Hard to imagine that in its long almost 400 year history Albany has had only 4 city hall buildings.
First Stadt Huys
We don’t know the exact date the first city hall was erected, but it was probably during the time when the city was still Beverwyck and part of the Dutch colony before 1664. It was at the corner of Court St. (Broadway and Hudson). It was known as the Stadt Huys (or Haus). It was a substantial, but small building with several large rooms on a first floor and a jail in the basement. (Sadly there are no images.) Technically it wasn’t a city hall until the Royal Governor made Albany the first chartered city in the U.S. in that very building in 1686.
Second Stadt Huys
In 1741 the city fathers thought it was time for new digs and a new building was constructed on the same location, surrounded by greenery and trees. It was much larger 3 story building of brick, but simple and plain. It had a steep roof and a belfrey. It too had a jail. It was on the steps of this building that the Declaration of Independence was first read to the city in July, 1776 and where Ben Franklin first proposed the Albany Plan of Union – a confederation of the British colonies in 1754, 20 years before the Continental Congress was formed.
Eagle St. City Hall
By the early 1800s, after the Revolutionary War, the city was expanding. The old Stadt House had seen better days. It was the home of the Albany Common Council, the local and NYS courts, AND the NYS Legislature after Albany became the capital. It was time for a new city hall (and a state capitol building). These were both constructed around the new public square at State and Eagle Streets. The new city hall was erected in 1829,
Enter renowned architect and Albany government official Philip Hooker. He designed both the new Capitol in the back of the public square and Albany’s City Hall on Eagle St. and Maiden Lane, across the street from the Capitol and the square. It was a large neo-classical building with pillars and a dome. There are no interior photos, but it was probably a simple yet dramatic style, with federal decoration and large elegant rooms (based on those few Hooker buildings that survive today).
The building also doubled as the Federal Courthouse. It was in this building in 1873 that Susan B. Anthony was indicted by a Grand Jury composed solely of men for voting in a federal Congressional election in Rochester in 1872. Alas, the Hooker City Hall was destroyed by fire in 1880.
Current City Hall
The current City Hall open in 1883. It was designed by Henry Hobson Richardson, one the most well-known architects of the day. His style is known as “Richardson Romanesque”. His building exteriors are solid and large, and make a statement, although the interiors are surprising open and light. (He also collaborated on the design of the existing NYS Capitol Building). Attached to City Hall by a bridge was the jail on Maiden Lane. (By 1883 the city jail on the corner of Howard and Eagle Streets had become Albany Hospital.) It appears the jail was demolished in the early 1900s.
The carillon was added in 1927 through subscriptions of the citizens of the city. It’s housed in a tiny room, up a set of rickety winding steps.
In the middle of the 18th century Swedish naturalist Peter Kalm made a trip to America; in June 1749 he stayed at Albany, and wrote of his visit.
At this time Albany, although chartered as a city, was
really just a large village of about 1,300 and perhaps 250 homes. It was
an odd combination of sleepy rural village and frontier town; proper
Dutch burghers, Indians and buckskin clad traders. Churches, taverns and
trading posts seemed to have equal importance. Someone once said that
when the Dutch of Albany weren’t in church, they worshipped the God of
(Don’t be shocked. Albany was founded by a
corporation, and then one man, The first Patroon – a diamond merchant –
for the sole purpose of making money. Individual settlers may have come
for other reasons, but it was established as an investment.)
Sweep away, if you can, every image of Albany you have today and try to imagine the Albany of over two centuries ago,
The City Most of the inhabitants still lived within the stockade, although the population had begun to expand (mostly south) outside the fort’s walls about 20 years before. There were still block houses on the corners of the stockade.
The inhabited part of the city extended only a bit farther west than South Pearl St; beyond there was nothing except hills and deep forest. To the north lay the Patroon’s Manor (about where Tivoli St. is today), and then the Patroon’s Creek that cut through the deep gorge of Tivoli Hollow. Below that was the Foxenkill just inside the fort walls, slicing another gorge (which is Sheridan Hollow today). It was crossed by a bridge at North Pearl St.
The Ruttenkill flowed down from Lark St. between Hudson Ave. and State St. It created another deep ravine (filled in the 1800s) and in 1749 it was crossed by several bridges. To the south of the fort stockade were several new streets, extending to about Division St. Then came the Beaver Kill – it twisted south from what is now Western Ave. down through today’s Lincoln Park (creating the roiling and foamy Buttermilk Falls), then flowing into the river. Just above the Beaverkill was “the Pastures”, a communal grazing spot and an area with some small farms and gardens.
As Kalm sailed up the Hudson he noted many ships of all kinds and sizes sailing south to NYC loaded with wood, furs and grain.
The Cityscape He found the houses within the stockade built close together, in the Dutch tradition, with large deep back gardens, cow sheds, chicken coops and fruit trees. “The houses are very neat.. some are slated with tiles from Holland.. most are built in the old way., with the gable-ends towards the street. The street doors are generally in the middle of the houses; and on both sides are seats.. In the evening these seats are covered by people of both sexes. but that’s rather troublesome, as those who pass by are obliged to greet everyone, unless they will shock the inhabitants with their impoliteness”.
Most house had wells, (there were public wells installed in each of the city’s 3 wards in the early 1700s), but water was taken from the Hudson for brewing and washing. It was placed in the cellar until the muddy “slime” sunk to the bottom. . Kalm notes the streets were broad and some are paved; in some parts they’re lined with trees, but he says they’re very dirty because the people leave their cattle in them on summer nights.
Kalm says: “There are two churches in Albany, an English one and a Dutch one.” (Note: there was also a Lutheran Church in the southwest corner of the city.) “The Dutch Church stands some distance from the river on the east side of the market, and it has a small steeple with a bell… The English Church (St. Peter’s Church) is situated on the hill, at the west end of the market, directly under the fort… The Town Hall (called the Stadt Huys) lies to the southward of the Dutch Church, close by the river side. It is a fine building of stone, three stories high. It has a small tower.. with a bell and a gilt ball and a vane.” The street that goes between the 2 churches is five times broader than the others and serves as a market place “to which country people resort twice a week.
(Five years later Ben Franklin would come to the Stadt Huys and propose his “Albany Plan of Union”. In 1775 his Plan would form the basis for establishment of the Continental Congress, and later the Articles of Confederation, precursor to the US Constitution. Albany has some mighty fine history!!)
“The fort on a step hill is a building of stone surrounded with high thick walls. Its situation is very bad, as it can only serve to keep away of plundering parties” . (Given the high hills that surrounded it, they could be used for offensive purposes).
Although Kalm doesn’t describe other buildings in the city, but we know there was the Staats House on the southeast corner of State and South Pearl Streets, dating back to the 1660s. It was the Schuyler family manse where Philip Schuyler and Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton were born. Across the street was the “Vanderhuyden Palace”, built in 1725, on the corner of State and North Pearl Streets. On the corner of N. Pearl and Steuben, close to the stockade was a building known in the mid-1700s as a trading post and lodging house for Indians who came to trade.
Domestic Life “The inhabitants of Albany are Dutch, they speak Dutch and their manners are Dutch”.
“The women are perfectly well acquainted with economy; they rise early,
go to sleep late and are almost over nice and cleanly with regard to
the floor, which is frequently scoured several times in the week. The
servants in the town are chiefly Negroes.” *
The kitchens were the gathering places in most homes. The fire places were enormous; large enough to roast a whole cow. Larger homes had a “front room”. They drank mostly beer and water, sometimes tea; coffee not at home. We know every day meals were modest, but in great abundance – bread, cheese and butter, with salads and vegetables, and fowl and fish (Albany was known for its sturgeon – called “Albany Beef” – it fairly leaped out of the Hudson into fishing nets.)
Trade Kalm noted the city was advantageous for trade. The quay (dock) was made sturdily to withstand winter ice and spring flooding, and the river was so deep ships could come close to shore.
Kalm notes “there is not a
place in all the British colonies where such quantities of furs and
skins are brought of the Indians, as at Albany”. He says most of the
Albany’s merchants or their clerks traded with tribes at Oswego in the
summer. “Indians are frequently cheated especially when they are in
liquor” and received as little as 1/10 of the value of their goods. “The
merchants of Albany glory in these tricks.”
Besides the trade at Oswego, Indians came to Albany, especially from Canada, since Canadian merchants used the Indians to smuggle the furs to Albany. They returned with goods that were cheaper in Albany- like wool and other cloth (flax) made on the estates of Albany merchants outside of the city. He noted many residents of Albany engaged in making wampum to trade with the Indians. And thus, Kalm concluded that that the devotion to making money, coupled with their innate frugality served to make many Albany residents very wealthy.
*Albany County had one of the largest enslaved population outside of the South. Slaves were first brought to Beverwyck in its earliest days- over a century before 1749. The labor of the enslaved was part of Albany’s economic engine that contributed to its wealth. In the city most of the enslaved were women and young boys and girls – at least 10% of the population in the mid-1700s. The estates and farms outside of the city owned by city merchants and burghers depended on adult male labor. As far as we know, unlike NYC, Albany had no central “slave market”. It’s likely there were mostly private sales and public sales took place in taverns or coffee houses.
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
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.
The 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
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.
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.
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.
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.
Set in the greenery in front of University Plaza is a small iron fence enclosing a white marble tablet. The tablet is quite worn and nearly illegible now, but a smaller plaque next to it has a transcription of the original lettering:
“The following is the wording that was placed on the memorial stone immediately adjacent to this plaque: The Declaration of Independence was first read in Albany by order of the Committee of Safety July 19, 1776 in front of the City Hall then on this site. This memorial of the event was placed here by the citizens July 4, 1876.”
At the time of the Revolutionary War, Albany’s city hall – or Stadt Huys – stood here along Broadway across from the foot of modern Hudson Avenue. At the time, this key thoroughfare running parallel to the riverfront was call Court Street and the Stadt Huys had been erected in the early 1740s to replace a 1686 meeting space on the same site.
During the Revolution, it was the meeting place of the Albany Committee of Correspondence, Safety, and Protection which was chaired by Abraham Yates, Jr..
In July 1776, in the days immediately following its approval in Philadelphia, copies of the Declaration of Independence were distributed to and read before the public in major cities throughout the rebelling Colonies. The New York copy was received by Abraham Yates, Jr; it had been sent on by his nephew, Robert Yates, who was a member of the New York Provincial Congress. The Declaration was then read to the public from the steps of the Stadt Huys on July 19 by Matthew Visscher. Visscher, a twenty-five year old lawyer, served as secretary to the Committee.
In 1876, a committee was formed in Albany to honor the 100th anniversary of American Independence. The Centennial Memorial Tablet Committee met “to procure the erection of a permanent memorial at the spot where the Declaration of Independence was first publicly read in Albany.” $100 was earmarked for the project and, at the cost of $80, the marble tablet with gilt letters was commissioned. By 1876, the old Stadt Huys was long gone, but arrangements were made to mount the marble table on the facade of the Commercial Building which stood near the corner of Broadway and Hudson Avenue.
Before a gathering of “two or three thousand” Albany residents, the tablet, which was covered by an American flag, was unveiled by Visscher Ten Eyck (Matthew Visscher’s grandson.) The tablet’s reveal was greeted by hearty cheers from the crowd, patriotic songs, chimes from the steeples of nearby churches, and a 100-gun salute.
When the Commercial Building was demolished to make way for construction of the D & H Building, the marble tablet was salvaged and set within the iron railing. The gilt lettering has since worn away and the tablet marking the first public reading the Declaration of Independence is easily overshadowed by the ornate D & H Building (now SUNY Plaza).
Washington’s first visit occurred in early March 1781. It would have been in response to an invitation by General Schuyler to the Washington to serve as godfather to Schuyler’s youngest daughter. George and his wife Martha traveled to Albany from White Plains. Catherine (one of 15 Schuyler children) was christened on March 4, 1781 in the Dutch Reformed Church; George and Martha were 2 of several of Catherine’s godparents, including her older sister Peggy (the most neglected of the Schuyler sisters in “Hamilton”). *
In 1782 George Washington came to Albany. His visit was a big deal; the General finally accepted a long standing invitation from the Mayor. He came up the River by sloop from Newburgh on June 27, arriving at 6pm and was met by Mayor Abraham Ten Broeck, city aldermen and other city officials. The church bells in the city rang for 2 hours followed by resounding booms from a 13 cannon salute from Fort Frederick. The Common Council ordered the City to be illuminated and the Town Crier to notify residents of the General’s presence. Washington proceeded by carriage from the docks (just above the Pastures, about where Madison and Quay St. meet today) to the Stadt Huys (City Hall) on Broadway and Hudson (that would be the southern tip of the area on which the SUNY Admin building sits). At the Stadt Huys he was presented with a gold box and the “Freedom of the City” (tribute bestowed by a city council rooted in ancient English tradition).
After the ceremony the General proceeded by carriage to the Schuyler Mansion for dinner and a glittering reception. The next day he inspected Fort Frederick, at the top of State St. hill (where the Capitol is located today) and then came down the hill to address the faithful of the Dutch Reformed Church (a/k/a the Blockhouse Church) situated at State and Broadway. That night he attended a dinner a Hugh Denniston’s Tavern at Beaver and Green. The next morning he was off early to Saratoga, accompanied by phalanx of soldiers for meetings in the environs of Saratoga and the Mohawk River with the Tuscaroras and Oneidas, returned to Albany, and then departed for his headquarters down in the Hudson Valley.
On his next visit in July 1783 visit Washington arrived again from Newburgh and was accompanied by Governor George Clinton. They were honored at a reception at Hugh Denniston’s Tavern (apparently the hot spot of Albany). The General delivered a speech in which he said, “.. I cannot but take a particular interest in the anticipation of the increase in prosperity and greatness of this Ancient and respectable City of Albany..”. The Governor and the General then walked with General Schuyler up Pearl St. for dinner at the home of Jeremiah Van Rensselaer (brother of Mrs. Schuyler) on east side of N. Pearl (probably close to Pine St.).
Washington and Clinton departed the next day, after staying the night in the Schuyler Mansion, for 19 day trip as far north as Fort Ticonderoga and as far west as Fort Schuyler (Rome , NY), returning to Albany in August, before heading back to Newburgh. The trip was especially because of the number of Native American tribes visited throughout the Mohawk Valley
* The first visit is subject of some debate. It’s recounted in the biography of Catherine Schuyler Malcolm by her daughter Katherine Malcom Baxter “A Godchild to Washington”, but other records for March, 1781 place Washington en route from White Plains to Newport to meet Admiral Rochambeau with the French fleet. But it’s not impossible he stopped in Albany before embarking on that trip.