CITY'S ARCHITECTURAL HERITAGE DIVERSE, EXTENSIVE

Bruce A. Scruton The Knickerbocker News
Section: TRICENTENNIAL,  Page: T52

Date: Sunday, July 6, 1986

As Albany entered its third century, most of its 95,000 inhabitants still were clustered in a relatively small area, centering on the docks and spreading north and south along the Hudson River.


Westward was still wilderness; the Pine Bush, which forms the city's western finger, was almost untouched. But a transportation revolution was changing the city's face. Streetcars, at first pulled by horses, were electrified in the late 1800s, sparking a change in living habits.


No longer did employers and employees have to live within walking distance of their factories. As long as they could walk to a streetcar stop, work was still easy to reach.


One of the city's first "suburban" developments was Pine Hills, which advertised itself as a planned community with restrictions on what could be built and "No Saloons in Pine Hills."


In his book, "Albany, Capital City on the Hudson," John J. McEneny noted the rowhouses that characterized downtown were being replaced with Pine Hills "villas," whose owners found themselves within a few blocks of the trolley lines, that ran "all the way to Quail Street."


The houses being built in Pine Hills were largely constructed of wood and had varying architectural styles. Many were one-family houses, in contrast to the two-family homes gaining popularity along Delaware Avenue, New Scotland Avenue and other areas of the middle city.


Two-family homes, with flats as each unit was called, were popular with homeowners who relied on rent from the second flat to pay for their homes.


"Density was no longer so important," said John Mesick of Mendel Mesick Cohen Waite Hall, an Albany architectural firm noted for its restoration work.


"A lot of row houses were still being built, but the two-family house was a way for small-scale speculation," he said. With a second floor to rent, "the range of people who could afford housing kept expanding."


If people looked down on Albany from the air, they would see ripples of housing styles radiating from downtown.


Row houses, built before mass transit, form the first ring. Further out are the two-family homes popular until the 1920s and furthest are the single- family units still being built today.


While trolleys helped develop many sections of the city, the Albany Automobile Club sponsored development along Academy Road and Lawrence, Glendale and Forest avenues, where modest bungalows were built.


The southern edge of Arbor Hill became more closely linked to downtown in the 1890s when the Northern Boulevard and former Hawk Street viaducts were built.


Three years after the city's Bicentennial, the first stones were laid for the Washington Avenue Armory and in 1898, the year before the 30-year-long project to build the state Capitol was finished, workers began Union Station.


As the city developed away from the river, the industries and economy of an inland port were deteriorating. The lumber industry, moving westward, found other ports along the Great Lakes. The sheds and warehouses of the Albany Basin lay in disrepair, becoming an eyesore.


The city formed a planning committee, focusing on the waterfront but also looking ahead at other neighborhoods.


Architect Marcus Reynolds, acting with city and railroad officials, designed the impressive Delaware & Hudson Railway headquarters building at Broadway and State Street. When it was finished in 1916, the Flemish- Gothic architectural wonder, now the home of the central administration of the State University of New York, effectively shielded part of the waterfront from downtown.


As construction techniques developed and elevators came into widespread use, buildings grew. Among the tallest in Albany in the World War I era was the Municipal Gas Co. on State Street, now occupied by Niagara Mohawk Power Co.


Mesick noted the taller buildings also coincided with the development of conglomerates and large financial institutions. "With a larger financial base, companies and banks could afford the larger buildings."


A trend, which continues through today, also developed, he said. The old State Bank building at North Pearl and State Streets was being expanded upwards in the mid-1920s.


Yet the developers were able to retain the facade of the original 1806 building, designed by Albany's first architect, Philip Hooker, and used much of the same type of brownstone and red brick.


The city's political powers weren't overly enthusiastic about the Work Progress Administration of the Depression, but did make use of the federal program to build the Livingston School in 1932 and create Bleecker Stadium from the old Bleecker Reservoir.


However, the WPA was the prime impetus to paving several miles of city streets, further expanding development of homes.


In the post-World War II years, Albany's housing stock leaped as builders tried to shelter 135,000 people. In 1950, 357 single-family homes were built.


Within a decade, suburbia had sprung up. Stuyvesant Plaza in Guilderland and Westgate Shopping Center on upper Central Avenue, within the city limits, were built in the 1950s, drawing shoppers from downtown and lower Central Avenue.


City living was cast aside in favor of the larger lots available in the surrounding towns. The 1960 Census reported 129,726 residents in Albany.


Always a mercantile center, Albany's focus shifted over time to the business of government. The thought of consolidating that business under one "roof" in 1962 was to bring the greatest single change in Albany architecture.


The South Mall - later called the Empire State Plaza and still later renamed the Nelson A. Rockefeller Empire State Plaza - became a granite and marble giant dominating the skyline of Albany.


The project ripped 98 acres from the heart of the city. According to McEneny, 1,500 buildings were razed and 3,100 families, representing more than 7,000 people, were displaced. Many moved out of the city, causing a further decline in population.


At the same time, the public office complex helped to generate a rebirth, as townhouses in the neighborhoods surrounding it underwent a transformation that continues today.


The downtown area between the Capitol and the Hudson River also has seen a new life, though no longer as a shopping district filled with department stores and specialty shops. Reflecting Albany's roots as a mercantile and financial center for a pioneering country, downtown is building its future in the financial and service areas.


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