A guest post by Paul Nance
The shape of Albany changed dramatically in the 1840’s. The State Street hill was graded, making the incline much less steep. But the most important change was the grading and filling of the Ruttenkill ravine. The gully, which had been fifty feet deep and three hundred feet across, was filled in with clay stripped from the top of the hill. The effort took three years to finish, employing 250 men and 60 teams of horses.
This project opened the area of the city southwest of State and Pearl, which until 1848 had been virtually uninhabited. The city’s growing population flooded into the new neighborhoods, creating a city shaped much as it is today. Many members of St. Paul’s joined this movement to the western parts of the city, and the South Pearl Street location was no longer as central as it had once been.
Another geographical factor, however, was also encouraging a move. Albany’s business district up until the mid-nineteenth centuries had been principally on Broadway, only a few feet above the Hudson and subject to spring flooding. During the 1850’s, businesses began moving up from Broadway to Pearl Street, changing what had been a residential neighborhood into a business district. By the early 1860’s, St. Paul’s vestry decided that the time had come to move closer to parishioners and to leave South Pearl Street, which had become the center of the city’s business district. In early 1861, negotiations were under way for purchase of a site; an architect had already been hired and a loan obtained. Plans came to a sudden halt in May 1861, when the bank which had guaranteed funds for the new building failed without warning. The vestry found themselves in a difficult situation with very few viable choices, and they had to act fast.
In May 1862, a year after the bank failures, St. Paul’s vestry met in the Cashier’s Room of the New York State Bank, where John H. Van Antwerp, who was both cashier of the bank and junior warden of the congregation, announced that he had purchased a church building on Lancaster Street between Hawk and Dove for a total of $19,000 in cash and mortgages. As a result of the same financial crisis that had ruined St. Paul’s plans, the building (designed for a Reformed Church congregation) had reverted to its builders and was offered for sale at a bargain price. The vestry immediately accepted the building from Van Antwerp, and as soon as the building was complete, St. Paul’s moved into its third church home on Lancaster Street, where we were to worship for a century.
Less than forty years after the church’s consecration, St. Paul’s rector noted that changes in the neighborhood might make another move necessary. Two new Episcopal congregations had been formed, and there were just too many Episcopal churches in the neighborhood: All Saints Cathedral and St. Peter’s to the north, Trinity to the southeast and St. Andrew’s and Grace Church to the west. There were discussions of a move to Willett Street, but this was decided against. Another option, moving even farther west, was rejected because it would impinge on St. Andrews, which had recently been founded by St. Paul’s.
The congregation was able to adapt and remained on the Lancaster Street for another 60 years, until the exodus of the church’s membership from the city center and the seeming deterioration of the neighborhood raised the issue once again. As one hundred years before, a crisis also offered a solution. In 1862, the bank failures that had ruined the congregation’s original plans also offered an opportunity in the availability of a church building at a very reasonable price. In 1962, the State’s use of eminent domain to clear land for the South Mall and a generous reimbursement for the Lancaster Street property made it possible for St. Paul’s to build its fourth home in the city of Albany. The new building, on Hackett Boulevard, was designed to incorporate some elements from the old church, but the congregation keenly felt the loss of its century-long connection to the Lancaster Street building and to that neighborhood.
Note: All of the images in this post come from the Archives of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church.