Everyone in Albany knows the story of Princess Beatrix’s 1959 visit to our city. It has become an origin story of sorts, representing the end of an era and the beginning of a “new Albany.” Gov. Nelson A. Rockefeller’s decision to clear and redevelop 40 city blocks (98 acres) was reportedly sparked by the ride between the Governor’s Mansion and the Hudson-Champlain Celebration parade route, starting at the corner of Washington and Ontario streets and winding down to the reviewing stand in front of Delaware & Hudson (now SUNY) Plaza. Seated with him in an open convertible was the princess, and as Rocky looked out at the neighborhood surrounding his official residence, he appears to have imagined how the city might look through royal eyes. A little more than a year later—after another royal visit, from the King and Queen of Denmark—the governor asked the legislature to allocate money to develop a comprehensive plan for the capital city.
The first news story that we’ve found to link Beatrix to the South Mall is a column by David H. Beetle, published two weeks before the appropriation of Albany’s 98 acres was made public. A columnist for the Gannett News Service, Beetle had been editor of the Knickerbocker News, until Hearst Corp. acquired the paper in 1960. In 1959, Beetle chaired the local Hudson-Champlain Committee and was among the delegates, who welcomed Beatrix to Albany on September 18, 1959. During the parade on the following day, he joined the princess and the governor in the reviewing stand.
Over the next two decades, the story of the princess’s fateful trip to Albany spread and gained traction. By the time Beatrix returned to the city as queen, twenty-three years later, she had been written into the biography of Nelson Rockefeller published by his former speechwriter, Joe Persico.
On Beatrix’s second visit to Albany in June 1982, an ailing Erastus Corning II was still mayor, but much else had changed. Democrat Hugh Carey was governor, and Rocky had died, under unexplained circumstances, four years earlier. In place of the neighborhood that had so embarrassed the former governor now stood a massive, Modernist office complex, the Gov. Nelson A. Rockefeller Empire State Plaza.
This time, there was no parade. Instead, a crowd of roughly 2,000—wearing “Kiss Me, I’m Dutch” t-shirts and holding orange balloons—awaited the queen’s arrival on the steps of the Cultural Education Center. A UPI reporter overhead one expectant onlooker comment, with a sweep of his hand, “The last time she was here, look what we got!”
The queen and her husband, Prince Claus, arrived in style, waving to the crowd from former governor Franklin Roosevelt’s 1932 Packard Phaeton. Flanked by secret service agents and trailed by children on bicycles, the car made a slow circuit of the Empire State Plaza, while the Yankee Doodle Band played “New York, New York.” (A plan to play the Dutch national anthem was nixed, because doing so would oblige the queen to leave the car.) Fifteen minutes later, the royals were whisked off to a private dinner at the Governor’s Mansion.
At dinner, the governor finally addressed the elephant in the city, commenting facetiously on the “subtle physical changes” to Albany since the queen’s last visit. Beatrix graciously replied, “After so many years, it is exciting to see what tremendous changes have taken place here, in the state capital of New York. Many impressive buildings have sprung up since then, such as the monumental new Mall, of which you are so rightly proud.”
Overshadowed by the legend of her earlier visit, Beatrix’s second trip to Albany was relatively uneventful. Indeed, it’s a story that’s seldom told. The Rockefeller impulse to beautify and rebuild had by that time become a cautionary tale about lost homes, demolished neighborhoods, and emptied public coffers. Perhaps that is why, around the time of the queen’s departure, the State chose to hang the former governor’s portrait without fanfare or even a brief press release. At a press conference a week later, several reporters were surprised to discover the painting on the wall of the Red Room.
Postscript: Although students of the former governor and our city, most notably Richard Norton Smith and William Kennedy, have expressed skepticism about Beatrix as the catalyst for Albany’s reconstruction, today the legend remains as strong as ever.