no more: St. Josephs Church. Photo
by John Whipple.
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,
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.
Friday, Albanys 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.