The Empire State Plaza opened to the public, July 1-4, 1976, during an era of fiscal austerity. Then governor, Hugh Carey, was a critic of Nelson Rockefeller’s priorities and excesses, particularly when it came to Albany’s futuristic new capital complex. Nevertheless, Carey and his administration took responsibility for ensuring that the Plaza would become a place “for the people.”
The problem was that neither Rocky, nor his successor Malcolm Wilson, left the Carey administration with a plan (or funds) to accomplish this task. Compounding the problem was the Plaza’s immense size, which, in the words of journalist Steven Weisman, made dignitaries appear to onlookers as “tiny stick figures on the deck of an aircraft carrier.” Indeed, rather than a single space, state planners determined the Plaza was best understood as “an urban center.”
Despite competition from the state Bicentennial Barge docked in Albany over the July Fourth holiday, the Plaza’s opening attracted 50,000 people, 35,000 of whom visited the New York State Museum in its new quarters. Along with a special bicentennial exhibit entitled, “Forces,” museum-goers saw, for the first time, what would become a favorite of local children (and these adults), the immersive “Adirondack Wilderness” exhibit, still on display.
Outside on the Plaza, the State sponsored four days of performances, beginning with a concert by Don McLean of “American Pie” fame. The following day, Friday, July 2nd, featured fireworks and the Festival of Praise Choir. On Saturday, there was an Adirondacks-focused folk festival, emceed by Evelyne Beers Burnstine and featuring Sara Cleveland, Larry Older, Grant Rogers, Rev. Dan Smith, banjo-player Paul Caldwell, and Ray Wall’s Broken String Band. On the Fourth, the Lake George Opera Company performed an original rock opera, “Revolution,” authored by students and faculty of the Utica Free Academy. The finale, later that evening, was the Albany Symphony Orchestra’s rendition of John Philip Sousa’s “Stars and Stripes Forever,” accompanied by a choreographed water and light show. One by one, along the length of the Plaza, 45-foot-high jets of water spurted up on the downbeat, while searchlights illuminated the white, marble expanse. Office lights on the upper floors of what later would become known as the Erastus Corning Tower formed the numerals, “‘76.”
The July 1976 opening celebration brought praise even from some critics, including members of the neighboring Center Square and Hudson Park neighborhood associations. Neighbors and state officials, alike, hoped that an investment in public programming would prevent the Plaza from becoming a sterile monument, empty outside of business hours. (Stay tuned for a future post on son et lumière proposals.)
Note: Header image used by permission of the Times Union.
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