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Endangered no more: St. Joseph’s Church. Photo by John Whipple.

Our Saviour?

While a small crowd in front of St. Joseph’s Church on Ten Broeck Street enjoyed the sunshine and mild temperatures, Albany officials and preservationists voiced their support for the deteriorating church and its surrounding blocks of 19th-century rowhouses. The press conference was held on Nov. 20 by the New York State Preservation League to name St. Joseph’s and the Ten Broeck Triangle—a National Register historic district—as one of its “Seven to Save,” an annual list of the state’s most threatened historic places. The list helps to focus attention and funding on endangered properties, and that seemed to be the case for St. Joseph’s: Mayor Jerry Jennings appeared with an announcement of his own, stating that the city was taking over the church by power of eminent domain. “The mayor’s moving in,” he said. “We have to take control of this beautiful, significant building.”

St. Joseph’s is owned by restaurateur Elda Abate, who denies allegations that she refused to cooperate with efforts to stabilize the imperiled structure, and is embroiled in a dispute with Jennings over her right to retain ownership of the church. In the summer of 2000, Abate bought the church from the Albany Catholic Diocese for $1, with the diocese’s approval to convert the church into a banquet hall. One hard winter later, an engineer hired by Abate discovered that the church was on the brink of collapse, and he contacted the city. St. Joseph’s was designated a hazard, and a construction crew performed emergency stabilization with steel scaffolding. “We almost lost the building,” says Elizabeth Griffin, executive director of Historic Albany Foundation. Griffin explains that a marble column had failed and was pulling down the hammerbeam roof. “People’s lives were at risk,” she adds.

Before that, Abate says, her husband Mario had repaired the leaking roof to prevent further damage to the column—and she was fined for making improvements without a work permit. But, she asserts, her permit application had been denied by the zoning board. “If they didn’t want me to have the church,” she says, “why didn’t they say so before I bought it? Where was the mayor for the 10, 15 years it stood empty?

The Preservation League describes the 1860 Gothic Revival structure as “one of the finest Gothic churches in the state.” During the morning conference, it was announced that HAF will receive a $300,000 state grant for the second phase of stabilization, earmarked for the church by Gov. George Pataki out of $18 million in parks and preservation awards. All of the speakers praised the efforts of Griffin and the foundation, which has been advocating for the church for more than four years.

St. Joseph’s majestic spires are a highly visible grace note of the Albany skyline, and despite the dilapidated masonry and boarded-up windows, the building’s architectural splendor was apparent. Assemblyman John McEneny, whose parents were married in the church, called it “the crown jewel of this significant neighborhood,” and spoke on its history. The Ten Broeck neighborhood has always been economically mixed, he said, with alternating streets of rich and poor, where lumber barons and merchant princes shared the community with working-class immigrants. St. Joseph’s was constructed through the efforts of a largely Irish-immigrant parish, and is considered the masterwork of Irish-Catholic architect Patrick Keeley. As McEneny noted, “no corners were cut” on its lavish construction, which followed the financial boom produced by the Erie Canal.

Albany County Executive Mike Breslin was applauded when he referred to St. Joseph’s as a sacred site. “It’s been deconsecrated by the Catholic Church, but not by the people who worshiped here and lived here,” he said. Virginia Poyer, a former congregant of St. Joseph’s, recalled the church in happier days, when the lines for Christmas Eve mass reached all the way to Second Street. “It’s a great day, that’s why we have the great weather,” she said of the setting for the announcements.

The Ten Broeck neighborhood adjoins some of the most crime-ridden areas in the city, and is in need of more stabilization than can be provided by steel scaffolding on one building. “You can save a single building, but it takes a multi-pronged approach to save an entire neighborhood,” says Griffin. Preservation League president Scott P. Heyl and community activist Helen Black were among the speakers who urged support of the Neighborhood Reinvestment Act, a proposed state income-tax credit that provides financial assistance for home ownership of historic houses of all types.

What makes the Ten Broeck Triangle especially significant is its remarkably intact frontage of 19th-century houses. In summer of 2000, that frontage almost acquired a gaping hole when a county wrecking ball was set upon 41 Ten Broeck St., a long-vacant townhouse across from St. Joseph’s. The demolition was halted by an injunction filed by HAF, but not before most of the cornice and upper floor were torn off. A two-year court battle followed, resulting in a settlement that gave HAF the deed, along with $150,000 in county money to repair the structure’s Greek Revival façade.

Wednesday’s gathering appeared to cement a new era of cooperation between city, county and preservationists. Breslin said that passage of the Neighborhood Reinvestment Act would help to ensure that historic buildings like 41 Ten Broeck and St. Joseph’s “are taken care of early, before they get to this point,” while Jennings referred to HAF as “our partner” in securing the church’s future.

—Ann Morrow

Leif Zurmuhlen

Flesh for Fantasy

Last Friday, Albany’s Fuze Box hosted an evening-long extravaganza of provocative clothing and propulsive music. Flesh, sponsored by the Lark Street clothing shop Web of Threads, was a fashion show in celebration of, well, flesh. The festivities included a contest for the most provocative outfit, body painting and assorted devilry, all set to the beats of four different DJs. According to a trusted observer, the acres of skin displayed brought out some distinctly wolfish tendencies in the crowd.

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