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Albany HATES HISTORY
One Step Forward, Two Steps Back?
BY Shawn Stone

Albany’s historic-preservation record has improved over the last decade, but frustrations and failures continue

It was not a promising situation. Albany’s long-closed Madison Theatre, a Pine Hills landmark that had been converted from a single-screen cinema into a mini-multiplex, had become a target for redevelopment. Sitting empty through the unfriendly upstate weather, the building had deteriorated—at one point, its basement was reported to be flooded. A revival seemed unlikely.

This was a far cry from the Madison’s glorious opening in 1929. Then, the main cinema district was centered around Pearl and State streets downtown; Warner Bros.’ decision to build uptown seems, in retrospect, strange. But it was clearly an important move; they sent their biggest star to Albany.

Al Jolson was the movie (and pop) star of those years, and he presided at the Madison’s gala opening. That would be like Jay-Z or Bono dropping by next week to open a bar. This history, combined with the Madison’s long-term importance to Pine Hills, made the idea of the theater being turned into a drugstore drive-through lane seem shortsighted and dumb.

But, a funny thing happened: A neighborhood group, Friends of the Madison Theatre, organized. They attracted the attention of an Amsterdam-based independent cinema owner, and the theater was reopened. It was a wonderful case of Albanians appreciating what they have.

Community support for historic buildings is not always there, however. On other occasions, Albany’s citizens not only take the opportunity to dance on history’s grave, they sell off the bones.

A notice of just this sort of thing came sailing over the transom on Sunday (Oct. 9), in the form of an e-mail from the School 16 PTA. It should be clarified that School 16 is no more—well, at least the old School 16. It was recently demolished, and a replacement building will rise uptown on the same site at 41 N. Allen St.

This was not just another pile of bricks. Here’s an excerpt from a “Resource Evaluation” filed on the former School 16 in January 2001 as part of the design process for the Albany City School District’s facilities plan: “PS 16 is an architecturally significant example of early twentieth century school architecture. Built in 1906, the two story brick building displays numerous characteristics associated with the Renaissance Revival style. . . . The building, with its classical inspired design and prominent location within the neighborhood retains a high degree of integrity of setting, location, feeling, association, design, materials and craftsmanship.”

Or maybe it was just another pile of bricks. For the purposes of PTA fund-raising, the district set aside 2,000 bricks from the former building to “sell as mementos.” On Oct. 29, there will be a Brick Sale & Pick Up from 10 AM to 1 PM behind Harriet Gibbons High School on Watervliet Avenue. People who prepaid for a brick can pick it up then; others can just show up with five clams and walk away with one. As the cheerful press release notes: “These bricks are pieces of School 16 and mementos of Albany history that make great gifts for former students and staff.”

Asked about the state of historic preservation in Albany, Elizabeth Griffin, the outgoing director of Historic Albany Foundation, pauses before she speaks: “I think that, when I look back at where things were, preservation has come a long way in Albany. I think that we’ve come a long way in a short period of time, but sometimes you don’t realize how far you’ve come. And I think that, as hard as you work, you get to a point and realize how much farther you have to go.”

Griffin’s tenure at HAF lasted seven years. The progress, as she sees it, is on a number of levels. One, the era of large-scale demolitions—like the loss of the oldest row houses in Albany more than a decade ago—seems to be over.

“I really don’t hear about plans like that so much,” she explains. “Whenever there are [redevelopment] plans that do involve historic resources, we get calls very early. There’s clearly an awareness that these are assets that need to be worked with, and not demolished.”

Other tangible progress has been made in the area of new working partnerships with nonprofits, city authorities and residents. For example, there’s the North Swan Street redevelopment plan for Arbor Hill. This brought together the Albany Housing Authority, HAF and various “neighborhood stakeholders” on a plan for a mix of renovation and new construction for what has been, over the last 20 years, a very troubled area. The “keystone” of this project was to be the renovation of the 19th-century building at 42 N. Swan St.

Unfortunately, the Albany Community Development Agency ordered the demolition of 42 N. Swan St. as a public hazard, without consulting anyone involved with the building’s planned restoration.

“In a way,” Griffin muses, “even though we’re talking about something that was really, hugely disappointing, I probably would have pointed to it as an example of groups working together to save particular buildings.”

The process almost worked: “It just wouldn’t have ended up in demolition.”

Two historic school buildings—School 16, mentioned above, and School 18, on Bertha Street off Delaware Avenue—were just sacrificed as part of the Albany City School District’s facilities plan. According to Griffin—who was involved in the process early on—neighborhood opposition was minimal, or nonexistent, during the initial planning stage.

“In the case of School 18,” Griffin says, “I had people calling me who are members of Historic Albany Foundation, [who are] very active in the preservation community, saying that they really thought it was the best thing for the building to come down. There was nobody to partner with [in the neighborhood] to save that school.”

School 16, however, was different. There were, she remembers, “people who wanted to fight for that school on aesthetic grounds. They liked the building, they liked the historic character. . . . But those same people, at the end of the day, decided that they should have a different building.”

Why?

“The fear then,” Griffin says, “was that they [the school district] would abandon all neighborhood schools, and build new cookie-cutter schools on the outskirts of the city and just bus everybody.”

“So,” she continues, “in a sense, the facilities plan was best for our neighborhoods, and the buildings in our neighborhoods.” There were other positive aspects, too: “Some of our really big schools, like Hackett [Middle School], were going to be renovated under the plan. For those who were involved from the very beginning, we could see a lot of positive with the whole schools facilities plan, even though we didn’t want to let go of Schools 16 and 18.”

Last summer, however, as the demolitions of Schools 16 and 18 neared, a new group called Friends of Albany’s Historic Schools joined with the Historic Action Network in a last-ditch attempt to save the buildings. They did their research, and sent a thoughtful letter—half protest, half proposal—to all involved parties. The schools were nonetheless leveled with astonishing speed.

One of the more active members in the effort to save the schools was a relative newcomer to Albany who was appalled at the willingness with which folks acquiesced to this. Griffin understands that point of view: “I can completely understand . . . how that would [be a] shock. It is shocking that buildings that are so much nicer, so much better-built than anything you could afford to build today would just be torn down.”

However, Griffin says, “when you’ve been involved, you can see how it would happen. . . . They [the ACSD] hired a preservation consultant, reached out to the preservation community and worked closely with the state preservation department.”

And the bricks are now available for $5 each.

The work goes on. One of Historic Albany Foundation’s main projects is the restoration of St. Joseph’s Church in Arbor Hill. As Griffin points out, this is a pretty big project, requiring a lot of money.

“We’re fund-raising to work on the roof, and we’re going to start the roof project in the spring,” she says. “We’ve had open houses [at the church], throughout the summer, and we’ve put together an exhibit that just opened at the Albany Visitor’s Center about St. Joseph’s.”

Despite the setback on North Swan Street, and because of their investment in St. Joseph’s, HAF is deeply invested in Arbor Hill. This does not mean, Griffin is quick to note, that HAF isn’t involved with projects in Albany’s other neighborhoods. “In terms of recent events, we’re trying to work with the owners of the four buildings at Madison Place.”

These heavily fire-damaged properties are as distinctive as any houses in the city.

“We’ve provided storage space,” Griffin says, “for their building materials—you know, their doors, and their trim, and various parts and pieces [salvaged from the homes] so that the rough work can be done in the building.” Later, “they’ll be able to come back and get the stuff and put it back in the buildings when they get to the finishing stage.” HAF has also helped out with architectural support, and is working with the city on other ways to help the owners out.

The point seems to be that, despite gains, historic preservation is still a harder sell than it should be—and often not a priority for city leaders or residents. For every triumph, such as the Martin Van Buren buildings at 111 and 113 State St., there’s a Wellington Row seemingly out of reach for restoration, or a historically unique distillery buried under tons of concrete.

Maybe stating that Albany “hates” history isn’t 100 percent fair. But the city sure as hell isn’t in love with it.


photo:John Whipple

Tearing Down Our Economic Engine
BY ANN MORROW

Shortsighted decisions are ruining Albany’s potential to benefit from heritage tourism

The slogan for the Al bany Visitors Center Web site reads: “Looks like history. Feels like a vacation.” The site also promotes the city’s “three centuries of architecture,” and rightly so. There’s no question that Albany is exceptionally rich in history: It’s one of the oldest communities in America, and it played a pivotal role in the country’s settlement in the 17th century, as well as the astounding expansion in wealth and prestige of New York state in the 19th. But does it look like history?

To some eyes, the answer is: not as much as it used to, and certainly not as much as it could. Hulking parking garages and anonymous office buildings now obscure once-towering landmarks (including two important cathedrals) and homogenize unique streetscapes. The import of the city’s loss of a distinctive visual heritage goes far beyond the ire of history buffs and preservationists, however. It cuts to the heart of the city’s vitality. Because really, without its history and architecture, what does Albany have?

As the Albany Visitors Center emphasizes, our historic architecture is a draw, and it could and should be a bigger one. Heritage tourism is a fast-growing, billions-of-dollars-a-year industry. And the cities that have the most appeal are the ones that preserve a sense of historical background rather than just promoting a few isolated attractions. It’s niche marketing for sure, but also an easy way for a beleaguered city to earn extra income: Tourists come, they spend (studies show that heritage tourists spend more money than any other kind of traveler), and they leave. You don’t have to build middle schools and nursing homes for them. And they tend to come on the weekends, utilizing hotels, parking, and other amenities that tend to sit quiet once the business week is over.

But Albany has one big stumbling block to becoming a heritage destination: a long and continuing track record of shortsightedness in regard to the city’s historical assets by city government. One glaring example is the Quackenbush archeology site, located conveniently adjacent to the Visitors Center in historic Quackenbush Square, just off Broadway. The site was discovered in 2001 by Hartgen Archeology Associates during a required excavation in preparation for the construction of a six-level parking garage. The 18th-century Dutch-English site was found to contain a rare and remarkably intact rum distillery, with 16 vats, a brickyard possibly dating to the 1650s, the remains of a manager’s house, and a treasure trove of artifacts including glazed floor tiles from the Netherlands.

After a delay of a few brief weeks for study, and despite an impassioned public outcry, the find was plowed under for the garage, and its incalculable economic and educational opportunities along with it. The decision, made by Mayor Jerry Jennings and the Albany Parking Authority, made news in The New York Times.

Before the backhoes went to work, two onsite public seminars were conducted by Hartgen that attracted more than 3,500 awed viewers (who packed restaurants and cleared gift-shop shelves, according to the Times), with an additional 400-or-so showing up the following day. Asked if the one-acre site could’ve been a tourist attraction, Bill Bouchard, a Hartgen project manager, gives a qualified yes. “The vats, the plumbing, the complete operation was easy to see. You didn’t have to use your imagination.” But without preservation, he says, the site would’ve deteriorated. And preservation is expensive (as are parking garages). But Bouchard also offers the example of the George Washington Distillery in Virginia. The site at Mount Vernon—which does not contain any of its original workings—is being turned into an interpretive center with a $1 million gift from the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States.

Fortunately for posterity, two of the vats and related artifacts are being stabilized for future exhibition at the state museum—an effort that was made possible with a gift of $40,000 from the First Albany Corp. The gift indicates that a sustained effort by the city might have raised enough money to preserve the distillery in its original state. Granted, Albany doesn’t have the quite same cachet as Mount Vernon. But whatever reputation the area could have developed—the Quackenbush site also is close to the historic First Church and its collection of Dutch Colonial rarities—has been lost. In recent years, other areas have done more with less, for example Lancaster County, Pennsylvania (the Amish), and Madison, Ind. (the Underground Railroad).

And now State Street, one of the city’s earliest and most important thoroughfares, is facing major changes for short-term benefits. A registered historic district, it contains several exceptional 19th-century buildings by nationally renowned architects. It’s also a prime example of an architecturally interesting and pedestrian-friendly urban streetscape. But it’s already riddled with outsized, poorly designed new buildings, with more to come.

Wellington Row, one block below Albany’s famed State Capitol, is under consideration for at least partial demolition to make room for a proposed convention center and hotel. The five-building row includes the Wellington Hotel, the Berkshire Hotel, and the Elks Lodge. Though in various conditions of decay, it’s generally agreed that the buildings could be successfully readapted.

“They’re all significant, interesting buildings, but as a row, it’s really impressive,” says Bill Brandow, a project architect with the architectural restoration firm John G. Waite Associates. Taking out one or two of the buildings would be impractical, because of their narrow dimensions, and to take out the whole row would ruin the streets, he declares, adding that the cost of materials and workmanship today would guarantee that any new construction would not match their quality. Another thing he notes is that the high cost of removing old structures always gets forgotten when there’s talk of a new building. Despite run-down conditions, the Wellington and its neighbors could be cost-effectively converted to boutique hotels or other uses by private investors.

Carefully selected investors, that is, and not speculators. Brandow describes Charleston, S.C., as the ideal model for historic renovation: Charleston’s preservation-minded mayor is admired nationwide for his policy of holding out against developers until a project is presented that best serves the historic city’s interests. “Albany has an inferiority complex,” says Brandow. “It takes whatever comes along.”

As an example of what this mentality yields, Brandow cites the Ten Eyck Plaza. “It was built in the 1980s, shockingly late for an urban blunder,” says Brandow, who describes it as “everything bad architecture can be.” But you don’t have to be an architect to notice how jarring the plaza’s open loading dock looks in the midst of State Street, and what a poor match it makes for lofty St. Peter’s Church on the opposite corner. A bank, hotel and office building were torn down to make room for the Plaza, which contains a bank, a hotel, and offices.

Another blight on the street is the new state comptroller’s office. The 15-story big-box is out of scale to the streetscape, and like a lot of new construction in the city (including the county courthouse), it’s embellished with elements from the surrounding old buildings, such as aluminum arches and pointy rooftops. The faux-historic touches tend to create a kitschy look rather than helping a building to fit in. And its faux-Dutch brick doesn’t alleviate the office’s stark façade. Rising like a monolith from the sidewalk, it seems closed off from street life, devoid of eye-level interest, and at odds with the buildings that have storefronts and intriguing entranceways.

“Massive, indistinct buildings contribute to the impression that a city is not interesting and not livable,” Brandow says. “Having an interesting, architecturally diverse environment does. It gives people a reason to want to live there.” And if more people were to move to Albany, he adds, vacant buildings would no longer be a problem because people would be buying them and fixing them up.

Another minus for Albany’s new construction is that in many cases (the rear of the comptroller’s building, and at least two of the new parking garages) it makes the sidewalks either unattractive or impassable for pedestrians. This obliteration of the city’s colonial-era street patterns comes at a time when rising gas prices and expanding waistlines are making walkable environments more desirable than ever.

With its remaining old hotels moldering, Albany has need of more hotel rooms, hence the brand-new Hampton Plaza Inn on Chapel Street. Problem is, the pink, standard-issue courtyard hotel is indistinguishable from the hotels on Wolf Road. And if downtown starts to look too much like Wolf Road, then what will it have to compete with? “It’ll be the suburbs, but with less parking,” says Brandow.

The new Hampton does have a triangular, fake-mansard cap, a feature that’s become ubiquitous in Albany—most bus shelters have them. It also has a tacky gap between the cap and roof, a gap that is clearly visible from the I-787 entrance to the downtown. So is its bland sign, which mars the visual first impression formerly dominated by the glittering Palace Theater marquee and the graceful spires of First Church.

The I-787 ramp is just one of several vantage points that have become noticeably more generic. The view of Albany from the river is almost completely filled with buildings that were constructed in the last 20 years, and which have no discernable sense of place.

And still the parking lots proliferate, despite the ordinances of the Historic Resources Committee. HRC was set up by the city to protect properties of historic significance from being torn down without good cause. And rental parking definitely doesn’t fit the criteria. But without enforcement by the city, HRC apparently is powerless. Just a few months ago, an early 19th-century Greek revival on Lodge Street was demolished. The lot is now leased to county officials. This comes on top of the demolition of three houses on Madison Avenue that were razed to create parking for Lombardo’s Restaurant.

“Lower Madison could’ve been the next Lark Street,” says Brandow, echoing the opinion of many residents. “But not now.”

At this rate, Albany will soon need a new tourism slogan: “Looks like anywhere.”


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