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.
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.
Copyright 2021 Julie O”Connor