St. Paul’s and the City of Albany, Part I: South End and Downtown

A guest post by Paul Nance

Readers of this blog may recall that St. Paul’s Episcopal was one of four churches appropriated by the State for the South Mall in 1962. As a result, St Paul’s congregation was forced to move to its current location on Hackett Boulevard. This was, however, far from the first move in the church’s long history. Those relocations, each caused by shifts in population and development, tell us something about St. Paul’s—and even more about the history of the city of Albany.

St. Paul's first home on Ferry Street. St. Paul's.
St. Paul’s first home on Ferry Street.

St. Paul’s was founded in 1827 on Ferry Street, on what was then the far south side of the city. To understand why the South End was chosen, it helps to picture the city of Albany as it was a generation earlier, in 1790. The city (with a population of only about 3,500) was then a narrow strip along the Hudson. The only housing west of Eagle Street was along Washington and State streets. Why such an odd shape? Because above the flats on the banks of the Hudson there rose a steep incline, cut by three deep gullies, formed by the Beaverkill, Ruttenkill and Foxenkill creeks. The incline (far steeper than it is today) discouraged settlement, but the gullies were wasteland, an absolute bar to growth. As the city doubled in size from 12,000 to 24,000 between 1820 and 1830, it grew to the south, the only direction available. St. Paul’s, founded in the middle of the decade, was located in what was then the most rapidly developing section of the city.

Samuel H. Norton, an early lay leader. St. Paul's.
Samuel H. Norton, an early lay leader.

The founding lay leaders, composed primarily of shopkeepers and craftsmen, had initially organized in an old school house. Declining an opportunity to stay in that building, this group of enthusiastic young men began plans for an impressive Gothic building (now the Equinox House for Youth at the corner of Ferry Street and Dongan Avenue) at a cost of what today would be almost half a million dollars. Within a few years, the congregation was deeply in debt with no hope of paying even the interest, let alone the principal. The primary cause of the crisis was the exorbitant expense of the building, but just as important, the city did not continue to grow to the south. Twelve years after it was built, St. Paul’s church was still on the outskirts of the city.

St. Paul's second home was a former theater. St. Paul's.
St. Paul’s second home was a former theater.

St. Paul’s had no choice: the Ferry Street building had to be sold in order to pay creditors. But the vestry also decided to leave the South End and, in 1839, chose to purchase the Pearl Street Theater. The theater (on South Pearl Street, at the site now occupied by the Times Union Arena) had seen, earlier that year, performances of the tragedy “The Carib’s Revenge” and the drama “The Norwegian Wreckers.” They considered the theater ideal because of its central location and because it was in a residential area popular with the professional and managerial class. The choice was a happy one, and many years later a rector suggested that it was during the years in their second church home on Pearl Street that St. Paul’s “attained its greatest influence and distinction.”

George William Warren was a composer and the organist at St. Paul's on South Pearl Street. St. Paul's.
George William Warren was a composer and the organist at St. Paul’s on South Pearl Street.

Note: All of the images in this post come from the Archives of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church.

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