Daily Archives: August 14, 2015

The Dudley Observatory Moves Next to the Almshouse

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Lake_Avenue_Observatory_Observatory_and_Landscape.jpgAfter a shaky start, the Dudley Observatory got up and running and in fact became a fairly important observatory in the latter part of the 19th century, one of Albany’s many claims to scientific fame. However, after a few decades, it appears that the site on Dudley Heights proved less than satisfactory. The precise explanation isn’t given – those who argue that the city lights were an issue ignore that the observatory, in moving from Arbor Hill to a site behind what is now Albany Medical Center, on property now housing the Capital District Psychiatric Center on South Lake Avenue, was hardly out in the country. More likely is the proximity to the railroads and the West Albany yards – so close, in fact, that the Dudley deeded some of its land to the New York Central Railroad. Given all the fuss that was made over the perfection of the stone piers on which the observational instruments sat, it can’t be that the ever-growing rail business, a very vibratory affair, was a good thing for the neighboring observatory.

 So it would appear that a plan was hatched and worked through the Legislature and city government. The observatory was to move over to what is South Lake Avenue, which was then the grounds of the almshouse (poor house) and some associated buildings for people with communicable diseases (the “pest house”) and smallpox (the “smallpox house”), and apparently, for a while at least, the plan was for the almshouse to move to the Dudley’s old site.

That plan emerged at least as early as 1891, as an article in the Albany Times says: “Petitions were received from owners of premises and occupants of Van Woert and other streets against the transfer of the Dudley observatory grounds so as to erect an almshouse hospital and pest house on the grounds (it contains the signatures of over 600 persons); ….” When that happened, there was supposed to be a continuation of Lake Avenue (then also called Perry Street) through the almshouse farm, and other institutions such as the Home for Incurables and the House of Shelter would be given property there. But by the time the swap came, only a park was planned for the old observatory grounds.

 It was 1892 before acts were passed in the Legislature allowing the move, and in 1893 a deed was executed from the Board of Commissioners of Washington Park transferring to the Dudley Observatory conveying:

All that piece of parcel of lands lying and being on the east side of Lake Avenue and part of the premises known as the Alms house farm commencing at a point on the east line of Lake Avenue 66 feet north of the intersection of the north line of Warrant Street produced to the easterly line of Lake Avenue (a point bearing N. 87 [deg] 15′ E. and distant 100.4 feet from city monument No. 25, said monument being the north westerly corner of Lake Avenue and Warren Street) thence

S. 51 [deg] 55′ E. 502 feet; thence

S. 29 [deg] 10′ W. 357 feet; thence due South 280.2 feet, said point being in the north boundary of the New Scotland Plank Road; thence westerly along said north boundary 100.3 feet, thence due north 225 feet; thence

N. 51 [deg]. 55′ W. 270 feet; thence

N. 29 [deg]. 16′ W. 257.2 feet; this point being in the easterly line of Lake Avenue, thence north along said easterly line 38 [deg] 05′ E. 352 feet to the point and place of beginning. Containing 5 acres and 8/10ths of an acre more or less.

Subject nevertheless to and this conveyance is made upon the condition that there shall be erected on the land hereinbefore described within three years after the execution and delivery of this conveyance an observatory building and that the same shall be used upon completion and thereafter continued always to be used as and for an astronomical Observatory under penalty of forfeiture of the land hereby conveyed, to the City of Albany upon failure of this condition and the Board of Commissioners of Washington Park shall nevertheless have authority subject to the approval of the Trustees of said Observatory to lay out and maintain said premises as if the same were still a part of the land in their possession for Park purposes.

Observatory_and_Almshouse_1895.pngLanguage in the deed made it pretty clear this was a swap between the Dudley and the Washington Park commissioners “for purposes of a public common,” but that the Observatory could continue in possession of the old buildings until new buildings on the new site were ready, up to a period of eighteen months. Bonds were to be issued by the city to pay for this arrangement, to the tune of $15,000 that was to be paid to the Observatory. Then the lands and buildings on Dudley Heights would become a public common. “Nothing in this act shall be construed as requiring a transfer by said trustees of the Dudley Observatory of the piers of masonry which now support the instruments in use by said observatory, or the library cases in the present observatory buildings, or to prevent the removal thereof.”

Exactly when the new facility on South Lake commenced operations we can’t say. It was dedicated in 1893, which seems insanely quick for a swap that was only executed the year before, and the Dudley had a history of inaugurating things that weren’t quite ready. This map from 1895 clearly shows its location. It lasted at the “new” location until about 1968, when it had to depart to make room for the Capital District Psychiatric Center. The Times Union has a photograph of the second observatory on fire, most likely being burned down in order to clear the site. Land that it had bought in Selkirk didn’t work out, as a new electrical generating facility was being built right next to it, creating interference. It had a temporary home at 100 Fuller Road, in a former auto parts warehouse that it shared with the Atmospheric Science Research Center of SUNY, and at the time it seemed likes its connections to SUNY and/or Union College would land it with one of those permanently, but that wasn’t quite how it worked out. Eventually the observatory made its way to Schenectady, housed at what used to be called The Schenectady Museum and is now known as the Museum of Science and Innovation, or MiSci.

The old observatory on Dudley Heights appears to have lasted into the ’60s; a May 1967 article says that the original “decaying structure became a haven for vagrants and was leveled by the city a few years ago.” At one point, in 1929, there was a plan to move Memorial Hospital up to the site on Dudley Heights, but nothing appears to have come of that.