Today, Albany’s once famous Elm Tree Corner, where Philip Livingston’s elm grew for 142 years, is graced with a bland brick facade. A tablet originally placed on the bank building on the site has survived, recognizing Philip Livingston but not his tree.
For someone whose name was once synonymous with Albany’s crossroads, having built Tweddle Hall there, it’s surprising that we no longer remember John Tweddle. And yet, he is responsible for one of the most recognizable features of the downtown skyline.
George Rogers Howell, in his “Bi-Centennial History of Albany,” gushed:
“There are monuments more enduring than marble, which are seen and known of all men, and whose inscriptions are intuitively realized, not read. Such monuments are reared by men who pass busy, useful and blameless lives — lives whose imprint is upon the communities in which they live, and whose influence shall be recognized long after shaft of granite shall have crumbled away to fade from view, no more to mark the resting-place of a man that has lived and died.
Such a monument was built up unconsciously and unostentatiously by the late John Tweddle, whose death was a public bereavement, and whose memory has grown bright through an interval of nearly a decade since he passed from earth to be seen no more of men.”
John Tweddle was born in Temple Sowerby, England, in 1798. At age nine he was orphaned by the death of his father, and became an apprentice to a wheelwright. At 21, he borrowed 20 pounds (“the only borrowed money he handled during his whole life,” Howell says) and made the seven-week passage to America. He set up a wheelwright shop in West Chester, Pennsylvania. He built some capital and bought a brewery, knowing nothing of the craft, and was successful for a time. With failure in West Chester, he came to Albany, then a national center of brewing. In 1847, he rented the malt-house of John Taylor, brewer of Albany Imperial XX Ales. The business grew and he opened another malt-house in Albany and two in New York. Recognizing the need for capital in the capital, Tweddle helped organize the Merchants’ Bank in 1853, and served as its president for the rest of his life. He was involved in a variety of civic organizations, and was president of the St. George’s Society. He built the famous Tweddle Hall, Albany’s greatest gathering place, and after it burned replaced it with the Tweddle Building.
He was also a prominent member and warden of St. Peter’s Church on State Street, just a block from his famous Tweddle Hall. When John Tweddle died in 1875, his widow and son made substantial bequests to the church to erect a tower and chimes in his honor. The tower was a prominent addition to St. Peter’s Church, and remains one of the most distinctive architectural features of downtown Albany, with its French Gothic character, its three gargoyles, and its chimes. The bells were made by Meneely and Kimberly of West Troy. Each bell is inscribed.
Howell eulogized: “He had lived a good, pure and useful life — a life which had made his fellow-men better for his existence . . . .”
St. Peter’s Episcopal Church on State Street in downtown Albany as photographed on 10 January 2007. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Publisher Joel Munsell in his “Annals of Albany” gives us the story of the building that followed the Websters’ printing concern at the Old Elm Tree Corner, the northwest corner of State and Pearl streets in Albany:
Here the Albany Gazette and the Daily Advertiser were printed most of the time in which they existed; and for about half a century Charley Webster, the White House, the Elm Tree, the Albany Gazette, and Webster’s Spelling Book, formed a very prosperous and renowned family group. In 1823, George Webster, twin brother of Charles R., and a partner in the concern, died; the latter died in 1834. In 1836 the premises were sold to foreclose a mortgage, and purchased by Alonso Crittenton. In 1855 Joseph Clark purchased the entire property, and in 1857 it came into the hands of the late John Tweddle. The old structures were demolished in 1859, and the present elegant structure known as “Tweddle Hall,” erected, the late William Gray doing the brown stone work. A number of persons tried to prevail upon Mr. Tweddle to cut down the old elm, which stood on the corner, but he peremptorily declined.
Tweddle Hall was constructed by John Tweddle, a very prosperous malt merchant supplying Albany’s very important breweries. He also organized and was president of the Merchants Bank for 22 years. The hall was an answer to a tremendous need for a public hall in the capital city, for public lectures, exhibitions, entertainments, and meetings. It opened in 1860, and for 21 years was the center of Albany’s civic life, a fitting use for the city’s most prominent intersection. Tweddle Hall was regularly filled with musical performances, temperance rallies, political meetings and conventions, relief fund events, and the leading speakers of the day, including Charles Dickens.
From the New York Times we have this description of the building:
Tweddle Hall, which stood on the north-west corner of State and North Pearl streets, in the centre of the business portion of the city, was a fine, four-story free-stone building, with a frontage of 88 feet on State-street and 116 on North Pearl-street. The lower stories were devoted to stores and offices, above which was a fine hall, 100 by 75 feet, which had one gallery and was capable of seating 1,000 people. . . The original cost was $100,000, and the property is now assessed at $230,000.
On January 16, 1883, a boy opening up the music store on the ground floor of the hall discovered a fire. The New York Times reported: “The flames spread quickly to the second floor, and, darting up the back stairs, reached the stage of the large hall on the upper floors. The scenery and stage fixtures burned fiercely, and the fire was drawn to all parts of the structure by the draughts caused by the large halls and numerous wooden stair-cases which traverse the building in every direction on the second floor.” The hall was a total loss, and with it were lost its tenants, an art store, a music store, a boot and shoe dealer, a gentlemen’s furnishing store, a druggist, a merchant tailor, a crockery store, the Albany County Bank, two lawyers’ offices, and insurance agent’s, and a commercial agent. Two days after the fire, the north wall fell, crushing the adjoining house, which had previously been the home of Erastus Corning (the mayor, but not that mayor).
Tomorrow: the Tweddle Building, and the life of John Tweddle.
It was removed in 1887 to make way for the Albany County Bank. The corner is now home to a nameless glass office building that houses IBM, M&T Bank and others.
Long-time Albany residents and readers of this page are probably familiar with some of the old newspaper names of Albany: Times, Knickerbocker News, Albany Gazette, Albany Argus. The Post, the Herald, the Evening Journal. But the very first newspaper in Albany? The Post-Boy.
Yes, that was an unusual name even then, and it’s not clear how many editions carried that name. It appears the paper was also known as the Albany Gazette. Isaiah Thomas, in his 1874 History of Printing in America, wrote that “I have applied to several gentlemen in Albany, for particular information relative to this paper; but have not succeeded in procuring it. At this period, very little intelligence respecting it can be obtained. I am, however, told that it was called, The Albany Post-Boy.”
Thomas believed that this paper was begun in November 1771, making Albany the second city in the State of New York into which printing was introduced. “The earliest copy that has been discovered after a search of many years, is No. 8, dated Jan 20, 1772, and there are a few copies of about that date preserved in the collection of the Albany Institute. In one of these the publisher, “from motives of gratitude and duty,” apologized to the public for the omission of one week’s publication, and hoped that the irregularity of the mail from New York, since the first great fall of snow, and the severe cold preceding Christmas, which froze the paper prepared for the press, so as to put a stop to its operation, would sufficiently account for it.”
The Post-Boy, possibly also the Gazette, was published by Alexander and James Robertson, Scots and Loyalists. At least one of them removed to Norwich, Connecticut in 1773, but publication continued until 1776, when the remaining Robertson removed to the relative safety of British-controlled New York.
Thomas also tells us more about the next newspaper, which would be printed by Mr. Webster of the Old Elm Tree Corner:
The next paper here was the New York Gazetteer and Northern Intelligencer, which was first published in May, 1782, by Balentine & Webster. It was printed on a sheet of short demy, with pica and long primer types, at 18s. ($1.62-1/2) a year. Advertisements of subscribers were to be inserted three weeks gratis. Balentine was addicted to intemperance, and Webster separated from him at the end of a year. The former then enlarged the size of his paper, but abandoned it after one year, when Webster returned from New York, and began the publication of the Albany Gazette, which was continued until 1845. The only works printed by Balentine & Webster, that have come to light, are a pamphlet, by the Rev. Thomas Clarke, of Cambridge, Washington county, entitled Plain Reasons, being a dissuasive from the use of Watts’s version of the Psalms, in worship, and an Almanac for 1783. The only work of Balentine’s press, is an Almanac of 1784. Mr. Webster began an Almanac in 1784, for the year following, entitled Webster’s Calendar, or the Albany Almanac, which is still published, and is the oldest almanac extant in the United States.
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As noted yesterday, Noah Webster was a cousin to prominent Albany publisher Charles Webster, who set up shop on the Old Elm Tree Corner at State and Pearl Streets. Although he was a Connecticut native and Yale graduate who taught in Glastonbury, West Hartford, and Hartford, Connecticut, Noah was a frequent visitor to Albany and the surrounding area. Noah Webster was a strong advocate of American independence and nationalism. Brought to New York City by Alexander Hamilton to edit the Federalist Party newspaper, he founded the city’s first daily paper, American Minerva. His development of a speller, a grammar and a reader in the 1780s were aimed at providing an American approach to education. His “Compendious Dictionary of the English Language” came in 1806, followed by a 27-year effort to create “An American Dictionary of the English Language.”
A much-sought-after speaker, Webster visited his cousin in Albany with some frequency, at least annually from 1786 to 1792. Far from taking in only Albany, he also visited Claverack, Hudson, Schenectady, Cohoes falls, Lansingburgh, and Bennington. He lectured along the way, but also listened to others. He also witnessed the strange customs of the Shakers: “Visit the Shakers at the evening worship. Monsters of absurdity! But absurdity exists every where under different shapes.”
In planning to lecture in Albany in 1786, his friend Richard Sill told him “A visit from you would be peculiarly agreeable to me and all your friends with us, but am sorry to confess to you that I do not think any pecuniary motive ought to induce you to visit this place. The Inhabitants are all, or principally the descendants of the first settlers from Amsterdam who have been taught to read and write their native language, and as is the case with all nations, are strongly prejudiced in favour of it. The English tongue has ever been disagreeable and the majority of them now speak it more from necessity than choice.” He did lecture, and also went to hear a sermon at the Dutch church: (May 14, 1786: “Hear the Dutch Parson Westils — understand not a word”).
A competitor in early American orthography, Lyman Cobb, wrote a long criticism of Mr. Webster’s dictionary that was originally published in a series of editions of the Albany Argus in 1827-8. Included in the criticism was the charge that Webster hadn’t written his dictionary himself, but instead engaged a Mr. Aaron Ely to compile it.
After his death in 1843, the rights to the dictionary were purchased by George and Charles Merriam, who developed the Merriam-Webster dictionary series. Those Merriams were the brothers of Homer Merriam, who had a little map- and globe-making business in Troy.
More about Albany’s Old Elm Tree Corner, the northwest corner of State and Pearl streets, where the Livingstons had their family home for decades. The two houses immediately north of the Livingston home belonged to the Webster brothers, Charles and George.
Charles Webster and Solomon Balantine set up a printing office on Middle Lane, connecting State Street to Maiden Lane in 1782, their “printing materials consisting of as many types, as Balantine often said, as a squaw could carry in her bag,” Howell reported in his Bi-Centennial History. After a split in the partnership and a sojourn to New York, Webster returned to Albany in 1784, re-established a newspaper called the Albany Gazette, and printed the first edition of what came to be the well-known Webster’s Almanac, a collection of astronomical information, brief histories and odd stories, none too different from the modern Farmer’s Almanac. His twin brother George joined him in the business for a number of years until his death in 1821.The brothers also owned the first paper mill in northern New York, which was built in 1792 on the west side of the Poestenkill in Troy, from which they supplied their own and other publishers’ needs.
When their Middle Lane office was destroyed by fire in 1793, the Websters erected a building on the Old Elm Tree Corner, where they conducted business of bookselling, binding and printing until Charles’s death in 1832. The almanac continued to be published by Joel Munsell for many years. (The same corner had been home to Albany’s first bookstore, a pre-Revolutionary business run by a Stuart Wilson in a Dutch house.)
Charles was a well-known Federalist, and his Almanac and Gazette were widely read and known. His fame, however, was eclipsed by his second cousin, an occasional visitor to Albany and Lansingburgh (Troy) by the name of Noah Webster, whose development of a speller, grammar and reader in the 1780s made him a leader in the movement to create an American approach to education, and also made him a much sought-after speaker. Some years later, he wrote his “Compendious Dictionary of the English Language”, and 27 years after that, his “An American Dictionary of the English Language” rather finished the debate of which of the Websters would remain the best-known.
The corner of State and Pearl streets in Albany is nearly as old as the city itself, and has long been an important historic intersection. The northwest corner was home to generations of the Livingston family. Robert Livingston was a Lord of the Manor from Scotland who came to Albany and gained wealth in fur trading and gained a patent to Livingston Manor, in modern Columbia and Dutchess Counties. He established his home at this corner in 1675. Son Philip was born here and became the second lord of Livingston Manor, married the daughter of an Albany mayor, and became wealthy in the slave trade. One of Philip’s sons, also Philip, was born here in Albany, graduated from Yale College, and settled into the mercantile life in New York City. He had an active military career and became one of the radicals calling for separation from Great Britain. He was the president of the New York Provincial Congress, and was a signer of the Declaration of Independence. (This is the Philip for whom the local magnet school is named.)
It is said that in 1735 the younger Philip planted the elm tree that grew to give this corner its name. While in later years elm trees would define the grand boulevards of most American cities (and their loss, to Dutch elm disease, would greatly change the character of those streets), this planting must have been unique in Albany, as there was no question which was the Elm Tree Corner, and it continued to be known by that name even after the tree itself was cut down on June 15, 1877. Sadly, it was cut down to allow paving of the street and sidewalks.
For many years there was a tablet commemorating the corner, which read:
“Old Elm Tree Corner. So named from a tree planted here by Philip Livingston about 1735. Removed 1877. Also the site upon which were published Webster’s famous reading, spelling book and almanac, and the first Albany newspaper, the Albany Gazette, 1771.”
More on Webster and the Elm Tree Corner tomorrow.
And, to judge by the ad, roller skates.
I haven’t previously run across the Lovell Manufacturing Company of 673 Broadway, but in 1886 they provided us with the startling (but true!) fact that “One third our lives we spend in bed (Chestnut).” Chestnut?
In addition to roll-up spring beds whose springs talked for themselves, Lovell also provided clothes wringers, clocks, rugs, bibles, albums, table scarfs, casters, &c., & c.