The Time Capsule in Schenectady’s City Hall

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Schenectady City HallThis is a postcard view of Schenectady’s City Hall, the classic Federalist hall designed by McKim, Mead & White and constructed 1931-1933. MMW won a competition among seven firms, three from Schenectady. Some elements of the design were actually prescribed by the city, which apparently wanted something that would complement the Post Office and would echo the legacy of Albany’s most prominent architectural figure, Philip Hooker: “Harvard brick and Vermont marble are proposed as the building materials for the external walls, and Vermont slate for the roof. The design has been developed in the manner of Philip Hooker, whose work represents such an important part of the early architectural heritage of this locality.” So the Gazette wrote on May 10, 1930, when the cornerstone was laid.

There’s a copper box behind the cornerstone, 10 inches wide, 14 inches long, and 8 inches deep. A committee of city officials and a number of clergymen was charged with deciding what would go in that box, and to judge by this report from the Gazette on April 24, 1930, they decided that everything should.

“The committee wishes to place in the copper box, which will be hermetically sealed, as many interesting souvenirs of the present day as the box will contain. A great many of the documents and articles proposed have connection with the city hall project. The committee has decided to place in the box the following articles, and more, should the space warrant it: Copies of stories which appeared in the “American City” magazine of August, 1929, and the “Architect” of June, 1929, both dealing with the architectural competition for the design of the new city hall; copies of the two daily newspapers of an issue as near the date of May 10 as the sealing of the box will allow; a general description of the movement for the new building and its final realization; photographs of the city hall plot as it appeared before the old buildings were razed; photographs of the old city hall and city hall annex; photographs of all the plans in the architectural competition; photographs of principal buildings of the city, such as Union College structures, schools, library, Elks’ clubhouse, banks, Hotel Van Curler, principal industries and postoffice [sic] building, as well as views of the great western gateway, Erie boulevard, State street, etc.; as many aeroplane views as may be accessible; a copy of The Atlas.

“A detailed map of the city in 1875 on which the buildings are sketched to detail; copy of the official common council manual which describes the city government, its history and present personnel; a copy of the 1930 municipal budget; historic sketches of the American Locomotive, General Electric and Mica Insulator Company plants; a book entitled “Schenectady and Great Western Gateway, Past and Present,” published by the chamber of commerce at the time of the bridge’s opening and which contains articles written by Dr. James H. Stoller, professor emeritus of geology of Union College; DeLancey W. Watkins, then president of the Schenectady County Historical Society; Postmaster Edwin G. Conde; Willis T. Hanson, jr., Dr. Charles Alexander Richmond, former president of Union College; George W. Featherstonhaugh, Frederick L. Bronner, former Mayor [T. Low] Barhydt, John W. Hammond and Myron F. Westover; the 1929 report of the chamber of commerce.

“A booklet published by the chamber of commerce entitled “A General Survey of Schenectady” and containing economic and industrial data; a 1,000-foot photophone reel, a production of the General Electric Company which details the steps in the movement for the new city hall, including such scenes as Mayor Fagal’s signing the ordinance providing for the construction of the new building, the board of estimate and apportionment at the session during which it approved the ordinance, with remarks by all the members; the board of aldermen leaving the old city hall after its last meeting in that building, and the police leaving the building preparatory to occupying their new headquarters, Smith and Clinton streets; and possibly the full contents of the copper box which was enclosed in the cornerstone of the old city hall.

“In choosing the articles to be enclosed in the cornerstone, the committee is being guided by the thought of what will be of the most interest to those who may open the box a century or more hence.”

It hasn’t been quite a century. Generally, time capsules don’t do too well, but there have been exceptions (like one in Boston that survived a century in beautiful condition), and I’d sure love to see that photophone reel.

State Street, just a few years later.

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Schenectady State Street from BridgeLast time, we looked up Schenectady’s State Street from the railroad bridge, probably sometime in the late ’30s or ’40s. This time, nearly the same view, sometime in the 1950s. Jay Jewelers is still on the corner on the left, but its loverly perpendicular sign over the street is gone. Here we can also see The Imperial.

If you look just past the Woolworth’s on the left, you can see a curved arrow sign. It points to a restaurant, the Home Foods Cafeteria, which was downstairs from the street and of whose very existence I doubted. My mother swore it was there, but it took a long time to find any evidence of it.

The trolley tracks down the center of the street are gone, as are the little traffic dividers, and buses predominate. . On the other side of the street, on the corner Hough Hotel building, we can see the sign for the store that most people associate with that building: the Planters Peanuts store. Beyond that, you can see the tall sign for Peggy’s Restaurant, and then Proctor’s Theater. The Richman’s sign is gone here. What are the white flags on the lamppost in dead center?

State Street, Schenectady

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State Street SchenectadyLet’s leave Albany for a while and look at the Electric City. Another view from the Tichnor Collection at Digitalcommonwealth.org, this time of Schenectady’s State Street, looking east from the railroad overpass, with Broadway/North Center Street crossing. This was likely late 1930s or early 1940s (car dating nerds, help us out). Immediately to the left, Jay Jewelry, which later moved west of the overpass. Just the other side of North Center Street was the F.W. Woolworth. The stores beyond that are a little hard to make out, but the taller one on the block was the Wallace Co. department store. If you squint, way up the left side of the street, you can see a sign for the Plaza Theater, which opened in 1931 and was demolished in 1964, a pretty short run for a house that some considered grander than Proctor’s.

On the right side, the corner building was the Hotel Hough, which appears at this time to have housed Rudolph Jewelers on the ground floor. The Hough survived (as a building) until relatively recently, and was demolished to make room for BowTie Cinemas.  The tall tower just beyond it was the home of Clark Witbeck hardware, which sold routine hardware but also was involved in railroad supplies. (Mr. Witbeck’s tomb in Vale Cemetery is an Egyptianate wonder.) Some of the smaller businesses are hard to pick out beyond that, but the Proctor’s theater sign is prominent. Past that, another sign, for Richman Brothers, a men’s and boy’s wear store.

Up the middle of the street, trolley tracks — though it looks like buses are running along them. There are islands in State Street, diverting traffic around the trackisings, in a layout that is surprisingly similar to how it looks today.

In rare good news, the vast majority of the buildings in this picture still stand today, though there have been some changes. The Woolworth’s looks dramatically different, as do the buildings just to the east of it,  and as we said, the Hough is gone, but the rest of this scene doesn’t look so different today. Click on the pic to see it large!

Lincoln Park Pool

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Lincoln Park Swimming PoolA grand view of Albany’s Lincoln Park swimming pool. As the city grew, the old public baths proved insufficient to meet the need, and in the 1920s there were some short-term stabs at providing swimming facilities, including the Rocky Ledge wading pool and what appears to have been a swimming tank in Lincoln Park. By 1930, this rather grander pool was completed, and it has remained in operation ever since. From the Albany Group Archive, another view, from its opening year:
Lincoln Park Swimming Pool  July 4 1931  albany ny 1930s

The Delaware and Hudson Building (and Evening Journal)

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D&H building at night
On the one hand, this is such a common Albany view that we hardly think about it. On the other hand, who gets tired of looking at the Delaware and Hudson Railroad Building, the headquarters of what was once one of Albany’s great railroads? And on the third hand, it’s the D&H Building at night, with the trolley loop in front of it, The Plaza, ringed in trees and lights. This was architect Marcus T. Reynolds’s crowning achievement, completed in sections starting in 1914-15 and finally done in 1918. The structure to the right is actually the Albany Evening Journal building, built for the newspaper founded by Thurlow Weed in 1830 but which would only last until 1925. The photograph is a little fanciful in its lack of trolley tracks, or trolleys. Everyone who remembers that they shipped off to war from this building is, unfortunately, wrong – although there was a freight terminal just north of it behind Dean Street, this was never a railroad station, just a rather grand office building.

The building the D&H occupied prior to this one still stands on North Pearl Street.

Another undated card from the Tichnor Collection at Digitalcommonwealth.org.

 

The Court of Appeals

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Still mining the Tichnor Collection from digitalcommonwealth.org, with this lovely postcard view of the New York State Court of Appeals building on Eagle Street, just north of City Hall, across Pine Street. For those not familiar, this is the highest court in New York State’s court system (those imbued with common sense are usually surprised to find that state Supreme Courts are the lowest level of state court — but are supreme over local courts). This stretch of Eagle Street is just a touch off the main routes, and some people are surprised to find this and the county courthouse (just visible to the left) tucked away in a quiet setting across from Academy Park.

Originally, this was built as the State Hall. State courts then were housed in the Capitol (the old one). Besides the much smaller old Capitol, the State also had offices in the Old State Hall at the corner of Lodge and State. Lack of space to a push for a new ace and concern about fire destroying records led to the push for construction of this new State Hall, and local architect Henry Rector was commissioned to design this building, which opened in 1842. (Time has been unkind to Rector’s work, with the only other surviving example being a row of houses on Westerlo Street in the Pastures.) It originally housed the state chancellor, Register of Chancery, the clerk of the Court of Appeals and the Supreme Court, as well as the attorney general, the auditor, Erie Canal appraisers and commissioners, the comptroller, and the state engineer and surveyor-general. The Court of Appeals remained in the Capitol, and stayed there when the new one was built as well. However, a need for better court space led to a renovation and the Court of Appeals moved in in 1917. A second, much more extensive renovation, was completed in 1959, including a replacement dome and rebuilt foundation. Another round of renovations took place beginning in 2001, again replacing structural elements of the dome, but this time also adding on to the building.

In Waite’s “Albany Architecture,” Anthony Opalka writes that the marble for the building was quarried by inmates at Sing Sing Prison, down the Hudson River at Ossining.

 

Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception

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Cathedral Immaculate ConceptionThis postcard view, likely from the 1930s or so like the others we’ve been showing, shows the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Albany, on Eagle Street at the southwest corner with Madison Avenue. While of course there is no Cultural Education Center towering over it from behind, there’s an amount of license in showing a cleared grassy area up Madison Avenue, because in fact that stretch of Madison was packed with the usual three-story Albany row buildings, as you can see:

madison and eagle 1920s albany ny (Cathedral of the Immaculate conception of left)

Construction began on the cathedral and the cornerstone was laid in 1848, with the dedication in 1852. it was designed by Irish immigrant Patrick Keely, who designed something like 500 churches, many in the industrial towns of the northeast. Reportedly, it was only the second cathedral dedicated in New York (St. Patrick’s in NYC being the first). The Troy Daily Times reported on the dedication:

Solemn Dedication of the Albany Cathedral

According to previous arrangement, this imposing ceremony came off on Sunday, and was deeply interesting. It commenced about 9 o’clock A.M. There were two Archbishops, five Bishops and about one hundred Priests who officiated on the occasion.

The dedicatory service was performed by Archbishop Hughes, of New York. The clergy formed in procession from the two Sacristies on either side of the grand altar, and passed through the middle aisles to the front of the Cathedral outside, where the ceremony properly commenced.

After the appropriate prayers with the first blessing of the New Edifice were ended, the procession moved round the whole edifice, the clergy chanting the Miserere, and the dedicating Archbishop sprinkling the Cathedral with holy water as the procession moved round – using the prayers appropriate for the occasion.

Returning to the place in front of the Cathedral, the Solemn Entry was made. After the Archbishop had three times knocked at the gates of the main entrance, the clergy sang the Litany of the Saints, emblematic of the solemn entry into Heaven – the Temple not made by the hands of men …

During the Pontifical Mass, Archbishop Hughes took his throne, where he sat with this attendants until after the gospel, when he took off his mitre and cape, and ascended the pulpit, (also but temporarily erected,) in front of the sanctuary … He first alluded to the disappointment in the absence, by unexpected sickness, of the Archbishop Purcell, of Cincinnati, who was to have preached the dedication sermon, whose place he was now unexpectedly to fill.

He complimented the congregation at the early completion of so noble a structure, and quoted it as an evidence of the zeal and influence of their first Bishop, and his venerable clergy, and of the union also that existed betweeen the pastors and the flock.

He also highly complimented the architect and builders, and made allusions to the Right Reverend Bishops of Montreal, Bogota, etc,. who had honored the occasion with their presence …

This imperfect and hurried sketch does nothing like justice to the grand occasion, or eloquent extemporaneous discourse in any way, but may give an idea of the imposing solemnity of the occasion, and of the  joy that seemed to fill all hearts. There were present about from 4000 to 5000 people. Service will hereafter take place regularly at the Cathedral Church.

Dedication, as was often the case, did not mean completion; the spires were not complete in 1852, and the chancel had not been built. The north tower was completed in 1862, and, appropriately, Meneely bells from West Troy were hung. The south spire didn’t come until 1888.

While the cathedral was outside the area that was taken for the Empire State Plaza, its parishioners were not.  In addition to robbing the church of a neighborhood to serve, it is reported that the years of construction next door did damage to the cathedral building and rendered its pipe organ unusable. The cathedral did survive, however, and extensive renovations took place in the first decade of this century, with a reopening of the church in 2010.

The Capitol’s Grand Staircase

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Capitol Grand StaircaseAnother postcard from the Tichnor Collection at Digitalcommonwealth.org. “The Grand Staircase” is something of an understatement – this is the New York State Capitol’s Great Western Staircase, also (and probably better) known as The Million Dollar Staircase. But, of course, it cost much more than that, at an estimated $1.5 million. With 444 steps (which Hoxsie used to climb with regularity, for both business and pleasure), it took 14 years to complete, making it one of the speedier parts of the Capitol’s construction. This postcard really doesn’t begin to do it justice, though it does seem to show it in a time when it was still naturally lit by skylight (which it is once again, but with electric lights as well). The stonecarvers were given tremendous license, and as a result it is one of the most incredibly ornamented structures you will see on this continent. If you’ve never seen it, just go inside and look – you don’t need to be on a tour to wander the Capitol freely (though there are now metal detectors at the doors). If you can’t, take a look at this collection of photos from Northeast Architecture.

The Post Office and Courthouse

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Post Office, Albany, NYThis postcard from the Tichnor Collection shows what was once known as the “new” post office in downtown Albany. According to the Federal General Services Administration, a new post office was first authorized in 1930 with a $3.325 million allocation “to purchase a site and construct a new federal building in Albany, New York, to house a post office, courthouse, and custom house.” The following year, this site on the corner of Broadway and Maiden Lane was chosen, which necessitated the demolition of a number of buildings on Broadway and Dean Street (which technically still runs behind the building). The new structure was designed by local firm Gander, Gander & Gander in 1931, and the cornerstone was laid August 18, 1933. The building opened in 1934. “The building had an exterior bridge connecting the nearby rail station with the post office, which occupied the entire first two floors” – meaning not Union Station, but the freight warehouse of the Delaware and Hudson Railroad, which was located on Dean Street adjacent to the D&H Headquarters. The building was known as the Post Office or the Courthouse, depending on why you were going there, for many years until 1988 when the building, already on the National Register of Historic Places, was named in honor of James T. Foley, the son of a politically connected cockfighting promoter, who served as a federal court judge for 40 years.

 

The building is an understated Art Deco beauty. As the GSA website says,

The facade, which faces west on Broadway, contains two entrances, each topped with an eagle that is more than eight feet tall and carved from a seventeen-ton Vermont marble block by New York City sculptor Albert T. Stewart, who also received the commission for the building’s frieze. Artist Benjamin Hawkins created ornate aluminum screens titled Departments of Government located behind the eagles. The screens contain stylized motifs representing the Departments of Navy, Agriculture, Labor, Army, Post Office, Commerce and Revenue, as well as images of the courts, thirteen stars representing the original colonies, and the New York state seal. A bas-relief frieze encircles the building on three elevations: the west facade contains images of postal service activities, the north elevation shows customs duties, and the south elevation illustrates the mission of the courts. To make the carvings visible to street-level viewers, Stewart created figures approximately eight feet tall and executed at a depth of nearly three inches.

Typical of the Art Deco style, the architects designed an opulent interior. Six marble types, including St. Genevieve Golden Vein, Rose, Champlain Black, Eagle Grey Tennessee, Eagle Pink Tennessee, and Verde Antique, are used on the richly appointed interior walls and floors. Ceilings are ornate plaster with medallions and stepped molding covered with aluminum leaf. Entrance vestibules lead to public lobbies with marble walls. Marble mosaic medallions are inset in the north and south lobby floors. A gilded plaster ceiling medallion of the United States Seal is centered in the lobby and framed by step moldings covered with aluminum leaf and gold stars.

Marble pilasters divide the main lobby into nine bays, each articulated with a ceiling mural. Artist Ethel M. Parsons painted the oil-on-canvas murals in 1935, depicting each of the seven continents as well as the North Pole and the United States. Interspersed with the murals are plaster plaques by Italian artist Enea Biafora Portraying famous Americans, including Abraham Lincoln, Benjamin Franklin, and George Washington, as portrayed on the earliest U.S. postage stamps. With the exception of the murals, the ceiling is covered with aluminum leaf. Four original black marble writing desks are centered in the main lobby.

Throughout the building, in both public and private spaces, intricate wood inlay designs adorn the ceiling and wall trim. Each of the five floors contains two elevator lobbies with adjacent public staircases. The stairs have treads and landings of Eagle Grey Tennessee marble with Champlain black marble risers. Cast-aluminum railings, also designed by Biafora, contain stylized motifs related to the functions of the building, including an airplane and scales of justice.

The murals are probably what most of us miss most about easy access to the building’s lobby – there were worth the trip. The post office left the building in 1995, with most of its sorting functions transferred out to the suburbs and the remaining functions accommodated by a joyless little space on the bottom floor of a parking garage on Hudson Street, which no one looks forward to going to.

Maiden Lane below Broadway 1930s albany ny

In this view, looking east down Maiden Lane, the bridge to the D&H freight terminal is visible, an essential feature from a time when much intercity mail traveled by rail.

The Capitol Flag Room – or, War Room

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Capitol Flag Room, or War RoomThis postcard, also from the Tichnor Collection at Digitalcommonwealth.org, depicts what was then called the Flag Room of the New York State Capitol in Albany. Even when this postcard was made, it doesn’t appear that battle flags were on display here … they may have already been moved out into the eastern entry hall  to the Capitol, where they suffered for decades. Some have now been conserved. In Hoxsie’s memory, this space was always called the War Room, so named for its ceiling murals depicting significant conflicts in New York’s history. Like the flags it once held, this space suffered mightily for a long time, essentially consigned to use as a storage space until it was restored during Governor Pataki’s administration. It is now used for various historical exhibits and is officially designated as the Governor’s Reception Room, but we’re not buying that moniker.

We’d love to know what the marker on the pedestal used to say. It’s not quite legible in any of the versions of this postcard that we’ve been able to find.