The White Towers of Albany

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White Tower was an iconic restaurant chain started in the late 1920s in the Mid-West. (And yes, a total rip off of White Castle, but very successful.)

This was back in the day when there were almost no chain restaurants (Ho-Jos didn’t begin until the 1930s.) There were the Harvey Houses in the West and Mid-west and Schrafft’s – mostly in NYC, and the southern chain, the Toddle House. (A Toddle House moved into Albany in 1938 to Washington Ave., just above Lark St.)

Timing is everything. In the midst of Great Depression, the White Tower diners (because that is what they were) thrived. A hamburger and a cup of Joe would set you back a dime. They were clean, white and well–lit with an amazing iconic Art Deco look. The White Towers were the antithesis of the greasy (some sometimes filthy) spoon. They were modern – all gleaming Formica and chrome. You watched your food being made.. (no secrets there). Waitresses and counter girls wore all white uniforms (very nurse like – totally hygienic).

People who had never set foot in a diner in their life flocked to the White Tower. You could take your kids.

The era of the Hamburger had arrived.

Washington Ave.
2The first White Tower in Albany was located on north side of Washington Ave., between South Swan and Dove. Land was originally leased from the Catholic Diocese. The Dominican Monastery on the site was demolished. (The building was originally the historic home of the Gansevoorts and the Lansings, dating back to the late 1700s, and oft visited by Herman Melville while he was in Albany. )
The White Tower bought the site in 1952.

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4Clinton Square
Albany’s second White Tower moved into Clinton Square, across from the Palace Theater in 1935.

 

 

 

 

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Menands
5The third and last White Tower near Albany area was built on Broadway between 1935 and 1937 opposite the behemoth Montgomery Ward superstore (now Riverview Center).

 

 

New York State Digital Library

Hamburger prices stayed at 5 cents until 1941, and coffee cost a nickel until 1950.

For decades most White Towers offered free meals on Christmas Day.

At its peak in the 1950s the White Tower chain has 230 locations, mostly in the northeast. But suburbia quickly killed the White Tower (along with management that couldn’t change fast enough).

Fate of the Albany White Towers

The White Tower in Clinton Square was demolished in 1969 for the 787 ramps.

If memory serves, by 1971 the location opposite Wards was no more

14But the Washington Ave. White Tower survives. And that’s a fascinating story. In early 1962 it was first moved about 40 feet to make way for a new Mechanics Exchange Bank. Yup.. the whole shebang, including foundation.. was moved less than 15 yards.

But 9 months later the entire building was on the move again.. up the street to a new location at 12 Central Ave. And there it remained as a functioning restaurant until the early 1970s. The move put the White Tower directly across the street from its competition, a Toddle House diner on Washington Ave.just above Lark St.

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457de96b909cb2102fddb0082ddbe5a0--iroquois-ware(The Toddle House moved to 816 Central in 1969 and became a “Steak ‘n Egg”, owned by the same corporation by 1974; it remained in business until the early 1980s.)

 

 

The White Tower building was vacant until 1986 when Charlene and Dave Shortsleeve purchased the building in turned it into the QE2 club and performance venue. Charlene sold out in the late 1990s.

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Enter the Fuze Box, still going strong.

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Lombardo’s: A Century old Albany Restaurant Closes

Lombardo’s Restaurant closed New Year’s Eve 2018.

1.1Charley (Salvatore) Lombardo was the youngest of 3 sons from Martone, Calabria in southern Italy. His father died when he was a child; the remaining family, including his mother, worked as farm laborers. His older brothers left for America and sent passage money for Charley. He joined them in Milford, Mass. in the early 1900s when he was in his young teens.

The brothers then came to Albany. Charley worked as a porter and then as a bartender in James O’Donnell’s saloon at 560 Broadway (where Tricentennial Park is today).

In 1915 the Sons of Italy acquired a building at 118 Madison; Charley opened his own restaurant/saloon in the building in 1916 with $300 he’d managed to save. He said later he worked 18 to 20 hours a day because 2 friends had co-signed the lease and he needed to keep up his end of the bargain. In 1918 Charley was drafted into Army, and served a short time before World War I ended. On his return, he picked up the pieces and moved forward.

In 1920 Charley moved the business across the street to 121 Madison Ave. (into what had previously been the offices of the Italian Consul and the Albany branch of the Bank of Naples) and established the Madison Avenue Lunch. (He’d purchased the building the previous year.)

1.2Later that year he married Anna Manganaro, from another Italian immigrant family, and they started a new life together over the restaurant. While the family thrived over the next dozen years, the business held on in troubled times– Prohibition had begun in January, 1920

Much of Albany thought Prohibition was stupid and wrong. It was “intolerance run amok” (the “Albany Times Union”) and on a more basic level it cost jobs. But the city was on the verge of coming under Democratic control, which it did in 1921 when William Hackett was elected mayor. The boss of the Democratic Party, who happened to own the Hedrick Brewery on Central Ave., paid only lip service to Prohibition. (Albany was a pivotal link in the nationwide bootlegging chain.)* Establishments like the Madison Avenue Lunch in Albany survived the Prohibition years. As far as we know Lombardo’s wasn’t a “speakeasy”, just a place where a tired man (or woman) could find a brief respite after a hard day at work.

But that’s not to say the federal agents charged with enforcing the “dry act” turned a blind eye. As we look through old newspapers it appears that the premises of 121 Madison Ave. were raided at least 5 times, mostly in the years 1930 and 1931. Charley Lombardo was never among those arrested. We’ve been told he told he did provide bail for employees who were busted, and they never served time (wink wink, nod nod). O Albany.

FDR campaigned on promise to end Prohibition laws and on March 22, 1933, less than a month after his inauguration, he signed the Cullen–Harrison Act permitting the sale of 3.2 percent beer and wine. Smart entrepreneurs like Charley Lombardo were ready to go. In summer 1933 he opened a newly re-furbished and expanded restaurant at 119-121 Madison Ave. re-named “Lombardo’s” (By December 1933 all federal Prohibition laws were repealed.)

6In the 13 year “dry spell” Anna and Charley had 4 children – Pat (Pasquale), Mary, Tillie (Matilda) and Charles, Jr. – known as Bill. The new restaurant was a hit – the murals you see today – dark wood trim booths, the decorative pressed tin ceiling and the black and white floor tiles were the height of 1930s splendor. Charley was gracious and genial host, and the food was wonderful.

 

 

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Over the next 6 decades the business thrived, serving great food at affordable prices, in the midst of its restrained Art Deco splendor. (If it isn’t broke, why fix it?) Just once, in the 1950s, Charley experimented – opening Lombardo’s Cafeteria on South Pearl St. near the corner of Madison Ave. (It was a time when downtown Albany, including South Pearl, was teeming with businesses and shoppers and the Cafeteria was designed to attract those with only a brief time for lunch – but the Cafeteria closed in a couple of years.)

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7  By this time Lombardo’s was truly a family business – the Lombardo children and some of their spouses entered the business, as well as an array of in-laws and cousins AND Marge Lawlor. Marge spent almost 50 years as a waitress at Lombardo’s and became part of the family. Times changed, children grew up, but Marge was always there.

Charley understood the value of community – he was active in his church, the Elks, the Southend Merchants Association, and the Chamber of Commerce He was a faithful supporter of the Roma Intangible Lodge #215 and the Sons of Italy, and a mainstay of Little Italy’s festivals and celebrations.

When Charley Lombardo, the patriarch, died in 1956 the restaurant continued to be successful. (Anna passed away in 1958.) The children had learned the lessons of great hospitality and great food from their parents. Jimmy (Vincent) Baumbaca, another Italian immigrant, started in the kitchen in the late 1930s. He married Mary Lombardo and remained a fixture in the kitchen. After Pat died suddenly in 1971 Jimmy was also the face of the front of house, channeling Charley’s smile and affability.

 

Despite the gutting of much of downtown Albany’s Little Italy for the Empire State Plaza and the diaspora of Albany’s Italian population, Lombardo’s thrived. It became a place to celebrate family and traditions – birthdays, baby showers, wedding rehearsal dinners, re-unions, wedding anniversaries, high school and college graduations, first communions and confirmations, engagement parties. The milestones of Albany life were commemorated at Lombardo’s. It was a favorite location for banquets and retirement parties; or just that that comfortable place on a cold February Sunday night in Albany when you had to get out of the house or you would go nuts. You were treated like family, whether you were a regular or not, and if you were a regular there was a good chance your order might be placed with the kitchen as you walked in the door.

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The rest of downtown Albany was a ghost town by 1980, and the city’s population dwindling, yet Lombardo’s remained a destination, even for those who’d moved to the suburbs. New comers to the city, many of whom had come to work in expanding State government, discovered Lombardo’s and fell in love.

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By now Charley and Anna’s grandchildren, and even their great grandchildren, worked in the restaurant. Lombardo’s was, above all, about good food and family. But it was also, through decades a gathering place for local and state politicians. When you walked into the bar, you never knew what luminaries you would see. War stories were told, campaigns plotted and deals made. The fate of the city or state might hang in the balance over Lombardo’s veal and peppers.

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Finally in 1991 the intertwined families sold the restaurant to the Rose-Marie and Paul Mancino. (Paul knew the restaurant from his childhood.) Except for some updating of the menu, and a renovation of the banquet room it didn’t change. (And it became a family affair when their son Anthony joined the staff.)

Despite the sale, Bill Lombardo remained in the apartment over the restaurant and you could often find him in the bar. (He was a great story teller and loved the ponies.) Bill passed away in December 2016, the last of Anna and Charley’s children.

The Mancino’s had been trying to sell the restaurant for the past 7 years. In 2017 Rose-Marie passed away; Paul decided to close the restaurant.

The end of an era.

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*For more on Albany during Prohibition we recommend “Wicked Albany: Lawlessness and Liquor in the Prohibition Era”, Frankie Bailey and Alice Green, The History Press, 2009.

Julie O’Connor with assistance of Anne Fitzgerald, a Lombardo great granddaughter.

 

 

An Albany Family Story; a Rise to Fortune from Slave to Hotel Mogul.

2Adam 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 the Stephen Van Rensselaer III (the “Last Patroon”). 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 more than slave and master. Blake was a trusted confident, yet Van Rensselaer didn’t free Blake until about 1811 or later, despite the fact that Blake had married a young woman, Sarah Richards, probably another Van Rensselaer slave in 1803. 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 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 White and Afro-Americans citizens; he was, by all accounts, a very elegant (he was called the “Beau Brummel of Albany”, intelligent and charming man.

3He and his family 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 Afro-American community in Albany, involved in 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.

Blake’s son, Adam Jr. 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 governmentos 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 – the “prince of caterers”.

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6In 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.

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

7Not one to let the grass grow under his feet, while the Kenmore was under construction, Blake took over the management of the Averill Park Hotel across the river for the summer of 1879.

 

 

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McNaughton’s willingness to build the Kenmore for Blake to his specifications speaks volumes about the general estimation of his business acumen and confidence in potential for its success. While he benefited greatly from his father’s connections and those of the Patroon, he clearly had natural and innate ability.

9The Kenmore Hotel opened in 1880. 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 wildly 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 and, of course a fine and palatial dining room.

 

 

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Throughout his life Adam Jr. moved easily among both the Afro –American and white communities, and was as widely respected as his father had been. He apprenticed a number of young Afro-American men who went on to manage major hotels throughout the New York State, including the Clarendon Hotel in Saratoga Springs; Leonard Jerome and family were guests (daughter Jenny would marry Lord Randolph Churchill and give birth to Winston.) While James Matthews (the first Afro=American judge elected in the U.S.) was in Albany Law school, Blake employed him as a bookkeeper in the Congress Hotel. He used his community standing to advance Afro-American causes whenever possible. In the early 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 Afro-American college in Tennessee. Several years later he worked diligently in the fight to desegregate Albany’s public schools.

He was known as a generous man “who never turned away a stranger or neighbor in need”. In 1881 beautiful stained glass memorial window was dedicated in the Israel African Methodist Episcopal Church on Hamilton St (the oldest Afro-American church in Albany, established in 1828). Adam Jr.’s activities in the Abolitionist movement are not documented as are his father’s, but the Blake family houses on Third St. we’re 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), 2 doors away from the Myers’ house at 194 Lumber. It is improbable to think that neither father nor son was not involved in the Railroad. 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….”

Unfortunately, Blake died an untimely death in 1881 at the age of 51. He didn’t really get to revel in his success. At the time of his death his private fortune was estimated in excess of $100,000, an astonishing sum for anyone, let alone the son of a slave. For the next seven years the Hotel was managed by his widow, Catherine, who was equally good at business, accumulating real estate all over the Albany, including 2 row houses on Spring St. near Lark St. that stand today When the lease on the Kenmore Hotel expired in 1887, Catherine left the hotel business, selling the furnishing and the Hotel’s goodwill for a tidy sum to the new owners. While the Blakes were involved with the Kenmore, they lived on Columbia St., but when Mrs. Blake gave up the Kenmore, she moved to First St to an elegant townhouse (that also remains today), between S. Hawk St. and S. Swan St., taking her place among the other wealthy families of Albany, just above the Ten Broeck Triangle.

Thanks to Paula Lemire https://www.facebook.com/ARCbeyondthegraves/ and her contributions to the research on the lives of both Adam Sr. and Jr.