More in our Recurring Series: The Bicentennial Tablets; Where Are They Now? First Presbyterian Church

Tablet No. 9 – First Presbyterian Church

As we’re tracking the histories associated with the tablets that were installed in 1886 to commemorate the bicentennial of Albany’s charter as a city, we’ve been lucky so far in that nearly all of the tablets we’ve written about have survived. The first lost tablet marked the site of the first Lutheran Church. Now the second one that has been lost is the one marking the site of the first Presbyterian church. And given the tremendous changes in topography in this particular part of Albany, it’s a little difficult to show exactly where it was. But we’ll try.

Inscription on Tablet

Bronze tablet, 16×22 inches, inserted in the wall of building north-east corner of Grand and Hudson streets. Inscribed thereon :
“Site of the First Presbyterian Church — Built 1763 — Removed 1796.”

Of course the north-east corner of Grand and Hudson Ave. doesn’t exist anymore, it’s buried somewhere under what is now the Times-Union Center. And to the best of my knowledge this tablet doesn’t exist anymore either. “The Argus” in 1914 noted that this was one of three tablets that had “been refastened with slot-headed screws, instead of having the heads filed flat as originally, and in one case at least the screws are becoming loosened.” The paper also noted that “there is a possibility of the city taking the block bounded by Hudson Avenue, Grand, Beaver and William streets for an addition to the public market, in which case something would have to be done with tablet No. 9, marking the site of the First Presbyterian church.” In the end, that building was unaffected by the market, which was built across the street.

The Neighborhood

It is really hard to relate where things used to be when they have changed so very, very substantially. All of the  tablets so far have been on buildings that continue to exist, or at least in places we could point to with some ease. But here we’re talking about entire city blocks that are gone, on streets that we barely recognize in the modern landscape. So, we’ve done the best we can to relate where the first three buildings of the First Presbyterian Church of Albany were located. The first location is squarely underneath the Times-Union Center (not to worry: the Presbyterians came late enough there were no burials around their church that we are aware of). The second is under the plaza corner of the Omni Tower. The third is buried directly below the exit roads from the Empire State Plaza and the East Parking Garage.

The First Presbyterian Church

A history of the First Presbyterian Church of Albany, written by Rev. J. McClusky Blayney in 1877 unhelpfully says, “The exact date and circumstances of the organization of the Presbyterian Church in this city, I have not been able to ascertain.” We aren’t a professional historian, but to Mr. Blayney, author of the history of the First Presbyterian Church, we must say: you had one job.

Blayney said that he had seen notices of the date of organization of the church as 1763, and that he thought it a mistake related to the deed of October 1763, when the City provided a deed for a lot on which to build a church. Blayney believed the congregation dated to at least a year earlier, in 1762, and he noted that in 1760 there was at least Presbyterian preaching being done here. The Albany church was associated with the Dutchess County Presbytery in late 1762 or 1763. In 1775 it was transferred to the Presbytery of New York; a Presbytery of Albany was established in 1790. The first pastor of this church was Rev. William Hanna. But the Bicentennial Committee, anyway, was satisfied with a date of 1763 for the church building, and that appears to be the best we’re going to do.

The First Church Building: Hudson and Grand

The first building stood with Hudson street to its south, Grand to its west, Beaver to the north, and William to the east. Blayney writes that “This ground was then known as ‘the gallows hill,’ and is described as being ‘very steep.’” (Several Albany locations have been called gallows hill at various times.)

“The first church building was erected on this lot during the year 1764. A stairway winding around the hill, and very difficult of ascent during the winter season, was the only means of approach to the church. The house was built of wood, and is described as being ‘of a respectable size, though not of a very elegant appearance.’ It was covered with a flat roof and surmounted with a tower and spire, the tower containing a bell. it was painted red, and stood fronting the east.” Unfortunately, we have found no image of this first church. This description is as much as we know of it.

That description would place the very first Presbyterian church building just about at the southeast box office entrance of the Times-Union Center. The driveway into the parking lot from the current Market Street is essentially William Street. The marker was placed on a building at the northeast corner of Grand and Hudson, so just a little bit west along the Times-Union Center’s current structure from that entrance. The building that stood there (97 Hudson, or 16 Grand, depending on which way one was facing) was used for many years by Chuckrow’s Poultry – possibly as early as 1900, and at least until 1972. So it appears the building even survived the Empire State Plaza and expressway construction.

A look at photographs of Chuckrow’s doesn’t reveal the location of the tablet – given how many windows were in the facade at street level, it’s likely that renovations to the building could have displaced the tablet at any time. The building likely survived into the ’70s; a 1980s photograph shows the corner building gone, but the remaining strip on Grand still intact, so the block likely survived until the construction of the Times-Union Center.

The Second Church Building: South Pearl and Beaver

Owing to the growth in the congregation, the trustees of the church appointed a committee in 1792 to purchase “a lot on the plains” for a new church – presumably they had had enough of the stairs. The lot was on the northeast corner of South Pearl and Beaver streets, and a construction contract was let in March 1795. They struggled to raise the needed money, and borrowed against the future sale of pews. The church was completed and first occupied Nov. 2, 1796; “the steeple was not finished for nearly twelve years afterwards.”

Given the timing, we suspected that this second church could have been the work of Albany’s preeminent architect of the day, Philip Hooker, but according to “A Neat Modern Stile: Philip Hooker and His Contemporaries,” this design was by Elisha Putnam. The steeple that wasn’t finished for nearly twelve years, however, was credited to Philip Hooker, in 1808.

That building was enlarged and remodeled in 1831. It remained the Presbyterian Church until 1850, when the congregation moved to another new church, this time at Philip and Hudson, just a block away from the church’s first location. The old (second) building became home to the Congregational Society for at least a few years.

The site of the second First Presbyterian church then became known as the Beaver Block (at least as early as 1869), and was used for businesses but also still hosted services, of the First Universalist Society. It seems likely the brick church was either torn down (“A Neat Modern Stile” reports it was razed circa 1890) or somehow incorporated into a much larger structure, because the Beaver Block, which housed many businesses and seems to have served as a union hall, was eventually a large structure spanning from Howard to Beaver.

Blayney sheds little light on the conversion, writing: “It then [1850] passed into the possession of the Congregational Society of this city, and was improved by them, till within a few years; when they removed to their new church on Eagle street. It was then sold, and has since been used for business purposes, and is now known as Beaver Block, on South Pearl street.” But try as we may, we do not find when the Beaver Block was finally demolished.

The Third Church Building: Philip and Hudson

The third structure to house the First Presbyterian Church was a substantial structure located at Philip and Hudson, opening in March 1850, although it wasn’t considered completed (with the construction of a lecture room) until 1857.

First Methodist Church

It was at this building that Susan B. Anthony found her woman’s suffragist groove in 1852.   In that year she came to Albany as an elected delegate, along with several other women, to a state temperance convention.  She rose to speak and was told that women were there merely to observe, not to speak.  Sje and other women walked out.  She went found her BFF Lydia Mott who lived in Albany; Mott suggested she hold her own temperance meeting, just for women, and arranged for that meeting to be held at the First Presbyterian Church.  As they say, “the rest is history”.

The front tower of the church was found to be dangerously settling in 1870, resulting in it being reconstructed and significant interior repairs made. In 1884, the Presbyterians moved again, to the much tonier neighborhood Washington Park and the church that still stands at the corner of State and Willett, and this church became the First Methodist Church; it was finally demolished around 1963-64 to make way for the South Mall, or the Empire State Plaza.

By Carl Johnson from his blog Hoxsie.org

More in the series – The Bicentennial Tablets from 1886 – where are they now?Bicentennial Tablet No. 8 – St. Mary’s Church

Continuing with the eighth in our series covering the tablets that were placed around the city of Albany (and a little beyond) in honor of the bicentennial of the city’s charter, in 1886. This one commemorated the first Catholic church in the city, which came pretty late in the city’s development.

Tablet No. 8—Old St. Mary’s Bronze tablet, 16×22 inches, inserted in wall of present edifice of that name on Pine Street.

Inscription: “Site of Old St. Mary’s Built A. D. 1797. The First Catholic Parish Church in Albany and second in the State. The entrance directly under this Tablet. A Second Building on this Same Spot, Facing on Chapel Street, was the Original Cathedral of this Diocese.”

Martin Joseph Becker’s A History of Catholic Life in the Diocese of Albany, 1609-1864 notes that the first Catholic Mass in New York was Nov. 14, 1655, at Indian Hill, two miles south of what is now Manlius, at what became a mission to the Iroquois. But in the Hudson Valley, Catholics were few — with the notable exception of Thomas Dongan, Catholic governor of New York from 1683-1688, in the time when James II, who had converted to Catholicism, ruled England.

Then, under William and Mary, tolerance of Catholics was no longer official policy, and “Jesuits, priests and popish missionaries” were outlawed in 1700. That situation continued in the colonies until the Revolution, so the only noted Catholics were random immigrants in the Mohawk Valley, and the Iroquois at Akwesasne. After the revolution, New York’s constitution of 1777 allowed all religions, and the ban on priests was eventually lifted in 1784.

In 1796, the Albany Gazette noted the success of a subscription for “erecting a Roman Catholic chapel in this city. It bespeaks the tolerant and liberal disposition of the country, to find out citizens of every persuasion emulous in assisting their Roman Catholic brethren with the means of building here a temple to the God of heaven, in which they can worship according to the dictates of their own consciences. The corporation [city] unanimously resolved to present them with a piece of ground for the site of their church.”

The cornerstone was laid by merchant Thomas Berry Sept. 13, 1797 at a site on what was then called Barrack St, now Chapel St.

Munsell, in his Annals of Albany Vol. 4, includes an article from the Albany Gazette of Sept. 10, 1798, proclaiming, “It is with the most heartfelt satisfaction that we can inform our brethren of the Roman Catholic faith, that their church in this city is so near completed as to be under roof, glazed and floored (fire proof). That it is a neat building, and will be an ornament to the city, and a lasting blessing to all who are members in communion of that church.” ”There were a number of indications that the building, which was built of brick and “fifty feet square,” was completed without being finished, precisely. In Feb. 1807″.

“Notice was given that a sermon would be preached in the Roman Catholic church, on Sunday morning, Feb. 22, by the Rev. Mr. Hurley, for the purpose of raising a collection to assist in finishing the inside of said church.”

It was this first church that was visited by the Marquis De Lafayette on his visits to Albany during his later tour of the United States; it has been repeatedly asserted that he heard mass in the church (from Rev. John Lewis Savage) in June 1825.

It wasn’t terribly long before that church was insufficient for its purpose, and it was replaced with a new church on the same site. The cornerstone for the second St. Mary’s, designed by Philip Hooker, was laid Oct. 13, 1829, and the church opened for services on August 29, 1830. Also constructed of brick, it reportedly cost $31,000. (During construction, the congregation held services in the Lancaster School, the Philip Hooker-designed building on Eagle Street, which would later be the first home of the Albany Medical College.)

In 1847, St. Mary’s became the Cathedral parish for the new Albany Diocese, but only for a short time, as the cornerstone of the Cathedral on Eagle Street was laid July 2, 1848, and the building dedicated Nov. 21, 1852.

The current St. Mary’s Church

Despite that and the development of other Catholic churches, it was decided that a new St. Mary’s was needed, and a cornerstone for a new church was laid August 11, 1867, and the new church dedicated March 14, 1869. (This one faced Lodge Street, instead of Chapel.)

A major, four-year renovation was completed in 1894, overhauling the interior and adding the tower with its iconic “Angel of Judgment” statue. At this time St. Mary’s became the first church building in Albany to have electric lights; they were very proud of having eight different circuits that allowed them to light any section of the church individually.

The third St. Mary’s still stands today. Since then, we presume additional lighting has been installed. Coming late as they did, the Catholics did not have a chance to fill downtown Albany with burials (unlike some other churches). They did have a section at the State Street Burying Grounds (now Washington Park), and in 1867 established their own cemetery, St. Agnes in Menands.

By Carl Johnson, from his blog,  Hoxsie.org