Recently there’s been a spate of publicity about the new owner and the re-modeling of the Kenmore Hotel on North Pearl St. We think that’s great, helping to revive Albany’s downtown. Most of the reports focus on the terrific musical talent that performed in the Hotel’s legendary Rain-bo Room in the 1920s and 1930s, and Legs Diamond. But we think those reports miss the most important part of the Kenmore Hotel story and its significance in Albany history.
The Kenmore Hotel was the wildly successful dream of Adam Blake, Jr. an African-American, son of Adam Blake Sr., who had been a slave of Stephen Van Rensselaer III, “The Good Patroon”.
Adam Blake, Sr.
Adam Blake Sr. was born about 1773 in an area south of Albany (possibly New York City) and brought to Albany as a slave by a local merchant Jacob Lansing as a young boy to serve the Van Rensselaer estate. (In the NYS 1790 census, there are 15 slaves listed on the estate.) As an adult Blake was manager of the household staff at Van Rensselaer Manor, home of Stephen Van Rensselaer III. In 1803 he married Sarah Richards in the Dutch Reformed Church (now known as the First Reformed Church) on North Pearl St. (Notably, this was the same church attended by Alexander Hamilton while he was in Albany and there is no doubt their paths crossed.)
The relationship between Van Rensselaer and Blake appears to have been quite close. Blake was a trusted confident, yet Van Rensselaer didn’t free Blake until about 1811. (In later years Van Rensselaer confessed deeply regretting his failure to free Blake at an earlier date, but made no explanation.) Nonetheless, when Van Rensselaer died, Adam Blake, Sr. led his funeral procession.
After becoming a free person of color Blake continued in the employ of Van Rensselaer, although his obituary refers to connections with Governor DeWitt Clinton. Blake enjoyed a position of esteem throughout the Albany community, among both Whites and Blacks. He was, by all accounts, a very elegant (he was called the “Beau Brummel of Albany), intelligent and charming man.
The Blakes lived in the 100 block of Third St. between Lark and S. Swan, on land that was previously part of Patroon holdings (probably given to him by Van Rensselaer) and owned several adjacent lots (107, 109 and 111). Blake was a major figure in the Albany African community, including the founding of the first African school in Albany in the early 1800s. He was immersed in abolitionist activities; he was one of the notable speakers during the 1827 Albany celebration of the abolition of slavery in New York State and was a key figure in the National Colored Peoples Convention held in Albany in 1840.
When Adam Sr. died in 1864 at the age of 94 his obituary said, “.. he was in all respects a remarkable man… and ..always commanded respect by that high order of good breeding and courtesy towards all for which he was proverbial”.
Adam Blake, Jr.
Blake’s son, Adam Jr., born in 1830 was adopted – we know nothing of his birth parents or antecedents. He was raised at the Van Rensselaer Manor, where he received his early schooling by the side of the Van Rensselaer children. He would become one of the most successful businessmen and entrepreneurs in the 1800s in Albany of either race.
While in his 20’s he worked his way up to the position of head waiter at the famous Delavan House on Broadway. Blake rapidly built his reputation as a restaurant proprietor with the opening of his own restaurant on Beaver and Green Streets in 1851. Over the next 14 years he opened two more establishments, first on James St. and the next on State St., each one more upscale. His restaurants were favorite haunts of the young swells, NYS legislators, and diverse politicos of all stripes. He catered private parties, assemblies, balls and picnics. Young Blake appears to have been a naturally genial, gracious and discreet host. We have a vision of a man who could cater an elegant reception for Albany’s society women or organize a back room dinner for politicians with equal ease. He was called the “prince of caterers”.
The Congress Hotel
In 1865 Blake secured the lease for the Congress Hall Hotel, adjacent to the Old Capitol on the corner of Park St and Washington Ave. This was a fabled landmark (Lafayette stayed the night during his 1824 Albany visit), but fallen on hard times. He acquired 3 adjacent buildings (Gregory’s Row), combined them with the Hotel, and spent a large sum furnishing it in a sumptuous fashion. The Hall was a lucrative concession – its location was favored by legislators and other politicians for lodgings, meals, receptions and meetings. It boasted French chefs and an array of fine wines. It was the destination of Charles Dickens when he came to Albany in 1868 (hoping to be handsomely “remunerated”) on his second lecture tour in America.
But more importantly the Hall served as a training ground for young African- American men who would become managers and chief stewards in some of the most elegant hotels in America – in Saratoga Springs, Newport, etc – and on grand steamships serving the wealthy and famous crossing the Atlantic. One of his protégées was James Matthews, who took a different path. Matthews would become the first African-American judge elected in the U.S. While he was in Albany Law School, Blake employed him as a bookkeeper.
The Kenmore Hotel
In 1878 the Hall needed to be demolished for the new Capitol building; Blake received $190,000 compensation from New York State. He used the money to open a large hotel on N. Pearl St. that remains today. The hotel was built for Blake by the son of the late Dr. James McNaughton (former president of the Albany Medical Society) on land they owned; it was named the Kenmore after the small village in Scotland in which McNaughton was born. The hotel was designed by the Ogden and Wright, leading Albany architects, and no expense was spared
McNaughton’s willingness to build the Kenmore for Blake to his specifications speaks volumes about the general estimation of Blake’s business acumen and confidence in Blake’s potential for success. While he benefited greatly from his father’s connections and those of the Patroon, he clearly had natural and innate ability.
The Kenmore Hotel opened in 1878. It was Adam Blake’s dream- a marvel of modern technology and comfort; it was called “the most elegant structure on the finest street in Albany”. It was enormously successful, not only for its convenience, but for its level of service. It included hot and cold running water (and new-fangled water closets), an elevator, telephones in rooms and, of course a fine and palatial dining room.
Throughout his life Blake moved easily among both the African and White communities, and was as widely respected as his father had been. After the Civil War he was treasurer of the New York State Equal Rights League (formed in Albany in 1865 in what is now the AME Israel Church). In the 1870s he hosted and promoted an appearance by the Fisk Jubilee Singers, a choral group that toured to raise funds for one of the first African American colleges in Tennessee. In the early 1870s he worked diligently in the fight to desegregate Albany’s public schools, along with James Matthews who represented William Dietz, the man suing the Albany Board of Education.
Blake was known as a generous man “who never turned away a stranger or neighbor in need” Local newspapers of the time note financial contributions by Blake to all sorts of worthy causes. Adam Jr.’s activities in the Abolitionist movement are not as well documented as his father’s, but the Blake family houses on Third St. was situated directly behind that of Stephen Myers on Livingston Ave., leading figure in Albany’s Underground Railroad, and at one point Blake lived at 198 Lumber St. (now Livingston Ave ), 2 doors away from the Myers’ house. It is improbable to think that neither father nor son was not involved in the Underground Railroad.
Sadly Blake died in summer 1881, at the age of 51, never getting the opportunity to enjoy the success of his beloved Kenmore. The description of his funeral notes pall bearers of both races, and the presence of people from all walks of life. The Delavan Hotel on Broadway, the chief rival of the Kenmore, lowered its flag to half-mast to honor Blake. His funeral was held in the Hotel; it was attended by 2 of the most well known Black hotel men and restaurateurs in nation – James Wormly from Washington D.C. and George Downing from Newport. There were other attendees from outside of Albany, including Black men known to have been members of the Underground Railroad.
Shortly after his death a memorial stained glass window was installed the AME Church. Upon the dedication of the church window, Dr. William Johnson delivered a speech commemorating Blake in which he said:
“He loved liberty and abhorred slavery. He believed in the equality of all, in the manhood of all and in the common brotherhood of all. He was identified with Frederick Douglass, Stephen Myers, Drs., Smith and Pennington and their compatriots, in untiring efforts tending to the overthrow of slavery…. he took active part in state and national councils of the oppressed and served in honorable official capacity in the Equal Rights League of the state….”.
At the time of his death his private fortune was estimated far in excess of $100,000, an astonishing sum for anyone, let alone the son of a slave with a grade school education.
At the time of Adam’s death Catherine was barely 39 , and had 3 daughters and 1 son, all under the age of 10, to raise. But she was tough. Many people thought she would sell the hotel, take the money and leave. She didn’t despite a number of offers.
Now was her opportunity. She ran the hotel for the next 7 years, still under her husband’s name. The Kenmore thrived. And Catherine became well-known and liked in Albany. It’s clear that she and Adam had been partners in business and in life. Few people knew that the best hotel in the Capital City of the largest state was operated by an African-American woman.
In addition to the Kenmore she went into real estate development (including 2 houses on Spring St.) and bought land and built houses in a couple of areas of Albany. She became one of the richest women in the city of either race. But like her husband she never forgot those who hadn’t fared so well. She was instrumental in the establishment of the Women’s Exchange, a place where talented women (Black and white) with skills , like fine needlework, could sell their items (think an 1880s brick and mortar Etsy).
In 1887 she pulled off one of the smartest business moves ever. A father and son named Rockwell wanted the Kenmore desperately. She turned them down repeatedly. They finally managed to secure a lease on part of Hotel to try to force her out. Not deterred, Catherine went to building owners surrounding the Hotel, including the new YMCA on Steuben. She secured access to top floors and a couple of ground floor businesses. She broke through walls on the top floors to create hotel rooms, moved the office and some other rooms like parlors on the ground floor, AND the main entrance.
The Rockwells were left with a little island in the midst of a Hotel that now covered upper parts of a city block, and almost no access to their island. Clever Mrs. Blake had outwitted the Rockwells. But about a year later Catherine decided to sell. Because she had enlarged hotel it was worth more, and she cut a slick and lucrative deal for hotel furnishing and contents, and of course, the reputation and goodwill of the Kenmore.
Despite her wealth Catherine wasn’t insulated from racial discrimination, which increased even in the North after the Civil War. In an 1884 letter she noted that many white Americans continued to think of Black Americans as “lazy, stupid and thriftless”.
Catherine and her children remained in Albany for a number of years after the sale of the Hotel lease. Jer two daughters attended the prestigious Episcopal St. Agnes School for Girls and her son Carroll Blake the Albany Academy for Boys. The family lived on First St. in an elegant townhouse, between S. Hawk St. and S. Swan St., among other wealthy families of Albany, just above the Ten Broeck Triangle.
Carroll went on to attend Cornell University in the mid-1890s. (There are no records that indicate his race as other than white.) Two daughters married well-to-do white men. By 1900 Catherine Blake had left Albany and was living in Brooklyn with her son Carroll, his new wife Mary (white) and her daughter Jesse. The 1900 census indicates the family is white.
For a brief time Carroll and his family lived in the deep South, where he owned an engineering and construction firm at one point. There is no indication in newspapers of the time the family is other than white. Carroll Blake Jr., his son, followed in his father’s footsteps, attending Cornell and becoming and engineer.
Copyright 2021 Julie O’Connor