Category Archives: Albany

18th Century Starbucks?

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If you Google the “Old Tontine Coffee House,” you’ll no doubt find the legendary location at Wall and Water Streets in New York City where the stock exchange is said to have been organized, and where later Alexander Hamilton and the Federalists hung out. It is believe to have opened in 1793.  But there was another well-known Tontine Coffee House that opened around the same time in (say it with me): Albany.

Coffee houses rose in Europe in the mid-1600s, and followed in the colonies soon after. They became popular gathering places for business men. A 1775 letter in the “New York Journal” decried Manhattan’s lack of a coffee house:

“Coffee houses have been universally deemed the most
convenient places of resort, because, at a small expense of time or
money, persons wanted may be found and spoke with, appointments may
be made, current news heard, and whatever it most concerns us to

Albany’s Tontine Coffee House was a prominent public gathering place on State Street. It probably opened around 1799, when stagecoach operator Ananias Platt came to Albany from Lansingburgh. He ran the coffee house, “where so many public meetings had been held and where were organized some of the city’s largest institutions,” for three years until 1801, when it was given over to a Matthew Gregory of Waterford. In the first decade of the 1800s, there was hardly an important meeting in Albany that didn’t take place at the Tontine. Once the steamboats started plying the Hudson, the Tontine was where you went to book passage to New York. Some years later, in 1816, leading citizens with familiar names like McIntyre, Bleecker, Van Schaick, and others met at the Tontine “to urge the subject of a canal upon the people and the Legislature . . . This seems to have been the first organized effort on the part of citizens to promote this scheme.” It was this effort that led to passage of the act that led to the creation of the Erie Canal. Political meetings abounded at the Tontine, and as much as Alexander Hamilton was associated with its namesake in New York, Aaron Burr was known to frequent the Albany Tontine, where he was nominated for governor. (It was in Albany that the Hamilton-Burr relationship came to a boil.) More than just a coffee house, the Tontine was also a first-class hotel, and one visitor in 1803 called it the only hotel worth naming in Albany. It remained the leading hotel until the Delavan opened in 1845.

So was there any relationship between the two Tontines? Was it the first coffee chain? There’s no evidence of that. Albany and New York were closely linked in those days, and it’s just as likely that someone who had visited New York, perhaps Platt, thought it would be a fine name for just such an establishment in the capital city. The name is fitting for a place where capital was raised and banks were formed. A tontine, according to Wikipedia, is “an investment scheme for raising capital, devised in
the 17th century and relatively widespread in the 18th and 19th. It
combines features of a group annuity and a lottery.
Each subscriber pays an agreed sum into the fund, and thereafter
receives an annuity. As members die, their shares devolve to the other
participants, and so the value of each annuity increases. On the death
of the last member, the scheme is wound up.”

Nursing, napkin rings, and plain underclothing

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Albany Homeopathic Hospital.jpgThe Albany Homeopathic Hospital, which provided not only homeopathic medical treatment but also served as a dispensary for the city’s poor,  established a Training School for Nurses in 1903. Originally established on North Pearl Street in 1875 (roughly across from McGeary’s and Clinton Square), the hospital moved a bit further up Pearl Street in 1907, and housed its nurses in a building directly behind it on Broadway. The buildings are long gone, now the site of the current Leo O’Brien Federal Building.

An applicant to the nursing school was required to provide a certificate of good moral character from her clergyman, and a certificate of sound health and unimpaired faculties from her physician, and freedom from “the necessity of nursing the members of her own family during her course of training.”

Accepted students were subject to a number of very specific requirements, and they had some sewing to do before instruction started. The nursing student was expected to bring with her:
•    Three plain blue gingham dresses, like sample, plainly made.
•    Eight aprons of light-weight sheeting, one inch shorter than dress. Side gore twelve and one-half inches at top, bottom one-half width of goods. Selvage on outside gore. Front gore twenty-four inches at top, bottom width of goods. Front gore twenty-four inches at top, bottom width of goods. Gathers to come within one inch of buttons and button holes so that when finished there will be a two-inch space of belt in back without gathers. Hem on bottom five and one-half inches deep, band two inches wide, fastened with two pearl studs.
•    They must be provided with a watch with a second hand, a work box with sewing material.
•    Two bags for soiled clothing.
•    A good supply of plain underclothing.
•    A napkin ring.
•    Everything to be marked plainly with owner’s name on tape with indelible ink.
•    Comfortable boots or Oxford ties, black in color, with rubber heels.
•    Teeth must be examined and receive necessary attention before candidate enters the Training School.

Nurses home Broadway.pngThe school offered a three year course of training; after a probationary period of receiving only room and board, nurses worked themselves up to the sum of $8.00 per month in 1916 (at a time when the average working man’s salary was between $600-$750 per year). Nurses were not allowed out after 10 p.m. without permission from the Principal, who also designated their hours for study and recreation. Among the rules: “Nurses, upon the coming of an officer or stranger into a ward, shall, if seated, rise at once and give all visitors prompt attention.”

It appears that homeopathic methods were never the sole treatment available at the hospital, and in 1923 the hospital was renamed Memorial Hospital of Albany. In 1957 it moved into more modern quarters on Northern Boulevard. Now under the Northeast Health banner, the School of Nursing still exists; its online application process makes no mention of a required napkin ring.

Nurses at recreation.png

Adam Blake, hotelier

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Kenmore Hotel

Many know the Kenmore hotel building as one of the handsomest structures on North Pearl Street, and local history afficionados probably associate it with Legs Diamond and the Prohibition-era novels of William Kennedy. Most probably don’t know that the legendary Kenmore, for decades one of Albany’s finest hotels, was built and operated by an African-American named Adam Blake, Jr.

Howell’s “Bi-centennial History of Albany” tells us that Blake was born in Albany April 6, 1830. “He was the richest and best-known business man of his race in this county. Mr. Blake received a Grammar School education. He was a born hotel-keeper. He took to it as a fish takes to water.” His father, also Adam Blake, was probably a slave of the patroon, later a restaurant waiter and was noted as one of the first depositors in the Albany Savings Bank, which opened in 1820. He was also called the Beau Brummel of his day, a noted master of ceremonies for Pinkster, an annual celebration by the African-American community of Albany.

Howell says that Blake Jr. started a restaurant on Beaver Street in 1851, then moved to James Street, and then to the corner of State and Pearl, before taking up the hotel business by becoming proprietor of Congress Hall, a noted hotel across from the old capitol, in Academy Park. That was in 1866, just a year after the Civil War had ended, and Blake ran Congress Hall until it was demolished in 1878 to make open space below the new Capitol. Blake took the proceeds and built the Kenmore Hotel, on the southwest corner of North Pearl and Columbia streets, which opened in November 1878. Blake achieved acclaim not only for his race but for the quality of the lodgings, and the Kenmore quickly and for many decades was known as one of the city’s finest. Seneca Ray Stoddard, whose guides to the Adirondacks were influential in the development of American tourism, listed only the Kenmore for those seeking lodging in Albany, and called it “First class in every particular.”
Blake died early, on September 7, 1881, survived by his wife and four children, and his wife continued to manage the Kenmore for some years.

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Steam Soap

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Steam Soap and Candle.pngAs we’ve mentioned before, once steam became a practical means of operating machinery, it was also the byword for everything modern and efficient (as electricity would be some decades later). We’ve written of steam typography, steam crackers, and now a steam soap and candle works.

Clinton Ten Eyck was one of Albany’s venerable Ten Eyck family, who were among the first settlers. His grandfather was a judge and State Senator who was a member of the convention that ratified the United States Constitution in 1787. His father was County Sheriff. Clinton, it seems, caught the mercantile bug and went into the soap and candle business at the corner of Chapel and Canal streets (Canal is now Sheridan Avenue). When this ad ran in 1886, making such products involved rendering animal fat, and his location on the edge of Sheridan Hollow makes sense — close to the downtown trade, but also close to the West Albany railyard, which at that time was still one of the largest stockyards in the country. Nearby were many meat processors (such as the legendary and long-empty Tobin’s First Prize factory), all of which would have made a ready source of raw materials for his modern steam soap manufacture.

No fancy or expensive wrappers to keep adulteration from showing! Adulterating soap with sand and clay was common at the time, to add weight without adding any cleaning value, at very little cost.

Hollywood on the Hudson

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Ironweed Filming

Sure, there’s been a lot of excitement over films being shot in Albany and Schenectady in the past few years, but were any of those film sets deemed worthy of being preserved on a picture postcard? This one was published in 1987, depicting the filming of “Ironweed,” with the following legend on the obverse:

A Break in the Action
The trolley car stands idly by after the strike scene from William Kennedy’s book ‘Ironweed’ has been completed. Three blocks of working trolley line were laid on Lark street for the trolley scenes. Many area items were borrowed for the filming to lend authenticity to the Ironweed era.

When the South Mall was called the South Hole

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Albany South Mall 1967.jpg

The shot I posted earlier this week of the Corning Tower under construction was hugely popular. Thanks to Marcia and her dad for another long-lost view, this one of the Empire State Plaza under construction in 1967.

The winding road in foreground is a little confusing, but I think it’s a detour of Madison Avenue. The “Furniture Transport” truck is at the corner of South Swan Street and, I think, Madison. (The building on the corner strongly resembles the building housing Townsend & Company, though it must have had some good renovations.)  Now many of the buildings along Swan and two streets are gone, made into the parking lot at Robinson Square. You can make out the red brick building that now houses El Mariachi, and further up Swan Street, the Wilborn Temple. The brick pile just this side of Wilborn, now a turnaround for the plaza and a small park, was the Normans Kill Dairy processing plant. I think those are milk trucks parked just in front of it.

On the left side of the Plaza site, you can see steel being laid for the Swan Street Building.  You can also see the wall and decking that would split Swan Street and raise the Plaza above the city’s level, making it inaccessible from the neighborhoods. To the right of that, you can see pilings being prepared for the agency buildings. I can’t determine where this picture could have been taken from; it’s a fairly high vantage point. Foreshortening makes it difficult to relate to the Plaza as it stands today.

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Ye Ancient Fire Laws

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Horse-drawn fire engine.png

According to a history of Albany produced for the bicentennial celebration of its chartering as a city, concern about fire was one of the first things taken up by the new government. On October 26, 1686, the Common Council ordered “That ye fyremasters goe about and visite each respective house in ye city to see if their chimneys and fyrehearths be sufficient, and also that care be taken that ye ladders and fyre hooks be upon there places and in repare.” (Conservative talk show hosts please note how government actually worked in your imagined glory days of our founders.)

In 1731, the first fire department was organized, with fire masters appointed by ward, and the first hand engine was bought the following year. In 1740, the first engine house was ordered built; in 1743, Robert Lansingh, Bernardus Hartsen and Michael Bassett were appointed to take charge of the engine in case of fire, for which they were to be paid annually six schepels of wheat.

A new fire engine from London arrived in 1763, the same year that the Common Council purchased forty-eight leather buckets; each alderman and assistant were the keepers of four buckets each, all of which were numbered. Any persons permitting their chimney to become foul with soot so that it should catch fire were to forfeit the sum of forty shillings; a reward of three pounds was offered for discovering a fire, and every householder was to have two leather buckets (brewers, tavern keepers and bakers were to have three) with the initial letters of the owner’s name marked on each bucket. In case of fire or any alarm it was ordained that all persons were to immediately “illuminate and set three or more Candles in their front windows until Day Light unless the fire or alarm was sooner extinguished or quelled.” At a fire, the fire engines and tools were to be under the care and direction of the mayor and recorder, the first two aldermen and the sheriff; “these officials had the ranking, placing and directing of the people to hand the water buckets at the fire.”

(By the way, the ‘y’ in “Ye” was not a ‘y’ as we understand it, but the letter thorn, which had a sound pretty much the same as ‘th’ — so pronounce it “the,” not “ye.”)

Albany Union Station

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Albany Union Station

Once upon a time (and until 1968), passenger trains rolled up the east side of the river and crossed the Maiden Lane Bridge to Albany’s Union Station. “Union” referred to the joining of two or more rail lines, in this case the New York Central and the Delaware and Hudson. (The elaborate headquarters of the D&H, which today stands as the headquarters of the State University of New York, was never a rail station.) This trackside view from early in the 20th century would now be obscured by the Columbia Street Parking Garage, but fortunately Union Station still stands. It served as office space for a succession of banks, but it is now awaiting its next use, which may be as a business incubator for the College of Nanoscale Science. Since the demise of Albany’s First Night celebrations, there haven’t been many opportunities for the public to see the magnificent interior of the building. Let’s hope that changes.

City Halls

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Albany buildings and halls 1905.png

Nowadays, if you want to put on a special event, a lecture or a dance, your choices are limited to the local hotels or perhaps a school auditorium. Back in 1905, the city of Albany was lousy with public gathering places, as evidenced by this list of buildings and halls. Every fraternal order and trade association had its own meeting place with an assembly room. While not every one on this list was open for public speechifying or lantern slide shows of adventures in the Congo, most of them were. Throughout histories of the city, we find endless references to education and entertainment at places like Jermain Hall, Tweddle Hall (which I simply must write about soon), and Centennial Hall. Odd that out of all these buildings, Public Bath No. 2 would be one of the longest survivors.