Our thanks to Mary Jane Hunter Kretzler for photographs and extensive email and phone conversations and to University at Albany student Jackson Ciavardoni for conducting an oral history interview with Mary Jane and her brother James on May 11, 2015.
Like most of the roughly 400 businesses that once served the 98 acres, Kenneth Hunter’s pharmacy was a neighborhood institution. In business for over thirty years at the same location, he filled thousands of prescriptions for the area’s residents and served sodas to two generations of children.
After graduation from high school in 1922, Ken moved to Albany from Bennington, Vermont in order to attend the College of Pharmacy, in part because the program was shorter than a traditional college course. Three years later with degree in hand, he remained in Albany, working at the Pine Hills Pharmacy at 1116 Madison.
In 1929, Ken decided to strike out on his own. With business partner Francis E. Clark, he opened the Clark and Hunter Pharmacy in a rented storefront at 266 Madison Avenue. (Ken would later purchase the building.) The business had a rocky start. Francis was held up at gunpoint in 1931, and in 1932, a safecracker stole $105. But the business remained afloat, even in the depths of the Great Depression.
In 1936, the partners concluded that the business volume was too small for two pharmacists. They flipped a coin to see who would stay and who would leave. Ken won the toss and bought out his partner. Soon after, Francis opened Clark’s Pharmacy in Menands.
In 1933, Ken married a local girl, Josephine Durand, in the rectory of the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception. Josephine grew up in Albany’s South End. Her father, an emigrant from the much-contested Alsace-Lorraine region, owned a saloon at 156 Eagle St. Josephine was a graduate of Cathedral Academy and of the Mary Steigelmaier School of Business. Together they raised three children, James, Ken Jr., and Mary Jane, the youngest.
To support his young and growing family, Ken worked 10 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year, building up the business. Of course, the kids helped out. Mary Jane worked at the soda fountain during the lunch hour and after school, when local high school students crowded the pharmacy. Ken Jr. followed in his father’s footsteps and became a pharmacist as well.
For a decade, from 1940 to 1950, the Hunter family lived in an apartment above the pharmacy. These were Mary Jane’s formative years, age 3 to 13. Mary Jane described the neighborhood she remembers as extending from Madison to Lincoln Park on the south and from Trinity Place on the east up to Dove Street. As a child, Mary Jane seldom crossed Hamilton Street, deterred by the bars that lined Hudson Avenue.
Lincoln Park was the focal point of Mary Jane’s childhood. With her brothers and friends, she would descend the S. Hawk Street steps to go swimming or ice skating. A self-described “tomboy” with a great throwing arm, she was also invited by the boys to join in their baseball games.
In 1950, the family moved to Whitehall Road, but their connections to the area remained deep. Hunter’s Pharmacy still provided goods on credit to neighborhood customers. The pharmacy was often the first stop for nearby residents seeking treatment for simple maladies. Ken Hunter referred more complicated ailments to Dr. Julius J. Padula, who lived and worked at 118 Elm Street, two short blocks from the pharmacy. In turn, nearly all of the doctor’s patients filled their prescriptions at Hunter’s.
The relationship between the Hunter family and Dr. Padula was not simply based on business. When Mary Jane was ten years old, she brought her duck to the doctor for treatment. Proud of her new pet, Mary Jane had been showing it off to a friend, who accidentally dropped it. The duck survived but suffered a broken leg. Unaware of any veterinarian in the area, Mary Jane walked with the duck in her arms to 118 Elm. Although Dr. Padula’s first response was profane—the doctor was known for his off-color language—he splinted the duck’s leg using tongue depressors. The leg eventually healed, which is why Mary Jane would later bring a second pet duck to Dr. Padula. On this occasion, the duck’s foot padding had worn off after walking on the area’s concrete sidewalks. Padula glued gauze to the bottom of the duck’s feet and sent the two of them off again.
Over 33 years, Ken Hunter had built up a profitable business. Mary Jane and her brother James estimate that the pharmacy did roughly $100,000 worth of business annually. This was all lost after March 1962, when the State of New York seized 266 Madison Avenue along with roughly 1,150 other structures.
Soon after the State announced the appropriation of the 98 acres, Mayor Erastus Corning sent a canvasser to interview some of the residents and business owners, who would soon be displaced. Ken told the canvasser: “I’ve been here 33 years this November. I’ve established a very good business, and I would like to finish my life of work here. It would be too great a hardship to try and start over again.” Joseph Viviano, owner of the bar and grill next door at 264, concurred, “I’ve been here 26 years building up a restaurant and grill business. If I do relocate, I’ll have to spend another 26 years building my business again. With 7 children, I can’t afford to start over again in business, and at my age it would be almost impossible.”
As property owners, both men received reimbursement from the State for the land, structures, and interior fixtures seized. But the value of a business built up over decades did not figure into the State’s calculations. Ken Hunter took his case to the Court of Claims but was disappointed with the results. He sued for nearly $70,000 but was awarded just under $30,000. Most of the payment went to the prior owners, who held the mortgage. The Hunter family’s lawyers took $4,000. Less than $9,000 was paid to the Hunters.
Not long after the State’s appropriation announcement, Ken suffered a heart attack. His family immediately took him to Dr. Padula, who correctly diagnosed his condition. The heart attack left Ken unable to work. He never again set foot in the pharmacy and died seven years later in his mid-sixties. His three children blame their father’s early demise on the seizure of his store.