Our thanks to Mike and Anita Mullen for their hospitality and their help with this post.
On April 5, 1962 Elinor and Leo Mullen sat down to write a letter to Albany Mayor Erastus Corning 2d. They had read on the front page of the morning’s Times Union that the City had obtained a temporary injunction halting work on the South Mall. The article by Ed Fennel and Bill O’Brien explained that the State planned to appeal, asserting that the City failed to demonstrate that area residents would be “injured by the acquisition.”
Elinor and Leo believed their own example (as well as that of their neighbors) belied the State’s argument. And they looked to Mayor Corning for help. “In the past ten days,” they wrote, “we have listened to hundreds of people who have been injured, our comments being that Mayor Corning will not allow his people to have their human rights violated. We hope and pray that God will give you the strength and wisdom to continue to fight against this communistic method for improving the city of Albany….”
News of the State appropriation hit Elinor hardest. She had grown up in the neighborhood near Cathedral Academy and was active in the alumni association. Indeed, in 1962, she still lived within a block of her alma mater. (Five years later, Elinor and her sister Marjorie would help plan a final reunion in the old school building. More than 900 graduates and their guests showed up for the dinner on Friday, March 31, 1967.)
Leo Mullen was a state worker. Nicknamed “Chief,” he was also a popular baseball umpire and football and basketball referee. Before his marriage and move to Albany, Chief was known to readers of the Times Record sports page as South Troy’s answer to “Pat” Kennedy. After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Leo joined the Navy. A few months later, on leave, he married Elinor in the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, half a block from her parent’s apartment.
For the first three-and-a-half years of their marriage, Leo and Elinor lived apart. After the wedding, he returned to the Naval Air Station in Norfolk, Va. She remained with her parents in Albany, working at the telephone company, as she had since graduation. They saw each other on weekends in Washington, DC. The Old Ebbitt Grill became their special place.
Just before Leo shipped out to the Pacific, Elinor became pregnant. She gave birth to their son Michael a few weeks before VJ Day, while Leo was aboard the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Randolph. Although he missed his son’s birth, Leo was home for the holidays later that year.
After his discharge, Leo returned to his job at the State Comptroller’s office. With baby in tow, he and Elinor set up a home of their own in an Eagle St. apartment, a few doors down from her parents.
Elinor and Leo invested both time and money in their community. While Mike attended Cathedral Academy, Leo served as baseball and assistant football coach. Elinor led a Girl Scout troop. She was also an officer in the PTA.
In 1953, the Mullens opened a small store on the corner of Madison and Eagle. The Cathedral Shop was open daily, including before and after Sunday mass. It sold rosaries, missals, vestments, statues of the Virgin Mary, and other religious articles.
The Cathedral Shop was a success. Three years after it opened, Elinor and Leo pooled their savings to purchase 209 Madison Ave., which housed the store along with five small, furnished apartments. Their hope was that revenue from sales and rent would fund their son’s college education and their eventual retirement.
In 1958, the Mullen family moved out of the Eagle St. apartment into a home of their own. 71 Elm St. was around the corner from the Cathedral and half a block from their old apartment. At $4,200, the price was right, but the house required significant improvements, including a new roof and siding and heating and plumbing repairs. As Elinor told a Democratic Party canvasser in 1962, she and Leo “spent hundreds of dollars to make [71 Elm] comfortable, intending to spend the rest of my life here with my family, including my invalid father…..”
Elinor’s father, now in his eighties, moved in with the Mullens after the death of his wife. Tim Sheehy was a retired printer and labor leader but was best known for his athletic prowess. In the 1890s, he ran in local and statewide competitions as a member of the Catholic Union team. He still holds the Ridgefield Park track record for the 1/3 mile. Although Tim remained vigorous into his sixties and seventies (when he worked at the municipal golf course), his declining health added to his daughter’s worries.
In March 1962, Elinor and Leo learned that they would lose their home, their business, and the neighborhood they had known (and contributed to) for much of their adult lives. Mayor Corning proved unable to protect their property rights. In June of that year, the State won its appeal, and the City declined to pursue the case further. Demolition began the following month.
In January 1963, Leo and Elinor bought a new (and much more expensive) house on Norwood Ave., on the border of the Helderberg and Pine Hills neighborhoods. They reopened the Cathedral Shop in a rented storefront on Grove Ave. off New Scotland, a few blocks from their house. But the business never revived.
Whatever their disappointment with Mayor Corning, Leo and Elinor remained loyal Democrats. Despite their anger with the State of New York, Leo continued to work for the Comptroller’s office. In many ways, their lives were unchanged. Leo and Elinor were able to send their son to college and to enjoy a comfortable retirement. But they never ceased to mourn the loss of their roots, their loss of community.
Note: We found Leo and Elinor Mullen’s letter among Mayor Corning’s “Brasilia” files at the Albany Institute.