Monday, August 31, 2009

The Five-sided House

Though it's a bit out of my way, the Ten Broeck neighborhood is one of my favorites. In the heart of the old Arbor Hill, this area contains some of the most interesting old buildings in the city...the empty, but magnificent St. Joseph's Church, the Ten Broeck Mansion on the hill that gave the district its name, and rows of handsome 19th-century houses.

Many of the old houses along Ten Broeck Street have fallen on hard times. Windows are covered by boards, cast iron railings are rusting or missing, stone facades crumbling. One old brick building (which will appear in a future post) is nothing but a facade now.

But, to my delight, some of these old houses are being restored. Work permits are posted in grimy windows and piles of wood and tools can be glimpsed through open doors. Last winter, my friend and I got a peek inside one restoration-in-progress along the 100 block. The Victorian townhouse was being stripped done to the barest of bones. Brick walls had been stripped of all plaster, sub-floors were exposed, windows removed. But one still got a sense of the house's original elegance in the steep narrow stairs with their heavy newel posts and dark wood banisters and the graceful arch dividing the two main rooms on the first floor.

The 1873 house pictured above stands at the corner of Ten Broeck Street and the steep hill of Livingston Avenue. In fact, the steepness of the hill contributed to an accident - a streetcar once lost control while descending towards North Pearl and struck the house, though no evidence of that damage remains.

It's a fanciful house with a slate-covered mansard roof, lacy cast iron trim, a lovely window on the narrow fifth wall, and light fixtures in the shape of bats' wings flank the front door. Built as a private house, it later served as a rectory for the nearby Church of the Holy Innocents (now closed). And it stands opposite the much older Ten Broeck Mansion, home to a number of prominent Albany families over the centuries.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

I can see the resemblance...

I once read that the design for this building was inspired by a grapefruit half perched atop a cottage cheese cup during one of the meetings between the architects who designed the Empire State Plaza and Governor Nelson Rockefeller, the driving force behind the massive project.

I don't know if that story is true, mainly because I can't recall exactly where I read it. But I can certainly see the resemblance from the angle above.

The building is called The Egg and I can see that resemblance, too. It does look like half an egg, again, from certain angles. But, from other angles, it looks like a ship.

The Egg houses the Center For The Performing Arts. As a big lover of the arts in most forms, I'm very fond of this place and, since childhood, have seen many shows here...ranging from the pre-Broadway production of Raggedy Ann (a rather disturbing show that eventually flopped in New York), various magic shows to a truly lovely ballet, The Bluebird, presented by a Russian company during the height of glasnost to concerts by artists such as Robert Mirabal and some excellent Shakespeare.

Though The Egg was completed when I was four years old, it's such a familiar sight that, like the whole of the Plaza, seems like it's always been there.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Did somebody spill a rainbow?

I guess we can file this one under "Random." While walking north on Lark Street this afternoon, I looked up and spotted these colorful splatters on the side of a building just past the intersection with Central Avenue.

Obviously, the bright, dripping colors weren't some painting mishap. They're too precise for that. But they are a very random and unexpected site and I haven't any idea why or how they were added to this otherwise ordinary building.

This bit of unexpected art does remind me of the murals that used to appear on some buildings around Albany during the late 70s or early 80s. I was quite young at the time so my memories of most of those murals are a little sketchy. The one I remember most clearly was at the corner of Lark and Madison, overlooking what is now the Dunkin Donuts parking lots. It was a trio of stylized silhouettes - stark white dancer executing leaps against a light blue background. The remnants of another mural showing plumbers at work still exists, fading and incomplete on Ontario Street.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Library Lilies

Outside the main branch of the Albany Public Library on Washington Avenue is a small garden. Just two little plots on either side of the front entrance.

Most people just walk by without a second glance on their way in and out of the building. And, this being a public library in an urban setting, there are often some rather unsavory loiters in their usual spots on the concrete benches edging the garden.

But this little garden is worth noticing, particularly the hibiscus with huge wine-colored flowers.

Yesterday, on the way out of the library with some novels for late summer reading, I spotted one of my favorite flowers - these elegant white lilies - in full bloom.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009


First of all, I love books. A lot. And it would seem my inclination towards books goes back to babyhood.

Legend has it (well, not legend really, but I've always wanted to say that) that, when I was a toddler just old enough to speak and understand picture books...but not old enough to actually read...I was in the family car on Broadway and caught sight of a sign over a show. I pointed up to the sign and said, "Books."

That store still stands at the corner of Broadway and Hudson Avenue, part of a row of 19th-century buildings that once formed one of Albany's most active business districts. It's on the same block as the old Argus building which I've previously written about here.

And it's still open, though its hours are admittedly hit-and-miss. Often, there are racks of faded romance novels outside, even when the shop is closed.

I've been in there a few times, usually before or after a stop at the Starbucks just up State Street Hill or Coulson's News Center just up the block. It's my favorite sort of used book store...dimly lit, cramped, unimaginably dusty, piles of books on the floor along crammed shelves, titles ranging from the autobiography of Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen to vintage Playboy magazines.

The windows are a good indicator of the inside. Copies of the Koran shares space with brittle newspapers from World War II, cookbooks, fairytales, histories, and record albums from the 80s.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Sign says...

Sometimes, when you look up at the sides of older buildings downtown, you'll see the ghosts of old painted signs painted on the exterior walls. Most are faded, but just legible enough to see what they once touted.

Most of the ones I've come across are for businesses long gone - like Keeler's, once a popular restaurant.

But this one, on the side of a building on Pearl Street near Lodge Street, advertised a still-active business, the Times Union newspaper.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Looking inside

All right, I'll admit it. I've always been extremely fascinated by old cemeteries. And we've got some terrific historic cemeteries in the area, most notably the still-active Albany Rural Cemetery just north of the city in Menands. While the cemetery itself was established in the 1840s, a number of graves are old burials that were transferred from overcrowded churchyards and burial grounds in and around the city.

As the cemetery's site notes, it's the final resting place of quite a few historic figures, including a President and a Signer of the Declaration of Independence. There are numerous graves of soldiers ranging from the French & Indian War, the American Revolution, the Civil War, etc.

In addition to the famous and prominent burials, there are also hundreds of lesser-known, but no less interesting people who played their parts in local history and lore. Some of my favorites include Erastus Dow Palmer (a sculptor whose "Angel At The Sepulchre" in the cemetery is my favorite work of art ever), Alfred B. Street (a Civil War era poet who wrote wordy odes to nature), and little Wacheka (a Sioux orphan who was adopted by a group of Albany citizens only to die of tuberculosis).

There's so much to say about the Rural Cemetery that I could easily fill an entire blog (don't give me any ideas!).

And I'll admit I'm often morbidly curious about the interiors of closed mausoleums. Not the ones with lovely open-work gates or thick glass windows showing off polished stone interiors with gorgeous stained glass windows. I love those, too. But it's the vaults that are all forbiddingly and tantalizingly shut up that really get me curious. I always look at them and want to know just what is inside...aside from the obvious.

So, on a visit to the cemetery a few months ago, I let my curiosity get the better of me. I stood on tiptoe, raised my digital camera to a gap above the door of the impressive Burden vault, hoped my hand was steady and my flash bright enough, and clicked.

I was lucky. The photo not only came out clear, it captured the resting place of the vault's two main occupants, wealthy industrialist Henry Burden and his wife, Helen.

Burden gave his name to several local landmarks, most notably a lake near Troy. He was the owner of the massive Burden Iron Works, famous for its enormous water wheel (which is said to have inspired the invention of the Ferris wheel) and for producing the metal plates for the Civil War's ironclad ship, the Monitor.

To read more about Henry Burden, click here.

To read about the Burden Iron Works, click here.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Waves of stone

I've always liked this section of the Empire State Plaza. Not for any real reason. It's just a feature that, as a very little child, I thought was quite neat and my liking for it persists now.

These stony "waves" of alternating bands of black and white "cobblestones" are located near the north edge of the Plaza, just across State Street from the New York State Capitol.

I suppose that, like many other features of the Plaza, this bit of outdoor art has a title. No doubt there's a plaque somewhere identifying it and its designer. I haven't come across it, though. But I haven't really looked, either.

I seem to recall that, when I was small, the white stones were brighter and the black ones were darker. But, well, things do change with time.

Thursday, August 13, 2009


Coulson's News Center has been a very familiar sight on Broadway just south of State Street Hill for about fifty years. Located in a pre-Civil War building that I'll blog about some other day, it has always been a convenient place to grab a newspaper, a magazine, a candy bar.

I've been in and out of this shop hundreds of times since childhood. But, as with so many familiar places, there's always something new to see...some little detail previously overlooked.

Earlier this summer, while walking home from seeing The Village People in concert, we stopped in Coulson's to get something cold to drink. And, embedded in the concrete threshold, I spotted this little brass plaque which proudly announces WE NEVER CLOSE. Which isn't 100% true since the store closes about ten each night.

But truth-in-advertising isn't the point here.

I just had to wonder just how many people who walk in and out of the store on a regular basis...and walk over this plaque...even know it's there at all.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009


Tucked in a quiet row of Lark Street businesses that includes a convenience store and a laundromat is a tiny place called Sam's Home Cooking.

It's an old-fashioned place with a lunch counter and a couple of tables along the wall. A few specials are posted on a small handwritten sign in the window. Not a place that gets written up in restaurant reviews, but appears to be a second home to a few regulars I always see when I pass by.

It's one of those places that has been there forever. Or at least as long as I can remember.

In the window, there's even a slot machine of fruit-shaped candies that are slowly fading from the sun.

Because it's so low-key and familiar, it's sort of faded into the background. And it was only a few months ago that I noticed the vintage sign - bearing the previous name - hanging above the entrance.

Oh, and I don't know how the food is...I've never met anyone who's eaten there.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Funny face

I've walked past the old De Witt Clinton Hotel many, many times. But it was only yesterday that I noticed the laughing faces on the ornate lamp posts flanking the main entrance on Eagle Street, just south of State Street.

The De Witt Clinton Hotel dates from the late 1920s and was designed by architects C. Howard Crane and Kenneth Franzheim. Several books mention that the lobby features murals of early Albany history, though I've never seen them for myself and don't know if they're intact.

The laughing faces on the lamps are rather appropriate since the building (long since converted to apartments) currently hosts a comedy club.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Down to the bones

When I was about seven or eight, I recall going to a Christmas party at the Elks Lodge on State Street. Exactly how and why I was going to the Elks Lodge isn't quite clear. No one in the family was associated with the Elks, but at that age, you don't necessarily question that sort of thing and, to be honest, I remember very little about the interior of the Lodge save for a fleeting glimpse of what I believe was an old-fashioned bar of heavy wood.

The exterior, though, has always been a familiar site. A sad one, in recent years as I walked up and down State Street's steep hill (usually en route to Starbucks). The Elks Lodge, with its gorgeous ca. 1913 Beaux-Arts facade, has long since moved from 49 State Street and the handsome building had been falling into disrepair (along with the old Wellington Hotel next to it) for years.

It was earlier this year that work finally commenced on a redevelopment project along this section of State Street now known as Wellington Row. The buildings, including the historic 500-room hotel, are slowly being demolished. However, the facades are being preserved and the intent is to incorporate them into the future structures to be built here.

While walking yesterday behind Wellington Row, I caught a glimpse of the Elks Lodge as it's being torn down. Looking through the chain-link fence at the exposed interior, I could see what's left of what must have been a very fine staircase. The bare bones of a once-impressive building and, no doubt, those will be gone shortly as work progresses.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

A railroad runs through it....

A familiar and quite shabby sight to anyone driving along Broadway or 787 in Albany, the crumbling white structure above is the old Central Warehouse at the corner of Montgomery and Colonie Streets.

Built in the 1920s, this massive derelict building was originally a cold-storage warehouse for frozen foods, especially meat. Even in the 80s, when most of the building was already vacant and beginning to crumble, the lower floor houses a small store where one could buy bulk boxes of frozen chicken breasts and the like.

One of the most distinctive features of this concrete and steel warehouse is its very own railroad spur passing right through its second-story. This little branch of the New York Central Railroad allowed cars carrying beef and other products to pull right into the building, unload at an interior platform, and pull right back out the other side.

During the 1980s, a large "Year of The Bible" sign prominently painted on one side of the building caused quite a bit of controversy due to its size.

The building has been vacant for about twenty years now and it's deteriorating. During a recent walk along the east side of the building on a breezy day, we had to dodge a hail of plaster fragments that came showering down.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Family History

This old brick building, which stands at the corner of Swan Street and Hudson Avenue near the entrance to the tunnels that pass into and under the Empire State Plaza is a piece of personal history.

My great-grandfather was a grocer in Albany long before I was born. He had, at different times, a store on the same block of Madison Avenue which I still live on and one at this corner of Swan and Hudson.

His family lived above the store and the top floor was rented out to another family.

The store was called J. Sharkey Delicatessan - Grocery & Fruit. Don't let the name fool you, though, he wasn't Irish. His name was really Vincenzo Sciacca, but his customers has great difficulty pronouncing it. Apparently, one mispronunciation sounded awfully like sputacchiare, the Italian verb meaning "to spit." Not flattering and, when one Irish lady suggested "Sharkey," he changed the store's name...and his own.

Vincenzo was born in Sicily in 1886 and emigrated to the United States, living first in NYC and then Albany. He began a citizen of the U.S. sometime after the birth of his children as all seven of them are listed on the few naturalization papers I've found in the family files.

If you'd like to see a photo of the store as it looked back them, click here.

I've always found it interesting to look at the details of the old store photos - the piles of fresh vegetables and heavy bunches of bananas hanging just inside the window, the names of the beers (many from local breweries long gone - see the entry about the old Hinckel Brewery), the brand names which still exist today (like Miracle Whip).