State Street and the Albany Waterfront
The fertile land on Albany’s riverbanks was cultivated by Native
peoples long before the arrival of Europeans. Early Dutch explorers and
fur traders were quick to take note of the land’s potential as a
strategic location for commerce. In 1614, Hendrick Christensen established
the first trading post in New York State near the present-day location
of the Port of Albany. Ten years later, under the direction of the Dutch
West India Company, the permanent settlement of Fort Orange was built
in 1624. The location of State Street, and subsequently the positioning
of downtown Albany itself, came about as a result of Peter Stuyvesant’s
order that no house be built within cannon range of the fort.
Planning State StreetThe original State (or 'Joncker') Street led up the sandy river bluff from Market Street (Broadway) to the western edge of the stockade. Just beyond, the hillside leveled somewhat and there, in the public space just west of modern Eagle Street, the civic focus of both city and state were to take shape as Capitol Hill. The impulse upward and westward along this short axis symbolizes the colonial transition from the Dutch east (the river, Fort Orange, and the Dutch church), to the English west (the new fort and St. Peters). When the Dongan Charter of 1686 formalized the city's status under the new regime, among the many rights and privileges it granted the city was 'the power, license and authority' to 'establish, appoint, order, and direct the establishing, making, laying-out, ordering, amending, and repairing of all streets, lanes, highways ...'
This could be read as a mandate for ambitious plans, but it was not really so. The Dongan Charter was merely confirming the immemorial privileges that urban corporations possessed to regulate and improve almost all aspects of urban life and urban form, with the public good in mind. From various regulations and initiatives of the Common Council we can read some of their concerns. Precautions against fire were the highest priority of all. Thus 'fyre-masters' (chimney inspectors) were empowered in 1706.
During the century of British rule, State Street continued to develop in its slow, muddy way, taking shape as an ever more impressive civic axis and attracting the residences of Schuylers, Livingstons, and others of Albany's elite. By 1749 Peter Kalm could note 'the street which goes between the two churches is five times broader than the others, and serves as a market place.' Actually at this time the central line of State Street was impeded by the Dutch Church, St. Peters, and the Fort.
After the Revolutionary War, though, the Dongan mandate came to life. Albany was caught up with a vengeance in the 'laying-out' of streets, as it outgrew the old stockades. These efforts took their cue from English Baroque practices. Regular street grids were laid out to be filled in by speculative housing. The rather cramped grid of the Pastures was the first development, taking its alignment from South Ferry Street (1789). In 1794 Simeon DeWitt dusted off and expanded a much larger plan dating from about 1764, renamed the streets after birds and animals (rather than European grandees) and gave the city an ambitious blueprint for its westward growth.
The DeWitt grid extended west from Eagle Street. It was centered on State Street, from which it took its east/west alignment almost exactly. In this way the DeWitt plan confirmed the importance of State Street and provided it with a westward extension (first known as Deer Street). Further widening of State ensued as the embankments of the old fort were dug up. The importance of the public square at its western end was reinforced when Albany became the capital of New York State in 1797.
Having set the alignment for Albany's westward expansion, State Street continued to develop incrementally, by steady improvement and regulation rather than by large planning gestures. For example in 1793 pedestrians' lives were made a little drier as Dutch-style projecting gutters were banned. During his long term as city surveyor, Philip Hooker was concerned with grading, draining, and paving Albany's notorious ravines, and much of this work, too, took its levels and alignment from the axis of State Street, which the Common Council ordered to be paved (in 1792, and again in 1804 and 1828). The fort and two churches were cleared from the median, giving it the character of a grand boulevard with plenty of 'parking' for wagons and commercial activity along the center. Later this generous width was occupied by the rails of horse-cars and electric-trolleys.
It was at the beginning of the 20th century, when urban planning in its modern sense was taking shape, that perhaps the most significant intervention in State Street occurred. The newly installed Republican boss of the city, William Barnes, was concernedólike later officialsóto improve Albany's riverfront, which was a tangle of railroad connections and run-down buildings. The distinguished local architect Marcus Reynolds was a friend of Barnes. They developed a plan for the riverfront at the foot of State Street Hill involving a plaza, a bridge across the tracks, and various waterfront improvements. The crucial piece the D & H building was missing from the concept, and the plan was opposed by local commercial leaders and prominent state politicians. Thus (as noted elsewhere in this exhibit) Arnold Brunner and Charles Lay were commissioned to produce the first comprehensive planning report on the city (1914).
Brunner recognized a fine civic axis when he saw it and he wrote of State Street: '... after trying various schemes for parking in the middle and at the sides, and making designs based on the motifs of other large and famous streets, I have abandoned them all, feeling that it was essential to preserve the character of the street as it is and simply improve it.' He merely proposed wider sidewalks, more elm trees, and better electric lighting. However at the crucial plaza site at the foot of State a meeting of minds between Brunner, Barnes, and Reynolds gave us Marcus Reynolds' D & H building (1914-18). In a magnificent Neo-Baroque gesture typical of City Beautiful planning, this structure closes and shapes the downhill vista, obscures the riverfront, and elaborates on Albany's history in the symbolic language of Flemish Gothic.
The mid-twentieth century was a time of urban renewal, massive highway development, and megaprojects. Albany as a whole was profoundly affected by these trends, but State Street itself was relatively unscathed, except for the development of the hotel-bank complex by old Elm Tree corner, a development that obliterated significant portions of the historic street plan. The Zeitgeist of planning has mercifully changed, and planning thought now strongly values the historical depth, architectural variety, attractive pedestrian ambience, and powerful civic symbolism that State Street so richly expresses. The development plans laid out in Capitalize Albany (1996) and more recent city plans aim to preserve and enhance these aspects of 'the key civic street in Albany.'
Dr. John S. Pipkin