Albany in the Early 1900s; How it Changed

Cities are always re-inventing themselves. Where possible development spreads out, or if not, existing buildings are demolished, new ones rise in their place, or old ones can be re-cycled. Sometimes it happens slowly over time, and sometimes it seems to occur all at once.

With a few exceptions I always thought it mostly happened slowly in Albany. But then I found a partial diary/memoir of my Gram Kate, born in 1901 in Arbor Hill. And as I read it became apparent to me just how much downtown Albany changed in a brief decade – from 1910 to 1920. There was a building explosion – Albany was permanently altered in what must have been a blink of an eye.

In 1909 she stood on the Capitol steps with about 2,500 Albany school children as participant in Hudson Fulton Celebration (celebrating 300 years of New York history). The view in 1909 from the steps when she was 8 changed dramatically by the time she was 19 in 1920. There were other downtown changes, as well.

And curiously a number of those were driven by advances in technology (which we rarely think about).

  • The Albany High School on the corner of Columbia and Eagle was demolished and a new County Courthouse completed by 1915
  • On State St., just opposite the Capitol, the New York Telephone Building towered over all by 1915.
  • There was no statue of General Sheridan in front of the Capitol until it was dedicated in 1916.
  • As she walked down State St. if she looked to her right, she would have seen the new YWCA building on Steuben and Chapel.
  • On the left, on the corner of State and South Pearl, the old Globe Hotel was replaced by the the new Arkay building.By 1916 there were already traffic jams and double parking on State St. The city fathers were wondering if the new “traffic signals” would be cheaper than patrol men directing traffic.
  • If you walked over North Pearl the changes would have been the number of movie theatres. The stores on the corner of Monroe (it was parallel to Orange St.)were demolished for the new Strand movie theatre.
  • The Presbyterian Church opposite Clinton Square (next to what is now McGeary’s) became the Clinton Square theater.
  • Hang a right down Clinton Ave, walking toward Broadway, and she would have found the new Grand movie theater ( where Federal Bldg. is today).
  • When she reached Broadway and took a right walking towards State St., the biggest changes could be seen. Off the the left there was the new Yacht Club and the municipal recreation pier, just behind Union Station.
  • And then there was the Mac Daddy of all development – the D & H Building. In a matter of 4 years about 5 blocks stretching east, down to the River were demolished, and the D& H rose in 2 parts. When completed in 1918 it would dominate the Riverfront, and present a magnificent view from the Capitol steps.
  • Moving south on Broadway there would be the new Hudson Navigation docks and sheds at Steamboat Square, completed in 1918.
  • On her way home, walking up Washington Ave, before crossing the Hawk St. viaduct, Kate could see the re-construction of the Capitol, where it had been damaged in the 1911 fire.
  • Just beyond the Capitol, north to Swan St., everything had been demolished to Swan St, and a new West Capitol Park constructed.
  • Across the way, gleaming granite in the sun, stood the Education Building, dedicated in 1912.

And when she crossed the Viaduct, and made her way over North Swan, she would see the new Arbor Hill Movie theater , where she would get a really good part-time job playing the organ for the silent flicks on weeknights when she was 16. (Although she would be riddled with guilt because it was mainly because the boys were off to War, and wonder how much the fact her father’s barbershop was next door to theater had to do with it.

Julie O’Connor