One Step Forward, Two Steps
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
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.”
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.”
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
Down Our Economic Engine
BY ANN MORROW
decisions are ruining Albany’s potential to benefit from heritage
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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.
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.”