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

The Bicentennial Tablets – Where are they now? Tablet No. 7—First English Church

 

In 1886 the 200th anniversary of Albany becoming a chartered city was celebrated with great fanfare. Memorial plaques (tablets) were placed around the city at historic sites.

Tablet No. 7—First English Church

The “tablet committee” proposed that 7 be located in the walk, near the curb, north-west corner of Chapel and State Streets. It was a bronze tablet, 11×23 inches, set in the top of a granite block 21×33 inches square and 16 inches high above the sidewalk, and would have a slanting top to shed water. It would read:

“Opposite in middle of State street stood the First English Church Erected A. D. 1715—Removed and Rebuilt as St. Peter’s church 1803 on next corner west. Rebuilt 1859.”

There is no longer a northwest corner of Chapel and State, although we suspect Chapel still exists on paper. It is a driveway between the Hilton Hotel and the bank building that holds down the Elm Tree corner. There are notable markers nearby in the center islands, thoughtfully placed so that pedestrians waiting forever for drivers to acknowledge the walk signals have something to read while they wait.

A 1914 report in the Albany Argus notes that while the Bicentennial Report said this tablet was to be set in the northwest corner of Chapel and State streets, it was never placed there, “but a tablet with a more elaborate inscription was placed on the front wall of St. Peter’s church.” This would explain why the tablet at St. Peter’s doesn’t say what the committee said it would. The tablet that was actually cast looks entirely different from the other bicentennial tablets, and includes much more church history.

“In the middle of State, formerly Yonkers Street, one block below, stood the First English Church, built A.D. 1715, upon ground granted by letters patent from King George the First. It bore the name of St. Peter’s Church. The Parish was incorporated A.D. 1769. The Second St. Peter’s Church was built on this Site A.D. 1802, and bore this inscription: Glory be to the Lord, for He is good; for His mercy endureth forever. The present edifice was built A.D. 1859. Upon this spot stood the north east bastion of Fort Frederick.”

The First English Church

Recall that despite the colony having been taken under English rule in 1664, Albany was Dutch, Dutch to the core, and a few English soldiers and government officials didn’t change that. In 1704, Albany was described to Church of England clergy in New York as:

“A large frontier town where most of the people are Dutch, who have from Amsterdam a Dutch minister, one Mr. Lydius, but there are some English families, besides a garrison of Soldiers, who are a considerable congregation. A Church of England minister here will, in all probability do signal service, not only by setting up public worship to the joy and comfort of the English, who impatiently desire a minister, and persuading the Dutch and others to conform, but also instructing the Indians which come in greater numbers thither.” Hooper’s “A History of St. Peter’s Church in the City of Albany,” p. 85, referring to “Doc. Hist. N.Y. Vol. III, p. 117”

It would be 1708 before an English church clergyman, Rev. Thomas Barclay, would be commissioned at the fort, which then contained a garrison of 200 soldiers. Barclay was also named missionary to Native Americans who came to Albany, as well as the enslaved persons (which made up about 450 of Albany’s 4000 people in 1712). Barclay wrote in 1710 that he was catechising “a great many Dutch children, who at my first arrival were altogether ignorant of the English tongue,” as well as preaching at Schenectady’s garrison of 40 soldiers as well as 16 English families and 100 Dutch; there had been no Dutch minister there for five years. In Albany, Lydius, the Dutch minister, died in March 1710, with no replacement for more than a year. The English church services were taking place in a “much decayed” small chapel belonging to the Dutch church.

In 1714, Governor Robert Hunter granted license to Rev. Barclay to collect money for the building of a church “in the centre of the broad street called Yonkers Street, leading from the fort to the waterside, between the end of Pearl Street and the small street that leads to the Lutheran Church.”

It was later decided that a location on the hill nearer the fort would allow more room for church and cemetery. But still, being Albany, the center of the street seemed a perfectly reasonable place to put a church.

Hooper writes that “soon after the patent was received, workmen began to lay out the plot granted in the middle of the street.” This site would lead to a dispute between the province of New York, which granted the patent, and the City of Albany, which determined that “the right of the Crown to convey land without any title from the City ought to be tested.” Work on the foundation had begun in November 1714, and legal battles ensued, with Albany taking legal action against workmen at the site. The issue was ultimately resolved in the church’s favor, and the church opened Nov. 25, 1716.

The Second Church: St. Peter’s

By 1796, according to Hooper, it was recognized that the congregation had outgrown the original church. Now known as St. Peter’s, they already had rights to purchase a lot at Barrack (Chapel), Steuben, Lodge and Pine Streets. The sale/exchange was complicated – church properties were assessed in those days, and there was the matter of wanting the old church’s steeple left standing, for it was from there that the fire bell rang. There were other matters under consideration, such as the potential joining of the Lutherans, who used the same church building, with the English Episcopalians, such that the matter was put off for some years. It would be January 1802 before there was a contract made with Philip Hooker, Elisha Putnam, Garrett W. Van Schaick and Samuel Hill to “erect, build and complete a stone Church on the lot of ground in the first ward of the City of Albany at the intersection of State and Lodge streets.” The church was to be completed by June 15, 1803. A new cornerstone was laid May 7, 1802.

“When the first St. Peter’s was torn down, the bodies of all those buried within the church were carefully removed and re-interred under the tower of the second building. Among them were the remains of the gallant Lord Howe, who fell at Trout Brook, July 6, 1758, in the campaign against the French. A payment of seventeen dollars and a half ($17.50), was made to Adam Todd, the sexton, ‘for raising, removing, and interring, the remains of 35 persons from the interior of the old Church in State Street when demolished to the new Church now building.”

Thanks to contributor Adrian Brisee we have additional evidence that the bodies were, in fact moved, in the form of a record made in a Stevenson/Douw family bible. John Stevenson (1735-1810), a warden of the church who laid the cornerstone, wrote:

“In the beginning of July 1802, the workmen began to take down St. Peter’s Church in this City, and on the 19th instant, I had the bones of my Father and five of my Children, taken up, and put into a new coffin, and interred in the new St. Peter’s Church near the centre of the North Hall, back of the pulpit, and had a silver plate put on it, with this incription, to wit:

‘In this coffin are the bones of my father James Stevenson Esq., who died 2d February 1769, and was buried in the Episcopal St. Peter’s Church, and when it was taken down they were removed to the new Episcopal Church, called St. Peter’s. In this coffin are also the bones of five of my children. Albany 19 July 1802.’

[signed] John Stevenson

A marble slab was to be placed above the pediment of the main entrance.

The Third Church

Construction on the third church, designed by Richard Upjohn of New York City, began in 1859, with demolition completed and the first foundation stone for the new church laid by April 8. In the course of that demolition, they discovered a somewhat mysterious stone, four feet long and one foot thick. “Upon its face cut in are the following letters of an ancient form, A.M.S. and A.N.O. joined together as one letter, bearing date, 1715.” Hooper says there is no record of laying any cornerstone for the first church, and that the stone work of that building was taken by Hooker and Putnam in partial payment. “It seems strange that a relic like that should have been allowed to be built into the foundation, if the authorities of St. Peter’s were aware of its value. It may not have been connected with the church, but a stone from the old fort, as the north-east bastion and other parts of the fort enclosure occupied the site of the present church. The stone does not appear to have been preserved.” In other words, we found a mysterious but potentially important stone, we didn’t know what it was about, and we lost it again.

On June 29th, 1859, with the foundation walls nearly completed, there was a large ceremonial placement of the new cornerstone, along with “a proper lead box to be placed under the stone, and a silver plate with a proper inscription to be deposited in that box, with such documents and other articles as the Committee may deem proper.”

What they deemed proper included “the Bible and Prayer Book, the New York Convention Journal for 1858, photographs of the old church, a list of pew holders, a diagram of the old church, and a silver plate upon which was inscribed a brief record of the laying of the corner stone, the names of those connected with the building of the new church, and a concise history of the parish.” The first service in the new church was held September 16, 1860. While there have been some significant renovations, including the erection of the tower in honor of John Tweddle and interior renovations, the church still stands and functions some 160 years later.

By Carl Johnson, from his blog Hoxsie.org

The Building of the NYS Capitol in Albany – Labor Day

Recently we were looking at photos of the New York State Capitol in Albany; then we went to look at old photographs during its construction in the late 1800s. We started to think about the men who built it and who they were.

Most discussion of the Capitol focuses on the architecture and design of the building we see today that dominates downtown. It’s an engineering marvel, built through the blood, sweat and toil of thousands of men over decades.

Albany Becomes the Capital of New York State

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Albany became the capital of New York State in 1797. For the first years the Legislature met in the Albany Stadt Huys (City Hall) on Broadway near Hudson Ave. – sharing space with Albany Common Council. The need for new digs led to the construction of a specifically dedicated building. The site selected was the top of State St. hill in an area designated as a public square – after the demolition of Fort Frederick.

1.6The new Capitol was designed by Philip Hooker, an Albany native and the pre-eminent architect of this area at the time. (First Church on N. Pearl near Clinton and the Joseph Henry Memorial Building, originally constructed for Albany Academy remain as an examples of his design.) It was a simple, yet elegant building, almost church-like – four square with a cupola, surrounded by a pretty, tidy park. It was occupied circa 1809.

But as early the 1840s there was a growing sense that the existing building was inadequate. It was cramped and crowded. A new State Hall, across the way on Eagle St. was completed in 1842. (It now houses the NYS Court of Appeals – it’s a gorgeous Greek revival temple.) Other offices were located in the State Hall on the southwest corner of State and Lodge. And there was a perception among NYS officials and many Albany citizens that the existing Capitol was.. just too simple, too modest. It didn’t befit and reflect the growing wealth and importance of New York, first among all states ad Albany (which was at that point the 10the largest city in America. (Honestly, it simply wasn’t sufficiently grand and ostentatious in a Victorian age of extremes.)

The New Capitol

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This sentiment grew, but the Civil War intervened. Once the War was over the NYS Legislature hurried to authorize the construction of a new building in Fall 1865. The area behind the existing building was selected, on land owned by the City. A plan was approved in late 1867 and excavation began in December 1867. We’ve read that hundreds of Irish laborers were immediately sent out to dig in the semi- frozen ground. Brutally hard work, but it meant money for a Christmas.

Then came the acquisition and demolition of surrounding buildings in 1868 After that, 400 men and 200 teams of horses continued the process of removing the excavated earth and debris and dumping down the side of the ravine at Swan and St. and Sheridan Ave. (then Canal St.) The cornerstone was dedicated in 1871 (BTW.. it appears to have been lost to the mists of time.. it was never marked.)

Work progressed.. and sometimes not, depending on the availability of funding. The Panic of 1873 sent most of the country into a deep economic depression that lasted for 8 years. But Albany had one of the biggest public works programs in the nation. Capitol construction was a massive economic engine that kept the city puttering along, although there were hiccups from time to time – money ran out and men were out of work for months at a time. There were fears responsibility for their maintenance would fall on the Superintendent of Albany’s poor.

Labor
Hundreds of men from across the country and Western Europe flocked to the City. (The City’s population grew by almost over 20% from 1870 to 1890.) It became home to stone cutters, stone carvers, masons and brick workers from all over. Men were needed on the railroad to haul limestone from Kingston and Tribes Hill, sandstone from Potsdam, bluestone from Ulster County and materials from Newark. Knoxville and Ohio. On the docks huge shipments of granite.. so much granite…. were unloaded daily – mostly from Maine quarries. As construction progressed and work on the interior started there were exotic woods from South America, onyx from Mexico and marble from Italy.

The work was back breaking and grueling. In the first days of the build, the construction techniques hadn’t changed much from the middle ages. The massive pieces of granite were dressed, hoisted and maneuvered into place using cranes, pulleys, ramps, winches, blocks and tackles, with mostly the human and horse power. (Steam operated equipment was used set the massive foundation stones, but its use didn’t become common until the 1880s – by then most of the heavy lifting was over.) When work was progressing at full speed as many as 1,000 men toiling on any given day. The construction site became a tourist attraction.

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It’s worth noting that much of the labor was organized. The stonecutters union is one of the oldest in America and it represented about 80% of the workers. But there were also blacksmiths, masons, tool carriers, mechanics, bricklayers, iron workers – and in the later days – tile setters, plumbers and electricians, carpenters and cabinetmakers, stone carvers (it’s said there were over 500 – mostly from Wales, England, Scotland and Italy) when interior work was underway. But it was the members of the stonecutter’s union – mostly Irish – who set the labor agenda.

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Many of the men were single or left their families at home. As wealthy families moved away from the construction site, their large homes became boarding houses – on Washington Ave, across from the site. But there were men crammed into what is now Sheridan Hollow, on streets demolished for the Empire State Plaza and in Martinville – the tenement slum in what is now Lincoln Park. The number of saloons grew exponentially and the police force increased in size to deal with the influx.

But there were men with families – who lived in Arbor Hill, North Albany, Little Italy, and in the South End. Edmund Gibbons, Bishop of the Albany Roman Catholic Diocese in the early part of the 20th century, was the son of a mason who moved from Westchester County to Albany. They lived on Lafayette St., a narrow alley, long gone, that ran between Elk St. and Washington Ave, and which housed many of the barns where horses were stabled. Both the public and parochial school systems grew.

State government moved into the Capitol in stages – long before it was completed.

The building was first occupied in 1879; there was a reception for 8,000 given by the “Citizens of Albany’ (we doubt whether any of the men who built it were invited). In 1883, the remaining occupants of the old State Capitol were moved out into the new Capitol and the building was demolished.

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But wait!

The new Capitol, despite 5 architects and 3 building plans, still wasn’t complete. Finally in 1899, then Governor Teddy Roosevelt said, “Enough”.. 32 years and $25 million (about $750,000,000 today) later, making it the most costly State Capitol in the country. (Would you expect anything less from New York.) What other building has a “Million Dollar Staircase”?

The decision to change architects midstream makes it “one of the most architecturally interesting government buildings in the United States”. Italian Renaissance meets Romanesque with a French Renaissance fling; the lavishly decorated dramatic interior is more “Moorish Gothic” – a unique style. The 500 stone carvers had a field day. In some instances they were given free rein – it’s been said you can find images of their friends and family, people they saw on the street, some of children of the wealthiest men in Albany for a fee and even a small image of Satan on the main staircase.

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