turnout for the third and final public meeting regarding the
future of Albany’s historic St. Joseph’s Church necessitated
a move to a larger room. On July 23, approximately 50 people
filed into the Public Works Building on Henry Johnson Boulevard
to offer suggestions on reuse ideas for the local landmark.
The meetings were held by Historic Albany Foundation, which
received the deed to St. Joseph’s from the city in early June.
The foundation is exploring funding sources and options to
make the building financially feasible. The church, which
has been vacant for more than a decade and was declared a
hazard by the city in 2001, is in dire need of structural
and restoration work.
old into something new: Community members meet to decide
the future of St. Joseph’s Church.
Photo: John Whipple
Bender IV, chairman of the St. Joseph’s Reuse Committee, opened
the meeting with a proposal to convert the 1860 Gothic Revival
church into a “fiber-optically wired, high-tech elementary
school” that would be part of a multisite instructional center
operated under the auspices of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.
The conversion might be modeled on RPI’s Voorhees Computing
Center, Bender said. The Voorhees Center is located in a former
seminary chapel and contains a “building within a building”
created out of three- quarter-height partitions encasing a
beehive of computer terminals. The proposal did not elicit
a response from attendees.
Proffered reuse ideas ranged from a library—an option put
forth by committee member and president of the Ten Broeck
Triangle Preservation League Helen Black—to an African-American
museum, a suggestion from Albany Common Council president
Helen Desfosses. There were several requests for consideration
of a multipurpose arts and cultural space and/or reception
hall, as well as simply stated wishes for the church to be
made accessible to all city residents, and for its “beauty
and grandeur” to be preserved.
Wednesday’s meeting featured a slide show presented by HAF
employee Bill Brandow, a committee member. The slides pinpointed
the building’s trouble zone, a pitched intersection of the
roof that leaked water into the timber column underneath,
endangering the roof’s support and rotting the surrounding
plasterwork. Last year, the roof was stabilized with extensive
scaffolding, paid for with a city grant. The column’s larger-than-life-size,
hand-carved cherub was shown resting comfortably on a sandbag.
The slides also highlighted the building’s assets, including
its soaring, cathedral-style interior, and an intact collection
of stained-glass windows.
In addition to city money, St. Joseph’s received a $300,000
grant from the Department of Parks, Recreation and Historic
Preservation. But the state money needs to be matched; so
far, HAF has received $23,000—$20,000 of it from an anonymous
donation. Bender said that the committee will examine other
adapted historic structures, including the Nott Memorial in
Schenectady, and that a trip is planned for next month for
members to visit the Martin Luther King education center,
formerly St. Mary’s Church, in Buffalo. At the meeting’s conclusion,
committee member and HAF executive director Elizabeth Griffin
emphasized that public input is still being sought, and encouraged
anyone with ideas to submit them by writing, e-mailing, or
calling the foundation. Suggestions not implemented for the
church, she added, will be considered for the neighborhood’s
other vacant buildings, including nearby St. Joseph’s School.
Theatre Festival director Eric Hill squats on a chair behind
three tables, looking like an osprey waiting to swoop down
on the figures below. Hill then moves among the 23 assembled
cast members, whispering to them, “think pirate.” The “Act
V Fight, 10-12” rehearsal—the battle between Peter Pan and
his Lost Boys, and Captain Hook and his Pirates—starts in
the warm-up: various swashbuckling grimaces and grins begin
to sneak into the vocalizations. It’s the fifth rehearsal
in a 20-rehearsal process until the first preview of Peter
Pan, or the Boy Who Would Not Grow Up, a new adaptation
by John Caird and Trevor Nunn—two directing stars of England’s
Royal Shakespeare Company—of J. M. Barrie’s classic tale.
Then the troupe splits into Lost Boys and Pirates, each on
their own wing of the rehearsal hall. Captain Hook (Walter
Hudson, crackling with energy) stands center stage and says
in perfect sotto voce, “I smell acting,” and the battle begins.
For the next hour, 22 actors move through a focused and comic,
yet riveting, “battle.”
The Pirates cheer. Hill, director of some of BTF’s best productions
the past three years (Moby Dick Rehearsed, Camelot,
My Fair Lady), moves upstage left, and the Pirates
and Lost Boys repeat the first phrase of the fight. “Let’s
go back and do it again.” The cast again moves through the
first phase, Hill stopping them when the count is off, and
then they clash with more hyperbolic intensity, as if this
were a Harold Lloyd silent comedy.
Tommy acting, “ Hill says as he stops them. With Hill’s
encouragement, the crew tries out bigger movements and more
interaction, yet the focused presentation of the bodies—the
sweep of an arm, the striding of a leg, the twisting of a
neck as it’s stabbed in the mock fight—become even more exact
as they become more energetic. It’s mimed chaos, but each
actor is visible, and each story within the battle is clear.
This is a stunning achievement so early on with so large a
cast in so complex a fight: At the fight’s conclusion, Hill
says, “Care to see that again?” and the cast does the fight
During a brief break, Hill—a Suziki trained actor-director—talks
about the rehearsal’s objective: “Mornings are for physical
work. We do table work [analyzing the text] in the afternoon.”
One of the schisms in theater is between those who work “inside
out” (finding the emotional connection to the words) versus
those working “outside in” (those finding physical presentation
of the text), and the two viewpoints often clash. “I don’t
focus on all the emotional motivation. I leave that to the
actor. I need to get the physical life of a play. The actors
need time to figure that [emotional life] out. ‘We’ spend
too much time talking, and I see too much dead-from-the-neck-down
theater. I rearrange the exterior of the actor.
want the contributing energy from the actors. I want to make
sure the ownership process is there from the beginning. It’s
important that they feel that authority. Precision is everything,”
Hill concludes about the exacting presentation of each actor,
then the fight begins again. “Stretch and lean. Good. Good
dynamic tension. Don’t think there’s dialogue and fight movements.
They’re all connected.” And the next phase of the fight is
worked with a physical cleanness that makes getting each pause
an exact act of company precision.