New book celebrates capital city's architecture, where brick, stone, marble show civic riches

Section: Main,  Page: A1

Date: Saturday, February 6, 2010

ALBANY-- The exceptional quality of the architecture in this city of 94,000 belies its middling size, reflecting a faded Gilded Age glory as the capital of the Empire State and ambitions that knew no bounds.

There is nothing Smallbany about the city's inspiring towers and elegant row houses, songs of the architect's soul writ large in granite and brownstone.

Those who say the only major league sport played around here is politics will need to amend that assessment to include architecture after reading a new book, "Architects in Albany."

"When we get architects and architectural scholars passing through and we give them a tour, they're blown away," said Matthew Bender IV, a philanthropist who helped underwrite the cost of the book that pays homage to the city's architectural riches.

"Here's this middle-sized city with outsized architecture," Bender said.

The illustrated volume celebrates Albany's architects, some of whom were 19th-century rock stars, and also lays to rest a few urban legends about the buildings we have walked past for years without knowing the true story behind the impressive edifices -- and the healthy egos who willed them into being.

"We're lucky to have buildings from noted architects who were every bit as famous in their time as I.M. Pei and Frank Gehry are today," said Susan Holland, executive director of Historic Albany Foundation, who published the book in collaboration with Mount Ida Press. Profits go to Historic Albany.

"This book puts a face on architecture and teaches us about the personalities behind the buildings," Holland said. "I'd love to have met them, especially Walter Hunter Van Guysling." Van Guysling designed the former Keeler's restaurant on State Street, the R.B. Wing building on Broadway, Public School No. 14 (Schuyler High School) on Trinity Place and others.

One of the book's myth busters involves the genesis of the uptown University at Albany campus. Its massive elevated podium, covered colonnades and dormitory quadrangles were designed by Edward Durell Stone, a leader of the boldly original movement of early- to mid-20th-century architecture known as American Modernist.

In an essay in the book, Stone's son, architect Hicks Stone, explodes a myth that has made the rounds for more than 40 years. Local lore has it that his dad pulled the UAlbany design from his recycle bin and simply dusted off and reused a project that didn't come to fruition in either Arizona or Pakistan, depending on the story being circulated.

"I don't know how that got started and gained currency, but it's not true," said Hicks Stone, 54, principal of Stone Architecture, a firm in New York City with 10 architects. "My father did a project in Pakistan and he designed the Stanford Medical Center, which have similar motifs to the Albany campus. He was doing a lot of shaped columns, overhangs and brilliant white architecture in that era, which represents a synthesis of everything he had studied about architecture."

The son chronicled the influences behind his father's 1961 design of the UAlbany campus on 230 acres between Western and Washington avenues on a site that had been the Albany Country Club along an undeveloped western edge of the city.

Stone described his dad's "aesthetic vocabulary" in the UAlbany design as an amalgam of his admiration for Frank Lloyd Wright, ancient Roman planning, the Moorish masterpiece Alhambra and an intense dislike of automobiles.

Stone spoke by phone recently during a break from research in a library at Harvard University for a biography he's writing about his father for Rizzoli, a publisher known for its lavish coffee-table books. He recalled his dad dragging him to the construction site of the UAlbany campus when he was a kid of 11, in 1966, but he remembers little because he was a rebellious adolescent resisting his dad's efforts to steer him into architecture.

Stone also provided insight into the city's other famous Modernist work, the Empire State Plaza, which leveled dozens of structures on 98 acres in the heart of the city and displaced hundreds of residents. There is no shortage of critics who loathe both designs, the Plaza and UAlbany, but they form impossible-to-ignore 20th-century bookends that bracket four centuries of Albany's built environment.

Stone's father and the Plaza's architect, Wallace K. Harrison, were friends and both were close to Gov. Nelson A. Rockefeller, Harrison much more so than Stone. Harrison designed Rockefeller Center, the United Nations Headquarters and Lincoln Center, all in New York City.

"After Harrison declined to pursue the Albany campus project, there were three architects competing for the commission and one of them was my father," Stone said. "I came across a letter from my dad to 'Wally,' asking him to put in a good word for him on the Albany campus project." Rockefeller ended up awarding the job to Stone.

It wasn't the first time that Harrison gave Stone an assist. Stone was working on the 1932 design of Radio City Music Hall in Manhattan. "My dad was caught moonlighting and he was fired on Christmas Eve in 1933. He was desperate for work," his son said. "Wally Harrison hired him to design the Rockefeller Apartments on West 54th Street. My dad was forever grateful to Wally."

Stone and Harrison were latter-day giants who bestrode the Albany landscape, altering its skyline and sensibility in ways profound and lasting. But even before that dynamic duo rocked the city with their grandiose visions, there was no shortage of 19th-century celebrity architects: Philip Hooker (former state Capitol, previous City Hall, old Albany Academy); Fuller, Eidlitz and Perry (state Capitol); Henry Hobson Richardson (Capitol, City Hall); Marcus T. Reynolds (D&H Building); Palmer and Hornbostel (State Education Building).

In 1885, the nation's leading architectural magazine, American Architect and Building News, surveyed its readers on the Top 10 most beautiful buildings in America. Two buildings in Albany made the list, City Hall and the Capitol, which bear the Romanesque stamp of Richardson's genius.

"It's an absolute thrill to stand in front of the state Capitol and look in every direction," said Cornelia Brooke Gilder, an author and architectural historian who lives in the Berkshires and who wrote many of the essays in "Architects in Albany." She edited a 1978 booklet on the city's architects published by Historic Albany Foundation and agreed to work on the new book after Bender proposed to update and expand it to include 20th-century buildings.

"It's like a religious experience when I go into one of Albany's absolutely spectacular buildings, like the state Education Building or the state Capitol," said Gilder, who lived in Albany for four years in the early 1970s when she worked for the state on historic preservation issues. That's when she first met Diana Waite, an architectural historian, president of Mount Ida Press and wife of architect Jack Waite.

Waite drove all over the city, pressing Bender and other volunteers into service, to check and double-check addresses and details about an architect's oeuvre in Albany and to re-confirm what had survived the wrecking ball and what hadn't.

"The book looks simple, but the building lists were very difficult, pulling together pieces from a lot of sources and clearing up discrepancies," Waite said. The book is an irreplaceable reference.

"Albany was very fortunate that its great architecture wasn't torn down during the period of demolition and urban renewal in the 1970s," Gilder said. "When you travel around, you come to appreciate how much architecture Albany has managed to preserve."

Reach Paul Grondahl at 454-5623 or by e-mail at


Architecture chat

What: A talk on "Architects in Albany" by architect Bill Brandow and Susan Holland.

When: Noon, Tuesday

Where: Albany Public Library, main branch. 161 Washington Ave.

Info.:, 427-4300

"Architects in Albany" costs $24.95 and is available at the Albany Institute of History & Art, Book House of Stuyvesant Plaza and other locations.


Locations of some of Albany's historic buildings:

- Empire State Plaza, South Swan Street between State Street and Madison Avenue. Architect: Wallace K. Harrison. Built: 1962-1978.

- University at Albany, 1400 Washington Ave. Architect: Edward Durell Stone. Built: 1961-1971.

- R. B. Wing building, 384-386 Broadway. Architect: Walter Hunter Van Guysling. Built: 1913-1914.

- Mechanics' and Farmers' Bank, 63 State St. Architect: Russell Sturgis. Built: 1874-1875.

- City Hall, corner of Eagle and Pine streets. Architect: Henry Hobson Richardson. Built: 1880-1883.

- State Capitol, head of State Street hill. Architects: Henry Hobson Richardson, Leopold Eidlitz. Built: 1876-1883.

- Truck House No. 4, northeast corner of Delaware Avenue and Marshall Street. Architect: Marcus T. Reynolds. Built: 1910.

- Albany Trust Co., 31-33 State St. Architect: Marcus T. Reynolds. Built: 1902-1904.

- Saint Peter's Episcopal Church, northwest corner of State and Lodge streets. Architects: Richard Upjohn and Richard M. Upjohn. Built: 1859-1861.

- Temple Beth Emeth, 100 Academy Road. Architect: Percival Goodman. Built: 1957.

- Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, southwest corner of Eagle Street and Madison Avenue. Architect: Patrick C. Keeley. Built: 1848-1852.