The Albany Theatre Becomes the Home of St. Paul’s Church

As we saw in our earlier post, the first period for the Albany Theatre ended with Henry W. Preston’s surrender of the lease to the Albany Theatre Association on April 1, 1839. Fifteen managers in almost as many years had staged the best of drama with some of the finest actors of the time, but none was able to consistently make money for the investors. The Association chose to sell, and found an unusual purchaser. Just as had happened with the Green Street Theatre earlier in the century, the Albany Theatre was sold to a church, St. Paul’s Episcopal.

St. Paul’s, Ferry Street

In February 1839, St. Paul’s was a dozen years old, but like the theater, had never been able to find financial security. Founded in 1827, the congregation had moved two years later into their new building on South Ferry Street. In this period, Albany was growing rapidly as a result of the completion of the Erie Canal. Trade on the canal brought in many new residents, and the South End was the area of most rapid growth. St. Paul’s was something of an experiment: the hope was that the new congregation could attract St. Peter’s parishioners who had moved to the South End, but also draw residents of the area who were unchurched. This plan would only work if those attracted were able to support the church by purchasing a pew and paying an additional annual pew rent. At that time, this was the most common way of supporting a church.

Diagram of Ferry Street Church, showing pew appraisals

The new church building was quite expensive, and the vestry went deep into debt, assuming that they would be able to pay the principal and interest as new members purchased pews. But the expected influx of new residents did not occur, and those newcomers who did join were not able to purchase pews. St. Paul’s found itself on the underpopulated edge of the city, with pews not paid for, and unable to pay its creditors. The congregation struggled for several years, but the crisis came in January 1839, when a court ordered them to sell the building in order to pay the creditors.

We do not know if St. Paul’s vestry had another option, but we do wonder why they chose a new site only three short blocks from St. Peter’s Church, the other Episcopal Church in the city of Albany. In the same January 24 vestry meeting at which the decision was made to sell the Ferry Street building, the vestry also agreed to obtain a right of refusal for purchase of the theater. And they took the first steps toward modifying the theater by hiring Henry Rector “to draw plans and estimate expenses of alterations necessary to convert the Theatre into a Church.” A month later, the vestry closed the sale on the theater, and approved plans by Rector to convert the building for use as a church.[i]

And so St. Paul’s moved from one Philip Hooker-designed building (the Ferry Street church) to another (the Albany Theatre). This was doubly appropriate, because Hooker’s parents had been among the earliest communicants of St. Paul’s.[ii]

At the sale of the building, the Albany Theatre Association turned over all the original stock certificates to St. Paul’s. The association also provided the congregation (for reasons that are not clear) with a “Schedule containing a list of Scenery &c in the Theatre belonging to the proprietors.”

Booklet documenting sale of Albany Theatre stock to St. Paul’s Church

With sale of the Ferry Street building in July, St. Paul’s had no place to meet. The congregation of St. Peter’s invited the homeless congregation to join with them during the interim, and the two congregations met together for the next eight months, with the two rectors, William Ingraham Kip and Horatio Potter, sharing clerical responsibilities. This was the second time the congregations had share ministers. The first was 1832, when St. Paul’s rector, William Linn Keese, also served St. Peter’s, when it was between rectors.

Trinity Church (image credit: Albany Group Archive)

But the entire congregation did not leave the South End. In a major split, a number of St. Paul’s families, including those of several vestry members, chose to stay in the South End and continue faithful to the original purpose. They formed a new congregation, to be known as Trinity Church. The new congregation was not strong or wealthy in its early years, but by 1848 they were able to build a handsome building on what is now Trinity Place, where they remained until they closed in about 1980.[iii]

As to the modifications necessary, Dr. Kip remembered later that “there was nothing left of the original edifice, but the four walls and roof.”[iv] The extent of the modifications is confirmed by a 14-page proposal in our archive (probably the Henry Rector plan), with detailed description of the modifications, beginning with the statement:

To accomplish the object intended, it will be necessary first to remove all the floors, partitions, boxes, seats & etc. in the interior of said building; leaving the whole area enclosed by the exterior walls from the cellar to the [word illegible] of the principal tie beams in one unencumbered space and then proceed to the construction of the walls, partitions, floors, galleries, seats, pulpit, chancel, ceilings and rooms for sextons & etc. as shown by the annexed plans.

Given the congregation’s financial condition, there were limits to what could be done. They were not able, for instance, to afford stained glass for the windows, and had to settle for “common ground glass.”[v]

St. Paul’s was, however, able to afford a new organ, replacing the instrument sold with the Ferry Street building. Negotiations began in early 1839, and by May of that year, the New York City musical instrument dealer Firth and Hall had agreed to liberal financing. This instrument, designed and built by Thomas Robjohn, under contract with Firth and Hall, was installed in September 1840.[vi]

The women of the parish also raised money to purchase communion chalices and paten that are still in use at St. Paul’s.[vii]

One of the chalices purchased in 1839

The extensive renovations took longer than expected. The congregation initially expected to be in the new building by November 1839[viii], but the renovations were not completed until February of the next year.

The remodeled building was consecrated by Benjamin Treadwell Onderdonk, Bishop of New York. The event had originally been scheduled for February 21, but “in consequence of the state of the roads” the bishop was not able to reach the city, and it was postponed until February 22.

A newspaper account of the consecration describes the renovated building:

We have heard but one opinion of the interior of this spacious edifice. Without pretension to architectural display, the effect is nevertheless admirable – and the arrangement and rich but chaste finish, well adapted to the sacred uses to which the building is now appropriated.[ix]

This account concludes with the reminder that the sale of pews would begin the next day. St. Paul’s continued to fund itself by the sale and rental of pews, and would for the next 80 years. It was not until 1927 that St. Paul’s did away with pew rents, despite a growing consensus in the denomination that pledged contributions were a much better option for supporting a congregation.

Pew Deed to William M. Gregory, dated 1 Jun 1854

While the choice of a theater so close to St. Peter’s seems odd, the vestry’s selection was a happy one, because the congregation flourished on South Pearl Street. Despite the closeness to St. Peter’s, the building’s location was an advantage. In the 1830’s, Pearl Street was one of the most prestigious residential areas of the city, and many neighbors became members of the new congregation. Barent P. Staats, a member of the 1827 vestry, described the situation in 1839 forcefully: “it [the church] was discovered shortly after the present [i.e., present rector, William Ingraham Kip] came to be hopelessly wrecked and it was absolutely necessary to take a new position & in reality to begin a new enterprise.”[x] Indeed it was a new enterprise. Rather than attempting to attract newcomers, as did those who broke off to form Trinity Church, St. Paul’s was now situated to attract Albany’s better class. As J. Livingston Reese, St. Paul’s rector 25 years later wrote: “It is most probable that this change of location saved the parish from ultimate extinguishment, and brought it where it could reach a larger and more influential part of the population.”[xi]

1858 receipt from the Albany Insurance Company on St. Paul’s South Pearl Street building

A later rector said:

I do not think it too much to say, that it was while St. Paul’s congregation worshipped in the edifice on South Pearl street, that it attained its greatest influence and distinction. This was practically during the long and brilliant rectorship of the Rev. Dr. William Ingraham Kip, who became rector in 1827 [actually 1837] and remained at the head of the parish until 1853.[xii]

Wm. Ingraham Kip at St. Paul’s altar (from an 1847 portrait by William Tolman Carlton)

Kip left St. Paul’s in 1853 to become missionary bishop of California. He was succeeded by two very strong leaders: Thomas A. Starkey (later Bishop of Newark, New Jersey) and William Rudder (subsequently long-term rector of St. Stephen’s, Philadelphia). Kip and Rudder were particularly known for their dynamic preaching, which attracted many new members.[xiii] Starkey was known for his pastoral skills, and for his interest in social outreach, including the creation of St. Paul’s Church Home for Women.

Thomas A. Starkey

During these years, the new Robjohn organ was presided over by a series of remarkable musicians: William L. Reston[xiv], Oliver J. Shaw[xv], John Underner[xvi], and William M. Daniell[xvii].

In a letter to the editor of the Albany Evening Journal, an Albanian signing himself “A Listener” provided this review of one of St. Paul’s services in its first year on Pearl Street:

I last evening had the pleasure of attending services in St. Paul’s Church, and I confess myself highly pleased with the whole service. Mr. Kip gave us a very highly finished sermon, at the same time calculated to carry conviction to the conscience of every individual. His was was “the second coming of our Lord to judge the world,” and the solemnity of the scene was heightened by the impressive manner of the speaker.

The organ (which by the way is one of the finest I ever listened to), was handled in an admirable manner by Mr. Shaw, a gentleman who stands deservedly high as an organist. The rich full chords, the perfect harmony, the ease and grace of the movement, spoke the master of the instrument. On the whole, the prospects of the church are flattering as could be wished, and the congregation are highly favored with the privilege of such religious instruction.[xviii]

This series culminated with George William Warren[xix], St. Paul’s most illustrious organist and choirmaster of the nineteenth century.

Rock of Ages by George William Warren

We have very few descriptions of the building’s interior in this period. One is most unflattering:

To the Wardens & Vestry of St. Paul’s
Church, Albany —
Gentlemen, —

When I purchased the pew in your Church, I was assured that a window would be opened at the north end of it. At present on a cloudy day or when an assemblage of darkly dressed persons are in front of us, you might as well attempt to read in a coal-hole. The pew will no longer answer us and I therefore return your deed on which I have paid my first instalment. You will probably be of my opinion that some portion of it may be & ought to be refunded to me.

Remaining Gentlemen

Your obt. Servant

Charles Smyth[xx]
Albany 8th January
1842

We also have a brief description from one of the choirboys in George William Warren’s short-lived boy choir. Writing more than fifty years later, Charles M. Nickerson remembered that the boys sat in the organ loft, with the organ to their right and the quartet choir on the other side.

When the sermon began, it was our wont to draw the curtain that hung over the front of the organ gallery and then slip out one by one by the door behind the organ into the Sunday School room, there to regale ourselves on candy and peanuts and enjoy general conversation until a signal from the choirmaster [George William Warren] called us back for the offertory hymn. This was in the old St. Paul’s the one time theatre on South Pearl St. The Sunday School room in the rear of the organ loft had no doubt served as the lobby or bar of the theatre.[xxi]

George William Warren

The “organ loft and and north room” are again mentioned in vestry minutes in 1858, when major renovations were made “fitting up and arranging the organ loft and north room with carpets, gas, painting, gilding and decorating for the convenience of the musical director and the choir” as part of the May 1857 negotiations to rehire George William Warren for his final three years at St. Paul’s. These expenses contributed to the church’s budget shortfall, requiring the next year a plea from the vestry for pew-owners to increase their pew rental.

By 1860, the advantages of the Pearl Street location had faded. The neighborhood had changed from largely residential to commercial. The vestry determined to look elsewhere in the city and sold the Pearl Street building.

William Rudder, rector at that time later remembered:

The old church had served its purpose, and its day of fullest usefulness was gone. The part of the city in which it was situated had completely changed its character within a few years. The church had become hemmed in by places of business, and by other surroundings of a very undesirable character; and the congregation was drifting away, and more and more each year, to the more desirable western portions of the city. Under these circumstances the vestry determined to build a new church edifice to meet the new conditions of the case, and one more worthy of the position and ability of the parish.[xxii]

William Rudder

In October 1862 the building was sold for $14,000 to Hugh J. Hastings, who a yer later leased it to theater architect John M. Trimble.[xxiii] In our next segment, we will follow the building’s history as Trimble makes the church once more a theater: the Academy of Music.

[i] Joel Munsell, The Annals of Albany, Series 2, Volume 3 (Albany: Joel Munsell, 1871), 338-339.

[ii] Samuel Hooker (1746-1832) and Rachel Hinds Hooker became communicants of St. Paul’s in July and August 1830 respectively. The couple moved to Utica, New York in 1832.

[iii] Joel Munsell, The Annals of Albany, Series 2, Volume 3 (Albany: Joel Munsell, 1871), 337-394.

[iv] John Edward Rawlinson, “William Ingraham Kip: Tradition, Conflict and Transition” (Ph.D. dissertation, Graduate Theological Union, 1982), 18, quoting a 9 Apr 1852 letter from Kip to Thomas N. Stanford, partner in the publishing firm of Stanford & Swords.

[v] Rawlinson, 18.

[vi] Albany Argus 4 Sep 1840. Correspondence and the bill of sale are held in the archives of St. Paul’s Church.

[vii] Rawlinson, 18, quoting a 29 Oct 1839 letter from Kip to Mr. Sherman.

[viii] Parochial report for St. Paul’s, Albany in Journal of the Proceedings of the Fifty-fifth Convention of the Diocese of New York: Held in St. Paul’s Chapel in the City of New-York on Thursday, October 3d and Friday, Oct. 4th, A.D. 1839 (New York: Printed for the Convention), 1839, 67. A vestryman, Simeon DeWitt Bloodgood, had also hoped that the congregation would be in the new building by fall (Bloodgood’s 30 Mar 1839 letter to Harmanus Bleecker, transcribed in Harriet Langdon Pruyn Rice, Harmanus Bleecker: An Albany Dutchman 1779-1849 (Albany: William Boyd, 1924), 187-188).

[ix] Albany Argus, 25 Feb 1840.

[x] St. Paul’s vestry minutes, volume 2, 77.

[xi] “Historical Sketch of St. Paul’s Parish: From a Sermon of the Rector,” in The Semi-centennial Services of St. Paul’s Church, Albany, N.Y. 1877 (Albany: The Argus Company, 1877), 13.

[xii] William Prall, “The Past, Present and Future: A Sermon Preached January 26th, 1902 in Commemoration of the Seventy-Fifth Anniversary of the Founding of the Parish of St. Paul’s, Albany, N.Y.,” 4.

[xiii] Brooks, “Sermon delivered by the Reverend Roelif Hasbrouck Brooks on Sunday morning, November 17th, 1907, in commemoration of the Eightieth Anniversary of the Founding of St. Paul’s Parish in the City of Albany,” printed in St. Paul’s Year Book for 1907, pages 7-8.

[xiv] St. Paul’s organist 1839-1840. Born about 1811 in England. Organist at St. John’s Church, Kirkheaton, West Yorkshire. Teacher at the Albany Female Academy.

[xv] St. Paul’s organist intermittently between 1840 and 1847. Born about 1817 in Providence, Rhode Island, son of noted composer Oliver Shaw. Active there and in Bangor Maine. Music teacher, performer and composer of popular music in Albany 1841-1852 or later. Moved Utica where he was again active as performer and teacher until his death in 1861

[xvi] St. Paul’s organist 1846-1847. Born 1829 in Albany, member of a prestigious musical family. Composer, accompanist to Jenny Lind on her United States tour. Died 1904.

[xvii] St. Paul’s organist and choirmaster 1847-1848. Born 1811 in England, educated at the Royal College of Music, accomplished horn player as well as organist. Died 24 Aug 1892 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

[xviii] Albany Evening Journal, 21 Dec 1840. City directories from 1858 – 1860 show a number of wholesale and retail groceries in the block. One neighbor “of a very undesirable character” was the Empire House on the corner on South Pearl and Beaver, with 42 guest rooms that seem to have been particularly favored by actors, and a “lager beer saloon” on the first floor.

[xix] St. Paul’s organist and choirmaster 1848-1856 and 1857-1860.

[xx] Charles Smyth (1783-1844) was a St. Paul’s vestryman for a single year (1835), possibly serving out another’s unexpired term. He had earlier served for ten years on St. Peter’s vestry. Smyth was in business in Albany with James Byrne, doing business as Byrne & Smyth, “vendue and commission business” as early as 1803. Later he was in partnership with James Wood (as Wood & Smyth), dissolved 1814. In 1818 (seven years before completion of the Erie Canal), he was assuring transportation of goods to the upper Great Lakes (Detroit and Sandusky) “by the most faithful and experienced teamsters” for no more than $4.50 per hundred-weight. Later he was involved in shipping, both in steam-boats on the Hudson River, and on the Erie Canal.

[xxi] Charles M. Nickerson, “St. Paul’s Choir of Fifty Years Ago” pages 25-26 of St. Paul’s Year Book for 1907. Is Nickerson perhaps referring to the second floor saloon, or the third floor area for refreshments mentioned in Hooker’s description of the theater?

[xxii] “Sermon of the Rev. William Rudder, D.D.,” in The Semi-centennial Services of St. Paul’s Church, Albany, N.Y. 1877 (Albany: The Argus Company, 1877), 35-36.

[xxiii] “An Academy of Music,” Albany Morning Express 13 Oct 1863. “Fire This Morning,” Albany Evening Journal 29 Jan 1868.  H.P. Phelps (in The Players of a Century. Albany: Joseph McDonough, 1880, pages 329-330) reports that Hastings sold the building to Trimble for $5,000 cash and a mortgage of $10,000. This cannot be correct. When the building was destroyed in 1868, Hastings was still the owner, with Trimble’s widow holding a ten year lease, with a right to purchase in five years.

2 thoughts on “The Albany Theatre Becomes the Home of St. Paul’s Church

  1. Pingback: Henry Yates Satterlee | Grain, Once Scattered

  2. Pingback: The Academy of Music | Grain, Once Scattered

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