Albany – There’s Nothing Permanent Except Change; a Cemetery, a Playground, a Barracks Village and a High School

Cities change; sometimes the change is slow and sometimes rapid.. but they change. They reflect the people who live in them and their changing needs. We think that no other place in Albany demonstrates this type of change as well as one block on Washington Ave. between Partridge St. and North Main Ave.

.The Cemetery

In the early 1800s this area was probably farmland, several miles away from the populated area of the city. But in the late mid-1840s it became a Roman Catholic Cemetery. At that time it was bounded by Washington Ave., Erie St., Lancaster St., and North Main Ave.



The original purchaser was probably St. Mary’s Parish because it’s usually known as Sr. Mary’s Cemetery today, but by the late 1860s and 1870s it was known also known as Cathedral Cemetery and St. Joseph’s Cemetery as well. Although there was a small Roman Catholic lot in the State Street Burial Ground (it would later become Washington Park) dating back to about 1800, as a huge influx of mostly Irish Catholic immigrants poured into Albany it became inadequate. St. Mary’s become the primary Catholic cemetery in the city. In the 1860s, about 20 years after Albany Rural Cemetery (ARC) was founded, the Catholic Diocese created St. Agnes Cemetery in Menands, but burials in St. Mary’s Cemetery continued. But the city was expanding at an explosive pace. The population grew rapidly after the Civil War, and the invention of first the electric trolley, and then the automobile made it possible for residential development to expand west from downtown.

By 1910 or so land was at a premium and city officials were working to remove the few private cemeteries in city. A newspaper notice from 1914 says the disinterment of at least 8,000 bodies will be begin in the next week; but that appears to have been delayed. A 1916 article says disinterment is imminent and refers to 2,000 bodies. We may never know number of removals.

The Park

The City of Albany purchased the cemetery land (about 8 acres) around 1920 , and then subsequently property on Lancaster St. (that at the time ran between Partridge St. and North Main Ave, parallel to Washington Ave).


There were lots of idea about what it should be, including a miniature golf course (all the rage at the time). But it was decided it should be a park – St. Mary’s Park and playground; it opened around 1925. In the mid-1930s the park was expanded, and the Erie St. boundary disappeared – extending area to Partridge St. And it so remained a park for about 2 decades.

In 1945 part of the property was transferred to New York State. Prior to World War II the State Teacher’s College had plans to expand its facilities, and construct a gymnasium and other buildings. But those plans were de-railed by the War, and would be de-railed again after the War.

The Barracks Village

Before World War II there was a severe housing shortage in Albany. Post-War the shortage became a full-fledged crisis. Men came back from the War had shared bedrooms as boys; they now had wives and children and nowhere to go. Several generations of families were crammed into small houses and apartments. It was that way across the country. Yet building takes time, so New York State decided it needed to construct temporary housing for veterans across the state.

In Albany it selected the St. Mary’s Park land owned by both the State and city. Old military barracks were trucked in from the western part of the state and converted to housing. A street grid was laid out:, water, sewer, gas and electric lines were run, and concrete sidewalks poured. There was even a village post office and a small playground The village was designed to accommodate 250 families in apartments and 150 single men who would be living in dormitories -attending school on the GI Bill. Newspaper articles of the time report there were 700 applicants.


The first 22 families moved into their new homes in October, 1946.And everything was wonderful until it wasn’t.

The little veteran’s village was meant to be temporary, but NYS authorizing legislation was extended twice. By 1952 it was still occupied, although the buildings were deteriorating and several had to be evacuated. NYS offered it to the City – the city declined because it was building Albany’s first housing project in North Albany. Things got messy; the remaining families were evicted, and in 1954 all traces of the village was razed.

St. Mary’s Park and Playground Again

By 1956 St. Mary’s Park was turned into a playground again. This time it was much expanded, with a large wading pool (it was concrete and knee scrapes were legendary), the addition of tennis courts and a baseball diamond. Off to one corner on North Main Ave. the Naval Reserve Center was built about the same year.

The High School

In 1966 Albany decided to build a new high school in St. Mary’s Park. The area to be used was identified as 27 acres. The existing high schools, Albany High on Western Ave. and Philip Schuyler in the South End, were old, deteriorating, out-of-date and over-crowded. Additionally, they were concerns raised by the NAACP about the lack of facilities and programs (compared to Albany High) in Schuyler High School which had a majority Black student body.

But this is Albany and things sometimes move like molasses in January. Finally the first pilings for the new high school for sunk, but they had rusted out by 1970 (O Albany).

After a new start, a multi-million dollar cost over-run, and charges of corruption and graft among contractors and politicians the new Albany High School opened in January, 1974, amid rumors it was haunted.

The Haunted High School ?

Well, Albany High IS built on an old cemetery. And almost every time something new was built on the site remains from the old cemetery were found. During the first transformation to a playground newspapers reported that remains of 2 individuals were found; at least one body was found when the Barracks Village was built; another when the site returned to a playground in the 1950s, and in 1972 during high school construction workers found the remains of two individuals from the cemetery. Who knows what lies beneath?

Copyright 2021 Julie O’Connor

Albany in the Early 1900s; How it Changed

Cities are always re-inventing themselves. Where possible development spreads out, or if not, existing buildings are demolished, new ones rise in their place, or old ones can be re-cycled. Sometimes it happens slowly over time, and sometimes it seems to occur all at once.

With a few exceptions I always thought it mostly happened slowly in Albany. But then I found a partial diary/memoir of my Gram Kate, born in 1901 in Arbor Hill. And as I read it became apparent to me just how much downtown Albany changed in a brief decade – from 1910 to 1920. There was a building explosion – Albany was permanently altered in what must have been a blink of an eye.

In 1909 she stood on the Capitol steps with about 2,500 Albany school children as participant in Hudson Fulton Celebration (celebrating 300 years of New York history). The view in 1909 from the steps when she was 8 changed dramatically by the time she was 19 in 1920. There were other downtown changes, as well.

And curiously a number of those were driven by advances in technology (which we rarely think about).

  • The Albany High School on the corner of Columbia and Eagle was demolished and a new County Courthouse completed by 1915
  • On State St., just opposite the Capitol, the New York Telephone Building towered over all by 1915.
  • There was no statue of General Sheridan in front of the Capitol until it was dedicated in 1916.
  • As she walked down State St. if she looked to her right, she would have seen the new YWCA building on Steuben and Chapel.
  • On the left, on the corner of State and South Pearl, the old Globe Hotel was replaced by the the new Arkay building.By 1916 there were already traffic jams and double parking on State St. The city fathers were wondering if the new “traffic signals” would be cheaper than patrol men directing traffic.
  • If you walked over North Pearl the changes would have been the number of movie theatres. The stores on the corner of Monroe (it was parallel to Orange St.)were demolished for the new Strand movie theatre.
  • The Presbyterian Church opposite Clinton Square (next to what is now McGeary’s) became the Clinton Square theater.
  • Hang a right down Clinton Ave, walking toward Broadway, and she would have found the new Grand movie theater ( where Federal Bldg. is today).
  • When she reached Broadway and took a right walking towards State St., the biggest changes could be seen. Off the the left there was the new Yacht Club and the municipal recreation pier, just behind Union Station.
  • And then there was the Mac Daddy of all development – the D & H Building. In a matter of 4 years about 5 blocks stretching east, down to the River were demolished, and the D& H rose in 2 parts. When completed in 1918 it would dominate the Riverfront, and present a magnificent view from the Capitol steps.
  • Moving south on Broadway there would be the new Hudson Navigation docks and sheds at Steamboat Square, completed in 1918.
  • On her way home, walking up Washington Ave, before crossing the Hawk St. viaduct, Kate could see the re-construction of the Capitol, where it had been damaged in the 1911 fire.
  • Just beyond the Capitol, north to Swan St., everything had been demolished to Swan St, and a new West Capitol Park constructed.
  • Across the way, gleaming granite in the sun, stood the Education Building, dedicated in 1912.

And when she crossed the Viaduct, and made her way over North Swan, she would see the new Arbor Hill Movie theater , where she would get a really good part-time job playing the organ for the silent flicks on weeknights when she was 16. (Although she would be riddled with guilt because it was mainly because the boys were off to War, and wonder how much the fact her father’s barbershop was next door to theater had to do with it.

Julie O’Connor

The Story of the NYS Education Building – Church vs State

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In 1904, Dr. Andrew Draper became the first NYS Commissioner of Education As his education empire grew, he dearly wanted a separate and special building to house his department, and had his eye on a piece of property on the corner of So. Swan and Washington Ave, close to the Capitol. However, the Episcopal Bishop, William Croswell Doane, was building the Cathedral of All Saints on S. Swan St., on the very block that Dr. Draper coveted, and successfully fought Dr. Draper’s plan with all the righteous indignation available to a man of the cloth.

However, in 1906 when the good Bishop was on a trip to Europe, Draper seized the moment and used his political influence to snatch up the property surrounding the Cathedral, relegating it to a small corner on Swan and Elk St., and forever dashing the Bishop’s hopes for expansion of the Cathedral. The Bishop was successful in limiting the height of the new building, but Draper got what is said to be the longest colonnade in the world. 

Proposals for the new building were solicited in 1907 and construction began in 1909. The new building was dedicated in November, 1912. 

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Julie O’Connor

The Battle for Albany’s West Capitol Park

This week in 1919 Gov. Al Smith agreed to give up his plan to have the land behind the Capitol building and Swan St. used to construct a State Office Building, and allow a park to be established.

A whole bunch of buildings with some very venerable businesses were pushed out of the block of Washington Avenue just west of the Capitol in 1919. They included a well-known livery stable on the corner of Swan and State, several hotels and the famous Mason’s candy store near the corner of Washington and Swan, a favorite of the St. Agnes (on Elk St.) school girls. There were a lot of buildings and a street crammed into that small area between the Capitol, Swan St., State St. and Washington Ave.

But once the site was opened up, citizens of Albany came to a realization:

An article in “The American City” in November of that year, by Charles M. Winchester, the president of the Albany Chamber of Commerce, laid out the problems that led to these demolitions:

“Many years ago the available office space in the Capitol was exhausted, and in consequence state departments have been obliged to occupy rented quarters in business buildings and even in former residences on the streets adjacent to the Capitol. .. The Legislature at the session of 1918 finally appropriated $700,000 for the purchase of the block of land west of the Capitol, where the old buildings have been razed.”

“Following the removal of the old buildings behind the Capitol, the citizens of Albany and the state at large obtained their first real view of the stately Education Building. It was as if a curtain obscuring a beautiful picture had suddenly been torn aside. Formerly the only view of the Education Building had been from either end, or at most a very limited perspective. But with the removal of the old buildings it literally burst into view, and its hitherto unrecognized beauty caused the sudden awakening of the people to a realization of what they had been missing. It likewise brought a sober second thought that this beauty would in all probability soon be obscured again by a massive State Office Building which would effectually blanket it from the south.”

Soon the Chamber of Commerce, local architects and others were pressing for a park in place of an office building. A Times-Union article from 1919 said, “Strong supporters of the park site plan, instead of a state office building, as is now proposed by the legislature, are representative of all walks of life in Albany. Members of the leading business houses, professional men, including clergymen, doctors and lawyers, as well as the small house owner and rent payer are firm in their endeavor to secure a park that would protect the education building’s beauty and further set off the stateliness of the capitol itself.”

The effort was being led by clothier George T. Babbitt, who said, “Only the other day , … one of the minority, as he opponents to the plan are being called, telephoned me and said that Albany as a whole was trying to keep out a $2,000,000 building. I replied that if the state structure were erected on that site, forever shutting off the view of the magnificent Education building, Albany would lose $4,000,000 worth of beauty.”

Winchester’s article said that the former State Architect Franklin B. Ware had developed a plan by which would have set the Capitol as the center of a group of state buildings. His plan called for a new state office building on the south side of State St. between Hawk and Swan, “to balance and conform in architecture with the style of the Education Building.” It would also have had the area west of the Capitol dedicated as a memorial to those Albany citizens who gave “their service and their lives in the great war,” with a memorial colonnade along the western edge of the park. That plan was said to have considerable support, and Winchester said it was “the decided choice” of the people of Albany.

However, he noted there were others who favored the purchase of the new telephone building for state offices. “Nearly all of this building is already occupied by state departments.” The telephone building was apparently controversial, given that “its height obscures the State Building [the capitol] from the south and mars what was once a beautiful landscape setting. ‘Why didn’t Albany people protest in time to prevent this defacement of their State Capitol?’ is the question frequently asked by outsiders.”

Winchester concluded that “the matter has been brought to the attention of Governor Alfred E. Smith as chairman of the Trustees of Public Buildings, and it is hoped that they will see the force of the argument for the retention of the space behind the Capitol as a memorial park and that the new State Office Building will ultimately be erected to the southward to balance and be a fitting counterpart to the beautiful but hitherto unappreciated Education Building.”

That, of course, was not the end of it. While the plan to move the building elsewhere went nowhere, the building itself also didn’t get underway. Two years later, in 1921, there was still the promise/threat of an office building on the site. In April, a newspaper article said that work would begin “on or about May 1.”

“The site of the state office building is bounded by State street, Swan street, Washington avenue and Capitol place, and after the buildings on this site had been razed and the ground cleared an agitation was started to have the plot converted into a public park. This idea received widespread support from local officials and civic organizations, but when the war conditions made the cost of building materials so high the idea of constructing the state office building was temporarily dropped.

The park project passed out with the establishment of a commission of representatives of the city of Albany and of the state which was to insure cooperation between the state and the erection of state buildings. Evidently this commission gave its approval to the construction of the office building and rejected the park idea. It is the intention to erect an office building in which will be housed all the state departments now distributed throughout the city. Thousands of dollars are being paid out annually in rentals for this property leased by the state and the office building will make possible a great economy in the present cost of state government.”

Despite an impending appropriation, the building still didn’t happen. The vacated land was fashioned into a park in some way, though we don’t know how developed it was.

In 1926, the question of the park was apparently still not settled. A Times-Union editorial from Feb. 1 says the block bounded by State, South Swan, Chestnut and South Hawk was still favored. The T-U argued that the block to the west of the Capitol (bounded by Washington, South Swan, State and Capitol Place) should be excluded from consideration. “This site is sometimes suggested, but this subject was fully threshed out several years ago and the fact that it would be undesirable for the erection of a state office building was conclusively demonstrated. To locate the office building there would create a group of buildings that would be an architectural monstrosity. A structure on that site would spoil the perspective of both the Capitol and State Education Building. The park that has been created should ever remain an open space in order that the State buildings shall have a proper environment. The location of the new building on the block south of State Street will create a group of buildings located in harmony of sites and the existing park between them will give the necessary perspective to them all.”

But that was the year that Governor Al Smith finally got through a proposal for a new office building, still intended to “resemble in style and architecture the state education building. He also would see the state acquire the block bounded by Park place, Washington Avenue, Hawk and Elk streets as a site for a new executive mansion.” There was a shortage of office space in Albany, and rents were going up. This time, the building was for real, although it went in an art deco direction, rather than resembling the State Education building. It was completed in 1928, and is called the Alfred E. Smith Building (We don’t know if the idea of a new executive mansion was ever broached again.)

By Friend of Albany History, Carl Johnson, from his blog “Hoxsie” http://hoxsie.org/ . You can find it on FB, the Web and follow him on Twitter

What was there? The NYS Education Building and West Capitol Park across from each other on Washington Ave.

 

The Education Building was started in 1908 and completed in 1912. The buildings on the opposite side of Washington Ave. were demolished for West Capitol Park in 1919., as well as the buildings that were actually behind the Capitol, within what is the Park today, on Congress St. and Capitol Place.

(Capitol Pl. ran between Washington Ave. and State St., parallel to the Capitol. Congress St. was a stub of a road, perpendicular to S Swan and the Capitol.)

 

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A vision of Albany’s future, circa 1914; Get the flux capacitor

In 1912, architect Arnold W. Brunner was asked by James B. McEwan, then Mayor, to prepare studies for the improvement of Albany. The results were collected into a 1914 book entitled “Studies For Albany,” which I found on Google Books.

Much of what Brunner proposed was grandiose beyond belief, while other proposals were more practicable.

Here are some excerpts from that publication, which contains some excellent and rarely-seen photographs of Albany circa 1914.

STATE STREET
Brunner was critical of the eastern end of State, where it met the river, in ‘a tangle of mean streets and wretched buildings.” Although he knew there was a continuing desire to secure a view of the Hudson River, he acknowledged that clearing the area would only provide a view of the railroad yard. He recommended obliterating this view with a plaza that would screen the industrial scenario. This eventually became what we knew as the D&H Building.

Stvdies for Albany

THE STATE STREET PIER
The State Street Pier, containing the Albany Yacht Club building, was deemed isolated and improperly proportioned.. Brunner redesigned the pier, suggesting concrete paving instead of green fields, and discussed the ongoing replacement of the old bridge that connected the Pier with Quay Street.

THE RIVER FRONT
As for the waterfront, Brunner said, “The Albany water front had long been give up to commerce. Railways, steamships, factories and warehouses had siezed it and ruined it. Their activities were carried on in a slipshod manner without order or system, as may be seen in the accompanying photographs. The devastating ugliness of the old water front can no longer be endured.”

Brunner’s new waterfront would be one of “order and completeness.” He suggested elevating the railroad tracks and concealing them from view, a widened Broadway, freight yards screened away from view by walls and covered passages, and a uniform code of architecture, none of which came to pass.

 

CITY ENTRANCE
Brunner thought the Rensselaer Bridge “awkward and aggressively ugly,”’ and a horrible introduction to Albany. “As we cross the bridge from Rensselaer,” he said, “we find the most deplorable state of affairs on reaching the Albany side, and we receive the worst impression of a neglected neighborhood. There is a dangerous grade crossing, bad roads and a complication of tracks, freight cars and unsightly warehouses. Nothing could be more shabby and unpleasant.”

The imposing structure he proposed was loosely based on the grand entranceways to Bordeaux and Barcelona. It would be high enough to hide the trains on the other side. It’s an amazing rendering.

Stvdies for Albany

MARKET PLACE
Albany’s market place was an overcrowded mess. Brunner suggested expanding it eastward and installing a slightly elevated covered platform up to which vendors could pull up their trucks, and upon which shoppers could examine and purchase goods while being sheltered from the elements.

Stvdies for Albany

SHERIDAN PARK
This was the name for that steep drop-off property between Dove and Swan, extending from Elk Street almost to Sheridan Avenue. Brunner proposed a walking terrace and esplanade with playgrounds and a vehicle scenic overlook.

SUNKEN GARDEN
This was the name for the three blocks between Lancaster and Chestnut, from Main to Ontario, which eventually became St. Mary’s Park. The recommendation was a sunken garden, with decorative flower beds, a fountain, trees, and pavilions.

Stvdies for Albany

BEAVER PARK
Beaver Park, most of which was an unsanitary mess, would eventually become Lincoln Park. Brunner proposed an ambitious project incorporating an athletic field, a swimming pool, a children’s playground, and some monumental structures. There would be a broad flight of steps leading from the track to the top of the terrace; they would double as a grandstand. A pavilion would contain dressing rooms, baths, etc.

Stvdies for Albany

The swimming pool would have two parts, one for swimmers, and the other a children’s wading pool. “It is intended to secure the appearance of a natural lake with sandy shores and bottom and to provide all the delights of ‘the old swimming hole.’” At the lower end of the park would be a children’s playground, with wading pool, sand piles, slides, swings and a babies’ lawn “in front of a shady pergola for the mothers.”

Stvdies for Albany

A new bandstand was also recommended.

Stvdies for Albany

One of the few remaining old houses on the west end of the property was once the home of Dr James Hall, a noted geologist. It was to be remodeled and used for meetings and bad-weather recreation.

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In time, much of what Brunner suggested for the park came to be.

 

SWINBURNE PARK
Band concerts were popular here at the turn of the century, so a deluxe new bandstand was proposed, large enough to double as an open-air theatre for plays and cultural events.

 

From Al Quaglieri’s  blog Doc Circe Died for Our Sins