POLITICOS LEFT THEIR STAMPS BUT LESS FAMILIAR NAMES MADE BIG IMPRESSIONS ON ALBANY, TOO

Kyle Hughes The Knickerbocker News
Section: TRICENTENNIAL,  Page: T64

Date: Sunday, July 6, 1986

Few Albany residents have never heard of Erastus Corning 2nd, Daniel O'Connell or Nelson Rockefeller. They are three politicians who, more than anyone in the last 50 years, put their personal stamp on the city.


But what about John Bogart, William Henry Johnson, Grange Sand, Isaac Perry, James Barclay Jermain or William Keeler? They all were city residents during the last 100 years who went on to make their mark in the world, and whose influence and work is still present today, even if their personal histories have faded. Chronicles of the times found in local libraries tell their stories, although many people are not mentioned, and women are not generally deemed worthy of note.


Despite the omissions and male chauvinism that colors the picture, Albany in the last 100 years has had its share of notables in entertainment, sports, commerce, industry and, especially, politics.


"There are more politics to the acre in the city of Albany than almost any other locality that can be named," an 1884 volume for visitors called "The Albany Hand-Book" concluded.


The book came out 37 years before the Democratic organization that continues to control city politics came into power. Its architects were Cornings and O'Connells, drawn together, legend says, by a deep interest in sports and cockfighting.


Daniel O'Connell, the leader, raised fighting roosters. The Cornings liked to watch matches, a popular pastime in pre-television America.


O'Connell, born in 1885, liked to keep a low profile in the newspapers, although he was feared and loved, and respected and loathed by generations of Albany residents.


"Since coming of age, Mr. O'Connell has been an active worker in the Democratic Party and stands high in the councils of its Albany County organization," a 1923 book called "Prominent People of the Capital District" reported.


In fact, O'Connell controlled the party and, for a half century, controlled much of city and county government in any instance that mattered.


Edwin Corning, whose son, Erastus Corning 2nd, served as mayor from 1941 to 1983, was a partner in the organization until he died in the 1930s. Edwin's brother, Parker, also was involved and and served in Congress in the early days of the Democratic machine.


The man who controlled Albany before the Cornings and O'Connells took over was Republican William Barnes Jr., grandson of famed 19th century journalist Thurlow Weed.


Barnes was a colorful figure who sowed the seed of his downfall when he came down on the side of management in a bitter and violent streetcar strike. "Labor is a commodity," Barnes said. He also opposed women's suffrage and the concept of primary elections.


He and the Republicans were booted out and, in the city at least, there they remain 65 years and innumerable elections later.


By 1921, Barnes was on the skids politically. Former President Theodore Roosevelt had labeled him a "corrupt boss." Soon, others would say the same about O'Connell, citing the story that any bar that wanted to stay open in the city had to sell beer from a brewery he owned.


O'Connell was also involved in a multi-million dollar baseball gambling ring, and was jailed on at least two occasions. Once it was in New York where, legend goes, one of his guards was a man named Ryan. Ryan's family ended up in Albany, a faction in the organization at odds with Corning loyalists. However, that is another story.


More to the point, what O'Connell built Erastus Corning 2nd inherited and consolidated. Today, many leaders of Albany city and county government are there in large part because Corning chose them.


It also was Corning who went along with then-Gov. Rockefeller's grand plan to tear down part of the city and build the Empire State Plaza.


As it happened, construction of the mall spurred a renaissance in downtown Albany that continues today. Not coincidentally, the plaza also serves as a memorial to Rockefeller.


While politics was the force behind much of Albany's vitality over the last century, other fields provided opportunity for achievement.


Bogart, born in Albany in 1836, was instrumental in the development of Washington Park. He also designed Prospect Park in Brooklyn, and liked to tell how, as a young man, he climbed a ship's mast to watch the famous Civil War naval battle between the Monitor and the Merrimack.


A contemporary of Bogart was William Henry Johnson, a black man who escaped to Albany from Virginia by way of the underground railroad in the mid- 19th century.


By 1900, Johnson had sucessfully pushed for anti-segregation and anti- discrimination laws in New York. He also convinced the state to forbid surcharges for blacks who took out life insurance policies, a common practice in those times.


Johnson died a pauper in a charity home on Central Avenue in 1918.


Another famous black resident was Henry Johnson, who lived in Sheridan Hollow before going to France during World War I. For his bravery, he became the first American to win the Croix de Guerre, France's highest military honor.


Today, when not obscured by cardboard boxes or cabinets, Johnson's portrait can be seen on a basement wall in City Hall.


The influence of Perry, born in 1822 in Bennington, Vt., is evident at the state Capitol.


After designing the Inebriate Asylum in Binghamton, Gov. Grover Cleveland put Perry in charge of building the Capitol, a job that lasted for years.


In the Capitol, Perry's work included designing the Senate staircase and the Court of Appeals room. Another Perry project was the Washington Avenue Armory, which today is home to National Guard troops as well as the Albany Patroons professional basketball team.


Another eminent Albany architect was Marcus Reynolds, who died in 1937. His works included the Delaware & Hudson building at the foot of State Street, now the headquarters for the State University system. The mammoth structure was modeled after a medieval guild hall in Ypres, Belgium.


Reynolds also built Hackett Junior High, the ornate Dutch revival city firehouse on Delaware Avenue, and the former Niagara Mohawk building at 126 State St.


Jermain, born in 1809, was not a builder himself, but a gift of his money built the Young Men's Christian Association home on North Pearl Street, which was converted in recent years into the Steuben Athletic Club.


Jermain, the son of a rich man, inherited wealth upon his father's death in 1869 and proceeded to become of the biggest philanthropists the Capital District has known.


He built a huge Presbyterian church in what was West Troy - now Watervliet - for $120,000 and paid for the construction of a home for orphaned children in what is today the town of Colonie.


As proprietor of Albany's most famous oyster house, Keeler was in the business of taking money in, not giving it away. He parlayed his shop on Green Street in the South End into a political career, becoming alderman, street commissioner and in 1882, Albany County sheriff.


"At first his patrons were few, but they reported so many good things about Keeler's little oyster-house, especially how well they liked his stews, that it was soon more largely patronized, til the place was thronged by newcomers from morning til late at night," a history book at the Albany Institute reports.


Keeler opened a big hotel that sold bushels of oysters and enjoyed immense financial success.


As one of the city's captains of industry, Sand was probably not unfamiliar with Keeler's accomplishments. Born in 1843, Sand went to Chicago to learn stove making and came to Albany a success in 1875. Stoves were a major industry in the city and nation in those days, and Sand was intimately involved in the financial affairs of the day.


He was also one of the founders of the Fort Orange Club, and was its president for six years.


Since baseball was the unofficial sport of Albany Democrats, it is fitting that the city sent at least two of its native sons to the World Series.


Mel Wolfgang, a beefy South Ender whose namesake grandson, Meldon Wolfgang III, is today Albany's Human Resources commissioner, played for the world champion Chicago White Sox.


Johnny Evers was another baseball hero, playing in several World Series games and wearing uniforms for the Chicago Cubs and the Boston Braves.


In recent years, Albany has sent a couple of young men to make their fortune in Hollywood: Jim Hutton and Bill Devane. Hutton died in 1979 but his son, Tim, has followed in his father's footsteps with great success. Devane, member of a well-known Albany family, has appeared in movies, on television and on the stage.


Albany got national recognition in 1984 when novelist William Kennedy won the Pulitzer Prize for "Ironweed," a novel set against the backdrop of the famous streetcar strike. It was the last in a trilogy about the city where Kennedy was born.


The first novel concerned a part- time Albany resident named Jack "Legs" Diamond, a famous Prohibition-era gangster and bootlegger who played at Kenmore Hotel and was shot to death in a rooming house on Dove Street. Since converted to a townhouse, the Center Square building was recently purchased by Kennedy.