First Church in Albany, Albany, New York

The First Church in Albany, located at the corner of North Pearl and Orange Streets in Albany, around 1907. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

The church in 2019:

The First Church in Albany was established in 1642, back when New York was still the Dutch colony of New Netherland. The British took control of the colony in 1664, renaming it New York, but the Dutch inhabitants continued to live here, and they continued to influence the region’s culture for several centuries. During this time, the members of the First Church met in several different buildings before the completion of the current one in 1799, at what is now the corner of North Pearl and Orange Streets.

The building was designed by Philip Hooker, a young Albany architect who would later go on to design other important buildings in the city, including Albany Academy, the old state capitol, and the old city hall. His design for the church featured a symmetrical main facade, with a columned portico that was flanked on either side by identical towers. In many ways its original appearance bore a strong resemblance to Charles Bulfinch’s Hollis Street Church in Boston, and Hooker may have drawn inspiration from it. However, Bulfinch’s church was built of wood and lasted barely 20 years before being replaced, while Hooker’s brick church has remained in use for more than two centuries.

The church here in Albany has seen some alterations over the years, though. The first major renovation came in 1830, with an addition to the rear of the church. This was late in Hooker’s career, and he was involved in the design process. A second renovation occurred in the late 1850s, which included removing the original Greek-style portico and replacing it with a new Romanesque-style entryway.

The first photo was taken around 1907, showing the view of the church from the southeast. A few years later, another renovation added Tiffany stained glass windows, along with other interior changes. Then, in 1939 the old addition on the rear of the building was demolished, and a new parish house was built in its place. Other more minor exterior changes have included the addition of small oval windows near the tops of the towers, and the removal of the ornate cornice above the front gable.

Throughout its history, perhaps the most famous parishioner of this church was Theodore Roosevelt, who attended services here during his time as governor. Another notable guest was Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands, who visited here as part of the church’s 300th anniversary celebration in 1942. Today, the church is still in use, and its congregation is one of the oldest in New York. The building itself is also the oldest church in the city, and it is one of Philip Hooker’s few surviving works. Because of its significance, it was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1974.

The Albany Academy, Albany, New York (2)

The Albany Academy, viewed from the east side near the corner of Eagle and Elk Streets in Albany, around 1908. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

The building in 2019:

As explained in the previous post, The Albany Academy was established in 1813. Four years later, the school moved into this building near the corner of Elk and Eagle Streets, just to the northeast of the present-day state capitol. The Federal-style building was designed by noted Albany architect Philip Hooker, and it stands as one of the city’s most architecturally-significant historic buildings.

The building was used by The Albany Academy for more than a century, and during this time it had many notable students, including future nine congressmen, a Supreme Court justice, and other important historical figures such as author Herman Melville. However, the building is probably best known for its association with Joseph Henry, who attended the school in its early years before returning as a science teacher in 1826. It was here that he performed important experiments on electromagnetism, including the discovery of electrical inductance. This would enable subsequent technological advances such as Samuel Morse’s telegraph, and today the SI unit for inductance is named the henry in his honor.

The school was still located here when the first photo was taken around 1908, but within a few decades it had outgrown its original building, and in 1931 The Albany Academy relocated to a new campus further from downtown Albany. This building was then sold to the City School District of Albany, which remodeled the interior and converted it into offices.

Today, the building still serves as offices for the school district, and very little has changed here on the exterior since the first photo was taken, although it is now partially hidden by trees from this angle. Otherwise, the only real change in the present-day scene is the statue of Joseph Henry, which stands in the lower center of the photo, in front of the main entrance. It was installed here in 1927, and it was the work of John Flanagan, a prominent sculptor who is best known for designing the Washington quarter, which was first minted in 1932.

The Albany Academy, Albany, New York

The Albany Academy, near the corner of Eagle and Elk Streets in Albany, around 1907. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

The building in 2019:

The Albany Academy was established in 1813 as a school for boys, and in 1817 the school moved into its first purpose-built facility, which is shown here in these two photos. The building stands just to the northeast of the New York State Capitol, in between Washington Avenue and Elk Street on the west side of Eagle Street. It is perhaps the city’s finest surviving example of Federal-style architecture, and it was designed by prominent architect Philip Hooker, whose other nearby works included the original capitol building and the old city hall.

This building was home to the academy for over a century, and during this time it saw a number of notable students. One of the earliest was Joseph Henry, who entered the school in 1819. He later returned as a science teacher in 1826, and over the next few years he performed groundbreaking experiments in electromagnetism here at the school. Probably his most important discovery here was electrical inductance, which occurred around the same time as—but independent from—Michael Faraday’s similar discoveries in Britain. This property of electrical conductors was later used by Samuel Morse in his invention of the telegraph, and today the SI unit for measuring inductance is named the henry in his honor.

Aside from Henry, The Albany Academy had many other students who went on to have successful careers, particularly in the fields of government and law. Nine future congressmen attended the school while it was located here, as did prominent federal judge Learned Hand, Supreme Court justice Rufus Wheeler Peckham, and longtime Albany mayor Erastus Corning 2nd, whose 41 years in office is a record among mayors of major American cities. Other prominent students included authors Herman Melville, William Rose Benét, and Stephen Vincent Benét, along with future World War II general and Medal of Honor recipient Theodore Roosevelt Jr., who attended the school while his father was serving as governor of New York.

The school remained here in this building well into the 20th century, and it was still in use when the first photo was taken around 1907. However, within a few decades the school had outgrown the old building here in downtown Albany, and in 1931 it relocated to a new campus on the outskirts of the city. The school is still located there today, although in 2007 it merged with the Albany Academy for Girls to form The Albany Academies.

In the meantime, this building was sold to the City School District of Albany, which renovated the interior and converted it into district offices. Today, the school district still occupies the building, which has remained largely unchanged since the first photo was taken more than a century ago. It is one of Philip Hooker’s few surviving works, and in 1971 it was added to the National Register of Historic Places.

Old New York State Capitol, Albany, New York

The old New York State Capitol, on the north side of State Street a little east of Eagle Street, around 1860-1880. Image courtesy of the New York State Archives.

The scene in 2019:

Albany has been the capital of New York since 1797, but for the first decade or so the state legislature met in City Hall, which served as the temporary capitol building until a new one was built. Construction on the first purpose-built capitol, shown here in the first photo, began around 1806. It was designed by prominent Albany architect Philip Hooker, and it featured a brownstone exterior with marble trim. Its Federal-style design included a portico with Ionic columns here on the east facade, and a cupola atop the three-story building. On the top of the cupola was an 11-foot wooden statue of Themis, with a sword in her right hand and a balance in her left.

Overall, though, despite being the capitol of what was, at the time, the largest state in the country, this building was decidedly modest in its appearance, especially when compared to its contemporaries in neighboring states such as Massachusetts and Connecticut. This was likely dictated more by budgetary constraints than to Hooker’s talent as an architect, but one major criticism of his design was the awkward inconsistency between the apparent two-story east facade, and the three stories on the other sides of the building. Aside from the portico and cupola, the rest of the exterior was largely devoid of ornamentation. Even then, many of these decorative elements were cheaply-made. Like the statue of Themis, the pediment and entablature was made of wood, and even the columns were deceptive in their appearance; instead of solid marble, they were brick with marble veneers. In total, the capitol only cost around $115,000 to build, equivalent to less than $2 million today.

The capitol was completed in 1809, and it served as the seat of the state government for the next 70 years. For the first few decades it also housed Albany’s city government, before a new city hall—which was also designed by Philip Hooker—was built nearby in 1831. However, it did not take long for the state to outgrow the capitol, even with the extra space after the city government moved out. In 1842, State Hall—now known as the New York Court of Appeals Building—was built nearby on Eagle Street to provide additional room for state offices, and in 1854 a separate State Library building was added behind the capitol.

Even with these expansions, though, the capitol was still generally considered to be inadequate, in terms of both aesthetic appearance and practical use. One legislator even went as far as to declare it to be “an offense to the eye and a reproach to the state.” There was clearly a need for a new capitol, but the issue also raised the question of whether Albany should even remain the capital city. Many other cities, including New York City, made overtures in hopes of becoming the new capital, but in the end the state legislature decided to remain in Albany, and in 1865 voted to acquire land for the construction of a new capitol building.

The new capitol was to be located directly behind the old one, and it would be everything that the old one was not: massive, architecturally grand, and expensive. It also took much longer to build; construction started in 1867, and it was not completed until 1899, after many delays and cost overruns. In the end, it cost $25 million to build, or about 400 times the cost of the old capitol, after adjusting for inflation. Because of these delays, the state legislature remained here in the old capitol for more than a decade after construction began, before moving into the new partially-completed building in 1879. The old building continued to be used for state offices for several more years, though, before finally being demolished in 1883.

Today, this scene bears no resemblance to its appearance when the first photo was taken about 150 years ago. The site where the old capitol once stood is now part of East Capitol Park, and in the background is its replacement, which continues to be used as the state capitol today. However, there are several surviving remnants from the old building, although they are not located in the present-day scene. During the demolition, the four Ionic capitals at the top of the columns were saved and given to Governor David Hill, who displayed them on the grounds of his estate on the outskirts of Albany. The property later became Wolferts Roost Country Club, but the capitals remained there until around the 1970s, when they were unceremoniously dumped into a ravine. Three of these were ultimately recovered in 2014, and at the time there was talk of returning them here to East Capitol Park, although this proposal does not appear to have been carried out yet.