“Blind Tom” at Albany’s Tweddle Hall in 1866

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Blind Tom

Thomas Greene Wiggins was born in 1849 to Mungo and Charity Wiggins, slaves on a Georgia plantation. He was blind and autistic, but a musical genius with a phenomenal memory. In 1850 Tom, his parents, and two brothers were sold to James Neil Bethune, a lawyer and newspaper editor in Columbus, Georgia. Tom made his concert debut at eight, performing in Atlanta.

In 1859, age of 10, he became the first African American performer to play at the White House for President James Buchanan. His piano pieces “Oliver Galop” and “Virginia Polka” were published in 1860. During the Civil War he was used to raise funds for Confederate relief. By 1865 16-year-old Tom Wiggins, now “indentured” to James Bethune, could play difficult works of Bach, Chopin, Liszt, Beethoven, and Thalberg. He also played pieces after one hearing, and memorized poems and text in foreign languages.

Bethune took Tom on a concert tour in Europe and he became an internationally recognized performer. By 1868 Tom and the Bethune family lived on a Virginia farm in the summer, while touring the United States and Canada the rest of the year, averaging $50,000 annually in concert revenue. James Bethune eventually lost custody of Tom to his late son’s ex-wife, Eliza Bethune. Charity Wiggins, Tom’s mother, was a party to the suit, but she did not win control of her son or his income.

Blind Tom Wiggins gave his last performance in 1905. (excerpted from www.blackpast.org)

Tweddle Hall

Tweddle Hall was the pre-eminent concert venue in Albany on the corner of State St. and North Pearl St. for decades (a Citizen’s Bank is there today). It was mostly destroyed by fire in 1883, and then re-built as the Tweddle Building several years later, housing office and stores. (By now there were other concert venues.) The Tweddle Building was demolished circa 1912 to accomodate the expansion of the Ten Eyck Hotel, which was demolished circa 1970 for the bank,

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The Ten Eyck Hotel – the Grande Dame of State Street

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The original Ten Eyck Hotel, which would come to dominate the skyline of downtown Albany for much of the 20th century, was built in 1899 at corner of State St. and Chapel St.

In the 1890s there were 3 major hotels in Albany. The Kenmore, the Delavan and Stanwix Hall. The Delavan on Broadway (where Lincoln stayed in 1861 on his pre-inaugural journey to Washington D.C.) was destroyed by fire in 1894. Stanwix Hall, on Broadway and Maiden Lane, was looking a tad shabby. It had been built in the 1830s by the uncles of Herman Melville, and while once a grand show place, was showing its age. The Kenmore on N. Pearl, established by Adam Blake (son of a former slave) was doing a thriving business under the new ownership of the Rockwell family.

But the Rockwells saw an opening in the market after the Delavan fire. Frederick, the Rockwell son, created a corporation that included James Ten Eyck, from one of Albany’s oldest and wealthiest families.They purchased the old Corning homestead on State St. and set to building the most modern and luxe hotel in heart of downtown Albany. Based on his experience with the Kenmore Frederick knew what guests wanted. Most importantly, it was guaranteed “fire proof” – the destruction of the Delavan – a hotel known around the country, had created enormous fear. (There had been deaths and many seriously injured guests and employees.)

2The “fireproof” Ten Eyck was an immediate success. It was 9 stories and designed to cater to the whims of even the most jaded traveler. The rooms and suites were airy and well-appointed. Want a room for your maid? No problem. Porcelain baths gleamed and towels were plush. There was a large ballroom and many meeting rooms to accommodate the conventions that flocked to the hotel. The lobby was spacious and comfortable, with a barbershop, hair salon, florist, telegraph office, and access to telephones. Scores of bell hops swarmed – ready to run any errand or fulfill the smallest of requests. Carriages transported travelers to and from the train station and Steamboat Square at no charge. The dining room and food was legendary – with specially made china and engraved silver plate with the Ten Eyck logo.

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4Other large hotels were built on State St. over the next 10 years; the Hampton and the Wellington. They enjoyed success, but the Ten Eyck out shown them all. By 1914 it needed to expand, and the owners bought and demolished the Tweddle Building just below the Hotel, at the corner of State and Pearl. Within 3 years a new Ten Eyck Hotel building arose that, at 17 stories, dominated downtown for decades (the older, smaller building became known as the “Annex”). The Ten Eyck had become the sort of “modern” hotel we recognize today (except for the mini-bar). It had a new owner – the United Hotels Company that owned a string of upscale hotels across the country.

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In the late 1920’s the Ten Eyck finally had some real competition with the construction of the DeWitt Clinton Hotel up the street at State and Eagle – opposite the Capitol. (Today it’s been renovated and is the Renaissance – owned by Marriott.) The two competed for the next 45 years, but it was the Ten Eyck that ruled downtown, surviving the Depression and thriving in World War II.

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The Ten Eyck continued to be the destination of choice in Albany for presidents and the rich and famous. Because of its proximity to the Capitol Theater, just around the corner on Chapel St., guests included everyone from the venerable actors Cornelia Otis Skinner and Lionel Barrymore to George M. Cohan to Molly Picon, the Queen of Yiddish Theater. The Ten Eyck was mobbed by Stagedoor Johnnies when Flo Ziegfeld brought the beautiful bevy of girls in his Follies to Albany.

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11.1In the 1950s it became a Sheraton hotel, was renovated and had bit of renewal. Still, the grand dame struggled to compete in the 1960s. The main restaurant, the Grill Room, was given a wacky amoeba shaped bar (so mid-century) and another bar became the “Dolliwog Lounge” (waitresses were the equivalent of Albany’s Playboy bunnies.) But then Sheraton Corp. bought the newly constructed Inn Towne Motel on Broadway. (The building is still there as a Holiday Inn Express – the swimming pool on the roof is long gone.)

 

 

 

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All the hotels in downtown were suffering from competition from new motels on the outskirts of the City and the suburbs – the Americana on Wolf Rd. (now the Desmond), the Thruway Motel on Washington Ave. (demolished for a medical building) and several Howard Johnson Motels (the remains of one on Southern Blvd. still exists). The area adjacent to downtown had been gutted for Empire State Plaza construction, but that was insignificant compared to a dying downtown – commercial and retail development had moved to the suburbs, as was the case in many Northeastern cities. Steamboat travel ended 20 years before and no one traveled by train. (Albany’s Union Station would soon be closed.)

In a last gasp the hotel was purchased by a company from Binghamton and run by the Schine Corp. It was during this era in the late 1960s I stayed in the Ten Eyck for a NYS high school convention. It was shabby, but with room service; swanky to a 16 year old used to summer vacation motor court cabins. I snuck into the cocktail lounge; it seemed so “Mad Men” with a dash of 007-sophisticated and cosmopolitan. The men all looked like Don Draper or Roger Sterling – the women like Betty Draper and Joan Holloway. They were drinking Gimlets, Martinis and Manhattans in a world that would shortly become Woodstock, Boone’s Farm and tie dye.

Nothing could save the hotel. It closed that year in 1968 and remained a rotting hulk for several years until it was demolished, along with Albany Savings Bank (an Albany architectural gem). That block is now home to the some of the bleakest examples of 1970s architecture.. a Citizen’s Bank , the Ten Eyck Plaza Office Building and what it now a Hilton Hotel, about were the original Ten Eyck building would had been (more or less).

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There is one last vestige of the venerable Ten Eyck (other than few pieces of random china or flatware that surface on eBay from time to time) and it’s not in Albany. If you should ever find yourself in Staunton Virginia, stop in the Depot Grille restaurant and you can see the massive 40’ bar from the Ten Eyck Hotel. (Don’t ask us how it ended up in Staunton, we haven’t a clue – but if you know, please tell us.)

Julie O’Connor

The Corner of State and Pearl.. a/k/a “The Old Elm Tree Corner”

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For over 300 years, the northwest corner of State and N. Pearl has been a very special part of Albany. In the late 1600s it was originally the site of the home of Nicholas Van Rensselaer and Alida Schuyler. After Nicholas died, Alida married Robert Livingston in 1679 (her husband’s former bookkeeper) and the Livingstons remained in the house on the corner. In 1735, Philip Livingston, future signer of the Declaration of Independence, planted what was to become the famous “Old Elm Tree” in front of that house.

Prior to the Revolution, the corner housed the “Blue Bell Tavern “and a number of stores. By 1794, it was known as Webster’s Corner. The Webster Brothers bookstore and printing house published the “Albany Gazette” and “The Albany Journal” and cartloads of Noah Webster’s spelling books and dictionary were dispersed throughout the Northeast. In the mid 1830s, the Boardman & Gray Piano Showroom and factory set up on the corner. And the Elm Tree remained.

In 1860 the grand Tweddle Hall opened, with shops and offices on the bottom floor and a large theater/hall above. However, by 1877, Mr. Tweddle (president of the Merchants Bank) finally gave into progress, and when N. Pearl St. was to be widened, he allowed the ancient “Old Elm Tree” to be cut down.

Maybe karma… maybe not… but in 1883, Tweddle Hall was destroyed by a disastrous fire. Tweddle re-built on the site, the Tweddle Building, without the hall, but again home to numerous stores and offices.

In 1915, Tweddle Hall was demolished for expansion of the Ten Eyck Hotel. just above it, facing State St. The hotel stood on that corner for another almost another 60 years.
Throughout most of the 20th century, it was the most famous trolley/bus stop in Albany and a meeting place for anyone Downtown.

During the 1950s and 1960s almost every bus in the City stopped at the corner. The sidewalk was wide and at 5pm there could be as many as 200 people crammed on the corner at any given time, waiting for “their bus,” one of a long line that often stretched several blocks. There was a Walgreen’s drugstore in the bottom of the Ten Eyck, the perfect place, if you were a kid, to dash in to buy a nickel Hershey bar… or if an adult, a copy of the Knickerbocker News, Albany’s evening newspaper for the bus ride home.
The Ten Eyck Hotel closed in around 1969 and the building was demolished, along with the Albany Savings Bank next door, for a new bank building of astoundingly modern architecture built in the early 1970s.

There was a plaque paying tribute to the Old Elm.Tree. but that has vanished over time; today’s plaque commemorates Philip Livingston, but not the tree he planted that stood for 130 some odd years.

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