Category Archives: Albany

The Assembly Stairs, in stereo

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Grand Staircase, New York State Capitol

In almost any other structure in the world, this would be a view of a grand, showy staircase. But in the New York State Capitol, it’s the ugly stepsister . . . or at least the plain one. Overshadowed by the Great Western Staircase (also called the Million Dollar Staircase), with its inumerable ornate carvings reaching up to the top of the building, and  by the Senate Staircase, with its slightly less ornate three stories, the Assembly Staircase is just a simple beauty. The stereoscope view is undated, but it hardly matters. It has not changed

The New State Capitol, sort of

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New Capitol Robert Dennis Collection.jpgAnother gem of a stereoscope from the Robert N. Dennis Collection of Stereoscopic Images at the New York Public Library, this one depicts the new State Capitol building in Albany. Except, of course, that it doesn’t. Not quite. While the image is undated, I’ve got to presume it depicts a model, and one built sometime in the early phase of the Capitol project. Ground was broken in 1867, and plans changed and changed again throughout the construction, which wasn’t declared finished until 1899. This model seems to reflect the plan of the first architect, Thomas Fuller, who was in charge from 1867-1875 and wanted to achieve an effect like the Hotel de Ville in  Haussmann’s Paris. Fuller managed to get the ground floor done before he was shown the door.

I have no idea if this model still exists somewhere, but would love to know.

The Albany Penitentiary

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Yard View, Albany Penitentiary

(This article originally appeared at

From petty thief to Lincoln assassination conspirator, if you were a criminal in Washington D.C. in the 1860’s — you were going to be sent up the river.

Way up the river. To Albany.

The Albany Penitentiary served for decades as the prison for the District of Columbia.

A new kind of prison

With the old downtown jail becoming inadequate to house what were characterized as “the vilest dregs of society, the rakings of the gutter and the brothel, the profligate, and even the diseased,” Albany County resolved in 1843 to create a new style of penitentiary aimed at “moral reformation of the convict,” but one where “labor performed in the prison shall produce a sufficient income for its maintenance.”

With a state law authorizing its construction in 1844, the new institution was sited just a few blocks south of Washington Park, bounded by South Knox Street, Myrtle Avenue, Lark Street and Leonard Place. (map)

For some it truly became a prison of their own making, as county prisoners from the old jail were put to work building the new one. They moved themselves in by 1846, and continued to build, including a women’s wing, through 1848. In all, the institution covered three acres, enclosed by a 14-foot high brick wall complete with guard-houses. The entire goal of the institution was to show not only that prisoners could earn their own keep, but that by making them busy they would not return to their criminal ways. Most of the inmates were petty criminals serving six months or less, guilty of such offenses as assault, horse theft, indecent exposure, and passing counterfeit tobacco stamps. Petit larceny was by far the most common offense, which administrators took care to separate from the less common offenses of “stealing key of mail bag,” “stealing money from mail,” and “stealing at West Point.”

The Albany Penitentiary’s success as a model reformatory (whipping and the crucifix: no; cold shower punishment: yes) was quickly rewarded. The State Legislature passed act after act permitting other counties to use the facility. The growing roster of inmates was put to work caning chairs and making inexpensive shoes. Female inmates worked doing laundry.

Civil War changes

The Civil War threatened this model of penal self-sufficiency. Petty criminals were forgiven their sentences if they enlisted in the Union Army. The number of inmates fell and the southern market that supported the penitentiary’s shoemaking factory disappeared.

DC Daily Critic 10-25-1890.jpg (from the1890 D.C. Daily Critic)

But penitentiary officials were alert to opportunities. When they learned that the District of Columbia’s penitentiary was being taken over by the United States Arsenal, they arranged for Albany to be the penitentiary for the District of Columbia. It began in September 1862 with the transfer of 131 convicts, and continued for decades after the war ended. Confederate prisoners of war, D.C. swindlers, and Albany pickpockets all ended up in the same institution, and the institution profited nicely.

The Lincoln connection

Samuel Mudd.jpg
The most famous convicts ever sentenced to time in Albany never arrived here. Four of the convicted conspirators in the Lincoln assassination — Dr. Samuel Mudd, Edman Spangler, Samuel Arnold, and Michael O’Laughlen — were sentenced to serve in Albany. They boarded a ship in the Potomac expecting a long trip north but were surprised to find themselves sailing decidedly south, to a military prison in the Dry Tortugas, islands at the end of the Florida Keys. Despite his cries of injustice at the sentencing, Dr. Mudd, convicted of conspiracy for setting John Wilkes Booth’s broken leg after the Lincoln assassination, apparently found the extremely southern prison more to his liking. A friend wrote to Mudd’s daughter that “He is doing a great deal better than he would have done at Albany.”

The old Albany Penitentiary was finally closed when a new one opened well out of the city, on Albany Shaker Road, in 1931. It would be twenty years before the site was was put to use again, with the opening of the Veterans Administration Hospital in 1951.

Westminster Presbyterian Church

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Westminster Church,_Albany,_N.Y,_from_Robert_N._Dennis_collection_of_stereoscopic_views corrected cropped.jpg

Here’s a single image from a stereoscope of the Westminster Presbyterian Church on State Street in Albany, one of many we’ll be looking at from the Robert N. Dennis Collection of stereoscopic images held by the New York Public Library. The photo is undated, but the church’s somewhat confusing history page says the church was dedicated in 1862. It burned in 1928, which may account for the loss of a number of the decorative elements, such as the tower finials and the graceful latticework along the roofline. Otherwise, the view isn’t so different today.

It would appear that some kind of construction is going on in the lot just to the east of the church, and there’s a huge mound of dirt piled up in State Street, possibly from excavating a foundation. Or gophers. Whatever house was just to the west of the church (right in this picture) is long gone; that area is all parking lot now.

The Pearl Street Theatre

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Pearl Street Theatre.png

Writing in 1867, Joel Munsell described the second permanent theater building in Albany:

“The next theatre erected exclusively for the representation of legitimate drama, was the edifice in South Pearl street, now occupied for the same purpose, and known under the sugar-coated appellation of Academy of Music. It was erected by a joint stock company of some of the most prominent capitalists in the city in the year 1825, and was at the time one of the most elegant theatres in the country. It was 116 feet deep, 60 feet wide, and 40 feet high. The auditory consisted of a pit and three tiers of boxes, a portion of the upper tier being used as a gallery. The stage was 52 by 58 feet.” The stock company consisted of George Barrett, his wife (“formerly Miss Henry”), his mother and several others. “Soon after its opening, Booth, the great star of the day [most likely Edwin Booth], appeared in his favorite tragic characters.”

Edmund Kean made his debut 8th December [1825], as Richard III. He had previously been hissed off the stage in Boston, where the theatre was nearly destroyed by a mob. In New York also great efforts were made to prevent his playing. Here, however, he was greeted by an overflowing house. So great was the crowd that many retired through fear of suffocation, and a great number that came from adjoining towns were unable to obtain admission.”

The theater closed in 1839 and was sold to St. Paul’s Church, which used it until 1862 when it was returned to life as a theater.

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A most laughable incident

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Green Street Theater closeup.png

Speaking of the Green Street Theatre, Joel Munsell included the following story from the Albany Evening Times in a footnote:

“A most laughable incident is told by a person who was one of the participants. During the first year of its existence, a number of the then wild young fellows, wished to enter the theatre without paying, and entered the alley way from Green street, on the north side of the building, and had proceeded as far as the entrance to one of the rooms under the stage — the play that evening was Hamlet — accidentally fell against a door, it burst open, and there one side of the room stood the ghost of Hamlet’s father, industriously engaged in quietly sipping a mug of beer! One of them was incontinently seized by the nape of the neck by the supe who was with the ghost, and hurled out of the room, making tracks for the street and crying murder at the top of his voice. The others of the party, whose fright was but temporary, rushed to the side of the ghost, seeing he was a live man, and followed him on stage. They were standing in the wings, when one of them discovered his father and mother in one of the proscenium boxes; he was shortly after slapped on the shoulder by Bernard, the manager, and told to bring a table off the stage. Here was a dilemma, but he dare not refuse, for he then would disclose himself; so covering the side of his face with one of his hands, he went on and carried off the table. It was his first and last appearance on any stage, although it was upwards of half a century ago.”

The first theater in Albany

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Green Street Theatre.png

Joel Munsell wrote that the first building in Albany built for the purposes of a theater was a 56 by 110 foot brick building begun in 1811 in Green Street, near Hamilton. The first performance was by “John Bernard, and an excellent company, 18th Jan., 1813, with The West Indian and Fortune’s Frolic.” John Bernard was described as “decidedly the best low comedian that ever appeared in Albany,” a phrase that had a very different meaning then. The opening address was by Solomon Southwick, so presumably by this time Albany had overcome its antipathy toward theater. Munsell said the theater did well during the War of 1812, “after which there was a general depression of business, and it remained some time unoccupied.” In June 1818, it was sold to the Baptist society and became a Baptist church until 1851. After a short stint as another church, it was sold to a theatrical company and once again hosted performances in 1852. It changed hands and was auctioned by the sheriff, reopened the next year.

“A great many attempts were afterwards made to carry on the drama successfully at this place, till it finally sank to a very low grade, and was closed in despair. It was in the fall of 1865 converted into a pork packing establishment, immediately after which the rear wall fell down, for the owner a disastrous finale to its inglorious career.”

Theater in Albany

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Despite being one of the oldest cities in the country, Albany existed for almost a century and a half without any theater. Here, as with so many things, we may blame the Dutch. Joel Munsell, in his “Collections on the History of Albany,” 1867, says the first reports of theatricals of any sort were performances by officers of the British army in the time of the French and Indian wars, around 1759. “These gave such offense to the Dutch Reformed clergyman, the Rev. Theodorus Frelinghuysen, that he made them the subject of severe censure in his pulpit; but instead of effecting any reform, a very singular suggestion was made to him to depart. He found at his door on Monday morning a staff, a pair of shoes,  a loaf of bread, and some money. This so wrought upon his feelings that he left his charge, crossed the ocean, and was never more heard of.” An ironically theatrical exit.

Another writer said the first theatricals in Albany were by a company of comedians from New York, who gained permission for one month of performances from the governor and occupied the Hospital, which stood somewhere on Pine Street, and presented “Venice Preserved” on July 3, 1769.

The next recorded entertainment was in 1785, again at the Hospital, when a full bill of entertainment was presented: “Cross Purposes” and “Catherine and Petruchio,” interspersed with a dance Polonnaise and a eulogy on Freemasonry. Tickets were sold at Lewis’s Tavern (way uptown, at Washington and Swan), not at the door, and boxes were $1, the gallery 50 cents. “A vigorous effort was made to prevent the continuance of the performances by a number of influential citizens, but the common council determined by a vote of 6 to 4 that they had no legal right to prohibit theatrical exhibitions. A whole number of the Albany Gazette is occupied with the controversy, to the exclusion of everything else.”

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C’mon, You Know the Words!

Last of the Cocked Hats

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Market Street.png

“We pass the residence of Dr. Samuel Stringer, of the revolution, still remaining in the block on the west side of Broadway below Steuben, but somewhat disguised by modern changes. This was the first house in which white marble was used for sills and caps for windows.Adjoining his office on the south, dwelt Gen. John H. Wendell, of the revolution. These two veterans adhered to the costume of the olden time till their decease, the latter being the last of the cocked hats, in 1832.

This part of Handelaer street, that is, Merchant’s or Trader’s street, came to be called Market street about 1790, when a market-house was built in the centre of it below Maiden lane. Noticing trifles as we proceed, I will mention that this market was removed to a vacant lot behind the old Lutheran church, now forming the corner of Howard and William streets, where it was long famous as Cassidy’s and Friedenreich’s market, but more significantly termed the Fly market, and still stands there, in the guise of an oyster shop and a sample room — an institution unknown to the ouders under that name.”

— Joel Munsell, Men and Things in Albany Two Centuries Ago, 1876

Lines in Favor of Building the Albany and Susquehanna Railroad

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English: Albany - Susquehanna Railroad Delmar ...

English: Albany – Susquehanna Railroad Delmar Station, (Town of Bethlehem, New York). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When Albany was the hub of commerce, connecting the great markets of Montreal, Boston and New York to the heartland and the new West, being able to get your goods to our ancient city was highly important. Connection to the major railroads or the Erie Canal was critical. What is now the Interstate 88 corridor, the areas of Cobleskill, Oneonta, and beyond, suffered for a very long time from lack of access to urban markets, being a long way off the canal or the railways that followed it. Finally came the Albany-Susquehanna Railroad, which connected the Schoharie valley to the capital in 1863, and just a few years later reached Binghamton. Like all great (and most non-great) railroads, it inspired a fair amount of prose over the years, including a 1903 volume by Harley Dana Tuttle, who bestowed posterity with “Stray Poems and Early History of the Albany and Susquehanna Railroad.” Noting the struggle for approval of the railroad in the first place, in 1856 Cobleskill’s Tuttle wrote many, many “Lines in Favor of Building the Albany and Susquehanna Railroad,” of which these are only the last:

Close at our backs we’ll have the west,
With all its verdure richly dressed;
New York and Boston at our feet,
And Albany we’ll hourly greet.
Thus joined unto the business world,
Progression’s flag will be unfurled;
And men will prize the railroad’s sway
That now upbraid its cause today.
How shall we do it? some may ask,
And ’tis indeed a heavy task.
Go, sirs, and sign the railroad bill,
It will not cause you any ill;
But then some say it is not just
That they be taxed to raise the “dust,”
While yet they are in truth confessing
The road would be to them a blessing.
Why then not pay your honest part,
And do it with a cheerful heart?
But if there is a single soul
So lost to reason’s right control,
As not to prize a railroad’s sway,
To him I would most humbly say,
Go seek some dark sequestered glade,
Beneath some lonely mountain’s shade,
And with some moss beneath your head,
Make beech leaves answer for your bed.
Rest on, ye sloths! in quiet sleep,
While tree toads ’round you vigil keep!

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