Category Archives: Albany

Whatever happened to Sunken Garden?

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Sunken Garden plan.pngBack in 1914, Arnold Brunner’s “Studies for Albany” presented an ambitious plan for a park that would be called “Sunken Garden.” Brunner wrote that the three blocks between Lancaster and Chestnut streets, from Main Avenue to Ontario, had been acquired by the city of Albany; “The rectangular form of this piece of land seems to dictate a formal treatment.” And you couldn’t get more formal than the “Study for Pavilion at end of Sunken Garden” proposed by Brunner, shown here.

The “Municipal Journal and Engineer” revealed that this “sunken garden” was made possible through the construction of a major municipal sewer, the longest concrete sewer ever constructed in Albany at the time, over 3,000 feet long. The sewer eliminated an open creek that passed through the land, which had “for years carried away practically all of the sewage of the Pine Hills district.” The article also noted that “The lowest portions of the tract probably will be converted into a dumping grounds and later trees set out under the direction of the superintended of parks. This will give the trees an opportunity to grow and the city an opportunity to fill in all ravines.”

Sunken Garden plan 2.pngBrunner at once presented a grand vision, and acknowledged it was unlikely to come to fruition:  “The design is perhaps unnecessarily ambitious and ornate . . . but the scheme may be much simplified and the main characteristics still be retained. As the cost of maintenance of flowers, paths and streets in a city is considerable, some of the details and sub-divisions may be omitted and an expression of a Sunken Garden secured by the sloping sides and lawns at a level lower than the streets.”

Sunken Garden (or Gardens) was referred to in numerous documents in the early part of the 20th century. So where did it go?

Well, it’s there. Kinda. Google Maps refers to part of it as “St. Mary’s Park,” reflecting its previous ownership by the Albany Catholic Diocese. It appears from satellite as a series of soccer, football, and baseball fields, with a few tennis courts thrown in, behind Albany High School.

Mayor Swinburne

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John Swinburne.jpgJohn Swinburne, for whom Albany’s Swinburne Park and New York Harbor’s Swinburne Island are named,  led a life of medical accomplishment — a founder of Albany Hospital as well as of his own private dispensary, a professor at Albany Medical College, a noted expert in what would become forensics, chief medical officer of the Port of New York, and savior of countless limbs of American and French soldiers. He was greatly esteemed here in Albany — so greatly that they implored him to run for mayor of their ancient city in 1882. As his usually breathless biographer put it:

“…the people of the city of Albany, groaning under the oppressive taxation and the misrule of a corrupt and heartless ring, saw in the great surgeon the patriotic and fearless citizen, who had in every instance proved his devotion to the masses in his aims for good government in professional and political administration, — the man to lead the hosts against the heartless and intrenched enemy. In 1882 they tendered him, as the only man able to lead them to victory, the nomination for mayor of the city of Albany. He had no taste for politics; but, on the persistent pleading of the people that he would be their leader out of the dark land of political corruption in which they were held, he accepted for their sake, in the interest of good government, and entered into the contest with a zeal that won for him the title of ‘The Fighting Doctor’ . . .”

And it does go on. He ran on the Republican line (there once were Republicans in Albany). The election was hotly contested and apparently there was some (or a lot) of fraud involved. Michael Nolan, the Irishman who had presided over City Hall since 1878 (including, quite literally, its burning), claimed another victory, but few believed it. The New York Times wrote:

“There is a great deal of excitement here over the result, or the pretended result, of the municipal election held yesterday, and the end is not yet. The Albany ring papers this morning proclaimed the re-election of Mayor Nolan by a small majority, thinking, doubtless, that such an announcement of the result of the vote would be acquiesced in, as it has been before, when Nolan was ‘counted in’ instead of being elected. But the people of Albany do not propose to submit to the fraud so quietly this time. The better citizens of both parties have come to the conclusion that it is about time to test the question of whether or not it is possible to have a fair election in Albany.”

Swinburne’s camp charged Nolan with fraudulent and criminal practices, including illegal voting, bribery, ballot-box stuffing, obstructing lawful voters, false canvassing, and falsely certifying results. The legal battle would take 14 months before Dr. Swinburne was declared elected in June 1883. He lost the next election in 1884 to fraud as well, but perhaps the fight had gone out of him, or perhaps he was satisfied with going to Congress, as he did later that year. There, too, he faced an opposition willing to do anything to keep him from office, and he was defeated in 1886, again in a contest widely believed to be fraudulent. By then, Swinburne had had enough of politics, and declined to run again when his opponent died after only six months in office.

Dr. Swinburne returned to Albany and private practice. He died from stomach cancer shortly before he would have turned 69. The New York Times, describing the condition of his body, said, without apparent irony, “The skull was remarkably thick.”

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Swinburne: champion of the limbs

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His biographer (perhaps Joseph McKelvey — the book is unclear) barely sketched the early life of Dr. John Swinburne, once Albany’s foremost surgeon. Fatherless and supporting his family at 12, Swinburne nevertheless managed to get an education from local public schools in Lewis County, and then managed to attend the Fairfield Academy, one of the earliest medical schools in the country, in the somewhat remote community of Fairfield in Herkimer County.

“Like the other eminent names which grace our history, starting to work out their destinies from the tailor and shoemaker’s shop, from the tanyard and wood-chopping, and ending with the presidency and vice-presidency, this man, from sleeping on the floor and living on seventy-five cents a week while a student, who has attained the highest pinnacle in his profession, is an eminently typical American.”

His biographer, who while Swinburne was still alive put out “A Typical American, or, Incidents in the Life of Dr. John Swinburne of Albany, the Eminent Patriot, Surgeon, and Philanthropist,” was more than a little impressed with his subject:

“Brave as a Wellington, yet tender as a woman; eminent as a surgeon and physician, yet plain as a man; polished and learned as a gentleman, yet humble as a peasant;  a hater of fraud, chicanery, and dishonesty, yet jealous of no man; constantly moving about among the people, looking only to their interests, sacrificing time and money to make the condition of the masses better; supplying with a liberal hand the wants of the poor, caring for their sick and unfortunate; fighting error and corruption wherever he finds them, either in his profession or in government; and sacrificing all personal comfort for the good of others, — is the man to whom we would lead public thought, knowing that the American people love the brave and humane, and only require to be reminded, to awaken to the according of deserved honors.”

Much of his work, on Civil War or Parisian battlefields, or among the poor who came to his Albany dispensary, was focused on proving that amputation was often unnecessary, that there could be other treatment for wounded limbs. He was running somewhat against the tide on this question. Swinburne wrote:

“On my return to this city in 1871, after an absence of seven years, I was warmly welcomed by the profession; and sought to show the great advance that could be made in surgery by the use of conservative modes. . . in other words, having long known that it was but rarely needful to cut off an injured limb, that the maimed member could almost always be saved; and feeling that to despoil, deform, or to perpetuate deformity in any patient, however poor, of a limb which could by reasonable means be saved, was wrong, and not in accord with the object of our profession, — I undertook to prove, on a scale large enough to obtain conclusive results, that this harm could be avoided. I can only say my efforts have been misunderstood . . . My work has not been done in the dark, and I leave it to the verdict that time may bestow.”

I think time came down on the side of keeping the limbs.

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Who put the Swinburne in Swinburne Park?

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John Swinburne.jpgWhish’s 1917 “Albany Guide Book” notes that Swinburne Park “commemorates Albany’s greatest surgeon.” A century later, the name Swinburne is all but forgotten, but he lived a most memorable life. An 1888 biography was titled “A Typical American,” while making it clear that he was anything but — it calls him an eminent patriot, surgeon and philanthropist, “The Fighting Doctor,” and “one of Nature’s noblemen.”

John Swinburne was born in Lewis County in 1820; his father died when he was but 12. Despite having to work to support his mother and sisters, Swinburne was educated in local public schools and attended Albany Medical College, where he was first in his class (1846) and was appointed “demonstrator” in anatomy after graduation. He even started a private anatomy school, but soon entered private practice.  When the Civil War came he was made a commander in the New York National Guard, and as chief medical officer was put in charge of the sick at the Albany recruiting depot. He offered his services to Gen. McClellan as a volunteer battlefield surgeon, and was soon sent to Savage’s Station. When the Army of the Potomac retreated from that post on June 29, 1862, Swinburne was one of the few surgeons who remained behind to care for the sick and wounded, and he was noted for treating Union and Confederate soldiers alike. It was a month before all the wounded were removed to other hospitals, and Swinburne applied to Confederate General Stonewall Jackson for permission to visit the wounded Federal prisoners. Jackson’s pass made it clear that Swinburne was not to be treated as a prisoner of war.

Returning to New York in 1864, he was made health officer of the Port of New York and immediately put to the task of establishing an effective quarantine facility, which he placed on islands, one of which, Swinburne Island, bears his name to this day. (It is now part of the Gateway National Recreation Area.)

He retired from the Port and went to France, just in time for the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War. With the support of the American expatriate community, he created the first ambulance corps in Paris to tend to the wounded, and for his efforts he was decorated as a Chevalier of the Legion of Honor, and with the Red Cross of Geneva.

Swinburne returned to Albany, where he re-established his private practice and, in 1876, became Professor of Fractures and Clinical Surgery at
Albany Medical College, and became one of the first to provide
forensic testimony at trials involving medical evidence. He also found time to be elected Mayor (1880) and then to Congress (1884). While doing that he established the Swinburne Dispensary, which provided free medical services to as many as 10,000 patients a year.

His anonymous biographer wrote: “His quiet benevolence, yet bold aggressiveness in fighting error and corruption in high places, both in professional and official stations, has given his life a charm unequaled in the past, and has won for him the admiration of the masses of the people.” He died here in Albany on March 28, 1889. Like any good Albanian, he is buried at Albany Rural Cemetery.

The Tweddle Hall Dollar Store

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Pages from Wallaces Street and City Guide of Albany 1870_Page_06.png
There can be no doubt that in 1870, a “dollar store” had a different meaning than it does today. The Tweddle Hall Dollar Store of Albany, located in the landmark building long gone from the corner of State and Pearl, was proud of its white metal show cases, its “immence” stock of beautiful and desirable articles, and, perhaps not least, its polite and attentive young ladies.

Albany Iron Railing Works

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Albany Iron Railing Works.png

Some of the grand old homes and buildings around Albany still have lovely ornamental rails and fences, and there’s a good chance many of them were made by Simeon Cunliff, Jr., of No. 20 Quay Street. In this ad from 1858, we have another great example of the rather humble proclamations of advertising of that era: “Respectfully calls the attention of all interested in the purchase of Ornamental Iron Railings, to his New and Elegant Patterns, Having superior facilities he flatters himself that in this branch of business he is surpassed by none.”

Fruit, Eggs, Poultry, Game, &C.

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Johnson & Offenheiser fruit, eggs, poultry.png

Another advertisement from the 1858 Albany City Directory, this one for Johnson & Offenheiser at the bottom of State Street, where they dealt in foreign and domestic fruit, eggs, poultry, game and more. All consignments from the country promptly attended to. All organic and free-range, too, I believe.

Marble Pillar Restaurant

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Marble Pillar Restaurant.png

From 1858, an ad for the Marble Pillar Restaurant, ironically using a typeface meant to resemble wooden logs, not marble.

“This old and popular House has recently undergone thorough repairs; new Furniture has been added, and the modern improvements introduced, so necessary to the comfort of the traveling public. Having had many years experience in catering to the wants of travelers, they flatter themselves that visitors will find the Marble Pillar a pleasant home. It is located at the centre of all business, and near all the Railroad Depots.”

The Museum Building at the corner of Broadway and State preceded the current rounded edifice on that corner, and also presented a distinctive rounded face to what was then one of the most important corners in Albany.

Solomon Southwick

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Ignatius Jones’s “Random Recollections of Albany” included strong and yet confusing praise for a figure I hadn’t heard of before, one Solomon Southwick. Southwick was born into a Newport, Rhode Island publishing family, but circumstances led him to serve on fishing boats before apprenticing to a New York City printer. As a journeyman in 1792 he came to Albany where his brothers-in-law published the Albany Register. He led a very successful life, reared nine children, became clerk of the Assembly and then the Senate, sheriff of Albany County, the state printer, a state Regent, president of the Mechanics’ and Farmers’ Bank, and postmaster. These describe what he did, but Jones describes who he was:

“I can not in courtesy, however, pass over my old friend Southwick, without some other notice than that of a mere casual glance of recognition.

“Southwick was a man of genius, with all the peculiarities that belong to that temperament — its strength and its weakness, its excellencies and its errors: its delusive dreams and visions, its improvidence and its instability. He had great fertility of mind, united with great enthusiasm. This was the source of his eloquence and his power. His writings were rather outpourings than compositions. Yet he imbued them with so much life and animation, that he seldom failed to carry his readers with them. His style, though well adapted to the popular ear, was redundant in epithet, inflated and declamatory, and his language, though often strong and impressive, was yet in the main, loose and inelegant. He read but little, and only from necessity. He referred to books for particular facts, rather than for general information.

“He was by nature, honest, warm-hearted, and generous to a fault, but seemed to have no fixed or settled principles. In ethics, as well as in politics, he travelled from pole to pole. Yet, the kindness of his nature went with him and never forsook him. His heart and his hand were always open, and as he was credulous to excess, and even superstitious, he was, as a matter of course, swindled by every knave, and duped by every impostor, he met with upon the road.

“He was extremely fluent and even eloquent in conversation. But he had little knowledge of the world, and the predominance of interest or of passion, left his judgment too often at fault. He had the finest eye and forehead that ever belonged to mortal man, but every other feature of his face, was either indifferent or defective. His countenance, therefore, was a correct index to the character of his mind — incongruous, mixed, and full of contradictions . . .

“. . . Even in the cloudy days of his latter years, when friends, fame and fortune, had forsaken him, when every objectionable act of his life was spread upon the record, and all his faults and weaknesses blazoned to the public eye; even then he received over Thirty Thousand votes for governor of the State.”

More can be found about Solomon Southwick here.

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Even the dogs were Dutch

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English: An etching of Dutch-style rowhouses i...

English: An etching of Dutch-style rowhouses in Albany, New York, United States (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Continuing with Ignatius Jones’s 1850 recollections of Albany before it had grown into a mid-19th century megalopolis, or at least one of the principal cities of commerce in the expanding nation. When Jones first came to Albany in 1800, it was undergoing a certain amount of tension between the old Dutch families that had founded the town and an influx of Englishmen from New England and New York.

“Albany was indeed dutch, in all its moods and tenses; thoroughly and inveterately dutch. The buildings were dutch — dutch in style, in position, attitude and aspect. The people were dutch, the horses were dutch, and even the dogs were dutch. If any confirmation were wanting, as to the origin and character of the place, it might be found in the old dutch church, which was itself always to be found in the middle of State-street, looking as if it had been wheeled out of line by the giants of old, and there left; or had dropped down from the clouds in a dark night, and had stuck fast where it fell.

“All the old buildings in the city — and they constituted a large majority — were but one story high, with sharp peaked-roofs, surmounted by a rooster, vulgarly called a weathercock. Every house, having any pretensions to dignity, was placed with its gable end to the street, and was ornamented with huge iron numericals, announcing the date of its erection; while from its eaves long wooden gutters, or spouts, projected in front some six or seven feet, so as to discharge the water from the roof, when it rained, directly over the centre of the sidewalks. This was probably contrived for the benefit of those who were compelled to be out in wet weather, as it furnished them with an extra shower-bath free of expense.”

The spouts, apparently, became a bone of contention between the newer English and the older Dutch:

“But the destined hour was drawing near. The Yankees were creeping in. Every day added to their number; and the unhallowed hand of innovation was seen pointing its impertinent finger at the cherished habits and venerated customers of the ancient burghers. These meddling eastern Saxons at length obtained a majority in the city councils; and then came an order, with a handsaw, to ‘cut off those spouts.'” 

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