Albany Bicentennial Tablet No. 16 – Old Elm Tree Corner

Hoxsie had to take an extended break for a whole bunch of reasons. Now we’re continuing our series on the tablets placed in honor of the bicentennial of Albany’s charter as a city in 1886. One of those was placed at perhaps Albany’s second most prominent intersection, State and Pearl, to mark the historic Elm Tree Corner. In 1954, a new marker was put up, but the original 1886 marker was still in place at least until 1969. Now they are both gone. Below we’ll try to track the markers and give some of the history of the Elm Tree Corner.

The original marker was described by the Bicentennial Committee as follows:

Tablet No. 16 – Old Elm Tree Corner
Located on north-west corner of State and North Pearl streets—Bronze tablet, 11×23 inches, in a granite block, similar to No. 7, placed near curb. Inscription :
“ Old Elm Tree corner—so named from a Tree Planted here by Philip Livingston about 1735—Removed 1877, Also the site upon which were Published Webster’s famous Reading and Spelling Book and Almanac and the first Albany Newspaper, The Albany Gazette, 1771.”

The Elm Tree Corner

There isn’t a landmark in Albany that was more important in its first centuries and more neglected in its later centuries than the Elm Tree Corner. The historic intersection of State and Pearl streets in Albany is nearly as old as the city itself. The northwest corner was home to generations of the Livingston family. Robert Livingston was a Lord of the Manor from Scotland who came to Albany, gained wealth in fur trading and a patent to Livingston Manor, in modern Columbia and Dutchess Counties – a genuine feudal land baron. He established his home at this corner in 1675.

His son Philip was born here and became the second lord of Livingston Manor, married the daughter of an Albany mayor, and became wealthy in the slave trade. One of Philip’s sons, also Philip, was born here in Albany, graduated from Yale College, and settled into the mercantile life in New York City. He had an active military career and became one of the radicals calling for separation from Great Britain. He was the president of the New York Provincial Congress, and was a signer of the Declaration of Independence. (This is the Philip for whom the local magnet school is named.) We talked about him in much more detail when we wrote about Tablet No. 12, which was inserted in the wall of Tweddle Hall, originally.

Painting of State and Pearl by James Eights
This painting of State and Pearl in the early 1800s, by James Eights, shows the unusual location of the then newish elm tree in the course of the street, and the Livingston house to the left. Courtesy of the Albany Group Archive.

It is said that in 1735 the younger Philip planted the elm tree that grew to give this corner its name. While in later years elm trees would define the grand boulevards of most American cities (and their loss, to an earlier blight as well as to Dutch elm disease, would greatly change the character of those streets), this planting then must have been unique in Albany, as there was no question which was the Elm Tree Corner, and it continued to be known by that name even after the tree itself was cut down on June 15, 1877, nearly a decade before the bicentennial marker was set in place.

In 1914 the Albany Argus noted that this tablet’s inscription had become somewhat worn by being walked on. Originally set in granite blocks 16 inches above the sidewalk, with the improvements to Pearl Street it had been lowered to walk level. The marker was still in the sidewalk as late as 1969, but now its fate is unknown.

Buildings on The Elm Tree Corner

According to a historical sketch in The Argus in 1903 (by “Jed”), the corner lot and the next lot west up State street were originally granted to Jan Thomase in 1661. The corner lot next passed to Helmer Otter in 1675, and then to Rev. Nicholas Van Rensselaer, whose widow Alida Schuyler, married Robert Livingston in 1679; Livingston’s official ownership appears to begin in 1708. The lot passed to Philip Livingston (“the signer”) in 1726.

The next lot north passed from Jan Thomase to Reyer Jacobse Schermerhorn, and then to Jan Withardt in 1675; by 1792 it was in the hands of Livingstons.

It’s not entirely clear when the Livingston house, as it was known, was built; it probably passed to Robert Livingston through his wife Alida Schuyler Van Rensselaer, a widowed businesswoman who would have gained it through the death of husband Rev. Nicholas Van Rensselaer. Robert Livingston owned two houses in Albany by 1700, according to Cynthia Kierner (“Traders and Gentlefolk: The Livingstons of New York, 1675-1790”). According to Stefan Bielinski at the New York State Museum, the house was expanded many times. It was used as a headquarters by the British Army in 1756.

According to the Albany Morning Express, the corner was later the home of a tavern known as the Blue Bell, which likely comprised some of all of the Livingston home.

It was reported that the first Albany newspaper, The Gazette, published by Alexander and James Robertson beginning in November 1771, had its offices at the Elm Tree Corner. It ran through 1776, and the name, at least, as well as the location, was later revived by the Websters.

The Old Elm Tree looking rather grand in front of Tweddle Hall about 1845
An elm tree worthy of naming a corner after – the Old Elm Tree looking rather grand in front of Webster’s Corner about 1845. Courtesy of Albany Group Archive.

After that, a new building (or buildings) was built there around 1793 by printers/publishers Charles R. and George Webster, printers and publishers of the Albany Gazette and Daily Advertiser, and for a time the location was also known as Webster’s Corner. While they were very prominent in their day, their second cousin Noah, who visited occasionally, is currently the most well-remembered of the Websters. Charles established the first permanent printing shop, and published Webster’s Calendar, or The Albany Almanac,” beginning in 1784, reviving a paper that had also run from 1771-1776. (The Almanac was later published by Joel Munsell, but still under the Webster name.)

Webster’s Gazette and Daily Advertiser were printed there for “nearly half a century,” according to an 1859 article, or for 60 years according to another account. The Gazette, which became semi-weekly in 1789, was a non-partisan paper for much of its life, and began reporting on legislative proceedings in 1809 by permission of the Legislature. “The old frame buildings on the corner of State and North Pearl streets [were] long known as Webster & Skinner’s bookstore.” That was because a nephew named Skinner had joined the firm in 1809. In 1838, Elisha W. Skinner and his brother Charles became proprietors of the Albany Daily Advertiser, which ceased publication in 1845 and sold out to the Albany Evening Journal.

Malt merchant and bank president John Tweddle demolished the old structures in May 1859 to make way for a new public hall, Tweddle Hall, which opened in 1860 and was a major center of civic life for more than two decades. That burned rather dramatically in 1883, and was replaced by the more modest sounding Tweddle Building. It was on the Tweddle Building that the bicentennial tablet was to have been placed in 1886.

Some of the Tweddle Building was torn down when the Ten Eyck Hotel was built in 1899, and the rest was lost when the Ten Eyck expanded in 1915. The Ten Eyck, later the Sheraton, was torn down in 1971, and replaced by the rather non-descript modern structure that currently houses a Citizens Bank and a Starbucks.

The Bicentennial Tablet

The tablet commemorating the Old Elm Tree Corner was placed there in 1886 as part of the city’s bicentennial celebrations. In 1914, the Argus noted that the tablet’s inscription had become somewhat worn by being walked on. Originally set in granite blocks 16 inches above the sidewalk, with the improvements to Pearl Street it had been lowered to sidewalk level. The Times-Union called attention to the condition of the plaque: “The ravishes [sic] of time have practically erased the lettering on the original brass plate where thousands of Albanians board the busses [sic] and give no heed to the foot-polished memorial.” Indeed, it is remarkable that the markers set in the sidewalks have fared as well as they have, but it’s easy to imagine one at the Elm Tree Corner suffering more footwear than most.

In response, “Hildreth P. Drew, president of the Lang Stamp Works in Green St., which has been making memorial plaques in Albany for nearly 100 years, offered to replace the worn out plaque with a new one, duplicating the exact phraseology of the original to be placed on the face of the Ten Eyck Hotel.” And so a replacement was affixed to the south wall of the hotel on June 25, 1954.

One might have assumed the original would have been taken up out of the sidewalk and put somewhere else, or scrapped, or something. In fact, it’s a little mystifying, because in 1969, columnist Edgar Van Olinda complained that the original tablet in the sidewalk had “passed from legibility,” but he made no mention whatever of its replacement in the wall of the hotel. So the original tablet lasted at least another 15 years after it was replaced; but now its fate is unknown.

What happened to the replacement is also not recorded, and we have to assume it was lost with the demolition of the Ten Eyck. But, perhaps not: the marker for Philip Livingston, or its replacement, was maintained and still graces the wall there. And the plaque marking the Albany City Savings Bank has been kept inside the building. So perhaps this one is there, somewhere, or was put in storage somewhere. But if that’s the case, it hasn’t been revealed to us.

The Elm Tree Itself

Back when we wrote about the Philip Livingston tablet, we mentioned that although the story has always been that the elm tree from which the corner took its name was planted in front of the family home around 1735 by a young Philip Livingston, later a signer of the Declaration of Independence, even early writers cast doubt on that story. It begins with an inconsistency, because it provides the image of a young boy earnestly planting a tree – Philip was 19 in 1735, and may not even have been living in Albany at the time. So the year or the boy are wrong, from the start.

The Albany Evening Journal, in 1877, put a different twist on the tree’s origin:

“We believe that nobody knows who planted the Elm, or when it was planted. There is a story that Philip Livingston, one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, who was born in 1716, took occasion when a young man, to stay the hand of a sailor who was preparing to cut down the Elm with his pocket knife. This incident is well vouched for, and in light of it it is safe to say that the Elm was at least one hundred and fifty years old when it came to its untimely end.”

But all sources put the tree’s origin no later than the 1730s, and the Livingstons had lived at that corner since before 1686, so it’s very likely a Livingston planted the tree, if indeed it was planted. The famous painting by James Eights shows the tree rather fully in the street, which of course was not paved in the Livingstons’ time.

When the tree was cut down is more a matter of public record: June 15, 1877. The reason: the need to “improve” (which then meant to pave) Pearl Street.

Tablet 16 Elm Tree card down 6-15-1877
A Haines photo card of The Old Elm Tree, published after it had been removed. The tree was still alive but severely trimmed. This is looking south along Pearl Street.

The Evening Journal had something to say about the early morning felling:

“This morning at 4 o’clock the fell deed was done. At that hour the axe was laid to the trunk of the old Elm, one of Albany’s most venerable residents, and before the average citizen got down to his business, it was hewn down and sawn asunder. The woodman has long spared it and he would have spared it to the end of time. But the people who command the ‘march of improvements,’ so called, and who boss the widening of the streets, have no sentiment; they rushed in with their axes where the most bold of woodmen would have feared to trespass and laid the old monarch low . . .
“It had flourished like a green bay for over a century and a half and afforded grateful shade for generation after generation of Albanians; it had become a local classic – but it was of no use. Its age, its reputation, its place in the hearts of our citizens did not serve it in its hour of need . . . . “

The Argus of June 16 took a rather more pragmatic view, pointing to the decayed condition of the tree (look at the picture) and the likelihood that it had but a few remaining years in any event:

“But few people witnessed its fall, but soon after hundreds had gathered around. The contractor was saved the trouble of removing it, for by noon only ten feet of the trunk remained. Axes, saws, chisels, jackknives, in fact tools of every character and description, were brought into service and hundreds of people secured pieces of the wood to treasure as relics.
“About 6 o’clock in the morning a young man with his hair cropped short could have been seen staggering up State street with a large branch, all he could carry, the perspiration staring from every pore. In another case a prominent citizen moved along with a large piece of the trunk pressed close to his breast, as though it were a nugget of gold.
“Small boys took advantage of the excitement, and pressing in through the crowd, obtained portions of the tree which readily sold for from ten cents to two dollars. Boys could be seen in every part of the city offering pieces for sale. Not content with taking branches and trunk, others procured pick axes and dug up the roots.”

A portion of the trunk was saved and reported to have been preserved at the State Museum. When the new Philip Livingston tablet was being unveiled in 1927, there was hope that the portion of the tree would be put on display, or transferred to the Albany Institute of History and Art. City Historian Cuyler Reynolds (whose ghost somehow has a Twitter account) wrote to the state and “pointed out that Albanians held a keener interest in the tree than did people of the state in general. He suggests that it be removed to the institute on the semicentennial of being cut down, that is, on June 15, this year [1927]. He further points out that the institute gave the museum thousands of specimens of birds, minerals, fish, eggs and plants when the former was overcrowded and the latter was in need of them.”

But at this time we find no records of the tree specimens remaining with either institution.

Early on in this project we set out to record some of the many prominent institutions that had called the Elm Tree Corner their address, but in the end that proved too daunting a task and will be set aside for another day.

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