Heldervale and Buckingham Gardens. Albany annexed land in Slingerlands several times and the city border pushed close to Whitehall Rd.

1930s New Scotland Ave

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University Heights

20In the early 1930s Holland Ave. was created. ( It was once the route for the Mohawk- Hudson Railroad, chugging from the Point at Madison and Western Avenues. to downtown.) The Almshouse was demolished, making way for the Law School to move from State St,. the Pharmacy College from Eagle St. and a NYS Health Dept. Laboratory was built across from the Hospital. University Heights was almost complete. Then Christian Brothers Academy moved uptown from Howard St. and the Fort Orange American Legion Post ** was built next to Memorial Grove.

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1940s and 1950s

33The next spurt of development began after World War II. There was a severe post-war housing crisis in Albany – the last farm within the city limits was sold in 1947 for the Weiss Rd. apartments. Hundreds of houses were constructed in the area surrounding New Scotland Ave. west of Manning to accommodate growing families with baby boomers. Two churches, St. Catherine’s Roman Catholic (now Mater Christi) and Bethany Reformed, were built in the 1950s and Temple Israel re-located to New Scotland in 1953. Maria College opened in 1965.

1,1After the annexation of Karlsfeld and Hurstville in 1967 New Scotland Ave. was complete and extended to the Normanskill.

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1960s and 1970s

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2000s

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*The Log Tavern morphed into the Hurst Hotel, and became a favorite romantic rendezvous and “love nest”, especially for politicians’. It was destroyed by fire on election night, 1929. (Oh the irony.)

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** The Dudley Observatory and Bender Laboratory (behind the Obeservatory) and the Legion post were demolished in 1970 to build the Capital District Psych Center and the attached parking garage.

***In the 1959 Russell Sage College purchased some of the buildings of what was then known as the Albany Home for Children and established the Junior College of Albany. In 2001 the College began offering 4 year degrees at the site, as the Sage College of Albany.

**** Academy Rd. was initially known as Highland Ave. – the name changed in the 1930s when Boy’s Academy moved from downtown.

Copyright 2021 Julie O’Connor

HOW ALBANY GREW (Annexation, Annexation, Annexation)

(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 boundaries.