Albany’s Empire Theater

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The Empire Theatre on State St., above South Pearl St. in the early part of the 20th century.
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It was the biggest and most popular burlesque and vaudeville (but mostly burlesque) theater in Albany, from about 1900 to the early 1920s.
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And it was one of the two theaters where you could see Yiddish Theatre. (The other was Harmanus Bleecker Hall – Albany Public Library is in that location today.) Albany had one of the largest Jewish populations in America in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Some estimates put it between 15% – 20% of the total population of the city.

By 1900 this large immigrant population came from eastern Europe (Poland, Rumania, Czechlosovakia) and Russia. But the immigrants shared a common cultural language – Yiddish. Large Yiddish theatre and opera companies came up to Albany from New York City at least once a month.
The early 20th century burlesque shows included beautiful girls, scantily clad, but mostly, like vaudeville, they were broad farce. (Not strippers.) You could still laugh at the slapstick and admire the beauty and dancing even if your ability to speak English was limited. And if you spoke English, so much the better.
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The Empire hosted huge stars. Before Fannie Brice became a Ziegfield Girl she came to Albany in “The College Girls”  And this is where she met and married her first husband, Frank White, an Albany barber.
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Another favorite was Mollie Williams, one of the most enterprising of all the stars of burlesque. She was one of few Jewish stars of burlesque. By 1912, when she was in her early 30s, she owned her own company, and produced her own shows, touring all of the Northeastern U.S. Even the women in the audience seemed to love her.
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(After the Empire closed Mollie starred at the Capitol Theatre on Chapel St. In 1924 she became an American sweetheart. She included a skit in her act that championed raises for US. Post Office workers. They got the raise and when Mollie came to town they hosted parties in her honor. Mollie’s other dubious claim to fame – a very young vaudevillian, Milton Berle lost his virginity to her.)
The Empire closed in 1922.
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Julie O’Connor

Hampton Hotel Roof Garden

Roof garden restaurants began to be a thing in the 1880s. They were a way of beating summer heat, and creating small oasis in a crowded city.
The roof garden atop the Hampton Hotel on State St. just above Broadway was constructed in the early 1900s.
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There was music and dancing at the Hampton Hotel roof garden. You would have a spectacular view, Hudson River breezes, and there is a description of hundreds of tiny electric lights at night that made it seem like a fairyland.
It was designed to attract the middle and upper classes of Albany, and well-heeled hotel guests.
But I can imagine a young clerk or factory worker saving up to take his girl, maybe she was a store clerk, for a special night. She would be dressed in her best- maybe he gave her a small flower corsage. It might have been a romantic, magical night. A once in a life time experience, never to be forgotten.
Julie O’Connor

Albany’s Civil War Soldiers and Sailors Memorial

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Sometimes we take for granted the things we see every day. The Monument honoring Albany men who served in the Civil War probably falls into that category. It sits at the entrance to Washington Park at Henry Johnson Blvd.
Estimates vary, but we think about 7,000 -8,000 Albany soldiers and sailors served in the Civil War (Keep in mind the population of the city was about 62,000 in 1860.) They were old and young, married and single, and they were white and African American.
Yes, there were Black troops from Albany in the War. Most served in “Colored” regiments, but some served in “regular” regiments. (Much more research needs to be done to identify these men.)
Some of the men enlisted in regiments mustered in Albany, like the 44th New York. Others had moved out of the Albany by the time the War started, and enlisted in the towns and cities where they lived across the North.
They fought in almost every battle and naval action, from the first Battle of Bull Run, to the siege of Vicksburg, Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, the clash of the Merrimack and the Monitor, and were there at the surrender at Appomattox Court House.
And those who returned formed Veteran’s organizations.*In Albany there were about 5 – my GGG Charles Zeilman, who fought at Little Round Top helped found the Lew Benedict Post. Quickly these individual posts banded together in a great association called the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR).
And so the local chapters of the GAR across the country raised funds and lobbied governments for memorials to those who served and died. These monuments can be found in big cities and small towns all across the North.
Most were built in the latter part of the 19th century, but in the early part of the 1900s it became clear that the Vets were growing old and passing away. So there was a re-newed push for monuments to commemorate their heroic efforts. In Albany that began about 1906.
The NYS Legislature appropriated $100,000 and additional funds were raised. The original location selected was Capitol Park, but that changed. There was a competition to select the design; the commission was awarded to Harmon MacNeil and represents “The Nation of Peace Won Through Victorious War”.
The monument is 22 ft. high and 21 ft. wide; it’s built from Tennessee marble and granite from Stoney Creek.
The inscription reads:
“In commemoration of the men of Albany who gave their lives to save the Union, and in grateful recognition of all whose patriotism aided to giving to this nation under God a new birth of freedom, in making love of country a national virtue and endowing our land with peace and prosperity. “
A bronze figure represents the country. She holds palms of victory and peace, and a sheathed sword of war. Etched in marble behind her are soldiers and sailors marching to her defense. On the other side is a Civil War battery in action. One end shows a wounded drummer boy; the other a soldier returning to his wife and child. There are about 60 life size figures cut into the monument.
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The memorial was dedicated with a grand ceremony and parade in October, 1912.
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Until  the Great War (World War I) and the creation of Memorial Grove and the Gold Star Mothers Monument in the Grove, the Soldiers and Sailors Monument was the focus of all Decoration (Memorial) Day activities.
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*Sadly the Veterans posts mostly excluded African American soldiers who fought in the colored regiments. But in Saratoga County Billy Lattimore, (identified in the 1860 census as mulatto) fought with the 77th NY, and was an active member of the GAR for 50 years. (His grandfather Ben Lattimore Sr., a Revolutionary War soldier, is buried in Albany Rural Cemetery. )
However, the GAR national organization did include a number of African American members and officers who fought in regular and colored regiments, including a number of men who were born enslaved in the South.
Julie O’Connor
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Albany’s Lost Riverside Park – Playgrounds and Flying Boats

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In the late 1800s mostly Jewish and Italian immigrants poured into Albany’s South End. It was a densely packed area of tenements and stifling hot in the summer.
So in 1901 the Albany Common Council created Riverside Park along the Hudson. It was small, but centrally located, and could catch the breeze from the River.
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There was a staffed playground with activities for the children, a hoop court, benches and a band shell for concerts in the evenings.
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Within 10 years residential development exploded, as homes were built on Delaware Ave., New Scotland Ave., and Pine Hills. The people who moved into these areas now had access Washington Park and the newly constructed Beaver Park (now Lincoln Park). And so, by about the early 1920s, it fell into disuse.
In 1929 it became the Albany hub for Coastal Airways, and its office was located in the Park. Coastal Airways flew Sikorsky Seaplanes (aka, the “flying boat”) between Albany and NYC at Bowery Bay, and Montreal. The planes took off from Hudson River, and landed in the Hudson.
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Sikorsky S-38 Hydroplane
By the mid-1930s Riverside Park was no more than a small grass patch, and it appears to have all but vanished by 1940.

 

Julie O’Connor

Albany’s Woman’s Suffrage Parade 1914

2020 is the 100th anniversary of the ratification of 19th amendment allowing women to vote. The language is stunningly simple, but reflects over 70 years of struggles by generations of women (and some men).
“The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or any State on account of sex.”
Beginning in the late 1840s women began to make some modest gains (married women were allowed to own property, divorced women could be granted custody of children, etc. ), and in some states women could vote in all elections and some in some elections (school board). But women met defeat in many states.
In the 1890s a NYS constitutional convention refused to ratify for referendum a woman’s right to vote. But the women of the state re-grouped, and by the early 1900s the campaign began anew.
By 1914 it was approaching full throttle. And so the women of Albany and the surrounding area mounted a huge demonstration in the form of a parade in June 1914 in downtown Albany.
Hundreds of women participated; most wearing white dresses and sashes of yellow as they marched through the streets. There were teachers, nurses, women from the trade unions, other working women, older married women and their daughters, single women, widows, college women. They came from all walks of life – rich and poor. And there was a men’s division.
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The Grand Marshal, astride a horse, was Katherine Hulst Gavit. Ms Gavit had been president of the Albany Equal Rights Group for many years. She was a graduate of Syracuse University, and had worked at the NYS Library where she had met her husband (one of the librarians). (Her mother-in-law was one of the leaders of the anti-suffrage campaign mounted during the NYS Constitutional Convention of the 1890s.)
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Other marchers included Elizabeth Smith who would become head of Albany’s first unified library system in the 1920s, and teenage Frances Vosbugh who would become a physician and start the first birth control clinic in Albany in the early 1930s.
Through the efforts of the women of the Albany area and others woman’s suffrage made it on the ballot in New York State in 1915. It was defeated (Albany County voted no). In 1917 it passed (the men of Albany County voted no again, but it didn’t matter), and women in New York State could vote.
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Many of the women who participated in the suffrage movement, including Katherine Gavit, went on found the League of Women Voters.
Julie O’Connor

Albany Zen – Washington Park Lake in the Moonlight

It’s been hot and steamy in Albany the last couple of days. Can you imagine what an oasis the Park must have been in days before electric fans and AC?
During the evenings in the summer there were frequent band concerts in what was, in the early 1900s, the middle of the city.
The Park closed at night, but I have it on good authority that didn’t deter young boys and men (and even a young woman or two) from sneaking a quick cooling dip in the 5 acre lake on a hot summer night.
And it was also an irresistible location for romantic trysts in the moonlight (per the same good authority) on those same nights. Couples might quietly slip away from the audience, and blend into the 89 acres of shrubbery and trees.
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One Hour in Albany for the Tourist in 1900 – Take the Pine Hills Trolley

Whether the tourist comes to Albany by boat or by rail, but a few steps are required to reach historic ground. If by rail on the Central (New York Central Railroad), a turn to the left on passing out of the new depot (Union Station) brings the visitor quckly to Steuben St. where stood the old North Gate of the city at which Simon Schermerhorn shouted the first news of the Schenectady Massacre (1690).

If by boat directly in front and to the left on stepping on the wharf is the site of old Fort Orange where treaties where established and the first courts held in early days, and north of which the first church (the Dutch Church) was erected.But whether coming by boat or by rail the visitor’s way lies directly into the broad business street called Broadway, formerly known successively as Traders, Court and Market Streets. Leaving the boat in early morning, say 7 o’clock and bound of course for Saratoga or the North, the popular D & H trains [the Delaware and Husdon Railroad) does not start until 8:30 and there is easily an hour to spare for sight-seeing.

The path lies to the right up Broadway. The few blocks to State St. are alive with business and have been for hours. At the third right hand corner a prosaic red building occupies the site of the Second City Hall where the “The Declaration of Independence” was first publicly read in Albany (that building was demolished to construct the D & H Building in 1914). On the opposite side of the street, a block beyond, is the home of the famous old Argus which has been a giant in the newspaper world since its founding 1813.

The next short block ends at State St., a broad thoroughfare leading straight up the hill at the top of which is the Capitol shining in the sun.

The gray granite structure at the corner of State and Broadway is the Goverment Building containing the post office and federal offices. Where now is the broad intersection of the two streets was the second Dutch Church.

A passing electric car (trolley) marked “Pine Hills” offers a ready means for a quick view of the city. From the start of the foot of State St. the tourist passes between blocks of handsome and substantial businesses that are the seat of the city’s business and financial life.

On the left towers the Commerical Bank building. At the next corner on the right (James St.) the Mechanics and Farmers bank occupies the site of the home of Anneke Janse, once owner of the Trinity Church property in New York City. Below the Bank is the Evening Journal Building where is pubished the well know Republican newspaper of which Thurlow Weed was edior.

Just above this corner is the fine old building occupied by the State Bank.

The car stops for a moment at the next cross street (Pearl) and a glimpse may be had of another business center.

The County bank building at the left occupies the site of the birthplace of Philip Schuyler. At the right is the site of the first brick builiding erected in North America. Opposite is the brown stone of the Tweddle Building which marks the place where Philip Livingston, one of the signers of the Declaraton of Independence, was born and where Webster’s famous almanac and spelling book were printed and the first Albany newspaper (“The Albany Gazette”) was published.

To the North of this building on Pearl St. is the beautiful home of the Albany Savings Bank, fashioned like an old Greek Temple, occupying the site where once stood the Vanderheyden Palace made famous by Washington Irvng in “Bracebridge Hall”.

The car passes on the right the Hotel Ten Eyck, occupying the site of the old Corning Mansion. About opposite this corner (Chapel St.) in the middle of the State St. stood the first English church on ground granted by patent from King George.

The Albany Club and the Press Club occupy commodious buildings on the left side of the street. St. Peter’s historic church at once attracts attention at the next crossing (Lodge St.) It marks the site of the North East bastion of the old Fort Frederick. Beyond it to the right can be seen the Masonic Temple and still further on the opposite side of the street is St. Mary’s Chruch.

Opposite St Peter’s Church on State St. is the State Museum, popularly known as the “Geological Hall” and down the cross street on the opposite side is the OddFellows Temple at (Lodge and Beaver).

The short remaining block is notable chiefly for the fact that the first railroad depot [the Mohawk and Hudson Railroad] stood a few doors on the next corner (Eagle St.) on the right hand side. As the car sweeps around the curve into Washington Ave. (once King St. and Lion St.) a passing glimpse may be had of the Cty Hall, the State House, and Albany High School at the right hand and, across the handsome park, of the famous old Boy’s Academy.

This park also is historic ground, and it was in the Academy that Prof. Joseph Henry conducted electrical experiments which went far toward making telegraphy (and the telephone) a possibiity.

A good view of the Capitol and its approaches can be had as the car is passing, and there is nothing else to distract from this noble edifice.

On the way up the avenue, at the second crossing (Swan St.) at the right may be seen one block over All Saints Episcopal Cathedral.

Just above this corner on the left, standing well back from the street, is the Fort Orange Club, occupying a fine old mansion in which Aaron Burr once lived. All along the avenue are substantial residences and it is shaded by handsome elms.

The next corner is Dove St., and almost at the end of the block is Harmanus Bleecker Hall and adjoining on the corner of Lark St.is the state armory (Washington Ave. Armory). As the car turns sharply to the left a view may be had of the broad open space with its triangular Park where Central and Washington Avenues meet Townsend Park.

Up Central Ave the car line continues fully two miles westward.The ride over Lark St. is also through a residential section. Soon a turn to the right brings the car into Madison Ave. Far off to the left may be had a view of the Helderberg and Catskill Mountains. At the right on the corner of Willett St, Washington Park begins. Some distance beyond this corner at the right may be seen the State Normal College and the street contains many handsome residences.

As the car speeds along the tourist will find every foot of the way interesting, Across the park at its third entrance may be seen the King Fountain – the colossal figure of Moses “smiting the rock”.

As the second carriage entrance is passed, off at the left appears the massive grouped buildings of the Albany Hospital (on the New Scotland Road])

Thereafter both sides of the wide avenue are filled with handsome residences which continued in the section around the place where the railroad end (Quail St.)

The time from the foot of State St. to end of the trip has been but 20 minutes and since leaving the boat, but 35 minutes have been used

From the “The Albany Tourist Guide”, James Whish, Fort Orange Press. 1900

Julie O’Connor

When Albany Was Crazy for Horse Racing: The Speedway – Hurstville – Island Park – Woodlawn Park

Albany was horse racing mad in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Around the time of the Civil War racing became hugely popular (it was at the same time the Saratoga Racetrack was established) in the north and continued for decades.

The Speedway

There had always been racing at county and town fairs. But by the 1870s racing came into the city. Both Western and Washington Avenues, beginning about Quail St. and west were referred to as “The Speedway” for horse drawn sleigh racing on the weekends in the winter. (There was a Speedway Hotel on the corner of Manning Blvd., the Klondike Hotel on the corner of North Allen and the Western Turnpike, and Carrick’s Hotel was on the corner of Madison Ave and West Lawrence.) In the summer there were trotter and pacers.

The Hurstville Track

But there was competition. The Hurstville race track (about where Mater Christi Church and school are today) was established in the mid-1860s. It was mostly a trotting track. Around it a picnic grove called “Pleasure Park” developed (the county fair was held at the location – then town of Bethlehem – in the 1870s.) The track was leased to the Island Park Association (a racing corporation) in the 1870s and early 1880s which improved the track and provided amenities; it ran mostly matinee races and weekend races in the summer. Racing continued until about 1900.

There was also a hotel close to the Park, on the corner of Krumkill Rd. and New Scotland Ave. It dated back to at least the 1840s, known then as the Log Tavern, then Tanner’s Hotel and later Hurst’s Hotel. It became a notorious “love nest” for politician’s trysts over the city line in the 1920s.

Island Park

But Island Park was the Big Daddy of all local race tracks. Island Park was established in the late 1860s in Menands (now part of Colonie – then the town of Watervliet) on Breaker Island (which puts it wee bit south Port Schuyler). The track was on the east side of the Champlain Canal and sandwiched between the Canal and the River. It had larger purses, better horses and could be reached by horsecars from Albany, but the meets were shorter – usually no more than 3-5 days in – perhaps 3-4 meets a year. Still it drew great horses – like “American Girl”, the most well-known trotter of the late 1860s and early 1870s.

Slowly the track improved. In the late 1870s a railroad bridge was installed – now horses could be shipped in from all over – they came from as far west as St. Louis and as far south as Kentucky.

In 1884 the Association came under the control of Erastus Corning, multi-millionaire local mogul and other very rich heavy hitters * who had a thing for racing – yes, but saw the corporation as a way to make money too. Or in track parlance.. an exacta.

Although pacers were raced it was primarily a trotting park. Island Park became part of the National Trotting Association and its meets became well- known as part of the national Grand Circuit for trotters. There were meets in the summer and fall with annual purses worth about $40,000. Two large hotels were built, Union Hotel and McDonald’s Hotel – the latter owned by the famed driver Alta McDonald. The stables could house as many as 300-400 horses. Island Park thrived. The Association made sure the new electric trolley ran to the track from all parts of the Capital District. Some of the best horses in the nation raced there, including “Major Delmar” said to be the fastest gelding alive in 1905. And then it all came to an end. We’re told that the racing stopped pretty much by 1909. The land was purchased by the D&H Railroad.

Woodlawn Park

But never fear – Albany men DO love their horse racing. So a group of local men formed the Albany Driving Association in the early 1900s, bought a tract of land about where Albany Academy is today from a man named Wood and called the race track Woodlawn. There was racing for about 10 years, until about 1914. But the Association discovered it could make big bucks selling the land off to people who wanted to buy lots and build houses in the area that now includes Academy Rd. (then Highland Ave.) and west to about Forest Ave. (Fun Albany fact – we were told the bleachers for the original Albany Academy football field were part of the Woodlawn Park grandstand.)

By 1916 World War I was looming and thanks to Henry Ford almost anyone could own an automobile and make it up to Saratoga for the races.

*One of the shareholders in the Island Park Association was John Holland. He owned a legendary den of iniquity (bookmaking, billiards and booze) – the White House Café on the corner of James Steuben. We were told that Holland owned lots near Manning Blvd. where he stabled and exercised his jumping horses.

Julie O’Connor

The Albany Hot Weather Kitchen in 1919

Every night before I went to sleep as a kid Grandma would tell me “When Grandma was a Girl” stories. I was especially fascinated by her tales of cooking in the summer.

Over the winter huge blocks of ice were cut out of the Hudson and packed tightly in straw or sawdust in the brick ice houses that dotted the shore and islands in the River. Come summer the blocks would be cut into smaller sections with ice saws to fit home ice boxes. Early in the morning before it got very hot the ice man would drive his wagon through the streets delivering the ice; he would bring it into the house using huge ice tongs and put it into the ice box or refrgerator. There was an ice delivery at least every two days. You had to be careful remember to empty the “drip” pan under the refrigerator at least 2x a day or you would have a flood of water on the floor. (Bessie, the Airedale Terrier, was usually the beneficiary of the drip pan contents.)

They lived in Arbor Hill near North Swan, not far from the River. In later years I wondered about people who lived in Pine Hills which was farther away, and just started to be developed in the early 1900s. Based on some sleuthing by our merry band of Friends of Albany History we discovered there was a pond north of Melrose and west of Holmesdale from which ice was harvested, and there was an ice house to serve that area.

If you wanted to get some chipped ice for a cold drink or to put in the hand cranked ice cream freezer you used the really scary ice chipper. (Deathly sharp with several tines – there was an old one in our basement Gram used to weed the garden when I was a kid.)

She used to say that cooking was awful in the summer. Although by 1900 there were gas and even electric stoves, they were few and far between. Most everyone had a huge cast iron stove that burned wood or coal. To use them you had to get a good fire going that heated the whole stove and the whole kitchen. Great in the winter.. not so much in the summer. (A local company, Rathbone and Sard, made the Acorn stove – it became a famous national brand; she told me that the same way we use the word “Kleenex” for tissue, they called the stove the “Acorn.)

But women still had to feed their families. By the time she was in her teens there were gas hot plates that worked like a Coleman camping stove and even electric hotplates. I was most intrigued by what she called the ” fireless cooker”. (There was one of those in the basement too, I later discovered. )

It was an insulated container that came in large and small sizes. You heated up a couple of “stones”, special disks I think made of a ceramic like material. They were heated on the top of the stove (which seemed to defeat the purpose – but you didn’t have to keep the oven running for hours I guess) and put in the “box” and you could bake in the fireless cooker (even make bread). There were special baking/cooking dishes that were sold as accessories, but she said they were a waste of money and cast iron worked just fine.

We used a small fireless stove for camping when I was a kid.. the “stones” were heated in the campfire.

She told me before the fireless cooker Mama used bricks the same way in some kind of jury-rigged insulated box Papa made. Papa also built her an outdoor brick oven.. they were lucky enough to have a large deep backyard, but Mama rarely used it because she had build a fire to heat it up, and she lacked the knack. So unless one of her older kids was on hand it was mostly a decorative garden feature.

Hooray for electric refrigherators, the microwave, air con and Grub Hub.

Julie O’Connor