Three Days before Christmas

Our thanks to Mark Leonard for his help with this post.

James (Jim) and Emma Leonard knew that they would have to move before the end of 1964. Yet they had hoped to spend one last Christmas in their 93 Park Avenue home. But on December 22—three days before Christmas—a McArdle & Casazza moving van arrived at their door, courtesy of the State of New York. So, while Jim was at work, Emma supervised the movers and packed up the car with kids and Christmas decorations. That day, the Leonard family became the last to leave the South Mall take area. They would celebrate the holidays in a new house on Hillcrest Avenue—with a puppy named Prince to go with the family’s big new backyard.

Emma Leonard--with three of her children (l-r: Anne, Mark, Michele) and Prince the puppy--takes one last walk down Park Avenue. By Bob Paley for the Knickerbocker News. Used by permission of Times Union.
Emma Leonard–with three of her children (l-r: Anne, Mark, Michele) and Prince the puppy–takes one last walk down Park Avenue. By Bob Paley for the Knickerbocker News. Used by permission of Times Union.
The governor's doorknocker.
The governor’s doorknocker.

While this event was an important milestone toward completion of the State’s new office complex, Emma Leonard described the two-and-a-half years leading up to the day as a “nightmare.” The family’s Park Avenue home was surrounded by rubble, remnants of the former houses of friends and neighbors who had moved out earlier. Adding to the stress, the Leonard family’s Hillcrest home was unfinished. On move-in day, it lacked a front porch, working kitchen, washer-drier, and bathtub. It did, however, acquire a commemorative doorknocker, presented to the family by representatives of Governor Nelson A. Rockefeller.

201 Hillcrest Street became the Leonard family's new home.
201 Hillcrest Avenue became the Leonard family’s new home. When they moved in on December 22, 1964, the house was not yet finished.

As movers loaded the van, Dick Weber of the Knickerbocker News arrived to interview the Leonards. (A copy of Weber’s story is available on the Albany Muskrat’s blog: Emma spoke for the family. “It’s very hard for us to pull up roots,” she told Weber. “We had a lovely life here.” She had lived on Philip Street in Albany’s South End since birth. The daughter of musician Mario Michela, she manifested at an early age a vocal talent that was nurtured by the nuns at Cathedral Academy. She starred in church theatricals and became the Cathedral choir’s soprano soloist. Emma met her future husband, an Irish South Ender, at her Uncle Charles Ciaccia’s S. Pearl Street grocery store. In an appropriately Irish-Italian twist, Jim and Emma were married by Father Emmett O’Connor, pastor of St. Anthony’s Church. When Jim went off to serve in World War II, Emma remained behind on Philip Street with her mother Agatha (nicknamed Ida). After the war, they moved next door. Jim found a job with the State, and Emma retired from hers to stay home and raise the children—Michele, Mary Serena, Mark, and Anne Rita.

Sanborn map detail showing the Leonards' home at the southern edge of the take area, 93 Park Avenue and their three-car garage on Orr Place. Used by permission of the Sanborn Library, LLC.
Sanborn map detail showing the Leonards’ home on Park Avenue at the southern edge of the South Mall take area. The family’s three-car garage faced Orr Place. Used by permission of the Sanborn Library, LLC.

In 1955, the Leonards moved from Philip Street to Park Avenue, Jim joked, to “get away from the Italians” (his in-laws). But life on Park was not so different from Philip. Ida, who helped finance the new house, lived with the Leonards. And Emma’s kin—most having moved to Westmere in Guilderland—visited on weekends and sometimes stayed over during the week. As on Philip Street, the family’s new neighbors were a conglomeration of first-, second-, and third-generation Italians, Irish, and Germans, living alongside newer migrants, mainly European Jews and Southern blacks.

The view of Lincoln Park from 93 Park Avenue.
The view of Lincoln Park from 93 Park Avenue.

On Park Avenue, the children’s schools (Cathedral Academy and Cardinal McCloskey High School) were just around the block. Although their backyard was small, Lincoln Park was right across the street. During the summer, the Leonard children spent their days playing in the park. Like most of the area children, that’s where they learned how to swim. Across Orr Place was a basketball court in another park, a small grassy triangle formed by the intersection of Park, Orr, and Charles.

93 Park Avenue is today the convent for the Sisters of St. Joseph.
A convent for the Sisters of St. Joseph stands where the Leonard family’s home used to be.

Even after they moved away, the Leonard family continued to return to the South End. A couple of years after the move, Michele was married in the Cathedral. Her groom was a former Park Avenue neighbor. Mary and Anne were also married in the Cathedral. Mark, now a deacon, was an altar boy and sang in the Cathedral choir. Every Sunday, the family still dressed up and drove in to attend mass. But returning was difficult—both in emotional and practical terms. Although the Cathedral remained, the Leonard family’s former neighborhood was largely demolished. A new convent for the Sisters of St. Joseph was built where their home once stood. And finding a place to park the car became more and more difficult as construction of the Empire State Plaza got underway.

Note: The photograph of Anne Leonard at the beginning of this post was taken by Bob Paley for the Knickerbocker News and is used by permission of the Times Union.

7 Comments Add yours

  1. Boggles the mind ea. day when I read about all the neighborhoods destroyed, businesses ruined, people permanently displaced for the “South Mall.” Whatever the veracity of the stories about “Rocky’s” impetus for this massive project & his or Mayor Corning’s seeing a teacup & envisioning The Egg, the ESP cut off swaths of streets & neighborhoods, and for what? Eventually, a new home would’ve been found for the Library & Museum. Perhaps The Egg itself could have been created in some way as to minimize the horrendous impact on people’s LIVES. I suppose only the Governor & the Mayor know what kind of fix was in, what kind of quid pro quo. But it’s a tragedy we keep repeating–Knickerbocker Arena, cum Pepsi Arena, cum Times Union Center & now, the Convention Center that seems solely a “Going Away Present” for Mayo Jennings. Lord what fools….


  2. Why is it okay for the state to seize private property for constructing a convent? It’s Henry VIII in reverse! Not to mention that little matter of constitutions. Terrific pictures again.


    1. Good question.

      The State of New York seized this land before the design of the Empire State Plaza was complete. The State also seized several properties owned by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Albany. (In addition to the convent, the diocese lost a church, a rectory, and 2 schools to the South Mall.)

      This land was sold by the State to the RC diocese in 1964–presumably as part of the reimbursement deal. This property was close to the Cathedral, and by then, it was clear that the State had no plans to build on it.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Anne Leonard Louer says:

    Interesting to see these photos. That is my families home on Park Ave. After all these years I still remember the photos. I was only 4-5 at the time but what turmoil. Downtown Albany was destroyed, residents scattered. Downtown still hasn’t recovered. Bittersweet memories

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Bill says:

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    Liked by 1 person

  5. Kiersten says:

    There’s definately a lot to find out about
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