Category Archives: Albany

Inside the Dutch Church

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The original Dutch Church sat at the foot of Albany’s State Street where it meets what is now Broadway. In fact, it sat in the middle of the street.  Every image of the exterior is based on the same original image, which was drawn from memory after the building was gone. Joel Munsell gives this description of the interior:

“We are now prepared to enter the church and inspect its interior. The porch was on the south side, and the ancient stepping stone was retained in its original position half a century after the church was removed, serving to point out the precise spot of the entrance to the vestibule, the wear of the footsteps of several generations in passing to their devotions having given it a peculiar conformation. Tenants of the opposite buildings watched it for many years with pious care when the pavement was being repaired; but when they had passed away, some one lacking knowledge insisted that it was wrongly placed and induced the paver to remove it to the centre of the street, after which it was thrown out altogether and lost to the antiquary. The church stood so nearly across the street, that only a cart-way remained on either side. In length it extended east and west.

“On entering the audience room, the pulpit was observed on the north side, octagonal in form, barely large enough for one to speak in, having a bracket in front on which was placed an hour-glass to measure the length of the pastor’s discourse. It served the two edifices a hundred and fifty years, and is still preserved. The seats were slips after the modern churches, but instead of sitting in families, each sitter had an appropriate seat and cushion, which seat was occupied during life, and afterward transferred to the nearest of kin, on payment by the latter of a fee for the transfer. The seats accommodated 611 women, who occupied the entire body pews of the church, and there was an elevated bench extending around the wall, which afforded seats for seventy-nine men. This was the entire capacity of the church until galleries were added at a later day.

“It is traditional that when there was danger of invasion, the men sat with their guns by their sides, wearing their hats and muffs, and smoking their pipes during the sermon. The walls were perforated near the top, with loop halls for the use of musketry. To this vigilance the inhabitants owed their immunity from invasion, for the city was never beleaguered by any foe.”

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Pemberton’s grocery

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Pembertons corner of columbia street.jpgAnother view, this one photographic, of the house built by the father of Col. Lansing at the corner of North Pearl and Columbia streets. Diana Waite says it was at the northeast corner, which would put it where the Bayou is in the Brewster Building today, and that it may have even predated the Lansings. Jacob Lansing was a baker and a silversmith who may have done his smithing in this building. (Waite has another excellent photo of it from the Columbia Street side.) In 1824 Lansing’s great grandson sold it to Ebenezer Pemberton, who ran it as a grocery store.

George Rogers Howell says that “the antique building on the corner of Columbia and North Pearl streets, which was built in 1710, was occupied by a Mr. McPherson as a grocery store prior to 1818, when it was sold to the Pemberton Brothers — Eben, Henry S. and John — and shortly after opened by them as a grocery store. The business established by these brothers, then mere boys, was continued until 1830, when only Eben and John were interested in it. In 1859 Eben died, from which time it was conducted by John Pemberton, who died in 1885, and at the time of his death was the oldest merchant in Albany in active business.” The building survived until 1893, when it was torn down for an expansion of the Albany Business College, in what is labeled the Brewster Building (but at the time of its construction around 1887 was called the Pemberton Building, and was owned by Widow Pemberton).

Waite gives some excellent architectural detail: “The parapet gable facade on Columbia Street had fleur-de-lis iron beam anchors that held the brick wall to a timber frame. The brick, laid in Dutch cross bond, formed a zigzag pattern called vlechtwerk (wicker work) along the upper edges of the gable.”

Joel Munsell also placed the house on that corner, and ascribed it to Chancellor Lansing, “who was mayor of Albany from 1786 to 1790.” Originally just outside the city gate, “it was especially distinguished as the lodging place for the Indians when they came to Albany for the purpose of trading their furs, too often for rum and worthless ornaments. There many stirring scenes transpired, when the Indians held their powwows, and became uproarious under the influence of strong drink. The house has survived the general sweep of so called improvement. It is now [1867] owned by John Pemberton, and is occupied as a grocery and provision store.”

Thanks to the “Albany…The Way It Was” Facebook group for an 1886 letter to the editor: “It is probable that in a few years the Pemberton…corner will succumb to the march of improvement, and the searchers after the ‘Crow feet Gables’ and antique houses and half doors will look in vain for a single representative left. Something should be done to restore, reproduce or rebuild for the generations to follow these fast disappearing relics of the past.”


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Built a crooked house. . .

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Pemberton House 1710.png“Outside of the stockades north on the line with Pearl street, was erected in 1710, by the father of Col. Jacob Lansing of the revolution, the house still standing there, and known as the Pemberton house, on the corner of Columbia street. This house was so constructed that no two adjoining rooms were on the same level, but on stepping out of one room into another it was necessary to ascend or descend two or three steps to the next. The ceilings were not lath-and-plastered, but the beams and sleepers were polished and waxed, and the jambs of the fire places were faced with porcelain, ornamented with scripture scenes. The same peculiarity may be seen in the construction of the floors of the Staats house, now the corner of State and South Pearl streets.”

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


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Speaking of John Jay

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In 1778, in the heat of the American Revolution, John Jay was New York’s Chief Justice of the Council of Safety, responsible for framing the Constitution of the State and for developing a new form of government to replace colonial rule. When the Legislature was going to be summoned to convene in Kingston that August, Jay’s biographer George Bellew wrote,

“It is curious to notice, in the light of subsequent history, that Jay ‘casually hinted at holding the first session of the legislature at Albany,’ but found ‘a general disinclination to it.’ ‘Some object,’ he wrote to [Gen.] Schuyler, ‘to the expense of living there, as most intolerable, and others say that, should Albany succeed in having both the great officers, the next step will be to make it the capital of the State.'” The British burned Kingston in October, 1777, and Jay removed the state’s nascent Supreme Court (as it was known then) to Albany, well distant from his farm in Fishkill. “In those days the inconveniences of life were many even for a judge at Albany. ‘Had it not been for fish,’ according to Jay, ‘the people of this town would have suffered for want of food, occasioned by the refusal of the farmers to sell at the stipulated prices.'”

The objection would remain for some time, but eventually Jay’s hint came to fruition. The rest of government moved around among Albany, Kingston, Hurley, Poughkeepsie and even New York, until Albany was named the state capital in 1797, with the first meeting of the Legislature in its permanent home in 1798. John Jay was the state’s second Governor then, and took up residence at 66-68 State Street.

Yellow Fever and Thanksgiving

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Portrait of John Jay

Portrait of John Jay (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

New York State’s first Thanksgiving proclamation came about, not  in remembrance of the Pilgrims, but in relief over the passing of an epidemic of yellow fever. And it was controversial even then.

John Jay was the first Chief Justice of the United States (among many other things), but he gave up that seat when elected Governor of New York (in absentia; he was in Britain at the time) in 1795. That autumn, yellow fever broke out in New York City. Now known to be a viral infection spread by mosquitoes, it was then little understood, but known to be contagious and carried by commerce. Tar was burned in the streets, in belief it would purify. Governor Jay proclaimed that vessels from the West Indies must be held at Governor’s Island until they were certified free of the disease. The Governor of Pennsylvania forbid “all intercourse” between Philadelphia and New York for a month. Although previous epidemics were far worse in terms of death, this one led significant segments of the population to leave the city, in a general sense of panic. Rotting fruits, carcasses and even cotton were pulled from stores and burned in the belief they could spread the disease.

Once cold set in, the fever abated (as we now know, because the mosquitoes become dormant). Governor Jay issued a proclamation declaring Thursday, November 26, a day for “his fellow citizens throughout the State to unite in public thanksgiving to that Being through whose Providence the ravages of the yellow fever had been stayed.” (As Chief Justice, Jay had presided over only four cases; none of them had to do with separation of church and state.) This was met with strident criticism by stalwarts of the Democratic party, who saw it as typical Federalist expansion of executive powers. William Jay’s “The Life of John Jay” explains that in New England, such days of thanksgiving had long been customary and were provided for in law; but in New York, such days had never been appointed by civil authority, and the law and the new constitution (which John Jay drafted) made no such provision.

Jay anticipated the objections in his proclamation:

“Whether the governor of this State is vested with authority to appoint a day for this purpose, and to require and enjoin the observance of it, is a question which, circumstanced as it is, I consider as being more proper for the Legislature than for me to decide. But as the people of the State have constituted me their chief magistrate, and being perfectly convinced that national prosperity depends, and ought to depend, on national gratitude and obedience to the Supreme Ruler of all nations, I think it proper to recommend, and I therefore do earnestly recommend to the clergy and others of my fellow-citizens throughout this State to set apart Thursday, the 26th November, instant, for the purposes aforesaid, and to observe it accordingly.”

One objection by John Sloss Hobart asked, “Do my glasses magnify too much when I fancy I see the cloven foot of monarchy in this business?” His argument? That if the clergy could not “intermeddle with the political concerns of the community; the door is for ever barred against them,” then there should be no civil interference with their authority. “It may happen that our civil governor may recommend a thanksgiving to be celebrated on the same day which our spiritual governors had set apart for fasting.”

A day of national thanksgiving was first proclaimed by President George Washington in 1789. He did so again in 1795, the same year as Jay. New York started making annual proclamations of a day of thanksgiving in 1817.

So whatever you’re thankful for today, you can at least be thankful that you don’t have yellow fever.

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Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception

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One of the defining parts of the Albany skyline for decades was dedicated on this day, Nov. 21, in 1852. Patrick C. Keely was the architect for the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, for which the cornerstone was laid July 4, 1848. Now somewhat overshadowed by the gargantuan architecture of the Empire State Plaza, the Cathedral dominated its surroundings for more than a hundred years. In many panoramic photographs, it is a notable point of reference among a sea of two- and three-story rowhouses.

The Municipal Telegraph and Stock Company.

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The Municipal Telegraph and Stock Company, 1898. Telegraphs and stocks might make some sense together . . . after all, the early stock tickers were essentially telegraph devices. That this company also dealt in grain and provisions seems a bit odd. Just a few years after this, in 1903, the company would be involved in a case before the State Court of Appeals that makes the nature of its business no clearer, and involves the kinds of exchanges that must make judges just want to beat the witnesses:

Q: Where was 47 James Street at that time?
A: You are asking me something I don’t know much about.
Q: Are there two companies?
A: Yes, the Municipal Telegraph and Stock Company is our company.
Q: What is the other?
A: The Municipal Telegraph Company.

And so it goes.

An exuberance of rodents!

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Beaver lunch

Beaver lunch (Photo credit: carljohnson)

Again, Joel Munsell writing in 1876, this time of the creek known as the Rutten kill (as we’d spell kill today), which ran freely through what is now downtown Albany:

“Going back again a hundred years before the times mentioned as having tried men’s souls, we find ourselves in the neighborhood of the Dutch church. The portion of Handelaer street below State was not yet known as Court street, nor the upper portion as Market street [and therefore, none of it was yet Broadway, as it all is today]. Between State and Beaver was what was called the Great bridge, over the Rutten kil. The Rutten kil had its origin in copious springs on the upper side of Lark street, and as if out of the pond that once stood there, I perceive has arisen the spire of an imposing church edifice. Timbers of great length were sometimes ordered by the common council to span this creek in making repairs to the bridge. It was undoubtedly then a formidable stream, which had been populous with beaver and stocked with fish; no merely a sewer, with an exuberance of rodents!”

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Green(e) Street

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It’s a shame that one of Albany’s oldest streets, Green Street, is barely known today. Other than the LaSerre restaurant, it is primarily a street of parking lots. It wasn’t always so. In fact, it was on Green Street, in the home of Gov. John Tayler, that Alexander Hamilton uttered words that gave rise to his fatal duel with Aaron Burr.

Joel Munsell gave Green Street a thorough going-over in 1876:

John Tayler

John Tayler (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“As I am now speaking of matters pertaining to the present century, I may, with propriety, mention that Gov. John Tayler lived on the corner of Green street, and that after his death his house was removed and a portion of the lot taken to widen that street, about 1832. Gov. Tayler died in 1829, aged nearly 87. He had filled a large space in the political history of the state, and was the first president of the State Bank, where his portrait may now be seen.

“Green street was early spoken of as the Vodden markt, that is, the Rag market, and later as Cheapside. It was finally named Greene street, in compliment to Gen. Greene of the revolution, and raising a point in orthography it should on that account be written with a final ‘e’. Some of you will remember when it was a narrow street, merely enough to allow the passage of a single vehicle; and the city then being thronged with stage coaches — for at that period travelers were taken to every point of the compass by stage, and there being then three famous taverns, before they came to be called hotels, and Bement’s recess there also — it was often so blocked that passage could be made but one way, and that was usually to the south.

“There was the old Stone tavern, kept by James Colvin, and on the corner of Beaver was Dunn’s coffee house, while on the upper corner of Green and Beaver was the City tavern, kept by Peter Germond, and previously by Hugh Denniston, known in colonial times as the King’s Arms. The ancient sign of this house bore the effigy of King George, and one of the early outbursts of patriotism in the revolution spent its fury in wresting that obnoxious emblem of royalty from its hangings, and it was burnt in State street.

“The mansion of Gov. Tayler, on the lower corner of State and Greene streets, is still dimly remembered, a broad two story house with a hipped roof, the front door divided in the centre into an upper and a lower door, like most of the old doors, the stoop provided with a bench on each side of the door, where he often sat in pensive contemplation after the manner of early times.

“On the opposite corner of Green street, is still standing the store of the renowned William James, the merchant prince of the time, but less imposing in appearance now than when surrounded by one and a half story gable enders, and when five-story edifices were unknown. Mr. James died in 1832. His conspicuous position among the merchants of Albany, and his almost unparalleled prosperity in those days of lesser things, can hardly be appreciated by the younger portion of merchants.”

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