The State Museum and the Geological Hall

Invariably, it seems that any discussion of the current New York State Museum engenders moans and wails from those who miss the “old” museum in the State Education Building, now nearly forty years gone, a magical place of dioramas, mastodon bones, and endless varieties of arrowheads. Well, there were earlier generations who may have bemoaned the loss of the “real” museum, which also displayed the mastodon, because the New York State Museum has had a few locations.

The Museum’s own website identifies its first location as the Old State Hall. (The fact that the State’s most noted geologist and paleontologist bore the name Hall gives Google some hiccups, and we really can’t be sure that there weren’t some wags in the day who might have given him the nickname of James “Geological” Hall.)

The “Old” State Hall was authorized by the State Legislature by a bill signed on Feb. 14, 1797 to establish a permanent seat of government for the State. A site was chosen on the corner of State and Lodge streets, and according to Howell’s “Bi-Centennial History of the County of Albany,” ground was broken early in 1797, and the building, designed by William Sanders, completed in the spring of 1799. The Legislature met there until the State Capitol was completed in 1808.

“In this building were the State departments – Secretary of State, Comptroller, State Treasurer, Attorney-General, State Engineer and Surveyor, and Surveyor-General. And here, for a time, was the Executive Chamber. It continued to be occupied by those officers until 1840, when they were moved to the new State Hall, under the recommendation of Governor Seward.”

Howell says the State Museum was organized in 1836 and placed in the Old State Hall. “This museum embraces nearly all the natural productions of the State of New York, in the several departments of botany, zoology, geology, and mineralogy. The OId State Hall was thus made the deposit of the collections in these departments.

“At a later period the State Agricultural Society was authorized by law to occupy a part of the building. The two organizations – the State Museum and the State Agricultural Society – occupied so much space that the building was inadequate to their accommodation; whereupon the legislature made appropriation for a new building, to be erected in the rear of the Old Capitol; and the libraries, antiquities and other collections, especially those of a literary and art nature, were removed to it in 1858.”

Howell wrote as if the original building were still standing in 1886, but the Old State Hall was demolished in 1855 and a new Geological and Agricultural Hall opened in 1856 on the same site; today the site on the southwest corner is occupied by the modest First Niagara Bank building.

In 1865 the Legislature passed resolutions making the State Cabinet of Natural History a museum of scientific and practical geology and comparative zoology; in 1870 it passed a law organizing the State Museum of Natural History.

Phelps’s “Albany Hand-book for 1884” had a thorough description of the Geological Hall:

The wing on Lodge street, in the rear of the building, is three stories high. On the ground floor is a large lecture-room, while in the other stories is the Museum, containing the agricultural implements and products in the stories above. On the lower or basement floor, and on the same level as the lecture-room, at the east end of the main building, are two rooms occupied with the work of cutting and preparing thin sections of fossils of minute structure for the purpose of microscopic study in the Museum . . . The first floor of the main building is occupied by the offices and libraries of the State Museum and of the State Agricultural Society; and, in the rear of the former, a large working-room is furnished with about 300 drawers for the reception of collections in process of preparation and arrangement. The main entrance hall exhibits a collection of dressed blocks of granite, marble, freestone, etc., the products of New York and adjacent States.

The second floor is occupied by the collection illustrating the geology and paleontology of the State. The wall cases, and a single series of table-cases around the room, are occupied by the rock specimens, whether fossiliferous or otherwise, and are arranged in such order that in going from left to right they show the geological superposition of the formations, each right-hand case containing specimens of the rock or formation lying next above the one on the left . . . The entire arrangement is simple, instructive, and easily understood. The collection of fossils (paleontology) occupies the tables, the table cases in the central portion of the floor, and also a large number of drawers beneath the table cases . . .

The third floor is occupied by collections from geological formations above the coal measures, both American and European, and by the mineralogical collection. The fossil series represents the period from the new red sandstone to the Pleistocene. The Pleistocene of North America is represented by the Cohoes mastodon skeleton, and other remains of mastodon and fossil elephants from different points . . . .

The fourth story is occupied by the zoological collection. The western part of the room is devoted especially to the New York fauna, which is represented in its mammals, birds, reptiles, fishes, crustaceans, and shells. The eastern part of the room is occupied by a case containing a large collection of birds, with some mammals, which were presented to the Museum as a special collection by Mr. de Rham, of New York, and is known as the De Rham collection. The ethnological and historical collections occupy some wall cases on the north side of the room, and the central north side by cases of corals, etc. The center of the room contains the two double ranges of table cases, comprising the Gould collection of 6,000 species of shells, of more than 60,000 specimens. Since 1866 the collections in the Museum have more than doubled in every department. At present every available space in the Museum is filled. All the collections are arranged for study and comparison, and the museum is strictly an educational institution.

The Museum’s website reports that space shortages in the Geological Hall, only 26 years old, prompted the Legislature to authorize the Museum to move to the “new” State Hall in 1883, as the previous occupants of State Hall (you know it today as the Court of Appeals at Eagle and Pine streets) moved across the street to the new Capitol. Like many things involving New York State government, moving did not go entirely according to plan; some occupants of the State Hall refused to leave, and in time some moved back from the Capitol, so the move of the Museum was never complete. In 1901 the decision was made to give the building over to the Court of Appeals, and Museum exhibits were spread amongst the Geological Hall, the new Capitol, and the State Normal School. The Museum website reports that “seven separate buildings, including the Old Malt House on Grand Street, were given over entirely to storage. One geologic specimen weighing about 2 tons had to be kept in an abandoned railroad depot in Menands.”

Space for the State Museum was already planned for the new State Education Building, under construction, when the 1911 Capitol fire destroyed the State Library and also destroyed a large part of the Museum’s archaeological and ethnographic collections on display there. The Education Building was completed the following year, giving over its fourth and fifth floors to the Museum. Under one roof for the first time, the exhibit halls opened in October 1915. The Museum didn’t outgrow its space for another decade, but this time it would have to wait, and wait, and wait for the construction of the Cultural Education Center. Completed in 1976, it wasn’t even part of the original plan for the Empire State Plaza.

After the move, the Cohoes Mastodon was stored with the collections, out of the public eye, which was viewed as a serious deficiency by those who loved the “old” museum. The pillar of salt from New York’s abundant underground salt mines, tongued to a faretheewell by generations of schoolchildren, was also put away. It would be another 22 years before the mastodon re-emerged in 1998, his salt lick being re-presented in the museum the year after.

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