Category Archives: Demolition

The Oil Painting of St. Paul’s Lancaster Street Church

Painting of Lancaster Street Building signed “J. Lyons”

Thanks to our energetic building and grounds committee, the Blue Room has been freshly painted, and for the first time in years is actually blue! With that done, the oil painting of St. Paul’s home on Lancaster Street has been hung once more, so this seems a good time to share what we know about it.

The view is of the church in winter, with many of the houses surrounding it on the south side of Lancaster between Hawk and Swan Streets also visible. It is particularly nice that we can see a bit of the rectory  to the right of the church. As I’ve mentioned before, we have only one good photograph of that structure.

St. Paul’s Church and Rectory

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We can date the scene very precisely. You will notice that the church’s brick, originally buff-colored, has been painted white. This painting was done in the summer of 1960, in an effort to help spruce up the declining neighborhood. That gives us the earliest date for the view.

Father Parke supervises painting [Times Union 9 Jul 1960]

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The latest possible date is sometime before spring 1964, by which time all the buildings to the west of the church (including the recotry) had been demolished. We can say then, with certainty, that the artist shows the church as it looked between 1960 and late 1963 or early 1964.

St. Paul’s Church and Rectory, 1963 or 1964 (photo credit: Times-Union Archive)

St. Paul’s Church after demolition of Rectory, 1963 or 1964 (photo credit: Times-Union Archive)

We also know who donated the painting. According to an article in the Knickerbocker News for May 18, 1966, it was the gift of Dr. Susan Seabury Smith, then associate professor of Library Science at the State University of New York at Albany (now University at Albany), and director of curriculum and library services for Columbia High School in East Greenbush.

But who was the artist? The painting is clearly signed “J Lyons,” but there is no other identification. The 1966 Knickerbocker News article says only that the painting was “by an artist named Lyon.” I’ve looked in period newspapers for a Capital Region artist named Lyons, but found nothing so far. One possible direction for the search would be to colleagues or friends of the donor, Dr. Smith. I noticed that the chair of the art department at Columbia High School  in East Greenbush was Lawrence Lyons. His wife’s name was June. Is it possible that June Lyons was the artist?

 

Where was St. Paul’s Lancaster Street Building?

Where was St. Paul’s Lancaster Street building? Sounds almost as silly as asking “Who is buried in Grant’s tomb?”

The answer of course, was on the south side of Lancaster Street, halfway between Hawk and Swan. But the building (and 98 acres in the heart of Albany), was demolished in 1964 to make room for the South Mall. So let’s reframe the question: where, in what we now call the Empire State Plaza, was St. Paul’s building? Many think it was near where the Center for the Performing Arts (popularly known as “the Egg”) now sits, but we’ve known for some time that it must have been farther west, somewhere between Agency Buildings 3 and 4.

Thanks to the New York Public Library, we can now answer the question precisely and definitively. The NYPL web site has images of a detailed 1876 map of Albany showing the church’s location. And they recently added software that allows the user to lay the old map precisely over the current Google map of the same area. The result is below.

1876 Map of St. Paul’s neighborhood, with overlay of 2014 Google map

The darker portions of the image are from the Google map. You can clearly see the edge of the Plaza Concourse in blue near the bottom right corner; the large green rectangle is the park-like area on the Plaza’s northwest corner, between South Swan Street and Agency Building 4 (shown in dark gray). In the bottom left in orange is the South Mall Arterial and immediately above it is Agency Building 3, also in dark gray.

The older map appears in lighter shades of gray, showing the streets, lots and major buildings as they existed in 1876.  And yes, hovering  just off the north corner of Agency Building 3 is the ghostly  St. Paul’s, labeled simply “Church.”

St. Paul’s Church and Rectory

The Plaza’s Central Air Conditioning Plant and Transformer Vault lies beneath what was once an entire city block, the block on which St. Paul’s stood. As we’ve mentioned before, St. Paul’s hopes for staying in their building as part of  the South Mall  were dashed when the block was chosen for the cooling and heating facility. St. Paul’s rector, Nelson F. Parke, reported that at a meeting with St, Paul’s vestry in September 12, 1962, the State’s Assistant Commissioner of Housing

told us quite bluntly that plans for the South Mall in the block bounded by Lancaster, Hawk, Jay, and Swan Streets were such that the continued existence of the Church at its present location was entirely impossible, that the demolition of the Church was inevitable, that we would have only three years in our edifice before it was torn down, and that the possibility of our being able to relocated in the South Mall area was extremely remote.

But St. Paul’s was not to have even three years. In May 1964, the Commissioner of the Office of General Services wrote St. Paul’s new rector, J. Raymond McWilliam, to inform him that

Our present schedule calls for the completion of construction plans and specifications for the Central Air Conditioning Plant and Main Transformer Vault by July 1, 1964. They would then be advertised for bids calling for initiation of work by about mid-August. The site extends from Chestnut Street on the north to Jay Street on the south, and the area to be excavated includes the entire Church property.

This work will require the severing of underground utility lines (gas, water, sewer), the relocation of the underground telephone duct system, and the closing of Jay, Lancaster and Chestnut Streets. The extensive excavation (which at the site of the Church will average about 30 fee in depth) and the other construction activities will create such disturbance in the general area that even if it were possible to program the construction so as to delay the need for the Church property as long as possible, I believe the conditions would soon become disheartening to your congregation.

The commissioner ended the letter by asking that St. Paul’s vacate the building by the end of August 1964, almost a year earlier than had been promised. The last service in the Lancaster Street building was held July 26, 1964, and the building was demolished in October of that year.

Diagram of proposed Empire State Plaza microgrid

St. Paul’s location has been in the news again lately, when it was announced that the main switchgear for the new heating and cooling system would be placed int the central air conditioning plant, precisely where St. Paul’s stood until its demolition in October 1964,

St. Paul’s Episcopal Church is demolished to make way the South Mall Oct. 19, 1964, in Albany, N.Y. Historic buildings and streets 1960s, Empire State Plaza. (Times Union archive)

The Geer Memorial Pulpit

Last year St. Paul’s Church celebrated its fiftieth year in the Hackett Boulevard building. Some parishioners have wondered why there are so few items from the previous church in this 1966 building. Today we discuss one item from the Lancaster Street Church that could not be incorporated into the new building, and how it came to be preserved and protected for future generations.

When St. Paul’s vestry met on September 12, 1962 with William F. Meyers, New York State’s Assistant Commissioner of Housing, he told them that they would have three years before the building was demolished. It was to be a far shorter time. Because St. Paul’s property (church, parish house and rectory) were in the area designated for the South Mall’s central air conditioning and main transformer vault, the demolition had to occur early in the mall’s construction. In May 1964 the vestry was told that they would have to vacate the building by the end of August of that year. After some negotiation, the congregation agreed to hold their last service in the building on July 26, 1964. That same day, ground was broken for the Hackett Boulevard building.

Architect’s rendering, Swann Street Building, South Mall

Father Nelson Parke had passionately argued for the value of the many memorials in the Lancaster Street building. And Grace Gunderson, a member of the Temporary State Commission on the Capital City (the organization that was planning the South Mall), had proposed “to save and move the sanctuary and memorial objects such as the stained glass windows, and build a new church around them.” The vestry had to quickly determine which objects from the Lancaster Street building could be moved to the Hackett Boulevard church.

J. and R. Lamb windows, Hackett Boulevard Narthex

A dozen of the stained glass windows from the Lancaster Street building would be placed in the new church’s narthex. Room was also found for brass plaques honoring Harry Van Allen and those who lost their lives in World War II. Many items from the chapel could be used in the new building; many other memorials would be buried under the new altar.

Harry Van Allen Memorial Plaque

Memorial plaque for World War II Dead

The solution, however left a large number of other objects which could not be used in the new building. All of these objects were the property of New York State, which had taken the entire church by eminent domain on March 27, 1962. The State sold fifty-five lots of items at auction held in the last days of July 1964, including smaller stained glass windows, pews, paintings and doors. Lot number 44 “Pulpit – decorative sold oak” went to the Champlain Conference of the Wesleyan Methodist Church for $13.00.

The pulpit had originally been donated in 1883 by Robert Geer, in memory of his two wives: Mary Sophie Gere (1837 – 1868) and Rhoda Kellogg Shed (1837 – 1882). Robert Geer was born in Ledyard, Connecticut in 1837. He worked as a druggist in Norwich, Connecticut, then in Syracuse, New York. In 1865, he moved to Albany, where he represented the Salt Company of Onondaga, in which his first wife’s family played a prominent role. In Albany, Robert Geer was also president of the Board of Trade and served as a bank director.

In 1883, six months after the death of his second wife, Robert Geer wrote a confidential letter to St. Paul’s vestry, explaining that during her last year Rhoda S. Geer had “several times expressed the wish that some one would place a new memorial pulpit in St. Paul’s Church.” Both women had been confirmed at St. Paul’s and were communicants of the congregation. Having consulted with the rector, J. Livingston Reese, Geer commissioned the pulpit in memory of his wives, and asked the vestry’s permission to place it in the church.

J. Livingston Reese

From church records, we know that work was designed by Robert W. Gibson, architect of All Saints’ Cathedral, and designer of the pulpit in St. Peter’s Church. The pulpit was executed by Annesley & Co., the Albany firm that also made the bishop’s throne at the Cathedral of All Saints.

The Geer memorial pulpit remained in place in the Lancaster Street building for the next 81 years, but its future in summer of 1964 was far from certain. If the pulpit was not claimed by the Wesleyan Methodists before demolition began, it would become the property of the demolition contractor, to be disposed of as the contractor saw fit.

Flora Myers Brady Gavit Memorial Organ and Geer Memorial Pulpit

But two weeks following the sale, Hugh M. Flick, Associate Commissioner of State Department of Education (and State Historian) intervened. In an August 14, 1964 letter to General C.V.R. Schuyler, Commissioner of New York State Office of General Services, Frick wrote:

“…I have personally examined the carved wooden pulpit in St. Paul’s Episcopal Church on the Mall. This pulpit was carved by Camillo Kramer and is an unusually fine example of Albany handicrafts. Miss Camilla Kramer is still living and we will seek to glean from her reminiscences concerning her father and other woodcarvers in Albany.”

Flick formally requested that the pulpit be preserved, and transferred to the collection of the State Department of Education. General Schuyler responded positively the next day, and within the week, arrangements had been made to remove the pulpit from the church and place it in the Department of Education warehouse at 1260 Broadway. If it had not been for Hugh M. Flick’s intervention, the pulpit might have permanently left the city of Albany, or might even have been destroyed.

Geer Memorial Pulpit

It is certainly a impressive piece of furniture: almost seven feet from base to top of the lectern, and monumental in scale. But it must have been the angels that impressed Flick. Each figure is carved in fine detail, with very distinctive features, as though each were based upon a real individual. How did Flick recognize it as the work of Camillo Kramer? We have been unable to locate any further documentation from the State Education Department, though I have not yet checked Hugh M. Flick’s correspondence from this period. I have been unable to find other examples of Kramer’s work, but Flick was too careful a historian to make an attribution without some evidence.

Geer Memorial Pulpit: Angel with hands clasped

Camillo Kramer was born in Prussia in 1846, and emigrated to the United States about 1870, settling first in New York City. He must have trained as a wood carver in Germany, because that is the first occupation listed in city directories. Kramer came to Cohoes about 1877, working as a carver for a furniture manufacturer. He came to Albany in 1882, the year our pulpit was built. He does not appear in business listings for several years, and we assume that he was working for other firms, possibly including Annesley. He established a shop at 8 Green Street (on the corner of Beaver Street) in 1888. That first year he is listed as a wood carver, but by the next year he had switched to another line of business: bicycles. Kramer sold bicycles and tricycles in the Green Street shop from 1889 until 1891. By 1893 he was back to wood carving, the occupation he continued until his retirement in 1912.

Geer Memoiral Pulpit: Angel with crossed arms

Camillo Craver was not only a craftsman. Even as a young man in Cohoes he obtained a patent for a table, and over his lifetime was granted other patents for a velocipede, velocipede wheels, a pipe wrench, and a shoe fastener.

Geer Memorial Pulpit: Angel with harp

Geer Memorial Pulpit: Angel with cross

The pulpit remains in the State Museum collection. In October 2015, thanks to Department of Education staff, I was able to see the pulpit in their Rotterdam storage facility, and take the photographs that accompany this post. The pulpit was most recently displayed in the museum in the mid-1990s. We can hope that Flick’s promise of inclusion in new museum displays can continue to be fulfilled, and that it will be displayed regularly, as envisioned in Flick’s 1964 letter to General Schuyler:

“In the light of the historical interest of this unusual example of the work of an Albany artisan, I would like to most sincerely request that consideration be given to the preservation of this pulpit and that it be included in the historical collections of the State Education Department. It is anticipated that when the new museum rises on the Mall, exhibits such as this will add a good deal to the value of the exhibits.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

October 1964 — Demolition of the Lancaster Street Building, After and Before

Did you see Chris Churchill’s excellent article “Empire State Plaza isn’t worth celebrating” in the Sunday, May 24, 2015 issue of the Times-Union? One of the illustrations is a photograph taken on October 19, 1964, showing the Jay Street facade of St. Paul’s Lancaster Street building, including the chancel and parish hall, just as demolition began. This is an image we’ve never seen, and we’d like to thank Chris for providing a high-definition copy for our records.

St. Paul's Episcopal Church is demolished to make way the South Mall Oct. 19, 1964, in Albany, N.Y. Historic buildings and streets 1960s, Empire State Plaza. (Times Union archive)

St. Paul’s Episcopal Church is demolished to make way the South Mall Oct. 19, 1964, in Albany, N.Y. Historic buildings and streets 1960s, Empire State Plaza. (Times Union archive)

For comparison, our archives has two color slides taken just before the Times-Union image. The first, a closeup of the parish hall, was taken in spring 1964, while the building was still in use.

Jay Street Facade May 1964

Jay Street Facade May 1964

The other shows the buildings immediately before demolition began. Notice that the church and parish hall appear to have been the last structures standing in this part of the South Mall “catchment area”.

St. Paul's Jay Street Facade October 1964

St. Paul’s Jay Street Facade October 1964

Finally, here is another “after” photograph from our archives. This November 1964 slide shows the Lancaster Street facade after demolition. The frame of the nave rose window can be seen leaning against the rubble.

Lancaster Street facade after demolition

St. Paul’s Lancaster Street facade immediately after demolition in October 1964