Our thanks to Peggy, Lynn, and Mary Anne Nicholas for their help with this post.
On the morning of March 27, 1962, 11-year-old Eddie Nicholas walked up the block from his family’s home at 158 Elm Street to Muraven’s grocery store on the corner of S. Swan. As usual, he purchased a copy of the Times Union for his family. But this was no ordinary day. The headline read: “State Buys 40 Blocks in Heart of Albany.” The newspaper reported: “In the boldest single stroke of urban renewal in the nation’s history, the State of New York … will acquire title to nearly 100 acres in the heart of Albany at the cost of $20 million.”
Eddie ran back home to tell his family the news: “We don’t own our house any more.” His parents, Edward Sr. (Ed) and Dorothy (Dete), were shocked to learn that they would soon have to find a new home for themselves and their seven children.
Ed, a star 3-sport athlete at Cathedral Academy, grew up on Elm Street in Albany. Dete Robinson grew up on a different Elm Street, across the Hudson River in Rensselaer. The couple met through Dete’s sister and married in 1941. Their first child, Mary Anne, was born the following year. Three more children followed in quick succession: James (Jim), named after Ed’s recently deceased Greek-immigrant father; Madelyn (Lynn), named for Dete’s mother; and Margaret (Peggy), named for Ed’s only sister.
While Dete stayed home to raise their growing family, Ed worked several jobs. A talented athlete and Twilight League hall-of-famer, he was player-manager for the New York Centrals, twice leading the team to league championships. But minor-league baseball didn’t pay the bills; he was also a sheet-metal worker for the railroad. In 1943, Ed took a third job, coaching basketball, baseball, and football for St. John’s Academy in Rensselaer, Dete’s alma mater. A fierce competitor, Ed led St. John’s basketball team to 8 championships and well over 300 wins in the Catholic B League. Ed remained on the job for almost thirty years, until the school closed in 1972—continuing to work second and third jobs all the while.
In 1951, with a fifth child (Edward Jr.) on the way, Ed and Dete purchased the four-story townhouse on Elm Street as a fixer-upper. (At the time, the basement was visible through the kitchen floor). A friend of the family loaned them money for the down payment. No banks were involved; the former owner held the deed until the loan was paid off. St. John’s student athletes assisted with the repairs.
Despite the disrepair, 158 Elm Street retained vestiges of its former grandeur—marble mantles, pocket doors, and white porcelain servant call boxes in the kitchen and third floor hall. The family lived on the first two floors and rented out the rest. The second floor served as a sort of dormitory for the seven Nicholas children, who shared beds and a bathroom. After she graduated from high school and found a job with the State, the eldest, Mary Anne, moved up to the fourth floor on her own. Fire codes prevented the family from renting out that space without the addition of a fire escape, and Mary Ann enjoyed the privacy.
The neighborhood bounded on the north and south by Madison and Park was a self-contained community. Like their father before them, the Nicholas children attended Cathedral Academy, down the block from their home. Most of their friends were schoolmates, who lived on neighboring streets—Park, Irving, Jefferson, and Madison, as well as Elm. Dete was active in the Rosary Society at the Cathedral, Ed in the Cathedral Academy Alumni Association. The family did most of their shopping at Muraven’s up the block and Central Market (now Price Chopper) on Madison and S. Swan.
The Nicholas children remember this neighborhood fondly as a safe place, where neighbors watched out for each other. Dete, for example, regularly invited into her kitchen a man known to the children only as the “tea man,” because their mother served him tea and leftovers from the family’s dinner.
Despite the initial shock, Ed would come to regard the appropriation of the family’s Elm Street home as a piece of good luck. The State reimbursement check meant that the family could afford to purchase a larger house in the Pine Hills neighborhood with a big front porch, a backyard with plenty of room for roses, and, perhaps most importantly, more bedrooms for the children.
When the family moved into 49 S. Main, the adjustment was difficult. Although the children enjoyed more personal space, they missed their friends, many of whom moved to different parishes and transferred to new schools. After the move, the three youngest Nicholas children transferred from Cathedral Academy to rival Vincentian Institute, which was closer to their new home. Lynn and Peggy remained loyal to their alma mater. But remaining at Cathedral Academy and Cardinal McCloskey High School meant witnessing the complete destruction of their old neighborhood. Fifty years later, Peggy is still haunted by this loss.