Category Archives: Albany

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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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.”

Inside the Dutch Church

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The Dutch Church.png

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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