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Landmarks: Beautiful SUNY Plaza built to screen ‘noxious’ sites

Landmarks: Beautiful SUNY Plaza built to screen ‘noxious’ sites

Some people were concerned that a big building might block the view, but Marcus T. Reynolds knew bet
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Some people were concerned that a big building might block the view, but Marcus T. Reynolds knew better. The edifice he was designing would be the view.

SUNY Plaza, formerly home to the Delaware & Hudson Railroad and the Albany Evening Journal, takes up so much space near the bottom of State Street at Broadway, it blocks the view of the Hudson River. However, early in the 20th century, when Albany’s Chamber of Commerce was trying to come up with ways to beautify the city, blocking that view wasn’t a bad idea.

When urban planners Arnold W. Brunner and Charles D. Lay of New York City realized that a large and aesthetic structure in front of the Hudson would enhance downtown’s beauty, Reynolds went ahead and designed what is now SUNY Plaza, one of the oldest and most significant buildings in the Albany landscape.

“The railroads and the Port of Albany were located down at the foot of State Street,” said city of Albany historian Tony Opalka. “Brunner was a very well-known urban planner of his day, and he realized that it was a better idea to use this big building as a screen. A beautiful building would shield the rest of downtown from that view.”

According to Albany’s Dick Barrett, a railroad historian, it was more than just the trains and the port on this side of the Hudson River.

“There was a roundhouse across the river where Rensselaer High School is today and they used to call it ‘Little Pittsburgh,’” said Barrett. “It used to spew out black smoke, cinder and ash. That’s why they built the building sort of like a horseshoe. The city fathers didn’t want to have to look at that ugly view.”

Instead of the “noxious wharves and warehouses,” as Reynolds referred to them, Albany ended up with a beautiful building modeled after the Nieuwerk Annex of the Cloth Guild Hall in Ypres, Belgium. The structure is 13 stories tall at its highest point — the central tower — and 630 feet long and 48 feet wide.

“It’s not a copy, but it was definitely inspired by the Guild Hall in Belgium,” said Opalka. “It’s quite a notable building and must have caused quite a stir in its day. It really is a significant landmark for Albany.”

Construction began in 1914 and was completed by 1918. The exterior includes a number of ornate items, including more than two dozen gargoyles, various coats of arms, small statues of Reynolds, Albany Evening Journal owner William Barnes Jr. and Theodore Roosevelt. Also, at the top of the central tower is an 8-foot high copper replica of Henry Hudson’s ship, the Half Moon, that acts as a moving weather vane.

“In American architecture, most everything, including the D&H Building, is a revival of some earlier style,” said Opalka. “So, it is kind of vague, but what you would probably call it would be Gothic revival.”

As impressive as the building’s exterior is, the interior, with the exception of the main hallway adorned with Guastavino tile, is pretty simple.

“I’m sure there was a really nice director’s room at one time and maybe a fancy room or two before the railroad abandoned the building, but basically it was mundane office space,” said Opalka. “The interior is pretty simple, and my guess is that it was always that way.”

Looking at the building from where State Street ends at Broadway, the right side, or South Tower, is where the Albany Evening Journal was housed. Below the Center Tower and to the left were the D&H offices. Farther to the left and now connected by a third-floor walkway is what is called the Federal Building. Built between 1874 and 1884 and now part of SUNY Plaza, the building was used as a post office and customs house.

‘City Beautiful movement’

Reynolds was a native of Great Barrington, Mass., and a graduate of Williams College before heading to Albany and becoming one of the city’s premier architects. Along with his design of the SUNY Plaza building, also on his resume are the Albany Academy for Boys, Hackett Junior High School, the United Traction Building and Hook & Ladder No. 4 on Delaware Avenue.

“There was a ‘City Beautiful Movement’ that came out of the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago. It gave rise to an interest in classical architecture, and Reynolds was a big part of that,” said Opalka. “It wasn’t an official program, but it was a nationwide thing and many cities around the country were doing things to make urban areas prettier. They came up with a big plan for Albany, but as it turned out very little of the plan was carried out.”

Reynolds’ building at the foot of State Street, however, did become a reality, due in large part to close personal relationships he had with Barnes, the grandson of Thurlow Weed and an Albany political boss very much in the mode of his grandfather, and Leonor F. Loree, president of the D&H Railroad.

It was Barnes who lived in the South Tower above his newspaper, turning the top three floors into his private residence. While different SUNY chancellors have lived in that space in the past — it is the seventh, eighth and ninth floors — it hasn’t been occupied on a regular basis for more than 20 years and is now used only for special receptions.

“Chancellor Robert King [1999-2004] lived here parttime, but they did have a house in Clifton Park, so they weren’t here that much,” said Susan Whitney, who works in the Special Events and Services Office. “The seventh floor is the formal living and dining room, the eighth floor was the chancellor’s private quarters, and the ninth floor is a smaller room for out-of-town guests.”

The paper moves out

Barnes only lived there from 1918-1924, his political misfortunes leading to the sale of his newspaper to the Albany Times Union in 1924. That part of the building had various tenants after the Evening Journal’s sale, including the forerunner to the state Department of Transportation.

The D&H, meanwhile, had a much longer life in Reynolds’ building, finally closing in the fall of 1973. The building was vacant for five years before SUNY took over and began moving in its staff in March of 1978. Maggie Clairmont, now director of Special Events and Services, has worked for SUNY for 43 years and remembers the move well.

“When I started, we were at Grant Avenue, and then we moved to various locations before we came here on March 17, 1978,” she said. “What I remember is coming down here for several months prior to moving in and watching them shooting the pigeons. The building had been vacant for some time, and the pigeons were all over the place.”

Despite that unpleasant introduction, Clairmont insists she’s always loved the building.

“Other than the stonework in the hallway on the first floor, it’s nothing fancy inside but I really enjoy coming to this place each day,” she said. “Like I said 40 years ago, it’s better than walking into the state campus office. I found that sort of cold. Here, I love it. It’s almost like home.”

SUNY actually bought the building in 1973, a year after it was placed on the National Register of Historic Places. The place needed some major renovation work, the project taking almost five years and costing $15 million.

Nearly 100 years ago when the building was built, it cost about $1.2 million. The equivalent price today according to the SUNY web site would be more than $90 million.

“Originally, the idea was to have this nice terrace park down in that area,” said Opalka, who added that the big lawn in front of SUNY Plaza today was originally a turnaround in the early 20th century for trolleys and buses. “Their ideas had some practicality to them and very strong designs. But the view stopped them. Now, when you stand in the center of the Capitol Building at the head of the stairs up on the hill and look down toward the river, the D&H Tower is exactly centered in your view. It’s a great picture.”

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