Category Archives: Albany

Know your Presidents!

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Martin Van Buren

Image by carljohnson via Flickr

In honor of Presidents’ Day, our generation’s way of efficiently ignoring our country’s heritage of leadership by lumping two national heroes together, I thought I’d share with you some little-known presidential facts.

  • James A. Garfield never wore a tie. His assassination, often ascribed to a crazed anarchist, was in fact a calculated commission by the cravat cabal.
  • William Howard Taft was the only William Howard Taft ever to become president.
  • Franklin Pierce, although he came from New Hampshire, was the first future U.S. president to be born in the nineteenth century.
  • Chester Alan Arthur, buried right here in Menands, despised Martin Van Buren for being buried right here in Kinderhook. He also never hugged his mother.
  • Benjamin Franklin was the only president of the United States who was never president of the United States.
  • Millard Fillmore ran a small tailoring shop in the East Wing of the White House to supplement his income and, as he put it, “to keep my hand in.”
  • James Buchanan, who allowed the Confederate secession and the loss of Federal arsenals, forts and troops, often referred to himself as “the worst president in history.”
  • Calvin Coolidge enjoyed riding with the top down.
  • William Henry Harrison had no idea who “Tippecanoe” was, and John Tyler flatly refused to tell him.
  • Although historians and academics rarely acknowledge it, both Washington and Lincoln traditionally bought new bedding on their birthdays. Combining their birhdays into a single Federal holiday was meant to put an end to the Mattress Wars and ease the consciences of loyal Americans who fretted over which president to honor with a new mattress purchase.
  • There was no 24th president.
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A Tourist’s Guide through Albany

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Among the delights and pleasures of the worldwide web, Google Books, and public domain is the ability to discover, dissect, and disseminate tomes from yesteryear that were otherwise moldering in the locked “local history” room of the public library, available only to those willing to submit to the suspicions of the collections librarian and able to copy it all out in longhand. Thank you, computer age, for making it easier to connect to the past.

One of those discoveries has been “The Tourist’s Guide Through the Empire State,” edited and published by a Mrs. S.S. Colt in Albany in 1871, and, in the manner of the time, bearing even more title: “Embracing all cities, towns and watering places, by Hudson River and New York Central Route, describing all routes of travel, and places of popular interest and resort along the Hudson River, Lake George, Lake Champlain, the Adirondacks, Saratoga, Niagara Falls, etc. etc.” No small feat, but Mrs. Colt is quite up to it. There is way too much about Albany (or, as she titles it, The Capital City) to post in one stroke; there will be more. Enjoy this for openers. (All emphasis is, I assure, original to Mrs. Colt.)

The oldest city in the United States, excepting St. Augustine, is Albany. As such, it claims the reverence, not only of every true-hearted Dutch-man, but of every member of the universal Yankee nation, which has no geographical limit this side of Saturn’s rings. Until within a few years, Albany was, in every sense of the word, an old-fashioned town. The Present is still linked with the Past more inseparably here than in any other city in the State. To write of Albany, and disregard that conservative element which once admitted outsiders to a position in “good society,” under this protest –

“Take, take the Yankees in,
   And end this fuss,
Or be assured, my Lords,
   They’ll take in us!

would be to present but a dry narrative of dates and directory of Public Buildings.

Oh, there’s more . . . .

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Albany’s only “garage-IN” hotel!

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Wellington Hotel postcard.jpgMuch has been written about the demise (and hopefully redevelopment) of Albany’s Wellington Hotel. Saving the facade of the Wellington, the completely forgotten Berkshire Hotel, and the more glorious Elks Lodge turned out to be the best that could be hoped for after a couple of decades of not entirely benign neglect by speculators. While there seem to have been many stories of Albany history, political and personal, attached to better known landmarks like the Kenmore and the DeWitt Clinton, stories and images of the Wellington are scarce. But somewhere in my hoovering of the web, I came across this delightful old postcard from better times, unfortunately undated, that shows the forgotten extent of the Wellington. Its second building is forgotten but, as far as I can tell, still standing, and not part of the current redevelopment. Whether it connected to the State Street building underground, or if patrons were obliged to slog across Howard Street, I simply don’t know, though the attraction of a “garage-in” hotel would certainly be limited if the main part of the hotel wasn’t accessible from the garage. Anyone who knows more about how the Wellington was laid out, please feel free to comment.

(Like most typographical oddities, the odd emphasis on “Garage-IN” leads one to wonder if, hidden somewhere in Albany, there was a “Garage-OUT” hotel, making a similar claim.)

(Oh, yeah – click on the postcard to see it large!)

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The city gone by

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It’s hard to imagine how different the Albany of the past was from the Albany of today, how different the character of community and everyday life. I look at the old buildings as I walk or bike through town and imagine a time when things were very different. All 16 floors of the State Bank building were full (full!) with every kind of venture imaginable – a beauty salon on the 9th floor, offices of sand and gravel companies, the Buckeye Ribbon and Carbon Company, and more lawyers than you could shake a stick at. But Albany, like every other city, was filled with ventures that have been lost to globalism or time. Once it was home to a handful of piano makers, which is about how many there are in the world now (and the piano makers of Albany supported the felt makers of Dolgeville). But the city was home to all kinds of things that strike us as strange today, as evidenced by these clippings from the Sampson & Murdock 1907 Directory of the Cities of Albany and Rensselaer.

Harry Wild 1907.pngFor instance, lambs’ tongues. It’s hard to imagine a food supplier today who would highlight, of all the things in their inventory, the availability of lambs’ tongues. But Harry E. Wild apparently thought that was a major selling point in 1907.

But yes, there’s more . . . .

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Albany Girl Weds Prince of Spain

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As I was preparing the new section of my website, Torn From Yesterday’s Headlines!, I was organizing a set of newspaper clippings I had found in the course of doing genealogical research that had no relation to my family history but that were too interesting to ignore. And among those clippings (virtual clippings, mind you, found through online services) was this magnificent article from 1925, “Albany Girl Weds Prince of Spain.” Now, you would think that would merit more than an inch and a half of attention, but perhaps it was a busy news day. In any event, the whole story goes like this:


Daughter of Former State Senator Becomes Princess of San Fuastino

Rome. March 31 – (AP) – Miss Katherine Sage, daughter of former State Senator Henry M. Sage of Albany, N.Y., was married today to Don Ranieri Bourbon del Monte, prince of San Fuastino [sic]. The ceremony was performed by Cardinal Lega in the Church of San Tandrea, next to the Quirinal palace. Ambassador Fletcher gave the bride away. The new American princess has been an art student in Rome for the past two years.

Never mind the paper’s misspelling of San Faustino, the point here is that you would think that if an Albany native had become some kind of princess, that someone would know about it around here. Well, it turns out that Katherine Sage was, in fact, pretty well known.

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Albany, Dat’s De Only Town Looks Good to Me

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The things you run into when you’re cleaning up your hard drive. I’ve been holding on to this for a long, long time, torn between the campy excitement of a piece of 1904 sheet music that features my hometown (even if any town that rhymed with “me” might have worked) and the embarrassment of a slightly racist piece of ephemera from the era of blackface and exaggerated dialect for comic effect. But ultimately, it has to be shared.

I played a three-night stand
once upon a time,
In a town called Albany,
I met a sun-burnt maiden and
I gave her a ticket free.
Oh, well, she seen dat show, I met her den,
directly after matinee,
She caught my eye, now other towns
Ain’t one, two, six wid me.
We correspond, I know she’s fond
Of letters dat she gets from me
And when dis season closes
I’m a going back to Albany.

‘Cause dat’s de only town looks good to me,
It’s on de Hudson Riber and de N.Y.C.,
I’d rather live in dat fine old place,
Where I know I can see ma baby’s face
I’ve been in ev’ry town from A to Z,
Studied all de maps like A, B, C,
But dat is de one and only town
I’m gwine back to Albany.

I’m gwine to tell you more, well,
here I am out West,
In a town called Kankakee
Dese E flat burgs and water tanks, well
dey never made a hit wid me.
I never did four-flush, I’m in a rush,
Dat gal is waiting now for me,
She said she’d meet me at de train
Dat gets dere just a-fore three,
I’ll feel just right if I land to-night
In Rochester at half past three,
I’ll catch dat Empire express train
A buzzin’ back to Albany.


Where have all the bonnet bleachers gone?

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I started out on a hunt for information on a local building that’s undergoing demolition, and finding nothing on the Interwebs, turned to the historian’s version of carbon dating: city directories. Luckily a bunch of these are online now at Ancestry, because it’s tedious work going through them looking for addresses and business names. All I wanted to do was get some idea when this particular building, a former hotel, had started up and how late it had been there, because no one I knew could recall anything at all having been in the building in the last 25 years or more.

But of course instead I got lost in the portrait of a city that is no more, captured in the 1875 Albany City Directory.

For starters, it was a city that existed almost entirely in the area we call downtown. Smaller in population, endlessly more dense in those days before the automobile changed everything. Bounded as it still is by the Capitol to the west and the Hudson River to the east, Madison or Green to the south and perhaps Clinton Street to the north, it would appear there was hardly an empty office for dozens of square blocks. The place was absolutely full. And what businesses they were, a reminder of what our cities were like before refrigeration, rapid transportation, centralization and globalization changed everything. Downtown Albany was home to five cracker bakers, five cream of tartar dealers (an ingredient in baking powder), 12 iron founders, 12 marble workers, 20 news depots, and 25 printers. You wanted oysters? 14 oyster dealers took advantage of the overnight steamboats to New York City’s seafood markets. There were four piano manufacturers (but only two banjo makers). There were six sleigh manufacturers, six furriers, 5 leather curriers (a leather treatment method), and two places that exclusively pinked and marked fabrics. Bonnet getting dingy? There were five places to have your bonnet bleached and pressed. There was one foundry riddler, and if I knew what that was, I’d tell you, but he was presumably not in competition with the dealer in “Yankee notions.”

This isn’t to mention the notaries public and lawyers, who were legion. It’s hard to imagine how many people were packed into such a small space, how hectic and exciting the center of the city must have been. Now, after years and years of revitalization efforts, downtown is busy again, but the big towers are still riddled with vacancies, and the variety of services available to the lawyers and state workers who people the streets pretty much ranges from lunch to lunch, with one holdout jeweler and a couple of opticians thrown in for good measure. Even the variety of twenty years ago, with a bookstore or two, a semi-pro camera shop, and a couple of jewelers on Pearl Street, has been lost. Those spaces have mostly been taken over by restaurants and bars, which has improved the nightlife, but we’re still without the kind of destination retail that brings some character back to a downtown. Would even one Yankee notions dealer be too much to ask?

National Savings Bank

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National Savings Bank

At Howard and South Pearl Streets, the magnificent old National Savings Bank tower (and the much less magnificent corner of a modern parking garage).

This nearly unnoticed beauty that anchors the key intersection of State and Pearl Streets is the work of Marcus T. Reynolds, whose mark on Albany endures in a number of important buildings but who is most noted for the Delaware and Hudson Railroad headquarters, now the central administration building of the State University of New York.

This is shown reflected in the glassy anonymity of the IBM building across Pearl Street.


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It was one of those things that happens sometimes, a random comment that, when thought through, makes me realize how little I know about something. Some local urban explorers have gone through the Central Warehouse, a hulking old cold storage facility and urban eyesore anchoring the north end of the waterfront district at Colonie and Montgomery streets. I had always wanted to see what was inside this old mess and of course had been afraid to find out, but a building that has a rail line directly into it – and not on the ground floor – is inherently interesting to me. Their efforts were noted over at the All Over Albany site, and I suggested, not entirely in jest, that they should put the old Bab-O factory next on their list. This instigated a little bit of back and forth, as the younger generation apparently has no idea what Bab-O is (and reaching for a similar product, I could only come up with just-as-antiquated Ajax, Comet or Old Dutch. I guess they still make Cameo because that’s the brand at my sink). Bab-O was a nationally known brand of kitchen cleanser, an abrasive scrubbing powder. Still not a surprise that folks don’t remember it, as I was recently shocked to learn that you can’t find Spic ‘n’ Span anymore – at least not in the powder form that actually cleaned things. Listen, Swiffers are convenient, but they don’t clean much.

Then I had to ask, how did I know that old hulk was the Bab-O factory? It wasn’t a memory from my youth; I didn’t grow up in Albany, and there was no signage that I could see anywhere (unlike the effusive, and mislocated, Greenbush Tape & Label building next door). Did some digging through the hard drive and found a reference to a plan for a living history site in that section of Albany, which I vaguely remembered as having some industrial history of the building. Unfortunately, the link is broken, and the report gone, as far as I can tell. But I specifically remember that it identified the building as the former Bab-O factory. That alone should have been enough to set off a firestorm of Googling that will unlock the history of the building in about five minutes. But it didn’t. There’s a lot of interesting history associated with Bab-O, but little of it to do with the building on Broadway.

Bab-O was one of many products of B.T. (Benjamin Talbot) Babbitt, a soap manufacturer who established his company in New York City in 1836 (after a previous stint as a engine and pump manufacturer in Little Falls). A quick run through the New York Times archives shows a run of articles involving a major embezzlement from his company around 1877, and a further swindle at the hands of a “lady detective” a short time later.

Because I love nothing more than 19th century industrial boosterism, I have to quote from Bishop’s “A History of American Manufactures, from 1608 to 1860,” p. 615, in the chapter titled “Remarkable Manufactories of New York”:

“The Soap and Candle Makers of New York are among the most enterprising of her manufacturers. Believing, as Leibig asserts, that the quantity of Soap consumed by a nation is no inaccurate measure whereby to estimate its wealth and civilization, the firms of J. C. Hull’s Sons, Colgate, Enoch Morgan’s Sons, Babbitt, Hay, Pyle, Brown, and Fay, are doing their utmost to place America in the first rank of the wealthy and highly civilized nations of the globe. One of these houses (B. T. Babbitt) has a gigantic Soap Kettle 63 feet in circumference and 15 feet deep (said to be the largest in the world), which has a capacity to make 250 tons of curd soap at one time. The cost of the grease alone for a single charge is about $20,000.”

Alas, I know that Babbitt himself died in 1889, that he left his wife and daughter quite well off, and that the company was sold to the Mendleson Corporation in 1918. I know that their New York property, 46-50 West Street and running through to 76 to 82 Washington Street, was made available for “modern skyscrapers” in 1910; the corporate headquarters moved uptown and the factory to, of course, New Jersey. Indications of the Albany factory are scant – an officer who was a president of the Albany chapter of the National Assn. of Cost Accountants in 1927, a Times headline from 1964: “B.T. Babbitt Set to Move Business Unit to Albany.” Not much else. Babbitt himself is buried in scenic Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx. His Albany factory, most likely built long after his death, still stands. Anybody else know anything about it?

Views – from 787

From Broadway

Fourth Avenue view

Walking barefoot through the lumber district

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Is not at romantic as it sounds. Started the day with a bike ride down by the river, where I instantly regretted my failure to bring my camera. The fog was drifting over the river, and only over the river, about 20 feet high and so thick you couldn’t see the other side. And then the sun broke through from the other side, making it all magically beautiful. The Livingston Avenue Bridge appeared suspended in mist. Two big rowboats out on the river looked like they were beating in the clouds. A rescue squad was drilling with an overturned raft in the frigid waters just off the boat ramp. A million things to photograph, and me without my camera. Oh well.

So I ran up the bike path in the warming sun for the first time this season, popped out at Watervliet and into Schuyler Flats, where I watched someone fly a model airplane for a few minutes, had a little chat with him and took my leave. Climbed up into Albany Rural Cemetery and the skies started to darken; by the time I got to the gate on the other side, the skies opened up, but I could ride the road with my eyes closed, so it wasn’t really a problem. As I got back into the city and headed down Broadway, I thought of how good my chances of flatting were, with all the rain and so much crap on the streets. I’d barely thought it before there was a spectacular spray of air and water coming off my front tire, the kind of nice, high-pressure, leave no doubts blowout you just don’t see much anymore. Close to my destination, the rain having let up but not stopped, I didn’t feel like fixing a flat in that neighborhood or in the rain, so I took off my shoes and decided to sacrifice my socks for the cause as I walked carefully through the extremely rough pavement and sidewalks of the industrial neighborhood just off the north edge of downtown. Well, I’ve seen odder things in that neighborhood than a sopping wet, spandexed biker in sock feet walking his bike around. (In fact, it’s the odder things that worried me.)

Tally up TWO punctures in the front, so if I’d tried to patch, I’d have eaten up my annual CO2 cartridge supply and ended up walking anyway. My tires, after only 2000 km, look like they’ve had the pox, pitted and scarred and probably not much longer for this world. If only they weren’t so good, they’d be gone already, but I’ve been loving them, so let’s see if they can survive another couple hundred k.