Hey, You’re Blocking My View

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Telephone Building

The Hudson River (later New York) Telephone Building, from the Albany Group Archive.

As we mentioned when talking about the plans to build an office building in what is now Albany’s West Capitol Park, there was a little bit of controversy over blocking the view of the Capitol and the State Education Building, which ultimately resulted in the decision to place the Alfred E. Smith State Office Building on the west side of South Swan Street. And it turned up that some of that was lingering anger over the abomination that was the Hudson River Telephone Building – now considered one of the landmarks of the Albany streetscape.

An article from the Schenectady Gazette in 1917 touted a bill that had been introduced to “Bar Buildings Blocking View of the Capitol – State Wants No Structure to Cut off Sight of $30,000,000 Home.”

“The majestic outlines of the state capitol at Albany are to be preserved for the sight of those approaching the capital City, for a bill has been introduced which prohibits the erection of any lofty building within its immediate vicinity.
The state capitol, erected at a cost of over $30,000,000, for years crowned State street hill, a monument to the affairs of state, undisputed in its lofty splendor. From the Hudson river and miles from Albany in every direction it could be seen by those who had either left or who were approaching the Capital City. Then came a change in State street, in the heart of the once most exclusive portion of the city, there was constructed Albany’s first sky scraper: the Hudson River Telephone building. This structure towered twelve stories and cast its shadow over the capitol, which though far more extensive in area, is but six stories high with an unfinished tower.
After the New York Telephone building was completed it was discovered that no longer could the capitol be seen as of yore from a distance with the same distinctness. Like a shaft to industry of the corporation it houses, the telephone building rears heavenward and in some directions almost completely cuts off a view of the capitol.”

Senator Elon R. Brown introduced a bill that would have constituted a “capitol district,” bounded by Eagle, Swan, Washington and State. Within the district no new or altered building could rise more than eighty feet above the grade of the street, excepting steeples, domes, towers or cupolas erected for strictly ornamental purposes. The state, as is customary, would have been exempt from its own law, and could have built a greater tower had it so wished, but at the time it was thought “unlikely the state will build any structure in the future of immense height.”

It was also noted that the state was a major tenant of the telephone building. In fact, in 1919 Governor Al Smith, faced with opposition to putting up a new office building on the block that had just been cleared for exactly that purpose, proposed that the state might forego a new building and simply condemn the telephone building, taking it over entirely for state use. A Times-Union article from Oct. 7, 1919 said that the governor was willing to consider abandoning a new building and giving over the property to the city for a park, if the city would pay $375,000, half of what the state paid for the site.

“He would then favor the state taking over the telephone building by condemnation proceedings, acquiring the two buildings west of it and the property on Hawk street in the rear of the Calvary Baptist church. The governor estimates the price of the telephone building at $1,200,000, the cost of the additional property needed at $150,000, and the cost of the erection to the additions to the building at $600,000. Added to this would be $500,000 inconsequential [sic] damages to the Telephone company from the removal of its wires and trunk lines. The governor believes that if this plan were carried out, it would be cheaper in the end and give the state the immediate use of much needed room in the telephone building.”

Hoxsie sometimes thinks one could fill the rest of the country with the plans that were made for Albany and never completed. Of course, the building takeover never happened; in fact, it would be stunning if the telephone company had had any desire to give up both a brand new, heavily wired building that had only opened in 1915, and all that sweet rent it was making from the state. It would be several years before renewed plans for a state office building came back to the fore.

Say, had you noticed there’s a beautiful building over there?

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New York State Education Building

As we noted (see the previous several entries), a whole bunch of buildings with some very venerable businesses were pushed out of the block of Washington Avenue just west of the Capitol in 1919. In their place was to be a small park and a new state office building. An article in “The American City” in November of that year, by Charles M. Winchester, the president of the Albany Chamber of Commerce, laid out the problems that led to these demolitions:

“Many years ago the available office space in the Capitol was exhausted, and in consequence state departments have been obliged to occupy rented quarters in business buildings and even in former residences on the streets adjacent to the Capitol. As the labor of these departments has increased, they have had to overflow again into whatever space could be found, with the result that there has been loss of efficiency, loss of time to officials and citizens, and a great and ever-mounting expense to the state. These conditions pointed out the great need of a State Office Building, and much discussion over its location naturally ensued among those interested. The Legislature at the session of 1918 finally appropriated $700,000 for the purchase of the block of land west of the Capitol, where the old buildings have been razed.”

But once the site was opened up, citizens of Albany came to a realization:

“Following the removal of the old buildings behind the Capitol, the citizens of Albany and the state at large obtained their first real view of the stately Education Building. It was as if a curtain obscuring a beautiful picture had suddenly been torn aside. Formerly the only view of the Education Building had been from either end, or at most a very limited perspective. But with the removal of the old buildings it literally burst into view, and its hitherto unrecognized beauty caused the sudden awakening of the people to a realization of what they had been missing. It likewise brought a sober second thought that this beauty would in all probability soon be obscured again by a massive State Office Building which would effectually blanket it from the south.”

Soon the Chamber of Commerce, local architects and others were pressing for a park in place of an office building. A Times-Union article from 1919 said, “Strong supporters of the park site plan, instead of a state office building, as is now proposed by the legislature, are representative of all walks of life in Albany. Members of the leading business houses, professional men, including clergymen, doctors and lawyers, as well as the small house owner and rent payer are firm in their endeavor to secure a park that would protect the education building’s beauty and further set off the stateliness of the capitol itself.” The effort was being led by clothier George T. Babbitt, who said, “Only the other day , … one of the minority, as he opponents to the plan are being called, telephoned me and said that Albany as a whole was trying to keep out a $2,000,000 building. I replied that if the state structure were erected on that site, forever shutting off the view of the magnificent Education building, Albany would lose $4,000,000 worth of beauty.” He was not alone – Peter Kiernan (of Rose and Kiernan Insurance), attorney William Fitzsimmons, and Dean Albert C. Larned of the Cathedral of All Saints all shared the view that the land should be kept open. “Not only will this park for which we are fighting prove a suitable setting for the present Capitol and the magnificent Education building,” Kiernan said, “but it will serve as a court around which to erect other state buildings as they are needed. This park would afford Albany as beautiful a site for its official setting as can be seen in any place in America or Europe.” Well, he wasn’t wrong.

Winchester’s article said that the former State Architect Franklin B. Ware had developed a plan by which would have set the Capitol as the center of a group of state buildings. His plan called for a new state office building on the south side of State street, between Hawk and Swan, “to balance and conform in architecture with the stuyle of the Education Building.” It would also have had the area west of the Capitol dedicated as a memorial to those Albany citizens who gave “their service and their lives in the great war,” with a memorial colonnade along the western edge of the park. That plan was said to have considerable support, and Winchester said it was “the decided choice” of the people of Albany. However, he noted there were others who favored the purchase of the new telephone building for state offices. “Nearly all of this building is already occupied by state departments.” The telephone building was apparently controversial, given that “its height obscures the State Building [the capitol] from the south and mars what was once a beautiful landscape setting. ‘Why didn’t Albany people protest in time to prevent this defacement of their State Capitol?’ is the question frequently asked by outsiders.”

Winchester concluded that “the matter has been brought to the attention of Governor Alfred E. Smith as chairman of the Trustees of Public Buildings, and it is hoped that they will see the force of the argument for the retention of the space behind the Capitol as a memorial park and that the new State Office Building will ultimately be erected to the southward to balance and be a fitting counterpart to the beautiful but hitherto unappreciated Education Building.”

That, of course, was not the end of it. While the plan to move the building elsewhere went nowhere, the building itself also didn’t get underway. Two years later, in 1921, there was still the promise/threat of an office building on the site. In April, a newspaper article said that work would begin “on or about May 1.”

“The site of the state office building is bounded by State street, Swan street, Washington avenue and Capitol place, and after the buildings on this site had been razed and the ground cleared an agitation was started to have the plot converted into a public park. This idea received widespread support from local officials and civic organizations, but when the war conditions made the cost of building materials so high the idea of constructing the state office building was temporarily dropped. The park project passed out with the establishment of a commission of representatives of the city of Albany and of the state which was to insure cooperation between the state and the erection of state buildings. Evidently this commission gave its approval to the construction of the office building and rejected the park idea. It is the intention to erect an office building in which will be housed all the state departments now distributed throughout the city. Thousands of dollars are being paid out annually in rentals for this property leased by the state and the office building will make possible a great economy in the present cost of state government.”

Despite an impending appropriation, the building still didn’t happen. The vacated land was fashioned into a park in some way, though we don’t know how developed it was.

In 1926, the question of the park was apparently still not settled. A Times-Union editorial from Feb. 1 says the block bounded by State, South Swan, Chestnut and South Hawk was still favored. The T-U argued that the block to the west of the Capitol (bounded by Washington, South Swan, State and Capitol Place) should be excluded from consideration. “This site is sometimes suggested, but this subject was fully threshed out several years ago and the fact that it would be undesirable for the erection of a state office building was conclusively demonstrated. To locate the office building there would create a group of buildings that would be an architectural monstrosity. A structure on that site would spoil the perspective of both the Capitol and State Education Building. The park that has been created should ever remain an open space in order that the State buildings shall have a proper environment. The location of the new building on the block south of State Street will create a group of buildings located in harmony of sites and the existing park between them will give the necessary perspective to them all.”

But that was the year that Governor Al Smith finally got through a proposal for a new office building, still intended to “resemble in style and architecture the state education building. He also would see the state acquire the block bounded by Park place, Washington avenue, Hawk and Elk streets as a site for a new executive mansion.” There was a shortage of office space in Albany, and rents were going up. This time, the building was for real, although it went in an art deco direction, rather than resembling the State Education building. It was completed in 1928. We don’t know if the idea of a new executive mansion was ever broached again.


Make way for a new office building!

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The buildings that became West Capitol Park

Here’s the full view of much of the block of Washington Avenue that existed just west of the Capitol, running from now-lost Capitol Place to South Swan Street. Last week we covered a lot of the venerable businesses that were being pushed out of the block in the beginning of 1919, but we didn’t get into the reason. All these old buildings and businesses had to go in order to make room for a grand new state office building that was planned at the time.

By this time, all the buildings on the opposite side of Washington Avenue were long gone, replaced by the grand new State Education Building, which had been dedicated in October 1912. When it was determined that the business of the State no longer fit neatly within the confines of the Capitol (and in fact, it never did – other buildings around Albany were always in use for some department or another), plans for a new office building were discussed, and a location immediately adjacent to the Capitol was thought most auspicious.

In 1914, two appraisers appointed by the trustees of public buildings advised “the immediate purchase of the city blocks bounded by Washington avenue, South Swan and State streets and Capitol place.” Earlier that year the Legislature had authorized appraisal of property west of the capitol, and subsequently amended it to include the two blocks north of the Capitol and east of the new education building (now Lafayette Park).

“It is said to be the general plan to create a park west of the capitol and to erect a large office building to conform to the architectural lines of the new education building. The state is now paying out thousands of dollars a year for office rent, a large number of the departments being scattered over the city. The original law is said to also contemplate the erection of an office building in Buffalo and one in New York, the whole appropriation to aggregate something like $4,000,000. State Architect Pilcher is now engaged on the plans for the contemplated building.”

In 1918, the Legislature appropriated $700,000 for the purchase of the block of land west of the Capitol; in 1919, an additional $450,000 to begin construction of the new building was appropriated.

So, not only the buildings we’ve been talking about on Washington had to go, but so did everything between South Swan and Capitol Place, and the buildings that were across Washington along Hawk, stretching to Elk. But things moved with their normal pace in New York, and so it was 1918 before the buildings were ordered vacated, and 1919 before it was real. The following article from April 12, 1919, which we’ve pulled highlights from before, gives a sense of the disorganization as reality set in. Forgive some uncertainty in dates, as the original is not very clear, and also forgive the length discussion of liveries in Albany at the end.

Many Old Business Landmarks Will Be Eradicated

Tenants of Property on Blocks to be Taken for New State Office Building Must Vacate May 1

Several Are Still Undecided

Desirable New Place of Business Hard to Find – Hotel Borthwick, “The Cottage” and Old Harris Livery Stable Among the Famous Old Places Doomed.

It’s a case of “We don’t know where we’re going, but we’re on our way” with some of the present tenants of offices and shops in the old block on Washington avenue and Congress street between Capitol place and South Swan street which is to be demolished to make room for the proposed new state office building. The tenants are packing up their belongings preparatory to moving day, but some of them have not found any place to move to and May 1 is now only about 13 days off. Work on razing the old block will be started May 1 and unless the tenants want their property demolished with the block they will have to hurry up.

The state department of health, for instance, which has used the premise at 90 Washington avenue, on the corner of South Swan street, as a storage place for its motion picture apparatus, slides, exhibits, etc., has not found anywhere to locate. While the department has been tenanting the place, the [?] has been utilized for interesting exhibitions of health work, but it is doubtful if these exhibitions will be continued after the department transfers its storehouse to other quarters.

Store There for 60 Years.

The building at 86-88 Washington avenue has been occupied as a general grocery store for about 60 years, first under the name of Slingerland and Son, and for the last 25 or 30 years under the name of J.B. and D.C. Slingerland. Where the store is going next is a matter that has not been determined by its proprietors.

Edwin Nellegar, upholsterer, who was formerly with the W.M. Whitney company but has been in business on his own account for the last 23 years, during which time he has been in the vicinity of the old block, has not decided where he wil move his business. Mr. Nellegar has occupied his present quarters for several years.

J.H. Miller, proprietor of the Borthwick Hotel, has not made his plans. Mr. Miller has had the hotel for only about 10 years, but the building has been used as a hotel for fully 75 years. Alfred Schimpf, electrician and locksmith, who has had his place of business at 72 Washington avenue for 11 years, will move May 1 to 230 Washington avenue. Giuseppe Icolari, barber, who also occupies a part of the building at 72 Washington avenue, is having a hard time to obtain a suitable place for a barber shop at a reasonable price, he declares. Mr. Icolari bought the business two years ago from H.B. Norris, who had conducted a barber shop there for several years and whose father and grandfather conducted the business there before him. Three generations of the Norris family used the same quarters, the business having been started about 60 years ago by the grandfather of H.B. Norris, who came over from England.

The Capitol City News company, which has been in business at 70 Washington avenue for 20 years, doesn’t know where it’s going. Frank F. Schimpf, plumber, will move May 1 to 120 Washington avenue, making the change after 30 years of business at 68 Washington avenue. Another occupant of the premises is Jeu Sing, a Chinese laundryman, who had the foresight and kindness to display a big sign, “On May 1 will move to 13 North Hawk street,” over his door so that the reporter who was interviewing these merchants would not have to battle with the Chinese language to procure the desired information. From the man next door the reporter gleaned the fact that there has been a Chinese laundry at No. 68 for the last 30 years, but that Jeu Sing was a newcomer.

Good Bye to “The Cottage”

At the corner of Capitol place and Congress street is the old green, wooden building that was once a famous hotel. It is now a saloon and is occupied by M.A. Sheedy, who has owned the property for about 15 years. This queer old buiding, known as “The Cottage,” with its old-fashioned square chimney and its odd-colored windows, was owned by William J. Breslin, who opened it as a hotel in [1888?]. Mr. Breslin conducted a hotel there for 23 years and accumulated considerable wealth. The place was known by all statesmen throughout the state, the hotel being in close proximity to the capitol. Could the now dingy looking back rooms speak they could tell stories of many a political deal pulled offer there.

Another hotel occupies the corner at Washington avenue and Capitol place, this being known as Patterson’s hotel. The proprietor, J.F. Patterson, said he had made plans for the future. He has had the business about five years.

The same old block also contains, on the corner of South Swan and Congress streets, a well known livery stable, now no longer in use. The window panes are smashed and the interior is gray with cobwebs. Since the old days when the big stable was the home of stylish turnouts, the motor car and luxurious limousine have come into being and swept away the once fashionable Dobbin with docked tail and shiny harness and the black carriage glistening with its new coat of paint. The old stable still stands, – a relic of the old days when the honk of Fords and screaming siren on the Twin-six Packards were not heard.

The Old Livery Stable

Charles J. Reynolds, for 30 years associated with the Harris family who conducted the livery stable on the corner, and now assistant director of the Bureau of Weights and Measures, is authority for the history of the old stable, and, incidentally, details about other livery stables in Albany, only two of which exist to-day. The stable on the corner was purchased in 1892 by Captain Frank S. Harris who is now with the 51st Pioneer infantry in the Army of Occupation on the Rhine. The livery business was moved there from Maiden lane, where three generations of the Harris family had done business. The business was established by George Harris and was carried on by George Harris, jr., and later by his son Frank for [25?] years, and their stable on Maiden lane was one of the oldest liveries in the city and one of the largest between Buffalo and New York.

Then the automobile came and Fred Harris, after removing to the corner of Swan and Congress streets, saw clearly that the livery business was doomed, so in 1914 he sold out to George Dunnell, who conducted the business there until 1917. Since that time the old stable has been vacant. Before Captain Frank Harris bought the stable it had been used as a livery by Augustus Brewster, who entered business there before 1892.

Mr. Reynolds said the building has been used as a livery for fully [68?] years. He stated that only two out of 11 liveries in Albany are still doing business, these being the one owned by Charles Gunn on North Lake avenue and that of Henry F. Tammany on North pearl street. The others were: George Russell’s livery on State street, [near?] Willett street; John Ebel on Hudson avenue; A.W. Burch, North Pearl street; T. Wilson & Son, North Pearl street; William Wakefield’s livery on Hudson avenue, near Hawk street, which has since been turned into a garage; Charles Tietz’s on Madison Avenue; Matthew De Freest, Hamilton street, near Union; Phil Shaffer, Central avenue, and John Peterson, Sherman street.

Groceries, Cigars, and Fish

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Bouton & Vine Wholesale Grocers

When we talked about the former Hotel Borthwick the other day, we skipped over talking about another venerable business that occupied the ground floor of the more westward building, past the opening to the courtyard and, in this view, directly behind the horse. That was Bouton and Vine, wholesale grocers, at 76 Washington Ave.

When this picture was taken, which we believe was in the spring of 1919, the business was owned by George Bouton, who lived at 305 Hamilton. It appears that as this block of buildings was about to come to an end, so did George Bouton, who apparently was big in cigars as well. A journal called “Tobacco” featured the passing of both Bouton and the type of grocery business that also dealt in tobacco, in an article on Capital District happenings from January, 1919 that is, unfortunately, written in a folksy imagined conversation between two fictional characters named Stubb and Ash.

“This name ‘Barnet’ makes me think of George Bouton,” interposed Jim Stuff, recalling the recent death of the senior partner of the old Albany grocery firm of Bouton & Vine. “Because George Bouton was somewhat interested in cigars and tobacco products himself. He jobbed quite a lot of tobacco supplies at one time. His place, on Washington avenue, just above the Capitol, was a shrine for the country trade. They bought a lot of stuff of George because they had every confidence in his old-fashioned Yankee integrity.”

“Few of the old-time wholesale grocer-cigar houses remain,” affirmed Sam Ash, thinking of the various Capitol District composite jobbers who once occupied and shared the territory with the original cigar and tobacco wholesalers. “Why, outside of Jonathan Levy in Schenectady, I guess the local concerns have all dropped out of the tobacco game, ain’t they?”

Oy. Anyway, the business began as a partnership of Percival N. Bouton and S. Vine. George was listed as a clerk there in 1871. Chester Bouton, who lived with George and Percival, was in the flour business down at 317 Broadway with DeWitt Phillips. Percival , born 1844, died after George, in 1920, at which time his obituary said he had been connected with Bouton and Vine, “wholesale grocers at 49 Hudson ave., for 56 years,” which would mean it began in 1864. It would appear that was where they moved after vacating 76 Washington. Percival’s home at the time of his death was 54 Chestnut Street.

George was born about 1846 in Rensselaerville. In 1871 he was listed as a clerk at 76 Washington Avenue (and living at 159 Hamilton). He was an active board member of the YMCA, and was noted as having given the first dollar toward the “new” building in 1892. He last lived at 305 Hamilton, and died of myocarditis on January 9, 1919, at the age of 73.

After the deaths of brothers George and Percival, Bouton and Vine did continue on for some time at 49 Hudson; the 1923 directory lists the business as “Bouton & Vine (Samuel & Campbell).” A later directory seems to indicate that the business was continued by Samuel I. Campbell, but by 1933 it appears to be gone.

To the immediate right of the Bouton & Vine storefront, at 78 Washington, had been the Hill Bros. fish market, run by Walter Hill. He had been in the fish business for decades, though we’re not sure when he settled in at 78 Washington. Walter was from England; in 1880 he was boarding on Howard Street in the home of a fruit dealer. The brother in “Hill Bros.” appears to have been William. In 1897 they were at 37 Washington Ave, but at least by 1907 they were in this storefront. After this closure, we don’t find either William or Walter.

Horse droppingsJust a reminder of what the streets were like before carriages became horseless.

Stoves and Pork

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Campbell, Boutin & Vine

Continuing our look at a photo from 1919 of a whole bunch of buildings that aren’t there anymore on Washington Avenue, just west of the Capitol, we come to the storefronts of Charles C. Campbell and Christopher Gardner (we covered Edwin Nellegar yesterday).

Charles C. Campbell was a stove dealer for decades, at least as far back as 1880, when he was 30 years old. He, wife Emma and daughter Iza lived on Lark Street then, but at some point appear to have lived in the same building as his store, 82 Washington. By the time business was closing up here, he had moved to 37 Morris, and he took his business up to 311 Central Avenue. The sign in the vacant window says “Removed.”

In 1942, columnist Edgar Van Olinda in the Times-Union related the words of amateur historian John T. Bender, who recalled that Campbell was “a creator with individuality. Stoves were his trade and he used one in front of his place as substitute for the cigar Indian, the barber’s pole and the drugstore’s big, colored bottles. He installed his own lighting system, gas pipes running the length of his store, filled with kerosene which fed wicks connected with lamps fastened to the pipes.”

To the right was the pork store of Christopher Gardner, although by the time this picture was taken Gardner himself was no longer there. It had been run by at least two generations.  In 1861, John H. Gardner & Son (Christopher) were listed in the directory as pork packers at 84 Washington (“also liquors, wines, &c.”). By 1874 Christopher was on his own Gardner’s business was listed as a “meatstall” in 1903; his home was at 188 Lancaster. He died in 1912 of cirrhosis of the liver. After that, the meat market was owned by George R. Underhill, who seems not to have worried about taking down the C. Gardner sign. (Perhaps he was a fan of Winnie the Pooh.) George was about 58 by this time, and with wife Carrie lived at 23 Western Avenue. He moved his market to 50 Central Ave.

Campbell storefront

We’re really curious about the tall thin window at the far wide of Campbell’s building. It wasn’t at all unusual for commercial buildings at the time to have a big window on the second floor for hoisting large items to the upper storey — but this window, if anything, is narrower than the others.

Hanging out at the Pork Store

We want to be this guy, hanging out on the stoop of the pork store.

Electricity, Locksmithing, Barbering and News

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Schimpf and Capitol City News

We return to the details of this block of lost buildings on Washington Avenue, just west of the Capitol. On the east side of the old Hotel Borthwick in 1919 were these two modest storefronts. Closest to the Borthwick, with the key hanging in the doorway, was 72 Washington Ave., which in the years around 1917 was occupied by Alfred Schimpf, who was both an electrician and a locksmith. Schimpf was the son of German immigrants, born about 1864; in 1910, he lived with wife Francis and children Marie and Raymond at 91 Lancaster Street, where had had a servant and lodgers. After he left this storefront, he is listed only as an electrician and doesn’t show another business address; in 1925 he is just listed as having a home at 50 Dove. It was written that Alfred Schimpf had had his place of business there for 11 years (in 1919), and would move to 230 Washington Ave. Frank Schimpf, a plumber, was located just a few doors down at 68 Washington; while they were likely related and very close in age, they don’t appear to have been brothers. The plumber said he had been there for 30 years, and would be moving to 120 Washington.

The same address was also listed in the city directory as the address of Henry B. Norris, barber. But the article from 1919 indicates that while the space had been used by three generations of Norris barbers for about 60 years, the business had been sold to Giuseppe Icolari about 1917, who was “having a hard time to obtain a suitable place for a barber shop at a reasonable price.” Giuseppe was born in 1878, was a naturalized citizen from Italy, and lived at 161 Lark Street. It looks like once he couldn’t find a suitable place, he and wife Giuseppina took their five children to Rutland, Vermont, where he became a fruit vendor. There appear to have been several residents living upstairs as well; the building rose four stories. Where they went is unknown.

Just to the east, the storefront with the oval sign was the home of the Capitol City News Co. It had been there for 30 years, but in the spring of 1919, as these buildings were being vacated, the owner did not know where it would go. It may not have gone anywhere; we don’t find it in the 1921 directory.

Edwin Nellegar, Upholsterer

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Edwin Nellegar

For someone who was in business for decades, Edwin Nellegar didn’t leave a lot of information behind. He was born about 1849, and married wife Alida at age 21. We know he advertised for his upholstery business, irregularly. We know that he took a hunting trip in the Catskills in 1898 (from a time when newspapers took note of such things). We know when Alida died (1924). Beyond that, not a lot. And yet, his storefront is prominent among lost buildings of Albany, in an area that is now West Capitol Park.

This may have been the last storefront occupied by Edwin Nellegar, who appears to have been an upholsterer with the great Albany department store W.M. Whitney, but who went off on his own in a seemingly endless succession of locations. By 1919, when he gave up this location at 80 Washington Avenue, he had been on his own for 23 years, and was probably in the vicinity of 70 years old.

In 1873, he was at 6 Plain Street (a stretch between Grand and South Pearl now long-lost).  In 1880, he was at 47 North Pearl. In 1893, he was at 29 Washington Avenue, where he remained through 1906; then he moved to 248 Washington. We haven’t quite nailed down when he moved to 80 Washington, which is pictured here.

1919 was a time of change for this strip of buildings, as we’ll see. Nellegar was quoted as not knowing where he would move his business, and as we don’t find much more mention of him, it may be that he just retired at that point.

The poster in the window was from 1916, for a film showing at Harmanus Bleecker Hall, the screen production of “Idle Wives,” which was reported to have attracted large audiences. “Idle Wives” was a notable production by Lois Weber, a leading filmmaker in early Hollywood. Two reels of the film still exist.


Hotel Borthwick

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Hotel Borthwick full view

This charming edifice (a combination of two buildings, if you look closely) is the Hotel Borthwick. Known in a previous life as the Avenue House, it was located just a bit west of the Capitol at 74 Washington Ave. We’re not quite sure when it was built, but as early as 1868 Avenue House was listed as a boarding house commonly used by minor officials of the Legislature, and it seems to have been a favorite of farmers from out of town.

In 1897, James M. Borthwick, who served as county clerk, had been the proprietor of the Kimball House, located nearly directly across the street. He decided to move across the street and “refitted what was formerly the Avenue house, nearly opposite, and opened it last night [7-1-1897]. It will be known as the Hotel Borthwick. Mr. Borthwick has spent a large amount of money in the endeavor to provide first rate accommodations at a minimum price. The house has been repainted and refurnished.”

Borthwick was a native of Broome in Schoharie County who started in the grocery business at South Berne, and then moved to Albany where he was in the grocery business as Russell & Borthwick. He served as an alderman and a founding member and director of the Albany County Fish and Game Club. Son Acton followed him as county clerk, and it’s possible that following James’s death in 1909, Acton kept up the grocery business (listed as a traveling salesman for a grocery business in 1910).

1876 Detail showing Avenue House and rest of West Capitol Park areaHotel Borthwick was said to cater to the rural clientele. It had an entryway into a courtyard of sorts, which apparently included some sizeable stables (the courtyard area shows on this 1876 map as property of J.D. Wasson). A 1938 remembrance of the neighborhood by one Nancy Van Dyck recalled “the old Hotel Borthwick with its wide drive and large back yard for the parking of the farmers’ rigs when they came to town.” This seems to have made it a favorite location for horse dealers, who regularly advertised that their horses would be available at the Borthwick, such as in an 1898 ad from W.H. Plank offering 30 head of horses direct from Canada, “consisting of matched pairs, single drivers, coach horses, knee actors, saddlers, family broke horses, draft horses and general purpose horses.”

In 1902, the hotel was offered to let: “Large hotel with ample yard and stable room; steam heat.” We haven’t determined if anyone took up the offer at that time. In 1904, James was still the proprietor, but James died in 1909, and beginning that year John H. Miller is listed as the proprietor, but the Hotel Borthwick name remained.

Hotel Borthwick detail

Is there a phrase for a “ghost sign” whose business is still a going concern? We’re not sure when this picture was taken, though we think it likely to have been 1917-18, so the paint on this sign couldn’t have been more than 20 years old but looked more like it had weathered a century. If you look carefully, you can also see the Hotel Borthwick sign on the front of the edifice, in the shadows of the fire escape.

Hotel Borthwick lower detail

We’re fascinated by the three people. The shaky man to the right is an example of what happened when subjects moved during the long exposures needed for photography at this time, even in bright daylight. Perhaps he has had his head turned by activity in the alley to the courtyard, just visible to the right. The gentleman on the stoop has been good enough to hold perfectly still for us.  To his right, perhaps a woman, moving too quickly to be captured by the camera. The sign above says “Borthwick Hotel” though it appears to have always been titled “Hotel Borthwick.” The signs on either side announce that they were subscribers of the Bell Telephone system. In 1916, most businesses along this strip had telephone service, as did a few private individuals.

The storefront to the left of the Borthwick, the one with the key hanging in the door, appears to have been a barber (Henry B. Norris) and/or an electrician (A. Schimpf). Did one of them do locksmithing on the side? Not clear to us.

We’ll talk more about the fate of the Borthwick and its neighbors.

Photograph from the collection of the Albany Group Archive, which catalogs all the historic photos from the Albany…The Way It Was Facebook group.

The Blue Factory

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One of our favorite road names in the Capital District (and a favorite road for cycling) is Blue Factory Road. It is named not for a factory that was blue, but for a factory that made blue.

Before the age of synthetic colors (in which a Rensselaer factory played a significant role), colorants primarily came from minerals and earths. Prussian blue, which Wikipedia says was the first modern blue pigment that was stable and lightfast, was developed throughout the 18th century. (Here’s a very nice summary of its many uses.) It is easily made, but requires a certain type of iron. It turns out that Rensselaer County had just the right type, and appears to have been the source of all the Prussian blue in the state, from a factory owned by the Davis family for at least three generations.

Samuel Davis appears to have been the first to go into the business of making Prussian blue, but we’ve been unable to find out when. His son Aaron Davis was born about 1820 at the family farm in Cropseyville. While farming appears to have continued, the main business was clearly Prussian blue. In any event, the 1854 Balch map of Rensselaer County shows the “Howe and Davis Blue Factory.” The Rensselaer County Business Directory of 1870 lists Aaron as a manufacturer of Prussian blue and farmer with 100 acres.

Blue Factory

In the non-population schedule for the 1870 census, Aaron is again reported as a maker of Prussian Blue, and his materials include prussate of potash, copperas, allum (?), and potash. He has 6000 units of Prussian Blue, but what those units are is not reported, and it appears to be worth perhaps $5150 (hard to read).

The Troy Daily Times on May 22, 1895, notes the passing of Aaron Davis:

“Aaron Davis, an old and esteemed resident of Cropseyville, died early this morning. The deceased was born in Cropseyville about seventy-five years ago, and had always resided at the old homestead. He was engaged in the manufacture of paint and in farming. A wife and children survive.”

The business was still going strong when Davis died, and in his will he left to son Samuel A. Davis all his real property, all his farm stock, and “also all apparatus used by Aaron Davis & Son in the manufacture of Prusian [sic] Blue.”

Samuel Davis continued the business, along with his son. A 1904 report of the New York State Department of Labor notes, in a section on manufacture of paint, that “one factory in Rensselaer county turned out annually $4,500 worth of Prussian blue,” but doesn’t specify the year. Another report says that the Prussian blue manufactory (which they identify as in Grafton) had $2000 worth of capital, $1000 worth of raw materials and $5000 worth of products. A 1914 story in the Troy Daily Times says that Samuel represented Brunswick on the County Board of Supervisors:

“Mr. Davis has associated with him his son and they manufacture blueing of the variety known as Prussian blue. There is no other establishment of the kind in this section and but few in the country and it may therefore be regarded as one of the many industries peculiar to Rensselaer County. The product of the plant is shipped to New York, where it is handled by a commission house. The blueing is used in the production of patent leather, to which it gives a very high polish. The output of the Davis plant is considered second to none in the market and the blueing is in great demand. A noteworthy feature of the business lies in the fact that it was established more than 100 years ago, but how much longer than a century Supervisor Davis said yesterday he did not know. It was more than 100 years ago that his grandfather came to Grafton from Boston and obtained employment in the establishment with a man named Hoyt. Subsequently it was operated by a Mr. Fielding, then by Mr. Davis’ grandfather, after that by his father and then the business came to him. Accordingly it is a business with a history and one of the oldest manufacturing plants in this section.”

When the blue factory went out of business, we don’t know. But the road named for it remains.