His master’s voice may have changed since Nipper first perched himself on top of the large warehouse building at Tivoli Street and Broadway in Albany’s North End 60 years ago, but the attachment remains.
“We love having him on top of our building,” said Mike Arnoff, president of Arnoff Moving and Storage, owners of the property since 1997. “We didn’t know how sound Nipper was when we bought the place, but once we had our engineer review of the building we were happy to learn that he was pretty much OK. We just sort of groomed him, gave him a fresh coat of paint, and there’s no way now that we’d take him down.”
Nipper is the 28-foot-high, 4-ton model of a white terrier that served as the mascot for a number of different businesses in the recording industry, most notably RCA Victor. He was originally shipped in five pieces from Chicago to Albany in 1954 by RTA, a major distributor of RCA products at the time.
“His Master’s Voice” is a trademark in the music industry referring to a 1899 painting by English artist Francis Barraud. The image showed Nipper, Barraud’s mixed-breed terrier, quizzically looking at the trumpet of a wind-up gramophone. The Gramophone Company bought the painting from Barraud with the stipulation that he change the disc machine to look more like the model being marketed by the company at that time. The association with RCA Victor began in 1929, and Nipper (apparently named for his aggressive behavior toward visitors) was used as a mascot by General Electric for a short time when it purchased RCA in 1986. However, while it remains a trademark for some businesses in Europe, Nipper has been in the public domain within the U.S. since 1989.
“We contacted GE when we bought the building and they gave us their blessing, as long as we didn’t deface him in any way,” said Arnoff. “We were happy to keep him, and Mayor [Jerry] Jennings was very excited that he would remain an Albany landmark. We have kind of taken him into our family and we have two logos now for our business, one with Nipper and one without him.”
The Arnoffs aren’t the only ones who revere Nipper. Ronald Richardson, whose family owned RTA Corp, also wasn’t about to dislodge the dog even though the company had diversified after 33 years and was no longer involved with RCA.
“My father-in-law moved to Albany in 1953 when he became the wholesaler for RCA in upstate New York,” said Richardson. “He was quite an entrepreneurial guy, and he wanted the world’s largest dog sitting on top of the building. I took over in the ’70s when things were changing, and the manufacturers started selling directly to the public. We had to diversify, and Nipper really wasn’t relevant to us anymore. But I never really thought about taking him down.”
Once 1 of 4 Nippers
According to Arnoff, RCA had regional offices in Albany, Baltimore, Chicago and Los Angeles, and each one had a Nipper. None of them, however, were as big as Albany’s.
“There’s a 14-foot-tall Nipper in a Baltimore museum, but ours was the biggest, and the other two are demolished,” said Arnoff. “He’s made out of fiberglass and pretty much hollow inside. There used to be a light on his right ear to warn planes because it was the tallest building in North Albany. It was a beacon, but we don’t light it any more.”
The building that Nipper rests upon is a three-story structure that was built during the second decade of the 20th century. Along with Arnoff Moving and Storage, which maintains more than a half a million files for various companies and organizations there, the building rents office space to several tenants. Richardson, who has seen RTA evolve into First Ideas Corp. and Saratoga Trunk and Furniture, continues to work out of his office in the building.
“I like to joke about how I was planning on making a hot dog stand out of it,” said Richardson. “But I was joking. I think Nipper works very well for the Arnoff family and their moving and storage business. They are nice people, and I think he symbolizes quality and reliability. It’s a very good asset for them.”
Arnoff Moving and Storage, which also has offices in Poughkeepsie, Lakeville, Conn., and Florida, was adjacent to the Nipper building for 30 years before looking to expand in 1997. The company was created in 1924 in Lakeville, Conn., grew rapidly under the direction of Richard Arnoff, Mike’s father, and will soon become a fifth-generation family business.
From ritz to warehouses
There are several warehouses in that immediate area that make up Albany’s North End, but there was a time when the most prominent family in upstate New York, the Van Rensselaers, called the neighborhood home. There is very little there now indicating its regal past except for a small road sign that says Manor Street just south of Tivoli Street.
“I can remember as a kid riding the bus from Watervliet to Albany and wondering why there was a street named Manor Street in that area,” said city of Albany Historian Tony Opalka. “The neighborhood hasn’t changed that much in the last 50 years, but it’s changed radically over the past 150 and 200 years. I’ve looked at old detailed maps and the Van Rensselaers’ manor home was right there where the Arnoff buildings are now.”
The manor house, built in 1765 by Stephen Van Rensselaer II, was arguably the most majestic home in the Albany area in the 18th century. With the coming of the Erie Canal and railroad in the first half of the 19th century, the neighborhood changed, and it was Stephen Van Rensselaer III whose business interests precipitated much of that change.
“He had the Erie Canal and the railroad right there along his property between his home and the Hudson River, and he had a lot to do with both of them,” said Opalka. “There goes the neighborhood. It quickly became much more of an industrial neighborhood and a less desirable place to live.”
The Van Rensselaer Manor house was dismantled in 1895, moved to Williams College in Massachusetts and became a fraternity house. The large warehouses that replaced it now make up a much different landscape, and Nipper, who is facing west away from the Hudson River, commands the skyline.
The legend endures
“I’ve seen him on postcards, and if you google ‘Albany’ you’ll get images of Nipper,” said Opalka. “We did a big roadside tour here back in 1989, a national tour with people from all over the country, and Nipper was one of the stops. He’s a very notable landmark for Albany.”
Nipper is big enough that when musician Greg Haymes and his wife Sara Ayers created a website six years ago to cover the Capital Region arts and entertainment scene, they named it “Nippertown.”
“It’s like being in a band, you gotta spend a lot of time picking the right name,” said Haymes, laughing. “My wife and I hashed things out and came up with a list of four names that we thought we could use. Nipper was our favorite, so after we checked to see if the domain name was available, and it was, the decision was easy. It really is an iconic thing for this area, and my wife and I love dogs, so it was the perfect name for us.”
And, according to Nic Arnoff, one of the fifth-generation family members involved in the business, Nipper is not going anywhere.
“We love having him on our building, and I can tell you that whenever I come out here or drive by, there’s always people out here taking pictures of him,” said Nic Arnoff. “We grew up in Poughkeepsie, but we’ve been up here a few years now, and when I talk to people in the Albany area they know who he is. Everybody knows Nipper.”
Reach Gazette reporter Bill Buell at 395-3190 or [email protected]