A Stroll Along State Street in Albany, New York
For the architecture buffs, lovers of historic homes, the Gilded Age, or those simply looking for an interesting, I have a piece advice. Get thee to State Street in Albany, where a short stroll down five blocks offers a nearly intact gilded age streetscape featuring a kaleidoscopic assortment of houses, from quaint frame cottages to splendid mansions, that delight the eye.
Prior to 1830 when Swan Street marked the western edges of town (except on paper), few homes would have been found here at all. Thanks in part to the Erie Canal and Railroads, Albany soon experienced a population surge, doubling its size from 24,000 to 50,000 between 1830 and 1850.
Hemmed in by the Hudson River on its eastern border, the city expanded westward. State Street and the surrounding blocks (known today as the Center Square neighborhood) began rapidly filling up with modestly scaled dwellings erected for the middle class, eager to leave the crowded neighborhoods down the hill in older sections of the city. By 1860, a few larger, more ostentatious homes began to appear in their midst, built by people with money (and foresight).
Things really began to take off after construction commenced on the magnificent new Capital building in 1867 and it became clear State Street would be the principal thoroughfare connecting it to a new beautiful park facing Willett Street also in the planning stages. By the early 1870s, larger-scaled Second Empire and Italianate row houses could be found dwarfing their two story neighbors.
As the last decades of the nineteenth century marched into the first decade of the twentieth, Albany’s elite, facing increasing crowds and commerce, began to abandon their traditionally fashionable neighborhoods on Elk Street, Mansion Hill and Washington Avenue. Pruyns, Huycks, Lansings and van Rennselaers joined the newer-moneyed merchants and manufacturers buying up middle-class dwellings on the street as teardowns, erecting larger mansions in their place, or enlarging and remodeling them beyond recognition.
While here and there pairs or short rows of matching homes were built, State Street never fell under the spell (or perhaps its developers lacked the resources) of building block-long stretches of identical brownstones.
Lucky for us, in place of chocolate-covered uniformity, we find an eclectic mix of homes executed in a panoply of materials. Employing roman brick, tile, and rose-colored sandstone, the architects and builders referenced Ruskinian Gothic,
even a Venetian Palazzo in their creations.
Some of the largest and most elaborate of the homes face Washington Park.
Romanesque is one of the more commonly found styles here. While it has never been one of my favorites, after observing the breadth and variation on State Street, I gained a new appreciation for it.
Noting the interesting treatment and carving of the stonework on many of them, it should come as no surprise to learn many of the artisans and craftsman working on these homes had come from crews used to construct the Capital Building.
Another popular style found on State Street is Colonial Revival (which has always been one of my favorites). Like their Romanesque brethren, they exemplify how a common vocabulary of stylistic elements can be used to surprisingly diverse effect.
State Street has seen its share ups and downs over the years, and demographics have changed.
Although a good many of the homes have long since been converted into apartments, government or institutional use, it is incredible to see how much remains intact and well cared for.
To truly appreciate its charms, I would encourage one to observe it by walking its length from Swan Street to Englewood Place. Not only is it a fairly easy stroll, it is the only way to really get a visceral sense of how it has managed to retain both a residential and distinctly lively urban feel at the same time. No easy feat for a historic neighborhood!
Authors note: I highly recommend the book Albany Architecture: A Guide to the City which contains interesting information on the homes of State Street as well as other historic neighborhoods of the City.