Author Archives: carljohnson

Second floor, ladies’ underwear!

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Shout that out on an elevator today, and the kids won’t understand what you’re talking about. Literally. I’ve done it with my kids, and they thought I was insane. So, here’s the deal: We used to build up, instead of sprawling across the earth. The invention of stairs allowed this. Mr. Otis’s invention of the elevator let us build a little higher. This allows stores to have multiple floors. Elevators used to have operators, people who pulled levers, aligned the car with the floor and worked the doors. In department stores, these operators were also responsible for telling you what floor you were on, and what was available on that floor. And so if, for example, you were in Schenectady’s H.S. Barney store in, oh, say, 1935, when the elevator achieved the second floor the operator would open the doors and cry out, “Second floor! Women’s wear, children’s apparel, ladies’ underwear! Beauty parlor on your left! Watch your step! Coming out!” And so on. Nowadays, if you can find an elevator in a department store, it’s usually tucked into the scariest corner of the store, is self-operating, and does not warn people that you’re coming out.

The last elevators with operators that I knew of were in the New York State Capitol, but even they were automated sometime in 2006. As a result, “elevator operator” is no longer on the PSAT career aptitude list.

Norman’s Kill Farm Dairy

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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.

Troy, Before and After (the fire of 1862)

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Troy from photographic room windows

Here is another view of Troy, taken from the photographic room windows (presumably within the main building of the short-lived Troy University, though perhaps in another building) by the Rev. Edwin Emerson, professor of English literature and avid amateur photographer. This is one shot of a stereograph (“lenses 9-1/2 feet apart) that Prof. Emerson of the Amateur Photographic Exchange Club took on Nov. 17, 1861. In the distance you can see the Hudson River and the extension of Starbuck Island, where the Starbuck brothers had their iron works. Few if any of the buildings in this view still stand today, at least not in their original form, for in just a few months fire would sweep this section of Troy.

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Troy, NY after 5-10-1862 fire

While not identified as such by the Library of Congress, this photograph is almost certainly another work of Prof. Emerson. In this his stereographic camera was pointed just to the north of the 1861 photograph; the ruin of the building in the foreground, the original Troy Union Station,  is just at the right edge in the earlier shot. (The railroad tracks, from the days when trains ran through the streets, were along what is now Sixth Avenue.) This was taken shortly after the May 10, 1862 fire that burned most of Troy.

The fire began from a locomotive spark on the covered wooden railroad bridge over the Hudson to Center Island on Saturday, May 10. Driven by a strong wind, more than 500 buildings were destroyed, though it is thought that only eight lives were lost. Pretty much everything between Jacob Street to the north and Congress Street to the south was destroyed. Among the structures lost were the Troy Union Depot, which had been built in 1854, the Sixth-street Presbyterian Church, the Fifth-street Baptist Church, the Scotch Presbyterian Church, the Methodist Free Chapel, the Troy Orphan Asylum, the Children’s Asylum, the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (which had not yet moved up the hill), the Troy Academy, Mrs. Warren’s Female Charity School, the Union House hotel, the Washington Hall hotel, the Fulton House hotel and Troy City Bank, as well as the W. & L.E. Gurley company and the Sheldon & Greene stove works. Among the dead were “Dr. Carey, physician; Ransom Haight, merchant; Mrs. Dunlap and child, aged 20 months; Mrs. Catharine Murray; Mr. O’Donnell, a blind man; a child named Dooley.”

Troy had burned before, in 1820 and 1854, and would suffer a number of smaller fires in later years, but 1862 would be the fire that most changed the city.


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Troy University

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It’s likely no one from Troy would recognize this as a picture of their fair city, but this picture shows a prominent feature of the landscape for more than 100 years. (The building, not the man.)

The University Quarterly (1862) reported that “In the year 1852, an attempt was made to establish at Charlotteville, Schoharie Co., N.Y., an Institution to be called the ‘College for the People.’ The enterprise had progressed to some considerable extent, when it was thought necessary to change the location to a place more accessible and of more general eligibility. The proposition was therefore made to the citizens of Troy to remove the College to that city . . . There were those who believed that the establishment of such an Institution in their midst, ‘bringing half a dozen second or third rate Professors, and three or fourscore verdant, unkempt youths, would result in little substantial good to the city.'”

Despite these doubts, the industrialists of Troy raised $500,000 to endow the university, and laid the cornerstone of a magnificent building in the Autumn of 1856, with the Troy University opening September 9th, 1858 with 60 students. “The Faculty numbered only four, but they were men of thorough scholarship, and amply answered the wants of the infant University.” It departed from the concept of a “cheaply organized” college of the people, but sought to establish a Christian but not sectarian institution. At first it would only embrace “the branches commonly taught in Europe under the name of the Faculty of Philosophy, or Arts; but it will be easy to add the remaining Faculties when the resources of the University will allow it.”

“The location is one of the most eligible that could be found in the Northern States. The immediate site of the University is on a height called Mt. Ida, over-looking the city, and commanding a prospect unrivalled for beauty and extent. On this spot it is proposed to erect three large buildings. The center structure, now completed is two hundred and sixty feet in length, and of the Byzantine style of architecture.”

It is this Byzantine structure we see in the distance in this photograph. The Troy University didn’t last long. It is reported that it was foreclosed upon in 1862, and St. Mary’s Church of Albany bought the property, which became St. Joseph’s Theological Seminary of the State of New York in 1864. The seminary closed sometime in the 1890s, and the University Building drifted through various uses. The Sisters of St. Joseph purchased the property in 1908, and established a chapel, classrooms, and dormitory rooms for novices, teachers and retirees. The University Building was purchased by the adjacent Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in 1958, and originally housed the School of Management, the public relations department and part of the Physics department. Those tenants used only the first two floors; the upper floors were closed off out of fear of structural instability, and the building was torn down in 1969. RPI’s Folsom Library currently sits on the site, so what now seems like a central part of campus was in fact adjacent property half a century ago. (RPI’s brief page on the University Building is here.)

Oh, the guy in the picture? That’s Edwin Emerson of the Amateur Photographic Exchange Club of Troy, and professor of English literature at Troy University. He made this picture (part of a stereograph) with a tannin negative on April 25, 1862, and printed it May 7, 1862. It is preserved at the Library of Congress.

And what a City Hall it was

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Troy City Hall sign.png As I mentioned not too long ago, Troy did once have a magnificent City Hall. It was located at the corner of Third and State, where Barker Park is today, across from St. Paul’s and Pfeil’s Hardware. At the time I had only a drawing, but now have found a magnificent glass negative photograph that purports to be from 1905. Like many glass negatives, it is absolutely full of stunning details. Here is the bell tower, which proudly proclaims it to be City Hall, and dates it to 1875. (It actually didn’t open until October, 1876.)

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In one of the elegant windows, with their striped awnings drawn back, we can see the back of a man in suspenders and a sleeve garter. There was also a lovely iron fountain.

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On the State Street stairs, a dapper gent featuring a straw boater peers out. 

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Just east on State Street, the Hotel Lovelock, which prominently offered Piel Bros. Real German Beer (German by way of Brooklyn, that is), and offered “All The Comfort’s of Home,” proving that our forebears were not free of struggles with the apostrophe. 

Thumbnail image for Troy City Hall ladies in waiting.pngAcross Third Street, our photographer (for the Detroit Publishing Company, whose importance in the preservation of historic views across the country cannot be overstated) captured these ladies, waiting.

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There were also other ladies, waiting, perhaps for their husbands, engaged in a confab while holding up the corner of Edwards Department Store. I always knew Edwards as one of the most prominent stores in Syracuse, which was just fading into nothingness when I lived there in the 1980s. I was unaware they had a Troy location. That corner is now taken up by Pfeil’s Hardware (and before that, Stanley’s). The building itself is now called The Conservatory, and if it was built in 1903 that was pretty fresh work these gents were leaning up against.

Want the whole photo from the Library of Congress, in all its magnificence? After the jump:

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Doric, historic, available!

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Schenectady County Courthouse

I’ve always been vaguely aware of this classic Greek revival building on the lower block of Union Street in Schenectady’s Stockade. For as long as I could remember, it housed offices of the Schenectady City School District, and I guess I never gave any thought to what it had been, if anything, before that. Turns out that it was an early (perhaps first) Schenectady County Courthouse. According to the Historic American Building Survey, it was erected from 1831 to 1833. Offices were on the first floor, the courthouse was on the second floor, and the county jail was in the basement of the rear wing. HABS took note of its two-story portico with pediment and Greek Doric columns (20 flutes, low Attic base with round plinth. And, of course, Doric entablatures. The walls are of brick, Flemish bond on the main portion, American bond on the rear wing. The building was constructed by John W. Teller for $9,964. It was used as a courthouse until about 1915, and then by the school district.

And guess what? It’s for sale. Where else but Schenectady could you find a piece of history like this for under half a million?

Things that aren’t there anymore

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PembertonsThis 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.

Government paperwork

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Niskayuna restaurant license
As I’ve said before, back in the late ’50s my grandfather owned a small restaurant in Aqueduct. Here’s the receipt from his application to the Town of Niskayuna for a restaurant license. Nowadays, everything is printed out on laserprinters and official letterhead seems like a thing of the past, but in the 1950s it was very unusual for any business, especially a government office, to take such a casual approach to its official paperwork. I guess they trusted that no one else could come up with a rubber stamp with the town’s name on it. At the bottom it says “Keep this slip for reference.” And so he did.

C’mon, you know the words!

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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.

The Hudson? A river too far.

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Niagara Hudson water heater

In 1935, Niagara Hudson was only about 6 years old, having consolidated 59 little utilities into an electric and gas behemoth that reached across the state. In this area it still carried the brand of New York Power and Light, as well as the Niagara Hudson name. Just two years later, the company would reorganize again under the name of Central New York Power Corporation, but still keeping the NYP&L moniker as well. Finally, in 1950, all the companies and names were consolidated into Niagara Mohawk Power Corporation. Why did they abandon the Hudson in their name, when the territory still reached all the way to the Massachusetts border? Not a clue, but so it was until 2000 when it was bought up by National Grid, a UK corporation.

In 1935, Niagara Hudson was offering an innovation in domestic convenience: an automatic water heater. But unlike today’s programs to produce on-demand hot water with tankless systems, this program didn’t involve pesky new hardware. No, for just a dollar a month, NiHud techs would come to your home, slather your tank with a mysterious insulating cream, put a lid on it, and tuck a thermocoupler and burner underneath. At least I think that’s what they were doing, but the whole rig sounds questionable at best.

Want more on the history of Niagara Mohawk? Okay, here.