I’ve always admired a rather grand commercial building at 4 Central Avenue in Albany, but never thought to figure out its original purpose. Then I ran across an 1898 ad that showed it in its relatively new glory as the home of Helmes Brothers Furniture Warerooms. The numbers on the eyebrow indicate that it was built in 1872. Today, 140 years later, it looks pretty much the same, although it has lost the “Helmes Bros.” marking at top. At the time it was built, this building was wildly uptown. In later years Central Avenue would become Albany’s big commercial strip, and then of course from the 1950s on it declined as the population and stores moved to suburbia.
In 1826, Richard Starr of Albany Type Foundry issued the largest selection of display types yet seen in the United States (according Kelly’s “American Wood Type: 1828-1900”). Shown here are a few samples that would have been in that early catalog. Starr’s selection included Romans in Open, Double and Meridian Shade, in sizes up to 16 points. Outlined Antique and Italic, and Tooled Antique and Italic were available up to 5-line (display) sizes. A 14 line Roman was the largest in the book.
Richard Starr was one of five brothers who worked in type in various cities in the U.S.; his brother Edwin is said to have been the first person in the country to regularly engage in punch-cutting (the creation of a typeface for reproduction) as an occupation. As early entrants to this craft, their type-making ventures frequently went out of business, and they would move on to another town. In 1824, Richard Starr set up in Albany with Obadiah Van Benthuysen, who was the first printer in the country to use steam engines to drive his machines. The letter announcing the specimen book of the Albany Type Foundry claimed that “one of this concern has been engaged in letter-cutting for more than fifteen years, and that he has cut more than one-half of all the letter now cast by all the American Founders.” They offered nonpareil (six point type) at one dollar and twenty cents a pound, brevier (about eight point) at seventy cents a pound, and other sizes at proportionate rates. Van Benthuysen exited the foundry, and firm carried on as Starr, Little & Co. It was located at 8 Liberty Street. The partners split by 1833, and Starr appears to have moved on to New York City by 1840; Little ran a type foundry for a few years longer. Various men who had worked for them set up type foundries across the state.
The typefaces shown here, while certainly not designed to reflect the capital city, were cut and produced here, and can be seen in any number of publications put out by Van Benthuysen, who in addition to a brisk book and broadsheet-publishing business put out various incarnations of the Albany Argus.
In 2001 a David Peat reproduced the entire catalog of a later Albany operation, the Franklin Letter Foundry of A.W. Kinsley, which I’d love to get my hands on.
I’d love to find out what the talents were.
Many of us who grew up in the Capital District in the 1950s and 1960s remember our class field trips to the Norman’s Kill Dairy, right down on the Normans Kill just on the edge of Albany. (The dairy favored the possessive apostrophe; the creek does not.) The school bus had to stop and we walked across the Whipple truss bridge that crossed the kill; the bus was too heavy. And so, knowing where the farm was, I was surprised to run across this ad in a mid-1930s city directory, with delightful mascot Normie saying something that could have stood a little punctuation, and to see an oddly familiar and yet out-of-place address: 120 S. Swan Street. That’s not on the edge of town, that’s right in the middle of it, just a block or two from where I work. Well, then, it turns out that Norman’s Kill Farm Dairy actually had its processing operations right downtown. Where is 120 South Swan? Today you’d recognize it as the mysterious Empire State Plaza turnaround, a legacy of the South Mall Arterial’s planned connection to a highway under Washington Park, which I wrote about last year at All Over Albany.
Having a dairy in the middle of a highway wasn’t really going to work, so as it did with hundreds of other buildings that were in the way of the South Mall (eventually re-monikered as the Empire State Plaza), the State used its powers of eminent domain to take the dairy’s property. The State tried to get the property on the cheap, claiming the plant was obsolete and demolition was imminent. A court did not agree, and granted the dairy $1.16 million for the property in 1966, which was quite a chunk of change. Whether the dairy ever really replaced the sizeable and apparently very profitable operations it had on Swan Street, I don’t know. If you take a look at eBay, you will find Norman’s Kill Farm Dairy milk bottles from time to time.
The Norman for whom the Normans Kill is named, Albert Andriessen Bradt (“Norman” refers to his place of origin, Norway, rather than a name), is my 10th great grandfather.
This is a view of the corner of North Pearl and Columbia streets, sometime in the late 1800s. I presume it’s the northwest corner, across Columbia from the Kenmore. None of these buildings are there today. The building on the corner, which housed Pemberton’s groceries (“Erected 1710. Established 1818”), is the Lansing-Pemberton house. It was built around 1810 by a man named Lansing, then sold to Pemberton. At one time it was occupied by the Widow Visscher. The information card accompanying it in the Library of Congress, written in 1937, says, “It was especially distinguished as the lodging place for Indians who came to Albany for the purpose of trading their furs, too often for rum and worthless ornaments. Here in this building many stirring scenes transpired when the Indians held their powwows and became uproarious under the influence of strong drink. At such times the widow would use her broomstick freely. It was a potent scepter in her hands and never failed to restore order, for the most stalwart Indian who had ever felt its power looked upon it with awe.”
The building, and likely its neighbors, appears to have been demolished in the 1890s. It was made of yellow brick, one and a half stories. The upper half was originally left unfinished and used for the storage of skins and furs. No two rooms were on the same level. The ceilings were not plastered, “but the beams and sleepers were polished and the jambs of the fireplace faced with porcelain, ornamented with Scripture scenes.”
In the photo are 10 or 11 boys, gathered outside Pemberton’s on a winter’s day.
I’ve posted this before at the other blog, but it’s been a while and it’s a natural for Hoxsie.
The things you run into when you’re cleaning up your hard drive. I’ve been holding on to this for a long, long time, torn between the campy excitement of a piece of 1904 sheet music that features my hometown (even if any town that rhymed with “me” might have worked) and the embarrassment of a slightly racist piece of ephemera from the era of blackface and exaggerated dialect for comic effect. I’m not sure how this song was originally presented by the singer May Irwin, but I think time wouldn’t be kind. But ultimately, it has to be shared.
I played a three-night stand
once upon a time,
In a town called Albany,
I met a sun-burnt maiden and
I gave her a ticket free.
Oh, well, she seen dat show, I met her den,
directly after matinee,
She caught my eye, now other towns
Ain’t one, two, six wid me.
We correspond, I know she’s fond
Of letters dat she gets from me
And when dis season closes
I’m a going back to Albany.
‘Cause dat’s de only town looks good to me,
It’s on de Hudson Riber and de N.Y.C.,
I’d rather live in dat fine old place,
Where I know I can see ma baby’s face
I’ve been in ev’ry town from A to Z,
Studied all de maps like A, B, C,
But dat is de one and only town
I’m gwine back to Albany.
I’m gwine to tell you more, well,
here I am out West,
In a town called Kankakee
Dese E flat burgs and water tanks, well
dey never made a hit wid me.
I never did four-flush, I’m in a rush,
Dat gal is waiting now for me,
She said she’d meet me at de train
Dat gets dere just a-fore three,
I’ll feel just right if I land to-night
In Rochester at half past three,
I’ll catch dat Empire express train
A buzzin’ back to Albany.
May Irwin, by the way, was a genuine star. She was a Canadian born actress who hit the big time on the New York stage, was featured in the first kiss in movie history (1896), and in 1914 she appeared in a film version of the play from which this song was taken, “Mrs. Black is Back.” She owned a grand home in the Thousand Islands, retired in Clayton, and is buried in Valhalla.
Once was the time when buildings like Albany’s National Savings Bank building held more business than all of downtown holds today. (More than any of your suburban office parks, either.) So let’s take a look at all the businesses that were housed in one of Albany’s landmark buildings, 90 State Street, in 1939.
This article originally appeared at All Over Albany. It came to a great conclusion that happened to be wrong; shortly after publication, I learned that in fact the oldest business in Albany is Woodward & Hill; the full story can be found here.
I recently unearthed a 1905 ad for Danker Florist, which is still going strong today. And that led to the question: What might be the oldest business still running in Albany?
There are a few contenders.
For many years, R.B. Wing and Son was recognized as perhaps the oldest business in the city. It started around 1854 as a ship’s chandler when Albany was a booming river port, and then transitioned into construction supplies. Unfortunately, it closed in 1996 after 151 years in business, and is no longer in the running for oldest business in Albany. But it left behind one of the more distinctive buildings on Broadway, decorated with reminders of its nautical past.
The stone fabricator Adam Ross Cut Stone, now on Broadway in Albany, seems like the kind of business that’s been around for centuries. But it’s a relative newcomer, dating back only to 1889.
Hudson Valley Paper Company, the wholesale supplier of all kinds of paper and printers’ supplies, was run by the same family from its founding in 1875 until last March, when it was sold to Lindernmeyr Munroe. But even at 137 years, it’s not the oldest business in the city.
Probably the oldest business in the tri-cities would be W.& L.E. Gurley, or as they are now known, Gurley Precision Instruments. William and Lewis Gurley were both engineering graduates of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute who gained an international reputation for creating precision measuring instruments, and were particularly well known for their surveying equipment. Today they primarily manufacture highly specialized instrumentation that is used in the manufacturing, robotics, and medical fields. The firm was founded in 1845 in Troy and they are still there today, which means that for 167 years they have not been the oldest business in Albany.
It’s not entirely clear exactly when the capital city’s oldest business was founded; its current location lays claim to 1867, but that is clearly entirely too recent. An 1888 biographical note on its founder says that he had established himself some 40 years before, so a guess of 1848 can’t be far off.
The founder was “the well and favorably known merchant tailor, whose neat and popular establishment is located at No. 54 North Pearl Street, who is one of the oldest and foremost exponents of the tailoring art in Albany.” That store was a mere 25 x 80 feet in size, “nicely appointed and well ordered,” and presented “a large and elegant assortment of imported and domestic, woolen and worsted goods, including cassimeres [sic, an old spelling], cloths, checks, plaids, serges, stripe cheviot, and fashionable suitings from which the most fastidious may select a full and fine line of ready-made clothing . . . .” In adjacent shops, 20 to 30 experienced hands were employed in garment-making.
This was the establishment of Benjamin Lodge, merchant tailor, who was in 1888 “a gentleman somewhat past the meridian of life, but active and energetic, was born in Scotland, and has resided in this city upward of half a century. He is a man of strict integrity in his dealings as well as a practical and expert cutter and all around workman, and is well-known and highly regarded throughout the capital and environs.” It’s been many years since any of the clothing on offer was produced in-house, and it has long since relocated across the street at 75 North Pearl Street.
At somewhere around 164 years old, it’s reasonable to believe that B. Lodge & Co.’s famous claim to being Albany’s oldest store makes it Albany’s oldest business as well.
Reasonable, but as noted at the top of the page, wrong. Woodward & Hill deserves that honor, though it’s still completely fair to say that Lodge is Albany’s oldest department store, and even its oldest store of any kind.
In 1888, the city of Albany had about 95,000 people living within its borders (already having dropped to 29th place among cities). So what were the newspaper options for those people? “The Empire State: Its Industries and Wealth” took the time in 1888 to list Albany’s press:
- Albany Argus, daily, Sunday, semi-weekly, and weekly, Argus Company, publishers, Beaver Street, corner Broadway
- Albany Evening Journal, daily, semi-weekly, and weekly, The Journal Company, 61 State Street
- Albany Evening Post, daily, M. and E. Griffin, 7 Hudson Avenue;
- Albany Evening Union, daily, 28 Beaver Street;
- Albany Daily Herald, Jacob Heinmiller, Westerlo Street;
- Albany Law Journal, weekly, Weed, Parsons & Co., 39 and 41 Columbia Street;
- Albany Morning Express, daily and Sunday, Albany Morning Express Co., Green Street, corner Beaver;
- Albany Times, daily and weekly, T.C. Callicott, 401 Broadway;
- Daily Press and Knickerbocker, The Press Co., 18 Beaver Street;
- Criterion, weekly, Burdick & Taylor, 481 Broadway;
- Cultivator and Country Gentleman, weekly, L. Tucker & Son;
- Freie Blaetter, daily. A. Miggael, 44 Beaver Street;
- Medical Annals, monthly, Burdick & Taylor, 481 Broadway;
- Our Work at Home, monthly, Albany City Tract and Missionary Society, 9 North Pearl Street;
- Outing, monthly, Outing Publishing and Printing Co., 59 North Pearl Street;
- Sunday Press, weekly, The Press Co., 18 Beaver Street;
- Catholic Telegraph, weekly, Catholic Telegraph Publishing Co., 51 Hudson Avenue;
- The Poultry Monthly, The Ferris Publishing Co., 481 Broadway;
- The Voice, monthly, E.S. Werner, 59 Lancaster Street;
- Weekly Press and Legislative Journal, weekly, 18 Beaver Street.
Astute readers of 2012, when Albany’s population is just about 98,000 (though the metro area, of course, is vastly larger), will note that the only survivors from that list are the combined Times and Evening Union. I’m not sure what else we would include in a current list of Albany based newspapers and periodicals, beyond the weekly Metroland and Legislative Gazette.
Pictured: The Albany Evening Journal building, adjacent to the D&H headquarters now known as the SUNY Administration Building.