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A Tale of Two Cities

In the shadow of the gleaming, imperial structure of the Empire State Plaza, classic examples of historic architecture sit deteriorating. Is this a tragedy, or a fantastic field for renewal?

By John Rodat
Photographs by Leif Zurmuhlen

It all begins with a bay window. A truly wonderful bay window. From across the street, the window at 182 Washington Ave. is attractive enough. It’s a subtle, soothing green—the color of a lima bean, or the inside of a fresh-snapped vine—and the outmost panes of glass are gracefully curved. But upon closer inspection, it proves to be more than just passingly pleasing. Inset in the wooden frame of the window are stylized horticultural friezes of great complexity and craftsmanship: Contained within regular, rectangular panels and arranged in graceful columns bordering the panes, flowering, berry-laden tendrils snake in a chaotic art-nouveau tangle. As the viewer approaches, the depth of the carving and the solidity and sinuousness of the line suggest motion in the foliage. The stolid Romanesque revival building’s rough-cut façade gains additional texture, and a kind of liveliness.

The nearer you get, the more is revealed, including a dramatic explanation for the imagined bustle in the hedgerow: Poking out from the rounded lower corners of the window’s casing are two gapemouthed dragon heads with teeth bared viciously. And on the underside of the bay, a medallion portrays a grim battle between a snarling, lion rampant and a coiled and hissing serpent. There’s a Medieval struggle of mythic beasts in a thick, primeval forest being waged endlessly directly overhead—on a bay window between the entrance to a state office parking garage and the headquarters of the New York State Dispute Resolution Association, across the street from the library.

And now you’re craning your neck, gapemouthed yourself.

Moments later, you’re stopped again, just a block below at 150 Washington. This architectural ogling is habit-forming, so you stand eyeballing the heavy doors with their gothic-looking metal ornaments, and the bronzed sculpture of St. Andrew—his arm extended in supplication or welcome—on the lintel, and the ornate hanging lamp that projects out over the steps, its crown ringed with panels bearing obscure heraldic emblems. There’s a simple, early Christian cross and another lion, and you stand and wonder what they might betoken exactly and just how it is that you’ve never noticed this stuff before on your many trips to the bank, the coffee shop and the post office.

“I daresay hundreds of thousands of people have walked down Washington Avenue, daily, and they have never seen the ornament on those two buildings,” says Warren Roberts, distinguished teaching professor of history at the University at Albany. “If you’re walking down Washington, you’ve got to look at 150. That decoration over the porch is just incredible. And 182? It’s the most fabulous bay window in Albany.”

But without the helpful pointers, the inside scoop, from someone like Roberts—who will conduct walking tours of Albany’s architectural wonders on Aug. 17 and 31 as part of Albany Heritage’s celebration of the 350th anniversary of the establishment of the Beverwyck, the “Dutch trading community that formed [Albany’s] civic foundation”—most folks will indeed march right past unknowingly. As they will pass the many boarded-up, neglected, underappreciated buildings that line the streets where they work, day after day. They’ll pass by 132 State St., with its elaborate ornamentation, including the two cowled, thick-lipped and melancholy faces protruding from the walls above the second-floor windows; they’ll enter the Fleet bank at 69 State without noticing the plaque that indicates that the building’s façade was preserved from a bank built in 1803 by Philip Hooker, who designed the old Albany Academy and Hyde Hall in Cooperstown, as well as the 1798 First Church on North Pearl; they’ll forget about the towering gothic-revival spires, now obscured by scaffolding, of the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception on Madison; they’ll pass deteriorating buildings and see just deteriorating buildings. For his part, Roberts sees historicist riches, the physical skeleton of an important architectural legacy—and opportunity.

“The preservation movement in Albany has had some stunning successes,” Roberts reports. “Albany looks better now than it has since the ’60s. If you knew North Pearl Street before last summer and you look at it now, you can see the difference. And the whole area of Center Square was in deplorable condition circa 1970, and it’s beautiful now. It’s pristine.”

For every lovingly rehabbed Center Square building, though, there seem to be two buildings in the South End with crumbling masonry and particle-board windows. For every stately townhouse on Madison Place, there are three shabby row houses on Grand Street. But according to Roberts, it’s these very conditions that create the opportunity.

“Two weeks ago, I did something I had never done before,” he says. “I rode my bike all the way up Sheridan Avenue from the bottom. It was revelatory: There were whole half-block areas without any buildings—this is the most prime real estate in Albany. Then there’ll be three row houses, two of which are boarded up and one will be in perfect condition. And there’ll be a freestanding Greek revival house, boarded up. Those houses, architecturally, are the best stuff in Albany.

“I think, no money would be better spent than to encourage the preservation and restoration of Albany’s 19th-century architecture,” he continues. “Every possible means should be undertaken. Not only from the historical and aesthetic points of view but from the economic and pragmatic. Because once sections of neighborhoods are brought back—that’s the catalytic factor—the good stuff spreads. Just as the bad stuff spreads, so too does the good.”

But it is a struggle to get the good stuff in place. There is a constant tension between the positive attempts of community groups, neighborhood associations, professional preservationists, and motivated individuals and encroaching urban blight. Roberts illustrates his belief that “what you need to do is re-create whole neighborhoods” by telling of a recent visit through a beautifully refurbished structure in a troublesome location:

“What really drove the point home for me, was a walking tour sponsored by the Ten Broeck Mansion Museum. At the western end of the mansion’s gardens, there’s a parking lot, and the tour started in a house where the parking lot adjoins Ten Broeck street. It must be an 1860s house: It has cast-iron window moldings, an elaborate cornice; the façade is just beautiful. There’s a porch on the north side, on the opposite side of Ten Broeck, and you’re looking out across this green area where houses once stood. And it’s South Swan Street, the murder center of Albany. The murder and drug center. You could throw a stone and hit it, but all around there’s this incredible restoration going on.”

It’s Roberts’ contention that if those members of the community seeking to preserve and restore Albany’s neglected inner city were to receive municipal support, if whole neighborhoods were physically restored, Albany might regain some of the population it has lost to the suburbs—for which he has nothing but disdain, architecturally speaking.

“The vulgarities out there are unspeakable, mind-boggling. It just takes the breath away,” he says in a sad, soft voice. And though it’s possible that people may disagree with Roberts’ assessment of the built character of the ’burbs, most will agree with him that there are other inconveniences of living in outlying areas.

“People who work in state agencies live in Clifton Park and Saratoga, for the most part, and the Northway is choked,” he says. “There are incredible bottlenecks every time there’s an accident and people wait an hour and a half, two hours in their cars, whereas there are parts of Albany in the inner city where there are boarded-up Greek revival houses—some row houses, some freestanding, all superbly ornamented—waiting to be occupied.”

As heartened as Roberts is by the successful efforts of preservation groups—he cites Historic Albany Foundation, who “are really organized and know all the issues,” specifically—and as convinced as he is of the great potential of Albany’s remaining historical infrastructure, he acknowledges that urban abandonment is a trend that has shown little sign of reversal.

“In Albany, it started happening very early,” he recounts. “But with the construction of the Empire State Plaza, the movement out of the inner city to the suburbs has been continuous and the periphery continues to be extended.”

Yes, there it is: the Empire State Plaza. The Capital Region’s massive white elephant. Gov. Nelson Rockefeller’s great 98.5-acre gift to himself at the expense of the taxpayers. In his book O Albany!, William Kennedy reports an “apocryphal” but once-current story about the whimsical nature of Rockefeller’s “destruction of 1,150 structures, most of them private dwellings, and the displacement of 3,600 households—9,000 people, 17 percent black, many Italians and Jews , many old, many poor.” Kennedy writes:

The traditional story is that because it humiliated Rockefeller to have Princess Beatrix of the Netherlands chauffeured through the slumminess and decrepitude of Albany’s South End in order to reach the executive mansion, he undertook in 1962 what is said to be the largest marble project in the history of the world (a claim I am fond of but can’t prove), a complex of massive buildings and skyscrapers built on a platform five levels deep, which if stood on its end, would be 112 stories high, taller than Manhattan’s World Trade Center, in which Rockefeller also had a hand.

Though the story is probably just that, the plaza has nevertheless offended its fair share of observers. It has been roundly derided, even demonized, by art and architecture critics such as Robert Hughes, who claimed in The Shock of the New that the plaza was architecture that Albert Speer, Hitler’s architect, would have been proud to call his own, and Pulitzer Prize-winning architecture critic Paul Goldberger, who in a 1971 New York Times article described it in language just short of brutal. Yet despite its chilly, foreboding and, perhaps, overly authoritative presence, despite the historical fact of its imposition on residents without the constitutionally required referendum (Rockefeller’s circumvention of which is a tale unto itself), despite its standoffish attitude in regard to the rest of the city, despite the expert opinions voiced against it, Albany residents do seem, strangely, to like the thing.

Artist Michael Oatman, who also is a member of the architecture department at Renssalaer Polytechnic Institute, and his wife Bree Edwards, who wrote a thesis on the relationship of the plaza and the neighborhoods below it, titled Ramshackle Rowhouses and the Marble Tower, recently wandered the plaza and commented.

Edwards, whose interest in the area was first sparked by the grassroots rehabilitation undertaken by the Albany Free School in its neighborhood, was surprised to find that the plaza constituted a more than just physical blot on Albany. In the process of interviewing residents of the South End, she discovered that the construction had somehow severed not only segments of Albany from one another in a physical sense, but also in a temporal sense.

“I wanted the connection between the plaza and them in their neighborhood, and there was no connection,” she recalls. “There’s no memory of how it affected life when it was being built or life before it. That was really curious to me. It was very hard to find stories. Maybe that’s just because the people who were in this area, which was a lot of boarding houses, were a transient population, whereas in Arbor Hill there’s a lot of memory of what was there before, there’s a past.”

Oatman adds, “It’s like the plaza is actually the architecture of amnesia.”

The construction of the plaza, suggests Oatman, fits a pattern that is typically Albanian—that of periods of seeming inertia punctuated by hysterical, discontinuous, almost cataclysmic fits of ambition.

“When I think of Albany,” he says, “I think of a city that’s in transition a lot more slowly than other cities—except for an occasional massive insertion. Suddenly, there’s a massive train station over there, suddenly there’s a huge interstate running all along the waterfront—what city in the world puts the road on the waterfront?—suddenly, there’s this massive plaza here, and then the school campus.”

Rather than lingering resentment of the disruption of life-as-it-was, these major events have been readily absorbed into life-as-it-is by Albany residents. In Oatman’s opinion, familiarity often transforms the acceptance of the insertions into pride. “I’m not sure that over time the plaza hasn’t become loved as much as what was here before—or more,” he speculates. “There is something that cities do, as collectives, where they want to build themselves landmarks. They want to build themselves reasons to come, either as settlers or tourists. Albany’s done that a couple of times.”

But how does the will-to-monument withstand the hostile reception of the commenting class—the Hugheses, the Goldbergers? What of the plaza’s alleged inhumane scale? Its impersonal starkness?

“It’s a thing of great interest,” says Edwards. “Whether you like it or not, that’s harder. But it is of great interest. You know, Fredric Jameson wrote a great essay about the ways architecture changes faster than our bodies change to accommodate it. He’s talking about the Bonaventure Hotel in L.A. or the Renaissance Center in Detroit, these huge postmodern spaces that we don’t know how to negotiate yet. I think this is one of those spaces.”

Warren Roberts, with his love of Federal-period architecture, his passion for the fine points of Greek revival, Victorian eclectic and Romanesque ornamentation, his enthusiasm for the physical reminders of Albany’s centuries of history, must surely see things differently. Wouldn’t you think?

“I had an insight the other day,” he says when asked to discuss the plaza. “You have the state Capitol, 1867 to 1899, one of the most elaborate, costly, grand, even grandiose public buildings in all of 19th-century architecture. This is statement architecture if any building on the face of the Earth is. Then, you have across the street, the State Education Building, the longest row of columns in America . . . then, you have the plaza, again statement architecture. So, in that sense, seen as statement architecture, the Empire State Plaza, is at one with the buildings next to it and just beyond it. In a sense, it’s all of a piece.”

You may think this is a preservation-minded historian trying to make the best of a bad—but unchangeable—situation. But Roberts tells a story, about conducting some visitors to Albany to several of his favorites sites, which gives that assumption the lie.

They started at the First Presbyterian church on Willett Street and took in the spectacular Tiffany windows, the First Church on North Pearl, the Romanesque revival City Hall designed by the architect “who created the style,” Philip Hooker’s 1815 Boys’ Academy building, the Capitol, the plaza, the Cathedral of Immaculate Conception.

“So they’ve seen these incredible windows, the state Capitol, the plaza—the statement architecture, the Richardson City Hall, all of this amazing stuff,” Roberts recounts. “And one of them said, ‘Europeans, with their love of the past and their love of art and architecture, they should come to Albany.’ I have long harbored the same thought: Europeans should come to Albany, Americans should come to Albany. Albanians should come to Albany.”


As part of Albany Heritage’s fall program, Warren Roberts will conduct a walking tour of Albany’s classical architecture on Aug. 17 at 2 PM; on Aug. 31 at 2 PM he will lead another tour examining the city’s modern architecture. For more information on these and other Albany Heritage events visit the Web site, www.albany.edu/heritage, or call 442-5000.


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