Category Archives: Albany

Westminster Presbyterian Church

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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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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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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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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.”

Also on Hoxsie:
C’mon, You Know the Words!

Last of the Cocked Hats

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“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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The Dutch Church burying yard

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Three who diedOnce again relying on Joel Munsell’s wonderful 1876 “Men and Things in Albany Two Centuries Ago,” Hoxsie has to share a description of the graveyard originally associated with the old Dutch Church:

“Bodies were allowed to be buried under the church in consideration of the payment of a sum for the privilege. There was at first a grave-yard in the street, adjoining the church on the west, and when the lot on which the Middle Dutch church now stands was appropriated for a cemetery, the bodies under the church were not all removed, it may be inferred, for in digging a trench on the north side of State street last year, it perforated the old foundation still remaining there, and human bones were thrown out. The dead were borne on the shoulders of men from the church to the cemetery on Beaver street. Although a trite subject to many of you, I will venture to mention that in process of time this ground on Beaver street was completely buried over, when a foot of sand was added to the surface, and a new tier of coffins placed upon the first, each coffin required to be square, and to be placed against the previous one. The ancient denizens of the city still repose there in three layers, and I wish every one of their descendants could be thoroughly imbued with a filial sentiment of the impropriety, to say the least, of ever parting with that ground; but that the church edifice now standing upon it might be preserved as a monument to the venerated dead beneath. The bones of Anneke Janse being supposed to rest there, and so great a multitude claiming descent from her, and large expectations from her estate being so general, what adverse influence might arise from a mercenary alienation of those bones, should give us pause!”

(Note: photograph is from St. George’s Episcopal Church in Schenectady. Not Albany, and not Dutch.)

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Burying a pauper

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First Church, Albany

First Church, Albany (Photo credit: carljohnson)

In old Albany, the Dutch Church was the primary provider of social services to the needy of the community, including tending to the care of the poor. Joel Munsell preserved the record of the burial of Ryseck Swart, a pauper in the church’s care:

“I can’t refrain from giving an instance of the expense of burying a church pauper. On the 15th of February, 1700, Ryseck, widow of Gerrit Swart, the last survivor of the church poor at that date, died and was buried on the 17th, the expenses of which are copied from the deacon’s book. It is entered in Dutch, but I think you will be content with English: Three dry boards for the coffin, 7 guilders 10 stuivers; 3/4 lb. nails, 1g. 10s.; making the coffin, 24g.; cartage, 10s.; a half vat and an anker* of good beer 27g.; one gallon of rum, 21g.; 6 gall. Madeira for women and men, 84g.; sugar and spices, 5g.; 150 sugar cakes, 15g.; tobacco and pipes, 4g.10s.; digging the grave, 30g.; use of the pall, 12g.; inviting to the funeral, 12g.; Mary Lookermans was paid 6g. for assistance at the burial, and Marritje Lieverse for nursing 39g. Total 289 g., or $115.60. The expenses of maintaining this person four years had been 2,229 guilders 10 stuyvers.

*An anker was 10 gallons, and a half vat about 11 gallons. Good beer was strong beer, ale. A guilder was nearly 40 cts. and a stuyver was nearly 2cts.

Apparently little expense was spared, at least in the celebratory aspects of the funeral service . . . beer, rum, and port, not to mention sugar cakes and tobacco. It’s often said that the funeral is more about the living than the dead.

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More from inside the Dutch Church

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No drawings of the interior of Albany’s original Dutch Church exist. Historian-publisher Joel Munsell once had a plan of the interior, but he neglected to print it and all we have now is his description, which continues:

“I have a plan of the interior of the church, the ground floor taken from a pen drawing of the slips . . . It is seen from this that the bell was run in the middle aisle, and that the stoves were placed on a level with the galleries, supported on posts, and that the smoke pipes went out through the wall. The last of the sextons in this church was Cornelis Van Schaick. Having finished ringing the bell he tied the bell rope around the post, placed in the aisle for the purpose, and went up into the galleries to inspect his fires. He clambered over the front of the galleries, and, having filled the stove with wood, closed the door with such unconscious force as to produce a tremendous bang.

“The fronts of the galleries were studded with nails, upon which the occupants of the seats hung their hats . . . it presented a novelty to the stranger which was rendered the more picturesque and attractive by the variety of their style, color and condition. The roof was ceiled upon the rafters with boards, from the walls to the cupola, and a chandelier supplied with candles was suspended in the centre. The windows were in the style of what is now termed French, that is in two frames opening laterally on hinges; and were composed of smaller compartments or sashes, containing twelve panes each, representing the name and family arms of the person at whose expense it was placed there — the glass stained by a process said to be lost. The panes were about five inches square, and so little care was taken of these family escutcheons when the church was removed in 1806, that but four of them are known to have come down to our time entire . . . .

“The accompanying engraving of the window of Philip Schuyler, shows the style of all of them, except that it omits the division marks into 12 panes.”