Wednesday, September 30, 2009

A Quick History Lesson

Albany is dotted with plaques and signs and markers which, if passers-by actually notice and stop to read them, give brief lessons about the City's long history.

This plaque is fixed to the exterior wall of City Hall, just inches from the sundial I previously blogged about. Dedicated in 1924 as part of a commemoration of the tricentennial of the first permanent Dutch settlements in Albany, it gives a short summary of the City's earliest days as a remote trading outpost on the shores on the Hudson River and lists some of Albany's earliest names...Fort Nassau, Fort Orange, Rensselaerwyck, The Fuyck, Beverwyck, and Williamstadt.

The family names of the citizens who sponsored this plaque also read like a local history lesson...Van Rensselaer, Vrooman, Pruyn, Lansing.

One of them was Harriet Langdon Pruyn Rice and I highly recommend her sister's memoir, An Albany Girlhood by Huybertie Lansing Pruyn Hamlin. It lacks literary polish, but it is an enthusiastic and detailed account of upper-class Albany life during the late 1800s and Alice P. Kenney's end-notes are full of historic information to flesh out Huybertie's recollections.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

The Elms

This NYS historic marker stands just in front of the First Evangelical Lutheran Church on Western Avenue and notes that it was once the site of The Elms and home to a man who played a key role in the development of the Adirondack Park.

Verplanck Colvin (1847 - 1920) was the son of an Albany lawyer and raised just across the Hudson River in the village of Nassau. When he was eighteen, he received a book from a local poet, Alfred Billings Street. Street's works are largely forgotten today, but he was quite famous in Albany during the Civil War era for his enthusiastic and patriotic verses about the Union and for his numerous poems honoring the natural beauties of the region. The book that Street gave to young Colvin was his own Woods and Water, a memoir of a journey he'd made through New York's Adirondack Mountains.

The book obviously inspired Verplanck Colvin. He spent the next few summers exploring the Adirondacks and, by the time he was twenty-two, he had already conceived the idea of a formal geological survey of the mountain region.

By 1872, he received a $1000 stipend from New York State and was appointed Superintendent of the Adirondack Survey. At the head of a 100-man crew, he led expeditions to Mount Marcy and the source of the Hudson River (Lake Tear-of-The-Clouds), Seward Mountain, Panther Gorge and, in the process, became keenly aware of the need to protect the region from the ravages of industry.

He became an advocate for the creation of a state preserve to safeguard the Adirondacks for the sake of the environment and the economy. His work and numerous writings eventually led to the formation of the Adirondack Forest Preserve in 1885.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Hudson River Day Line Office

If this building on Broadway wasn't so distinctive, it would be completely eclipsed by the adjacent Delaware & Hudson and Albany Evening Journal (now SUNY offices) building with its lacy Gothic trim and elegant spires.

Built in 1907 and designed by architects Charles G. Ogden and Walter van Guysling, it housed the ticket offices of the Hudson River Day Line. The Day Line provided transportation between New York City and the Albany area and it was considered one of the most successful passenger steamboat services of its era.

The charming building with stucco walls and baroque gables originally stood 100 feet to the north along Broadway, but was moved with the massive Delaware & Hudson Building was constructed.

The building has housed a succession of restaurants since the 1960s. I remember one was called L'Auberge, though I never ate there. The building has been been dark for a while, but a sign I spotted a few days ago announces that it's re-opening next month.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

The Beaver Kill Ravine - Part Four

This is the fourth in a series of posts on the Beaver Kill Ravine.

A combination of books and old maps, including one dating back to 1790 helps to trace - approximately - the original route of the Beaver Kill.

The lost river begins its course much further uptown near the present Albany High School campus. When I was a student there, I remember catching a glimpse of running water beneath a storm drain in the main courtyard and I now wonder if that might have been some part of the Beaver Kill.

From the school's vicinity, the stream would have flowed east roughly between Washington and Western Avenues until turning somewhat southward near Quail Street. From Quail, it continued east down Elberon Place and through what is now Washington Park where in now forms part of the lake.

From the eastern end of the Park lake, the stream would have flowed south along New Scotland Avenue before veering sharply to the east beneath modern Myrtle Avenue. The old Albany Penitentiary once stood near the current sites of the Veteran's Administration Hospital and Hackett Middle School.

Across from Hackett, the stream flowed through the Lincoln Park ravine shown above - one of the last visible features of the Beaver Kill - and continued east through the future site of the Park before crossing Broadway at Arch Street and flowing into the Hudson River near the present U-Haul Building.

In the 1880s, a plaque was placed in a curb at the corner of Arch and Broadway noting that the Beaver Kill - "an ancient waterway now arched over" - once flowed through that area of Albany's South End. A cursory exploration of that intersection a few weeks ago turned up no trace of the old plaque. I wasn't surprised that I could not find the plaque since the area has been rebuilt and repaved many times over the decades, but I was still a little disappointed.

To be continued...

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

Saturday, September 26, 2009

The Hudson River

The Hudson has been getting a lot of attention in Albany lately. 2009 marks 400 years since the explorer Henry Hudson (an Englishman sailing for the Dutch) navigated his ship, The Half Moon, up this river.

It's the stuff of history classes. The Hudson was a key to the settlement and development of Albany...a vital part of transportation and trade for centuries to come. And the name Hudson is everywhere...businesses, streets, buildings bear it proudly.

Albany "lost" much of its Hudson River waterfront with the construction of 787 with its labyrinth of ramps, roads, and overpasses. But a century earlier, prominent local citizens had already objected to the loss of access to the River with the building of the handsome Delaware & Hudson Building on Broadway at the foot of State Street.

Now, the Hudson is all but invisible from most parts of downtown, but access has been restored through the creation of the Corning Preserve and Albany Riverfront Park, as well as a pedestrian bridge that connects Maiden Lane with the Preserve.

The above view of the River was taken from the Preserve earlier this summer.

Today, there will be a Quadracentennial celebration called Hudson River Fair down at the Riverfront Park. If I can ever pry myself free of this computer, I'll be there.

For more information on the Fair, see

Friday, September 25, 2009

World War I Memorial

Albany is dotted with all sorts of monuments and memorials. This is one of those monuments that I have always known was there...yet didn't really know what it stood for.

This graceful maiden with her palm frond and olive-entwined sword stands on the lawn of the Capital District Psychiatric Center at the corner of New Scotland and South Lake Avenues. I've noticed it a hundred times since childhood and even sometimes romped around the little playground just yards away. But until this summer, I never knew what this monument stood for.

The olive branch and palm - symbols of peaces, of course - are quite common on war memorials and hint at this one's purpose. But, from the front, one can't tell exactly who or what it commemorates. You have to venture around to the back to find the inscription on the sarcophagus-like base.


The inscription doesn't specify which World War, but a small carving near the maiden's right foot offers an explanation. It gives the sculptor's name - Attilio Piccirilli - and a date of 1923.

World War II was still some years away and I suppose that, at the time the monument was dedicated, World War I was indeed very fresh in the minds and hearts of Albany's citizens.

Attilio Picirilli, by the way, was an Italian-born sculptor of some note. Coming from a family of artists, he was responsible for the Maine Memorial at New York City's Columbus Circle, the Fireman's Memorial in New York's Riverside Park, busts of Presidents Jefferson and Monroe in the Virginia State Capitol, and sculptural elements for the Frick Mansion, Rockefeller Center, the Wisconsin State Capitol, and a number of other public or civic buildings.

A short bio of Picirilli gives the official name of the monument here in Albany - The Mother's War Memorial.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Telling Time

I'm rather fond of sundials. Not that I've ever really had any occasion to actually use one. I did have a small one that I bought as a souvenir at some Revolutionary War site, but I never took the time to figure out how to align it, how to take into account daylight savings, and all those little details. So it basically ended up as an awkward paperweight.

This sundial is mounted just outside the window of the Mayor's office at City Hall. It's probably not noticed by the scores of people who move in and out of City Hall on a given day. The sundial is just around the corner from the main entrances and most people are preoccupied with whatever business brings them there in the first place.

The inscription on this century-old sundial gives the exact latitude and longitude of the finial atop City Hall's tower and notes that the exact time at the 75th meridian (Albany, as the plaque indicates, is on the 73rd) is 4 minutes and 58.8 seconds slower than "Albany Local Time."

How precise!

I have to admit that my high school lessons on latitude and longitude are long since forgotten, but I rather like the idea of "Albany Local Time."

The plaque itself was placed in 1897, during John Boyd Thacher's tenure as Mayor of Albany. His name reminds very familiar to local residents since it was given to the State Park in the Helderberg Mountains just south of the City. Thacher is buried in a handsome vault in the Albany Rural Cemetery. The mausoleum features a red stained glass cross patterned after those on Christopher Columbus' ships; Thacher was the author of a two-volume book about the explorer.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Enter The Kenmore

The former Kenmore Hotel occupied a gorgeous Victorian Gothic building on North Pearl Street. Built in 1876-1878 by architects Ogden & Wright, the building still stands, now used for mixed commercial space.

The Kenmore's first proprietor was one of Albany's most respected African-American residents and a noted hotelier, Adam Blake, Jr.

I've only been inside the old Kenmore once. During one of Albany's First Night celebrations on New Year's Eve, the old Rainbo Room upstairs was open for some music and dancing and I went up to take a peek at the place where big bands once played...and where the notorious gangster Legs Diamond once partied.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Plaza Wall

This won't be the first or last time I say that I'm not fond of modern architecture. It's simply not my cup of tea.

But I won't say that I dislike the stark white marble-and-glass design of the Empire State Plaza. Perhaps it's because I grew up almost in its shadow and, since it was in its final stages of construction right around the time I was born, it just seems to me as if it's always been there. So I tolerate it, despite the fact I don't care for the architectural style.

This curving white wall stands on the eastern side of the Plaza's upper level - just opposite The Egg and near the the windowed structure that formerly housed The Sign of The Tree restaurant. The dark windows behind the wall are part of The Corning Tower.

The Sign of The Tree closed some years ago and nothing has replaced it yet, but tables and chairs sit and wait as if the restaurant were ready for diners.

The unadorned wall is quite in keeping with the rather futuristic look of the whole Plaza. I could easily imagine a scene from a sci-fi movie playing out on this little terrace, but at the same time, there's also something very ancient about the simple white contours.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

The Bung Factory

This 1850s building along Jefferson Street always stands out with its painted sign to announce its original purpose.

S. Kampf & Son manufactured the cork stoppers used to seal barrels and casks. The biggest customers for these cork bungs would have been Albany's breweries so the location of this factory couldn't have been better. Only a few very short blocks to the south stood the only Hinckel Brewery overlooking the Beaverkill and another brewery once stood just blocks to the north on Dove Street.

Given the popularity of beer and the well-established presence of breweries in 19th-century Albany, S. Kampf & Sons would have had a lucrative business until the rise of aluminum barrels replaced the wooden ones and ended the need for bungs.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Almost Gone

I wasn't expecting this.

I'd set out with my camera for Beaver Street south of Eagle to see if there were any visible remnants of the previously photographed Elks Lodge, the gutted structure behind the crane. Not much to see there, but next to it - to my surprise - was an old house. A brick house with cheerful moss-green paint still on its window frames.

The house must have been completely hidden for almost a century. The front of it appears to have faced Eagle Street where it would have been completely enveloped by the handsome DeWitt Clinton Hotel which was built in the 1920s. The north side of the house would have been blocked off by the Elks Lodge and adjacent structures on State Street, and the side shown here would have been obscured by buildings on Beaver Street which were torn down only recently as part of the ongoing stabilization and demolition of buildings in the Wellington Row parcel.

I don't know how old the house is, though, or from whom it was built. And I have to wonder why it was never demolished sooner and, instead, left standing and enclosed as other buildings rose around it.

It's probably gone already. When I poked my camera through the fence to take this picture, demolition had already begun on this long-forgotten house.

Monday, September 14, 2009


Something about this brick house with understated understated brownstone trim on Ten Broeck Street has always caught my attention.

I'm not sure why it's always been the one that stands out for me. It's not the most ornate building along that row of handsome 19th-century homes, nor is it the only one with boarded windows and look of neglect. And, so far, I haven't been able to find much about this house's history.

There's just something haunted and haunting about the place.

On a recent stroll over Ten Broeck Street, I caught an unexpected glimpse of bright sunlight shining through a gap near the padlocked door. I tried peeking through and, while I couldn't see much, I realized that this elegantly austere facade is just that...a facade. There is little or nothing behind those covered windows.

A second round of hasty research turned up a short history of the location here:

Friday, September 11, 2009

Medieval Grace

Albany has many beautiful and historic churches and the Episcopal Cathedral of All Saints has always been one of my favorites.

It was built between 1884 and 1888 and designed by Robert W. Gibson. To tell the truth, the location (tucked right behind and mostly overshadowed by the the old State Education Building) and the brick front facade aren't terribly impressive at first.

But's magnificent and has real feel of being inside a much, much older English cathedral...which makes it a perfect place for the Medieval Faire (one of the delights of my pre-teen and teen years).

The handsome Potsdam sandstone interior is full of gorgeous detail from the hidden carved trilobite near the doors to the carved choir stalls to an exquisite rose window. Some of the funding for the interior work came from J. Pierpont Morgan.

The cathedral is also the burial place of Bishop William C. Doane and his wife. Doane was a true driving force behind the building of this church and it was fitting that he was given special permission to be interred there.

Two planned Gothic towers were never built and the simple facade was added in 1971.

My favorite views of All Saints and the ones which really have that medieval Old World feel are along Elk Street where the above picture was taken.

Their site is under construction, but Wikipedia has a good article on All Saint here.

P.S. This year's Medieval Faire will be held on October 24. I just might be there.a

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Coulson's News Center

Coulson's is a familiar sight to anyone who frequents downtown Albany, particularly lower State Street at Broadway. For as long as I can remember, it was a place where we'd stop for the Sunday Times Union after Mass at Saint Mary's. These days, I sometimes stop in for coffee or something cold to drink after events like Alive@Five.

The News Center occupies the first floor of a 1814 building, built by a New Englander named Spencer Stafford, hardware & stove dealer - a gilt stove hung over the door. Hardware and saddlery firms sold their goods on the ground floor, upper floors housed manufacturing space.

Looking up at the fifth floor (added in the 1850s), you can see the pulley and doors through which merchandise was hoisted. Originally, each floor had such a bay. And, if you look along the north wall, you can see the ghost marks of a round window and the original gabled roof from 1814.

Coulson's has been in business since 1940s and a brass plaque on their threshold appears in a previous blog entry.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Objects of Mystery

I've always wondered just what these two structures are.

They're located between North Pearl Street and the railroad tracks at the foot of Lark Drive, just north of the Ida Yarborough Apartments.

Years ago, before they were boarded over, you could catch glimpses of descending stairs inside these grim gray concrete canopies.

At one point, I was told they were WWII or Cold War bomb shelters. But I assume they're just stairs that were meant as a short-cut under the tracks to Van Woert Street and Broadway below...rather like the set of steps - also boarded up - in the wall under the old railway bridge at Broadway and Colonie Street.

No doubt these, like the steps at Colonie Street, where closed off to prevent garbage from accumulating inside and to prevent homeless people or troublemakers from making use of these secluded spots.

Whatever they were, it was easy for an over-active young mind to imagine all sorts of spooky possibilities.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Academic Details

With area schools reopening this week, the above photo seems particularly appropriate.

I've mentioned before that I love the little details that give buildings so much charm. This one is a beautiful example - an open book with a stylized background on a former school building. The book is a simple, eloquent statement of the building's original purpose. And I love the fact that it just happens to be positioned under the lamp - another common symbol of learning.

This old school building, which stands on North Pearl Street near the Palace Theatre, has been converted to condominiums. There are several other handsome former schools in the City that have been so reused.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Ancient Style

I'm often impressed by how some older utilitarian buildings were designed with such interesting style or intricate details, regardless of their original mundane purpose.

This old brick structure is one of them. It's not elegant, nor does it have finely-molded accents. But it has a certain eye-catching style of its own with its symmetrical steep buttresses and arched window openings.

Something about the stark design and massive size of this former truck garage gives it a very ancient something rising on the edge of the desert many millennia ago.

Located just east of Lincoln Park on Arch Street, the building appears to be vacant now. Certainly, the modern windows and doors between the buttresses are dark and many are shattered. Glimpses of odds and ends in storage can be seen here and there...I caught site of a Krispy Kreme sign lurking in the shadows.

But, while there's something lonely and desolate, my over-active imagination finds many ways to revive the space...

Friday, September 4, 2009

The Beaver Kill Ravine - Part Three

This is the third in a series of posts on the Beaver Kill Ravine.

Looking down into the metal grate, I saw a short vertical shaft of red brick. Below the shaft, there was a low tunnel of small stone blocks. And, careening furiously through the gray stone tunnel, were the remnants of the Beaverkill and Buttermilk Falls.

Albany once had a generous number of small rivers and creeks running through it. Of them, only the Normanskill near the City's southern limits is largely intact and parts of the Patroon Creek are visible crossing Central Avenue near the border with Colonie before running off into the Tivoli Nature Preserve.

The rest of the kills are long gone - buried, diverted, long lost beneath streets and buildings. The Ruttenkill (supposedly so named for the rats that frequented its banks) rose above Lark Street and cut a steep course parallel to Hudson Avenue right down to the river at the foot of State Street Hill. Foxes Creek (previously known as the Vozenkill) also rose above Lark, flowed through a deep ravine (before being diverted to flow under Canal Street, now Sheridan Avenue), crossed under North Pearl Street to meet the Hudson.

And the Beaverkill? It was long since diverted underground. But more on that later.

But here, roaring and tumbling through a venerable stone culvert was a small and quite obscure but visible remainder of the Beaverkill.

The picture above was taken on a later visit to the ravine. Heavy rains had flooded the ravine. A gray, stagnant lake filled much of the eastern half of the gully. And the solid metal grate had been ripped free from its base.

Click here for a view of the intact grate as seen from the south rim of the ravine.

Thrilled to have a chance to see the Beaverkill without the necessary, but obstructing grate, I was able to lean over the edge and capture some video of the roaring water. It wasn't easy to get a steady footing since the ground around the culvert was a sticky, shift mess of loose gravel and slick mud and I was more than a little worried that I might loose my balance and drop the camera into the shaft. Still, I was able to capture the rushing water from two angles (without losing the camera).

Click here to view the video and try not to get too dizzy.

As you can see, the water pours out of the stone culvert, drops down, and flows into a lower section of culvert which, due to the angle and difficult footing, I was not able to take photos or video of.

To be continued...

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

Thursday, September 3, 2009

A Mayor's Memorial

I've mentioned Erastus Corning before in my post about the namesake tower on the Empire State Plaza.

Tucked behind City Hall is a small park bearing his name, too. Given how long he served as Albany's Mayor (over forty years), the shadow of City Hall is a good place to memorialize him.

The centerpiece of the little park - a lovely place to sit for a few minutes after a hot day of exploring downtown - is this fountain. The water flows from the basins shown here and drains into a lower basin across the path. The edge of the lower basin is marked with a plaque.

MAYOR 1941-1983

The park was dedicated in 1987, four years after Corning's death.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009


I knew someone who grew up in this house in the 50s and 60s after moving from the Carolinas at a young age. He had written an account of his childhood and his close relationship with his sister who later died of AIDS in a notebook and I typed the manuscript for him. Sadly, I lost his contact information when my laptop crashed last year. His story was unfinished at the time I typed it and I'd love to know how it really ended.

After working on that manuscript, I decided to look for the house based on his description of a white-columned brownstone and, once I located it, I just had to do a little research. The house, which stands on Ten Broeck Street (see my previous blog about another house is this area), was built in 1859 by a George Dawson who was associated with the venerable Albany printing and publish firm of Weed, Parsons, and Company.

My friend told me the house was haunted. He and his sister were afraid to go up to the top floor because there was a ghost there. To him, the man in the metal helmet looked like a conquistador. But I'm wondering if this ghostly resident of 49 Ten Broeck might not have been a 17th-century Dutch soldier from one of the earliest forts. Exactly how and why a ghost from the 1600s found his way to the upper floor of a house that wasn't built for another two hundred or so years, I don't know. But it does make more sense that a Spanish conquistador haunting an upstate New York row house and the metal helmet makes me think of Dutch soldiers helmets I've seen in local museums.

(Yes, I do believe in ghosts. Not because I'm superstitious or want to believe, but because I've experienced hauntings often enough to convince me.)

The house is not in the best of shape now. The brown sandstone was cut and laid vertically which, unfortunately, leads to large pieces flaking away. The Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception across town suffers from a similar problem and is currently undergoing a massive restoration. The house's white columns are also showing signs of rot. But the last time I walked by, I was cheered to see that the old place is no longer vacant. The windows were open and one had a building permit pasted to the glass and a worker was moving around inside.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Beaver Park

Perched on a steep hill, quite close to the Thomas O'Brien Academy of Science and Technology and the Lincoln Park playground, this pale yellow brick building was once the workplace of the noted 19th-century geologist, James Hall.

The laboratory overlooks the Lincoln Park pool to the east and, just to the north, the remnants of the Beaver Kill Ravine (see my previous two posts here and here). From the latter came the estate's name, Beaver Park. While Hall and his family actually resided in another house which stood on the present site of the Lincoln Park tennis courts at the corner of Delaware and Morton Avenues, he spent much of his time at and was most at home in this laboratory and often slept there in a simple, small bedroom.

A plaque on the south facade sums up the building's history.

This building was erected by JAMES HALL State Geologist of New York 1836-1898
For fifty years it served as his office and laboratory and from it graduated many geologists of merit and distinction. During most of that period it was an influential and active centre of geological science in this country. Erected by The Association of American State Geologists 1916

Designed by Andrew Jackson Downing and Calvert Vaux (two leading architects and landscape designers of their day, Vaux worked with Frederick Law Olmstead on the design of New York's Central Park), the building housed Hall's drawings and extensive collections of fossils and other specimens which are now a part of the NYS Museum just north across the park.

The laboratory, now renamed the Sunshine Building and painted a buttery yellow, is now part of the Albany City School District.

Click here for a short profile of Professor Hall.