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

A vision of Albany’s future, circa 1914; Get the flux capacitor

In 1912, architect Arnold W. Brunner was asked by James B. McEwan, then Mayor, to prepare studies for the improvement of Albany. The results were collected into a 1914 book entitled “Studies For Albany,” which I found on Google Books.

Much of what Brunner proposed was grandiose beyond belief, while other proposals were more practicable.

Here are some excerpts from that publication, which contains some excellent and rarely-seen photographs of Albany circa 1914.

STATE STREET
Brunner was critical of the eastern end of State, where it met the river, in ‘a tangle of mean streets and wretched buildings.” Although he knew there was a continuing desire to secure a view of the Hudson River, he acknowledged that clearing the area would only provide a view of the railroad yard. He recommended obliterating this view with a plaza that would screen the industrial scenario. This eventually became what we knew as the D&H Building.

Stvdies for Albany

THE STATE STREET PIER
The State Street Pier, containing the Albany Yacht Club building, was deemed isolated and improperly proportioned.. Brunner redesigned the pier, suggesting concrete paving instead of green fields, and discussed the ongoing replacement of the old bridge that connected the Pier with Quay Street.

THE RIVER FRONT
As for the waterfront, Brunner said, “The Albany water front had long been give up to commerce. Railways, steamships, factories and warehouses had siezed it and ruined it. Their activities were carried on in a slipshod manner without order or system, as may be seen in the accompanying photographs. The devastating ugliness of the old water front can no longer be endured.”

Brunner’s new waterfront would be one of “order and completeness.” He suggested elevating the railroad tracks and concealing them from view, a widened Broadway, freight yards screened away from view by walls and covered passages, and a uniform code of architecture, none of which came to pass.

 

CITY ENTRANCE
Brunner thought the Rensselaer Bridge “awkward and aggressively ugly,”’ and a horrible introduction to Albany. “As we cross the bridge from Rensselaer,” he said, “we find the most deplorable state of affairs on reaching the Albany side, and we receive the worst impression of a neglected neighborhood. There is a dangerous grade crossing, bad roads and a complication of tracks, freight cars and unsightly warehouses. Nothing could be more shabby and unpleasant.”

The imposing structure he proposed was loosely based on the grand entranceways to Bordeaux and Barcelona. It would be high enough to hide the trains on the other side. It’s an amazing rendering.

Stvdies for Albany

MARKET PLACE
Albany’s market place was an overcrowded mess. Brunner suggested expanding it eastward and installing a slightly elevated covered platform up to which vendors could pull up their trucks, and upon which shoppers could examine and purchase goods while being sheltered from the elements.

Stvdies for Albany

SHERIDAN PARK
This was the name for that steep drop-off property between Dove and Swan, extending from Elk Street almost to Sheridan Avenue. Brunner proposed a walking terrace and esplanade with playgrounds and a vehicle scenic overlook.

SUNKEN GARDEN
This was the name for the three blocks between Lancaster and Chestnut, from Main to Ontario, which eventually became St. Mary’s Park. The recommendation was a sunken garden, with decorative flower beds, a fountain, trees, and pavilions.

Stvdies for Albany

BEAVER PARK
Beaver Park, most of which was an unsanitary mess, would eventually become Lincoln Park. Brunner proposed an ambitious project incorporating an athletic field, a swimming pool, a children’s playground, and some monumental structures. There would be a broad flight of steps leading from the track to the top of the terrace; they would double as a grandstand. A pavilion would contain dressing rooms, baths, etc.

Stvdies for Albany

The swimming pool would have two parts, one for swimmers, and the other a children’s wading pool. “It is intended to secure the appearance of a natural lake with sandy shores and bottom and to provide all the delights of ‘the old swimming hole.’” At the lower end of the park would be a children’s playground, with wading pool, sand piles, slides, swings and a babies’ lawn “in front of a shady pergola for the mothers.”

Stvdies for Albany

A new bandstand was also recommended.

Stvdies for Albany

One of the few remaining old houses on the west end of the property was once the home of Dr James Hall, a noted geologist. It was to be remodeled and used for meetings and bad-weather recreation.

house-beaver-park.jpg

In time, much of what Brunner suggested for the park came to be.

 

SWINBURNE PARK
Band concerts were popular here at the turn of the century, so a deluxe new bandstand was proposed, large enough to double as an open-air theatre for plays and cultural events.

 

From Al Quaglieri’s  blog Doc Circe Died for Our Sins