Category Archives: Schenectady

The Library and the Law

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Schenectady Public LibrarySince we recently featured the old Schenectady Public Library, which sat at the corner of Union Street and Seward Place for nearly 66 years, thanks largely to the beneficence of Andrew Carnegie and Union College. A 1930 article in the Schenectady Gazette proclaimed that “Book Thieves Here Are Rare,” and went on to offer that the police were quick to help.

“The library is protected by educational and penal laws. Police justices have always been a great aid to members of the Schenectady library staff in cases of this nature. Book stores have agreed not to purchase volumes without examining them. Perforating stamps giving the name of the library are used. The thief noticing one on the title page usually tears that out. He does not notice, however, that certain pages of each book are also stamped. Pages 50,125 and 175 are favorites in the punching process . . .

The public is honest, however. Librarians are firm believers in that. Out of the half million loans from the city library each year, not more than five books are lost. That ratio is meager compared to the number of dishes broken annually by a housewife.”

Sick burn, library beat writer. The author went on to note that overdue books were, in fact, a problem, and that people could be forgetful. He indicated that western stories and detective mysteries were “preferred by people who are tired and don’t want to think. On the other hand, an unusually large call for the works of Thackeray, Cooper and Dickens is noted.” He also said that the library’s requests for books on useful arts was notably high, and that books on electrical and civil engineering, painting, carpentry, etc, were always in demand.

“Circulation figures at the library have been enormous this year but waiting lists on the new books are not as long . . . During the past week, between 1,000 and 1,500 books have been passed out daily by the assistants on duty. One of the five branch libraries in the city gave out 700 books in one day last week. The branch libraries are located at: Bellevue, Mont Pleasant, Woodlawn, Brandywine avenue at Becker, and, in the Pleasant Valley section, Craig street at Lincoln avenue.

“No person is refused permission to take books, no matter where he or she is from, the librarians stated. If people residing near one of the branches want a book not on hand there, the main library is called and the book delivered.”

Schenectady Public Library

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Schenectady Public LibraryStill in the Electric City, looking at lovely postcard views – here, the classic building that housed the Schenectady Public Library for nearly 66 years. Happily, legendary Schenectady Gazette reporter and chronicler of local history Larry Hart gave us the history of the Schenectady public library in commemorating the 75th anniversary of the system in 1969, which coincided with the opening of the new library that still stands at 99 Clinton Street. The lovely structure in this postcard, however, was the first permanent building housing a library, at Seward Place and Union Street.

Before that, there had been a free circulating library late in the 19th century operated by the YMCA in the old Van Horne Hall (part of the site of the Schenectady Savings and Loan Association Building on State Street just west of Erie Boulevard, which more recently held a First Niagara). There was also a subscription library operated for many years by George Clare in connection with his newsroom at 143 State Street, Hart reported. In 1894 a committee was formed, a public appeal for funds started, and a library association organized and chartered, which marked the start of the Schenectady library system. They leased rooms on the second floor of what was then the Fuller Building, later (and now) known as the Wedgeway Building, where there was a large reading room and closed stacks. The Lancaster School Library’s books were transferred to the new library and made up much of its collection of 2,468 volumes.

It wasn’t long before there was agitation for a more suitable library, with citizens pressing the City Council for a central library in 1900. The building you see above was completed in 1903 at a cost of $55,000, greatly aided, as so many city libraries were, by the Andrew Carnegie Foundation, which donated $50,000, and by Union College, which offered the land on the northeast corner of its pasture. General Electric donated $15,000, and the City Council appropriated $5,000 annually for light, heat and general maintenance. The grand opening and dedication was held the night of Oct. 6, 1903. It remained a city institution until 1948, when the county took over, establishing the Schenectady County Public Library System. Annual circulation grew from about 50,000 volumes in 1903 to 22 times that by 1955, Hart reported. At that point, the library was clearly overcrowded and obsolete, barely fitting 100,000 volumes, and study of a new library building began in 1960. The next library was sited on an urban renewal site near City Hall in 1967, with groundbreaking following and about two years of construction.

When Larry Hart was writing, there had only been four directors in the 75-year history of the library, and one of them only very briefly. Henry G. Glen served from 1903 until 1940, followed by Harold L. Hamill who served from July 1940 through December 1941. Then came Bernice Hodges, director from 1941 through 1953, and E. Leonore White, who served from 1953 on.

After the library vacated this building, it was returned to Union College, and it now serves as a student residence named Webster House.

The Time Capsule in Schenectady’s City Hall

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Schenectady City HallThis is a postcard view of Schenectady’s City Hall, the classic Federalist hall designed by McKim, Mead & White and constructed 1931-1933. MMW won a competition among seven firms, three from Schenectady. Some elements of the design were actually prescribed by the city, which apparently wanted something that would complement the Post Office and would echo the legacy of Albany’s most prominent architectural figure, Philip Hooker: “Harvard brick and Vermont marble are proposed as the building materials for the external walls, and Vermont slate for the roof. The design has been developed in the manner of Philip Hooker, whose work represents such an important part of the early architectural heritage of this locality.” So the Gazette wrote on May 10, 1930, when the cornerstone was laid.

There’s a copper box behind the cornerstone, 10 inches wide, 14 inches long, and 8 inches deep. A committee of city officials and a number of clergymen was charged with deciding what would go in that box, and to judge by this report from the Gazette on April 24, 1930, they decided that everything should.

“The committee wishes to place in the copper box, which will be hermetically sealed, as many interesting souvenirs of the present day as the box will contain. A great many of the documents and articles proposed have connection with the city hall project. The committee has decided to place in the box the following articles, and more, should the space warrant it: Copies of stories which appeared in the “American City” magazine of August, 1929, and the “Architect” of June, 1929, both dealing with the architectural competition for the design of the new city hall; copies of the two daily newspapers of an issue as near the date of May 10 as the sealing of the box will allow; a general description of the movement for the new building and its final realization; photographs of the city hall plot as it appeared before the old buildings were razed; photographs of the old city hall and city hall annex; photographs of all the plans in the architectural competition; photographs of principal buildings of the city, such as Union College structures, schools, library, Elks’ clubhouse, banks, Hotel Van Curler, principal industries and postoffice [sic] building, as well as views of the great western gateway, Erie boulevard, State street, etc.; as many aeroplane views as may be accessible; a copy of The Atlas.

“A detailed map of the city in 1875 on which the buildings are sketched to detail; copy of the official common council manual which describes the city government, its history and present personnel; a copy of the 1930 municipal budget; historic sketches of the American Locomotive, General Electric and Mica Insulator Company plants; a book entitled “Schenectady and Great Western Gateway, Past and Present,” published by the chamber of commerce at the time of the bridge’s opening and which contains articles written by Dr. James H. Stoller, professor emeritus of geology of Union College; DeLancey W. Watkins, then president of the Schenectady County Historical Society; Postmaster Edwin G. Conde; Willis T. Hanson, jr., Dr. Charles Alexander Richmond, former president of Union College; George W. Featherstonhaugh, Frederick L. Bronner, former Mayor [T. Low] Barhydt, John W. Hammond and Myron F. Westover; the 1929 report of the chamber of commerce.

“A booklet published by the chamber of commerce entitled “A General Survey of Schenectady” and containing economic and industrial data; a 1,000-foot photophone reel, a production of the General Electric Company which details the steps in the movement for the new city hall, including such scenes as Mayor Fagal’s signing the ordinance providing for the construction of the new building, the board of estimate and apportionment at the session during which it approved the ordinance, with remarks by all the members; the board of aldermen leaving the old city hall after its last meeting in that building, and the police leaving the building preparatory to occupying their new headquarters, Smith and Clinton streets; and possibly the full contents of the copper box which was enclosed in the cornerstone of the old city hall.

“In choosing the articles to be enclosed in the cornerstone, the committee is being guided by the thought of what will be of the most interest to those who may open the box a century or more hence.”

It hasn’t been quite a century. Generally, time capsules don’t do too well, but there have been exceptions (like one in Boston that survived a century in beautiful condition), and I’d sure love to see that photophone reel.

State Street, just a few years later.

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Schenectady State Street from BridgeLast time, we looked up Schenectady’s State Street from the railroad bridge, probably sometime in the late ’30s or ’40s. This time, nearly the same view, sometime in the 1950s. Jay Jewelers is still on the corner on the left, but its loverly perpendicular sign over the street is gone. Here we can also see The Imperial.

If you look just past the Woolworth’s on the left, you can see a curved arrow sign. It points to a restaurant, the Home Foods Cafeteria, which was downstairs from the street and of whose very existence I doubted. My mother swore it was there, but it took a long time to find any evidence of it.

The trolley tracks down the center of the street are gone, as are the little traffic dividers, and buses predominate. . On the other side of the street, on the corner Hough Hotel building, we can see the sign for the store that most people associate with that building: the Planters Peanuts store. Beyond that, you can see the tall sign for Peggy’s Restaurant, and then Proctor’s Theater. The Richman’s sign is gone here. What are the white flags on the lamppost in dead center?

State Street, Schenectady

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State Street SchenectadyLet’s leave Albany for a while and look at the Electric City. Another view from the Tichnor Collection at Digitalcommonwealth.org, this time of Schenectady’s State Street, looking east from the railroad overpass, with Broadway/North Center Street crossing. This was likely late 1930s or early 1940s (car dating nerds, help us out). Immediately to the left, Jay Jewelry, which later moved west of the overpass. Just the other side of North Center Street was the F.W. Woolworth. The stores beyond that are a little hard to make out, but the taller one on the block was the Wallace Co. department store. If you squint, way up the left side of the street, you can see a sign for the Plaza Theater, which opened in 1931 and was demolished in 1964, a pretty short run for a house that some considered grander than Proctor’s.

On the right side, the corner building was the Hotel Hough, which appears at this time to have housed Rudolph Jewelers on the ground floor. The Hough survived (as a building) until relatively recently, and was demolished to make room for BowTie Cinemas.  The tall tower just beyond it was the home of Clark Witbeck hardware, which sold routine hardware but also was involved in railroad supplies. (Mr. Witbeck’s tomb in Vale Cemetery is an Egyptianate wonder.) Some of the smaller businesses are hard to pick out beyond that, but the Proctor’s theater sign is prominent. Past that, another sign, for Richman Brothers, a men’s and boy’s wear store.

Up the middle of the street, trolley tracks — though it looks like buses are running along them. There are islands in State Street, diverting traffic around the trackisings, in a layout that is surprisingly similar to how it looks today.

In rare good news, the vast majority of the buildings in this picture still stand today, though there have been some changes. The Woolworth’s looks dramatically different, as do the buildings just to the east of it,  and as we said, the Hough is gone, but the rest of this scene doesn’t look so different today. Click on the pic to see it large!

Albany, the booming bustling bee-hive!

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The November 1916 issue of “The Elevator Constructor,” the official organ of the International Union of Elevator Constructors (part of the American Federation of Labor), featured correspondence from Charles Nicholson of Albany’s Local No. 35. Brother Nicholson could barely contain his excitement at all the goings on in Albany and beyond – lots of elevator-driven goings on.

“Our old city is a booming, bustling bee-hive Tearing down and building up, tearing up and relaying is the slogan now in the building line and street repairing, and men, from a street laborer to a mechanic, are at a premium. Why, brother, if you haven’t been in the old town within the last five years you won’t know her. She is getting dressed up as a young bride …

Now for a little chat about the brothers here, and the proper thing to do is to start with our honorable president. Brother J. Scott. You have seen him in the picture of our delegates. It is that long, lanky, good-looking fellow towering over the others. He just loves to sink a plunger and pull it out again. He is installing a plunger dumb waiter in the Mohawk Hotel, in Schenectady, for the Otis Company …

Brother Geo. Reynolds is installing two traction machines in the Gas Company’s new building for the Otis Company …

Brother [A.H.] Anderson has just started a job for the Otis Company in the Ten Eyck Hotel Annex, which will be a fifteen-story building. The installation consists of four electric passenger, two electric dumb waiter and two sidewalk lifts …

Brother Nolf has just installed a push-button machine in the post office in Troy for the Otis Company, and is now installing another in the State National Bank in Albany. He just loves push-button machines …

Brother Muller is finishing the installation of an electric freight elevator in the Mohawk Hotel, in Schenectady. This job was started by Brother Boehme, who has since gone back to the big city. We send our good wishes to Brother Boehme …

Now, listen, all you brothers who know Brother Pete McCool. Pete has taken unto himself a better half. He fell in love with an Albany girl, and that settled Pete. We wish the brother and his wife all happiness and good luck in the years to come.”

In an earlier edition that year, the April issue, Brother Nicholson had told of installations of a traction machine in the General Electric Works in Schenectady, a passenger and a freight elevator for the A.B. See Company in a new eight-story apartment building (location not given), four elevators in the county court building.

By the way, Local No. 35 met at German Hall, 46 Beaver Street, on the second and fourth Tuesday of each month.

 

Plane Boys

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Speaking of Schenectady staples, that faded WGY Coin and Stamp sign was on the side of an old building, now gone, that we best remember as housing Plane Boys. A source of auto parts ad accessories, they also provided automotive service. Anti-freeze, dri-gas, snow tires, and Delco batteries. And sporting goods. Oh, yeah, and bicycles. It was the dream location for certain bicycle-obsessed teenage boys in the 1970s. We never actually bought a bicycle there, and it’s certain that the occasional set of tires, toe clips and handlebar tape we picked up from there wasn’t what kept them in business, but going in there and dreaming of those 10-speeds was always magical. They had a Campagnolo set, for crying out loud . . . they had to be serious.

Plane Boys Grand Opening 2 1963

From the grand opening of the new location in 1963

Plane Boys Grand Opening 1963

From the grand opening of the new location in 1963

 

The company started in 1945. For many years they were at 111 State Street, at the corner of State and Church in a building that still stands but has never returned to continuous prosperity. They expanded to other locations on upper State Street and 900 Central Avenue in Albany. In 1963, they opened a modern location at 123 State Street, where owners Hy, Lou and Joe Plaine “decided the store’s customer needs could better be served with larger facilities . . . The new store is completely air-conditioned and its variety of wares consists of auto accessories, tires, auto seat covers, storage batteries and auto parts including mufflers, spark plugs, floor mats and other parts.”

But most important: “Also sold by the Plane Boys, operating under the corporate title of Plane Realty Co., Inc., are sporting goods and toys, new discount record department, new muffler shop, television and small appliances, houseware and hardware, and toiletries. New feature at the store is a snack bar for the convenience of customers.” They opened the new store Nov. 21, 1963. (A day later, the nation would be shocked by assassination and probably thinking very little of sporting goods.)

We’re not sure when they left this modern location. Eventually the family business would morph into skis and bicycles, and in recent years has been growing again with multiple locations under various names in the Capital District, including Albany’s Broadway Bicycle Co.

Plane Boys 1967

1967 Ad for Plane Boys

Plane Boys 1973

1973 Ad for Plane Boys

Ran-Zee Sign

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Ran-Zee Sign LogoAnother old picture from a stray wander around Schenectady, already 10 years ago. On an old concrete wall underneath the railroad tracks, along the parking lot at Broadway and Liberty, the remnants of some old painted signs were tucked under a tangle of vines, and the only bit that could be made out was the sign-painter’s mark, the logo of Ran-Zee Signs. Unfortunately, we’ve never found much about this company.

An obituary from 2004 says that Michael DeMartino was the owner and operator of Ran-Zee Signs on Albany Street from 1959-1997. A graduate of Nott Terrace High School, he attended Republic School of Sign Painting in New York City, and was employed for several years at ALCO where he used his skill applying gold leaf lettering to the locomotive engines. He was also a free lance artist.

We don’t know where else his mark may be found around Schenectady or the surrounding cities . . . I’m hoping there are still plenty of his little marks to be found. If you want to see this one, though, we’d recommend searching for it in the winter, because this was the state of the vines in 2011:

Street View Broadway and Ferry

WGY Coin & Stamp

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WGY Coin & Stamp Co.We recently ran across this picture we took 10 years ago of a fading sign for parking for the WGY Coin & Stamp Company of Schenectady. This was affixed to the side of the building at the corner of State and South Ferry, now gone. WGY Coin and Stamp was long a fixture at 120 State Street, and later at 142, though as nothing more than the most amateur of schoolboy philatelists, we rarely ventured inside. Unlike the grocery stores that licensed the name, we don’t find an indication of any particular relationship between the numismatic dealer and its namesake radio station. While we have found at least two gentlemen associated with it who have passed on in recent years, we found little on the business or its ownership. In a 1970 edition of the Gazette, it was listed as one of Schenectady’s businesses that had been around for under five years, putting its genesis somewhere after 1965.

WGY Coin Co. Ad

Fishing Is Dangerous!

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Ripley’s “Romance of a Great Factory” from 1919 gives us an unsurprisingly romantic view of the Schenectady General Electric works at that time. In addition to providing us with Charles Steinmetz’s private shorthand method, its appendix section (titled “Fragments”) gave a little recitation of industrial accident facts to show that life at GE was pretty safe, especially in comparison to some occupations.

“A man who fishes for a living is really in a very dangerous occupation, as on the average three men out of 1,000 lose their lives at this work every year. Comparing this with the figures of the General Electric fatalities . . . it is seen that in round umbers that it is 30 times more dangerous to fish for a living than to work in the General Electric shops, surrounded by high pressure steam, high voltage electricity, with tons of steel and cast iron being swung over your head by the electric cranes, and with tens of thousands of tons of freight moved daily on the two railway systems within the works.”

industrial-accidents-1919Using figures from 1913, Ripley showed that pretty much every industry of the time had a significantly higher rate of fatal accidents than the GE Schenectady works did. At a time when the works employed nearly 21,000 people, it suffered only two fatalities in 1916 (a rate of 0.099 per 1000). Only the line of “general” manufacturing even approached GE’s rate, at 0.25 per thousand. Only the overall rate for “all other occupied females” fared better than GE, at 0.075 per thousand.

“Who would ever imagine that men engaged in agricultural pursuits, the farmers, should suffer from a high rate of ‘industrial accident?’” Hoxsie has met a lot of farmers and even today, their fingers often don’t add up to 10, so this is no surprise.

It’s a little hard to make a comparison to the present day, as what is included in these categories may have changed over time. What then fell under draymen and teamsters would almost certainly be truck drivers and freight loaders today, with a whole different set of threats. It’s certainly safer today to be a street railway employee, though the opportunities have also decreased. But for even a rough comparison, the building and construction trade saw 1875 deaths in 1913. In 2014, the private construction industry saw an uptick in fatalities, to a total of 899 (according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics). If you lump together mining and quarrying in 1913, there were 3560 fatalities. A century and a year later, fatal injuries in the private mining, quarrying, and oil and gas extraction industries rose to 183. BLS now lumps farming, fishing and forestry together, with 253 deaths (77 of those in logging) in 2014; in 1913, that number was probably more like 5,447.

Since those are absolute numbers, not rates, it helps to have a little bit of perspective. In 1913, the US population was about 97.23 million. In 2014, it was about 318.9 million – 3.28 times greater.

So for everyone who says, “We didn’t used to have all this safety stuff, and we were fine” – no, you weren’t. You died in droves. Unless, of course, you worked at the Schenectady works.