Hey, You’re Blocking My View

Telephone Building
The Hudson River (later New York) Telephone Building, from the Albany Group Archive.

As we mentioned when talking about the plans to build an office building in what is now Albany’s West Capitol Park, there was a little bit of controversy over blocking the view of the Capitol and the State Education Building, which ultimately resulted in the decision to place the Alfred E. Smith State Office Building on the west side of South Swan Street. And it turned up that some of that was lingering anger over the abomination that was the Hudson River Telephone Building – now considered one of the landmarks of the Albany streetscape.

An article from the Schenectady Gazette in 1917 touted a bill that had been introduced to “Bar Buildings Blocking View of the Capitol – State Wants No Structure to Cut off Sight of $30,000,000 Home.”

“The majestic outlines of the state capitol at Albany are to be preserved for the sight of those approaching the capital City, for a bill has been introduced which prohibits the erection of any lofty building within its immediate vicinity.
The state capitol, erected at a cost of over $30,000,000, for years crowned State street hill, a monument to the affairs of state, undisputed in its lofty splendor. From the Hudson river and miles from Albany in every direction it could be seen by those who had either left or who were approaching the Capital City. Then came a change in State street, in the heart of the once most exclusive portion of the city, there was constructed Albany’s first sky scraper: the Hudson River Telephone building. This structure towered twelve stories and cast its shadow over the capitol, which though far more extensive in area, is but six stories high with an unfinished tower.
After the New York Telephone building was completed it was discovered that no longer could the capitol be seen as of yore from a distance with the same distinctness. Like a shaft to industry of the corporation it houses, the telephone building rears heavenward and in some directions almost completely cuts off a view of the capitol.”

Senator Elon R. Brown introduced a bill that would have constituted a “capitol district,” bounded by Eagle, Swan, Washington and State. Within the district no new or altered building could rise more than eighty feet above the grade of the street, excepting steeples, domes, towers or cupolas erected for strictly ornamental purposes. The state, as is customary, would have been exempt from its own law, and could have built a greater tower had it so wished, but at the time it was thought “unlikely the state will build any structure in the future of immense height.”

It was also noted that the state was a major tenant of the telephone building. In fact, in 1919 Governor Al Smith, faced with opposition to putting up a new office building on the block that had just been cleared for exactly that purpose, proposed that the state might forego a new building and simply condemn the telephone building, taking it over entirely for state use. A Times-Union article from Oct. 7, 1919 said that the governor was willing to consider abandoning a new building and giving over the property to the city for a park, if the city would pay $375,000, half of what the state paid for the site.

“He would then favor the state taking over the telephone building by condemnation proceedings, acquiring the two buildings west of it and the property on Hawk street in the rear of the Calvary Baptist church. The governor estimates the price of the telephone building at $1,200,000, the cost of the additional property needed at $150,000, and the cost of the erection to the additions to the building at $600,000. Added to this would be $500,000 inconsequential [sic] damages to the Telephone company from the removal of its wires and trunk lines. The governor believes that if this plan were carried out, it would be cheaper in the end and give the state the immediate use of much needed room in the telephone building.”

Hoxsie sometimes thinks one could fill the rest of the country with the plans that were made for Albany and never completed. Of course, the building takeover never happened; in fact, it would be stunning if the telephone company had had any desire to give up both a brand new, heavily wired building that had only opened in 1915, and all that sweet rent it was making from the state. It would be several years before renewed plans for a state office building came back to the fore.


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