Wednesday, May 20, 2009

The Charm of Random Details

One thing I really love about older buildings - and we've got plenty of those here in Albany - are the little details you find on them. A carved cherub or a fluted column or a beautifully curving iron rail. Small things that add a bit of charm, even to some very utilitarian structures.

This building, with its old street sign and ornamental carving, stands at the corner of Broadway and, obviously, Hudson Avenue.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009


The Corning Tower is Albany's most visible landmark. Rising 589 feet above the Empire State Plaza, it's rather hard to miss it.

The tower of glass and Vermont Pearl marble was designed by architects Wallace Harrison and Max Abramowiz and was completed in 1973.

The tower houses several State offices, including Office of General Services and the Department of Health. Its 42nd floor houses an Observation Deck (click here for visitor information) with fantastic views of Albany, Hudson River, and the Catskill Mountains. Unfortunately, there are no windows on the tower's west I can't see my house from there.

Ten years after its completion, the building was renamed the Erastus Corning Tower after the man who served as Mayor of Albany from 1942 until his death in 1983.

It's hard to sum up Mayor Erastus Corning II in one or two paragraphs. I was only nine when he passed away, but I remember seeing him around Albany and I heard a great deal about him from my great-aunt who had once worked for his family's insurance company. He was supposedly the long-serving mayor in the United States, having served ten consecutive terms. The Albany County Hall of Records has a brief bio of him and I also recommended Paul Grondahl's biography, "Albany Enigma."

Sunday, May 17, 2009

The Lark

Say "Lark" to anyone in Albany and birds usually aren't the first thing that will come to mind (though, in my case, I'm more likely to think of Les Miserables - the novel, not the musical).

Although it extends a few blocks beyond Madison Avenue at its south end and well beyond Clinton Avenue at its north end, when most people talk about Lark Street, they're referring to the stretch between Madison and Washington Avenues.

The street is home to a mix of restaurants, bars, apartments, and small businesses including Justin's, Romeo's Gifts, Elissa Holloran Designs, Hot Dog Heaven, the Lark Street Flower Market, Flamingo Antiques, and two of my favorites...Crisan and Bombers.

It's also the site of several well-known events such as Art On Lark, the Santa Speedo Run, and the huge Lark Fest which is held every September.

Lark Street is often touted as being "The Village In The City." Maybe because I've lived around the corner from it all of my life or maybe because I'm so very fond of the real Greenwich Village, but that nickname has just never clicked with me.

For more information on the businesses and happenings along Lark Street, see

Saturday, May 16, 2009

End of The Line

As I mentioned in my previous post, Clang Went The Trolley, trolleys were a mainstay of transportation in Albany from the 1800s until the lines were discontinued in 1946.

If you know where to look, you can find a few remnants of the old trolley infrastructure. There are the two poles mentioned in the above mentioned posted - one on Hamilton Street between Lark and Dove Streets and one on Quail Street south of Western Avenue. The tracks are still there, too. In many cases, they were not removed and merely paved over. They're sometimes visible when seasonal potholes split open the streets.

But there's also an intact stretch of tracks just around the corner from the popular Italian restaurant, Cafe Cappriccio. Running downhill on a quiet stretch of Hamilton Street below the Empire State Plaza, the tracks and old paving stones reach from Phillip Street to Grand Street.

Friday, May 15, 2009

The Beaver Kill Ravine - Part Two

When I first ventured into the Lincoln Park gully, it was strewn with much more litter and debris than it is in these recent photos. Coming into the ravine from the western end, I encountered a slightly shabby blue recliner sitting quite incongruously in the middle of the trail only a few yards from the rickety wooden steps.

From the old wooden steps, one can almost see straight through to the far end of the ravine near Swan Street. Even with a full canopy of leaves, the ravine was much lighter than it seems from the outside.

Even with the light and good visibility, though, there was a tremendous sense of isolation within the gully. Even with obvious reminders of the modern world outside...such as soda cans and plastic bags and glimpses of buildings on the street above...there was real feeling of being totally separate from the rest of the city.

Contributing greatly to this sense of detachment and remoteness were the steep rock walls I recognize from that old family photo. The rocks are smudged with green mosses and lined with diagonal ridges which seemed to have been caused by rushing water.

And the sound of rushing water is much clearer once you're in the ravine. It comes from a heavy metal grate near the center of the trail.

Over the years, I'd heard about the various streams that once criss-crossed through Albany...the Patroon Creek, the Rutten Kill, the Normanskill, the Foxenkill, and the Beaver Kill. Most of them have long since been diverted underground...the most notable exception being the Normanskill (which will appear in future posts).

I knew that the Beaver Kill once ran through some part of Lincoln Park, that its Buttermilk Falls once provided water power to nearby breweries. I'd even seen old post cards of the Beaver Kill Ravine in antique stores. But I always assumed it was closer to Dead Man's Hill and never really connected it with the wooded gully across from Hackett Middle School.

But as soon as I found that metal grate...even before I got close enough to peer down into it...I knew I'd found the old Beaver Kill.

To be continued...

Part One
Part Three
Part Four
Part Five
Winter In The Beaver Kill

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Watering Hole

This stone fountain stands in a little park where Delaware Avenue and Lark Street split just south of Madison Avenue.

Growing up just around the corner of it, I was always told that the fountain - which was, at that time, unused - was for watering horses in the era before automobiles. Once the fountain was restored, seeing mounted police watering their mounts there supported that story.

But, according to Albany Architecture (edited by Diana S. Waite, published by Mount Ida Press in 1993), the fountain was originally intended for human use "with the hope that children drinking here would be led to drink of that other stream - the stream of science."

The fountain honors a scientist. Its actual title is the James Dwight Dana Memorial Fountain. Born in 1813, James D. Dana is considered to be one of this country's first geologists and was widely recognized as an expert in prehistoric zoology - hence the trilobites and other fossils carved into the 1903 monument.

The monument, with its fossils and water basin, was erected by the Dana National History Society.

In addition to this handsome fountain, Dana is commemorated by Mount Dana and Dana Meadows in the beautiful Sierra Nevadas, Dana Passage in Puget Sound, Dorsa Dana (a lunar geological feature), a crater on Mars, The Dana Medal of the Mineralogical Society of Albany, and, right around the corner from this monument, Dana Avenue here in Albany.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Robert Burns, Washington Park

This handsome monument to Scottish poet Robert Burns is one of my favorite features of Washington Park. As a little girl, I loved going to see the statue near the edge of the old parade grounds and examining the bronze panels which depicted scenes from some of his best-known works.

The monument, which was dedicated in 1888, is one of the oldest Burns memorials in the United States and is the work of Charles Caverly. A prominent Albany artist, Caverly studied his art under one of my favorite artists, Erastus Dow Palmer. Caverly also created the beautiful statues of children that flank the entrance to the old State Education Building on Washington Avenue near the Capitol.

The handsome monument was once called The MacPherson Legacy. The story goes that one Mary McPherson was an Albany housemaid. Throughout her life, she saved her earnings to have this memorial erected in honor of The Bard of Caledonia.

Andrew Carnegie, also of Scottish descent, supposedly said that this was the finest monument to Burns he had ever seen.

The memorial is fourteen feet tall with the statue itself measuring a larger-than-life seven feet. The bronze panels which depict "Tam O'Shanter," "The Cotter's Saturday Night," "The Poet Ploughman and the Daisy," and, of course, "Auld Lang Syne."

The monument, which underwent a restoration in the 1990s, is sometimes the site of local poetry readings and other gatherings.

A Red, Red Rose
R. Burns

O, my Luve's like a red, red rose,
That's newly sprung in June.
O, my Luve's like a melodie
That's sweetly play'd in tune.

As fair as thou, my bonnie lass,
So deep in luve am I;
And I will love thee still, my dear,
Till a' the seas gang dry.

Till a' the seas gang dry, my dear,
And the rocks melt wi' the sun:
I will love thess till, my dear,
While the sands o' life shall run:

And fare thee well, my only luve!
And fare thee weel, a while!
And I will come again, my luve,
Tho' it ware ten thousand mile.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

They're Everywhere

This time of the year, you can't miss them. The tulips. They're all over the place - in parks, in gardens, in little flower beds along street medians. And, of course, they're the namesake of Albany's big spring event, the annual Tulip Festival which is always held in Washington Park on Mother's Day weekend.

Tulips are a symbol of Albany's colonial Dutch Heritage. Tulip bulbs - which had sparked a massive speculation in The Netherlands in the 1630s - were first brought to Albany by Dutch settlers.

Explored in 1609 by Henry Hudson and chartered as a city in 1686, early Albany was a Dutch trading post known at various times as Beverwyck and Fort Orange. Even after the New Netherland colony fell under English rule, many Dutch traditions persisted into the 19th-century. Even now, remnants of Dutch culture can be found here in place names and architectural styles.

I like tulips, but I've never planted them myself. Perhaps because they've always been so abundant everywhere I look that I never felt the need to. This year, that might change.

These flowers, in various stages of bloom, were photographed in the East Capitol Park this afternoon.

Monday, May 11, 2009


This forlorn little house is located on Madison Avenue, just east of Lark Street. It was built in 1845, a time when this neighborhood above the old Gallows Hill and the newly-constructed Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception was still almost rural.

The house was built for one Edmond Ellis, described as a boatman. This may have been the same Edmond Ellis - or his son - who is listed as a deputy in an old Property Seizure list posted by The Albany Register in the early 19th-century.

Growing up across the street from this little cottage among townhouses and apartment buildings, I recall two stories about it. At some point, the house was supposedly home to a church of some sort. Maybe sometime I'll peek at the old city directories and see about that. And that a stream runs beneath this and other properties along the south side of Madison Avenue. That makes senses since Albany has a number of streams which, over the centuries, were diverted underground or built over.

The house always had a shabby, air of neglect about it, but it has really decayed in recent years.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

The Hinckel Brewery

Overlooking Lincoln Park at the corner of Park Avenue and South Swan Street, this handsome brick building was once home to the Hinckel Brewery.

Albany was once home to seventeen different breweries. This one, manufacturer of a sparkling lager, was founded in 1855 by F. Hicnkel and A. Schinnuerer and, by the time Frederick Hinckel died, it was recognized as one of the best-equiped brewing establishments of its time.

The structure pictured was built in 1880 as the brewery's malt house.

The Hinckel Brewery was also known as the Cataract Brewery because it overlooked the rushing falls of the Beaver Kill. (I should mention now that "kill" was a old Dutch term for a creek and it appears frequently in local place names). The Kill's Buttermilk Falls churned especially foamy thanks to run-off from this brewery.

Albany's geology was a plus for breweries. In the era before electricity and refrigeration, the heavy glacial clay soil that lies beneath much of the city allowed for very cool cellars where beer could be stored without spoiling.

The well-preserved Hinckel building has been converted to apartments, but much of the external architectural detail remains intact.

Frederick Hinckel is buried in a beautiful family plot near the ornamental pond on Albany Rural Cemetery's South Ridge.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Turkey Tidbit

If Benjamin Franklin had his way, the turkey...not the bald eagle...would have been our national bird. Some years after the official adoption of the eagle as a national symbol, he wrote to his daughter:

"I am on this account not displeased that the Figure is not known as a Bald Eagle, but looks more like a Turkey. For the Truth the Turkey is in Comparison a much more respectable Bird, and withal a true original Native of America... He is besides, though a little vain & silly, a Bird of Courage, and would not hesitate to attack a Grenadier of the British Guards who should presume to invade his Farm Yard with a red Coat on.

This turkey - sadly bereft of his beak, no doubt from a century of exposure to the elements - decorates the side of the massive staircase on the east side of the New York State Capitol.

The chateau-like Capitol, which was completed in 1899, is decorated inside and out with numerous carvings which range from anonymous decorative heads, historical figures such as Henry Hudson and Joseph Brant, and animals such as lions, dogs, buffalo, and, of course, this turkey.

Oh, and the opposite side of the staircase features a matching carving eagle.

Friday, May 8, 2009

The Beaver Kill Ravine - Part One

At the northwest corner of Lincoln Park - on the corner of Delaware and Park Avenues opposite the Hackett Middle School - there's a wooded gully that has intrigued me for years.

As a child, I never thought of venturing into the trees. The ravine beyond them seemed so dark and deep...and I was warned not to by a justifiably over-protective aunt. I always wondered what was down there, but the sense of mystery and all those warnings made the place very spooky. My young mind conjured up all sorts of scary notions of treacherous terrain littered with dead bodies.

A couple of years ago, I was looking through an album full of old family photos. I found one picture from the summer of 1936 that showed a little girl posing in front of an unfamiliar rocky outcropping. A penciled description on the back identified the location as Lincoln Park, but I couldn't quite place it. The rock wall didn't match up with any of the Park's very familiar hills (see the previous post about Dead Man's Hill) and I began to wonder if the picture was mislabeled.

Some months later, I was running some errands in the area around the Lincoln Park gully. Curiosity got the better of me and I walked along the southern edge of the ravine, peering through the trees to see just what was really down there. I was in for three surprises.

First, the ravine - which is approximately one city block in length - wasn't nearly as deep, dark or scary as I'd imagined. In fact, it wasn't nearly as rugged as some of the ravines I used to explore in the wonderful old Albany Rural Cemetery. And not scary at all.

Second, near the midpoint of the ravine, I spotted a series of rock formations and immediately recognized the outcroppings from the old photo. So, it was Lincoln Park after all!

And, finally, I was certain I could hear the sound of rushing water. But there were no visible streams.

A few weeks later, I decided to venture into the gully...

To be continued.

This was the first of a series of posts about the old Beaver Kill ravine...

Part Two
Part Three
Part Four
Part Five
Winter In The Beaver Kill

Thursday, May 7, 2009

The Metroland Building

Located on Madison Avenue, this stern-looking building was built in 1891 and designed by the architectural firm of Fuller & Wheeler. It originally housed the Fourth Precinct Police Station.

Some years ago, when it housed a thrift store, I was told that some of the original holding cells still existed in the basement. Not that I ever had a chance to verify that or really wanted to.

The building is now the headquarters of Metroland, an "alternative newsweekly" that can be picked up for free all over Albany.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Clang Went The Trolley

This metal pole on Hamilton Street just below Lark Street is one of the last visible relics of Albany's trolley system. A plaque attached to the pole dates it to the 1890s when the electric trolleys replaced the horsecars. The new trolley system gave Albany residents greater mobility and encouraged the city's expansion.

In 1901, a strike crippled the trolley system in a number of cities, including Albany. The United Traction strike was serious enough to result in martial law with soldiers riding every streetcar to protect riders and the replacement workers. During the course of the strike, there were at least two fatalities. Click here for an old New York Times article on the negotiations to settle the strike.

The Albany trolley system ran until 1946. The other surviving pole can be found on Quail Street near Western Avenue and a stretch of intact tracks runs downhill along Hamilton Street just east of the Empire State Plaza. And, from time to time...when pot holes or road crews tear up sections of pavement along other streets, sections of tracks appear.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Gateways and Getaways

This empty building located near Broadway and Division Street is the former Albany bus station.

It's not much to look at, but it has some good memories for me. Memories of summer rides up to Lake George to visit the reconstructed French and Indian War site, Fort William Henry. Or, better yet, of my first trip to NYC when I was fourteen.

The bus station moved to a new location just a short distance to the southwest some years ago and this building has been vacant since then.

The ornate and beautiful structure rising in contrast across Broadway is the old D & H Building and Albany Evening Journal. Look for that striking building in future blogs. It's currently the administrative headquarters of the State University.

Monday, May 4, 2009

A deluxe apartment in the sky...

This very distinctive birdhouse...or, I should say...bird apartment stands at the eastern edge of Washington Park near the intersection of Hudson Avenue and Willett Street. Rising some thirty feet in the air, the carved wooden structure features whimsical miniatures facades which range from simple Greek temple columns to gingerbread-like Swiss chalets.

The birdhouse was built in 1974, removed in 2001 due to detorioration, and restored in 2005.

It was the work of William Schade. Schade, who taught art at Sage College, passed away in 2008 (click here for his obituary) and a bed of tulips was planted in his memory around the base of the Washington Park bird "condominum."

Sunday, May 3, 2009


"It's only forever, that's not long at all..."

No, this isn't about the 1980s movie that featured a teenage girl, a baby in red-striped PJs, a large maze, odd creatures, and a bizarrely attractive David Bowie as a Goblin King.

This odd forty-foot tower stands at the center of a outdoor sculpture called Labyrinth on the southeast corner of the Empire State Plaza and was the work of Francois Stahly.

I can't say I'm overly fond of modern art, but we have a great deal of it at the Plaza. Governor Nelson Rockefeller, the driving force behind the massive project to build the Plaza (or the South Mall as it's also known), however, like modern art a lot more than I do and was largely responsible for the selection and installation of almost one hundred pieces - both paintings and sculptures - in and around the Plaza.

The Labyrinth is one of the few pieces I do like, but that's probably because I never really saw it as a sculpture. When I was growing up, the Labyrinth was one of my favorite places to play on at then new South Mall. I liked it even better than the terrific wooden playground near Madison Avenue and Swan Street.

Often, I would see other kids - always a little older and a lot bolder - climbing this central tower...right to the top. I kept my feet firmly on the ground and never considered climbing. I was more than content to ramble about the forty or so smaller structures that surround the tower.

Stahly's Labyrinth was, for years, described as teak wood. However, a couple of decades of wind and snow and rain were beginning to take a toll on the structure and, during a conservation study, it was discovered that it was in fact a type of African wood called iroko. Conservationists also discovered that the sculpture was suffering from a number of decay problems, including a form of wood rot. The structure has since been repaired and stablized.

I remember the wood being almost black when I first saw the Labyrinth. Over the years, it has mellowed to gray.

I still have no inclination to climb the iroko wood tower and I'm sure Plaza security would pull me off if I tried, but the Labyrinth is still a terrific place to sit and eat lunch or read a book or just relax with an iPod...which, of course, includes the soundtrack to the movie, Labyrinth.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

The Argus

This impressive clock-topped building on Broadway south of State Street was is believed to have been built in the 1830s and expanded in 1871.

It was originally known as a "Law Building" and was home to both shops and lawyer's offices before becoming home to a very prominent newspaper, the Albany Argus. Founded in 1813 by noted agriculturalist Jesse Buel, it was one of America's oldest newspapers and remained in print until the 1920s. A large letter "A" once decorated the building before the clock was installed.

This old section of Broadway and the surrounding streets have a number of distinctive sites, including the ornate D&H Building and the former Hudson River Dayline office, the former Albany bus terminal, and what may be the oldest house in the city...many of which will appear in future posts.