now you’re craning your neck, gapemouthed yourself.
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.
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.”
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.
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.”
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.
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
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.”
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
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.”
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.”
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
adds, “It’s like the plaza is actually the architecture
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.
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.”
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.”
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?
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.”
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?
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.”
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.
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.
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.”