Bones, Fire and a Weathercock

Last time we wrote about the Albany Bicentennial Tablet commemorating the first church in Albany, and we noted that in addition to the two successive church structures that sat in the middle of State Street at Broadway, there had been a burial ground around (and perhaps within) the church. At the time we said there was “little information on removals,” but it turns out that with some more digging and help from the Friends of Albany History, there is quite a bit of information on removals. We know where the bodies were buried, and then where they were reburied, and then entombed, and then reburied.

The second Dutch Church
The second Dutch Church, at State and Broadway, which was built around the original church. There were graves around it and beneath it.

In 1917, Albany historian (and much more) Cuyler Reynolds wrote:

“The burial ground about that Church in the center of State street and Broadway, the busiest crossroads of the city, must have been extremely limited in area. Bodies were certainly buried there, for in 1907, when excavations were made there for conduits and new surface railway tracks, I watched laborers throwing human bones upon carts and saved a few, which now rest in my library near the church picture.
“Although the successor to this church edifice on Broadway was the First Reformed Protestant Dutch church on the west side of North Pearl street, corner of Orange street, and it would seemingly be the proper place of deposit for the remains of the “first” Dutch church congregation instead of taking them to another church ground, it was not the case.”

Cuyler Reynolds

Because the new church at North Pearl and Orange opened in 1799, and it was 1806 before the old one was razed, “there was no special reason to disturb the bodies.” And when that time came, they were moved to an additional Dutch church, the “Second Dutch Church” or “Middle Dutch Church” on the south side of Beaver Street, midway between South Pearl and Green streets. There were by then other burial grounds — one at Eagle and State, “where various churches had their cemeteries side by side,” as well as the Washington parade grounds, now Washington Park. So the Middle Dutch Church burial ground was likely a mix of removals from the original church as well as some new interments.

The Second Dutch Church, contributed to the Albany Group Archive by Joseph Florio
The Middle Dutch Church was at the top middle of this block, later taken over by the J.B. Lyon printing building

The bones move uptown

Around 1881, a new Dutch Reformed church was built on the northeast corner of Madison Avenue and South Swan Street, and the Beaver Street church remained vacant for some years. When it was to be redeveloped into the public market building and J.B. Lyon printing around 1891, “it became necessary to remove the bodies . . . [and] the Madison Avenue church undertook to care for any of the remains discovered while excavating.”

Reynolds reported “I personally know that a contractor engaged in digging for a foundation for the business block was not overzealous in preserving bits of bones, and his laborers much less so. As a consequence, when a human skull dropped from a cart in the street, I took it with me for preservation, and it may be today in the ‘woodshed’ of the house where I was born, 98 Columbia street, Albany. Had I known that decent disposition was contemplated for the exhumed bits of bones of my own ancestors, I should not have withheld this portion from the rest.”

He further reported that “all the remains dug up and saved from the Beaver street site were placed in a box and deposited beneath the towers of the Madison Avenue Dutch Reformed church, where they were cemented in.”

The Madison Avenue Reformed Church. It was originally constructed without the tower, although a tower was always part of the plan.

Cemented in? That got our attention. That church stood on that corner, now part of the Empire State Plaza at the south end of the Swan Street Building, until 1937, when it burned dramatically. After it burned, the place of the Dutch church was again taken over by a market — this time, in 1941, a Central Market (later to be known as Price Chopper). Now, of course, it wasn’t the same building – but parts of it were. Because while the church was burned there was apparently nothing wrong with its massive foundation, which sat incongruously beneath the modern Central Market structure until it was demolished (or, perhaps, the foundation may have been buried in place) for construction of the Plaza. And part of us wanted this all to be so . . . that the bones were “cemented in” to the foundation of the church, so that they remained there when it was a Central Market, and thus generations would have shopped above an ossuary without even knowing it. It could still be there!

A Lovely New Crypt

Unfortunately for our story, the bones were better tended than that. Thanks to Paula Lemire, historian of the Albany Rural Cemetery, we found that in fact there was quite a fabulous crypt built in the Madison Avenue Reformed Church to hold those remains. They were originally placed in a simple wooden enclosure, but in 1902 a former member and trustee of the church, Robert Livingston Fryer, made a gift to construct a substantial brick tomb, 10 feet by 5-1/2 feet by 4-1/2 feet high. He also had a floor poured and a varnished wooden ceiling installed, along with gaslighting (the good kind). Headstones found in the Beaver street churchyard, ranging from 1721-1789, were installed on the walls of the crypt area, and the tomb was covered with a slab of brown stone, six feet by three feet by six inches thick, that was originally erected to the memory of Captain Peter Winne, who died in 1757. “The most of the inscriptions on the head-stones are in English, a few in Dutch. They bear odd devices, such as a rising sun with its rays, angel faces, fantastic emblems and some with rather fine scroll work . . . On the top of the tomb is one of four massive brown stone urns, which served as chimney caps of the Beaver street church, which was formerly the edifice of the present congregation. On the north wall hangs a flash-light photograph, showing the wooden structure with top removed, before the improvements were made. Stairs mount to the main floor of the tower vestibule, covered with a trap door. The ventilation is such that the air is as cool and pure as that of an October atmosphere.”

There was also a brass (perhaps bronze) tablet, inscribed with an explanation. It read:

“In Memoriam: In the crypt below are deposited the remains of the dead removed from under stone edifice of the Dutch church which stood at intersection of Jonkers and Brewers (formerly Handelaers) streets, now State street and Broadway, whose names are inscribed on opposite wall. Among them Rev. Petrus Van Driessen, died 1738; Minister of this Church 1712-1738; he laid the cornerstone of State Street Church; and Rev. Cornelius Van Schie, died 1744; Minister of this Church 1733-1744. Also the remains of the dead removed from the yard and tower of the Dutch Church burying ground on Beaver street between South Pearl and Green streets in use until 1789, more than a hundred years. The headstones on walls of Crypt were unearthed in 1882 from the yard of Beaver Street Church. The tomb and this tablet erected 1902 by Robert Livingston Fryer, a former member and trustee of this Church.”

There was also a framed “statement” giving the names of 110 persons buried under the Old Dutch Church on State Street.

Fire!

The church burned spectacularly February 16, 1937.

Albany Fire Dept. Ladder #1 at the fire
Albany Fire Dept. Ladder #1 at the fire

Oddly, the Times-Union, in reporting on the fire, claimed that the crypt under the main tower contained the “bodies of 900 Colonial dead, principally Indian converts and Negro slaves,” a contention that seems completely unsupported by the listing of names that had been posted at the church.

Following the fire, the congregation borrowed other places of worship for a time, including Temple Beth Emeth and Emmanuel Baptist Church, while they considered rebuilding. But in April 1938, they decided to merge with the First Reformed Church.

The bones weren’t mentioned again, but again thanks to Ms. Lemire, we learned that the contents of the crypt were turned over to Albany Rural Cemetery, and buried in a corner of Section 49 “near the post of the chain between Albany Rural and Beth Emeth;” the stones were placed in another corner of Section 49.

It was reported that the weathercock brought from Holland and which had adorned each of the three successive church buildings, had gone missing in the fire. However, it was found several days later. The weathercock didn’t immediately go off to the First Church on North Pearl, however. In 1939 the Times-Union reported that the bird, which for some reason they said had picked up the moniker “Archie” after the fire, was on display at the New York World’s Fair. Then it went to the First Church – we’ve never seen an adequate explanation for why it hadn’t gone there in the first place.

After the church gave up on rebuilding at that site, Central Markets (much later to become Price Chopper, and later still to become Market 32) chose it for the site of their 12th store, which they built upon the foundation of the old church. The site remained open on the east side for a small parking lot. The store remained there until the area was taken for construction of the Empire State Plaza.

When we first saw a picture of this Central Market, we were very confused by its massive foundation and gothic-arched rear door, now explained by the previous churchiness. We’re personally disappointed that Central Market shoppers weren’t unknowingly checking out just a few feet above the bones of our earliest settlers, but perhaps it’s for the best.

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