Saturday, July 16, 2011

The demise of Trinity Episcopal Church, Albany, New York

The now-demolished Trinity Episcopal Church as seen from Trinity Place, Albany, New York, 12 August 2011, 7:58 PM.

This post is the first in a series focusing on the history and built environment of Albany, New York and the Hudson River Valley.

It is not the post I planned to write.

As you all know, this blog focuses on electronic records and other archival matters. However, it's also a (partial) record of the interests and preoccupations of one electronic records archivist, and I thought it would be nice to put together a summer 2011 series of posts focusing on the distinctive architecture and history of my little corner of the world. The Hudson River Valley and New York's capital city are home to some fascinating things. Some, such as Crailo State Historic Site, testify to the enduring influence of Dutch culture in the former colony of New Netherland. Others, such as a temporary installation of kinetic sculptures by George Rickey, are more modern and more fleeting. I thought that you might like to learn a bit about these things -- and I knew that I would enjoy carving out some time to visit, photograph, and write about them.

Unfortunately, this inaugural post highlights failure and loss.

On the morning of Tuesday, 12 August 2011, one of the exterior walls of Albany's Trinity Episcopal Church collapsed and the City of Albany had to demolish the entire structure. The church was designed by James Renwick, Jr.,who also designed the Smithsonian Institution Building and the Corcoran Gallery of Art building in Washington, DC, St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York City, the Main Building of Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, and many other noteworthy structures. Most cities would be proud to have a Renwick building, but Trinity Episcopal Church had languished in disuse for several decades. Albany County put the building up for auction last fall, and a New York City woman purchased it for $500.00.

I visited the site on 12, 13, and 14 July and took some photos and videos that document the demise of this neglected landmark and the efforts of demolition firm Ditonno and Sons to salvage the church's stained glass windows, which may have been the work of Renwick's friend Louis Comfort Tiffany, and wooden architectural elements.

On 12 July, a pedestrian strolling past Trinity Place on Westerlo Street or Madison Avenue might have thought that the church was disused but structurally sound.

However, anyone who turned onto Trinity Place would quickly see that something was very, very wrong. By the evening of 12 July, the back half of the building had been demolished. Piles of rubble filled the gap between the church and the headquarters of the Trinity Alliance, a venerable social services organization once affiliated with the church. Pieces of plywood were set against the glass doors and windows of the Trinity Alliance building to protect them from flying bricks.

If by chance an observer failed to notice the plywood and rubble, one glimpse at the church's open front door would have revealed that only the front half of the church was still standing and that a backhoe was sitting atop the rubble in back. ( If you're curious as to what Trinity Episcopal's interior looked like, fellow Albany blogger Chuck Miller took some stunning pictures on 13 July.)

The mood at the scene was strangely buoyant. Many people were stopping by and taking photos and reminiscing about the church; I spoke with one 80 year-old woman who had gone to dances at Trinity as a teenager. Neighborhood residents, who were ordered to leave their homes for the duration of the demolition, filed in and out to pick up changes of clothing and other necessities and to lament the loss of a local landmark. Everyone was nonetheless relieved that no one had been injured or killed as a result of the collapse and that none of the adjoining buildings had been compromised; every now and then, the unanticipated collapse of a vacant Albany building does irreparable damage to a well-maintained and occupied neighboring structure.

I was contemplating all of the things that could have gone wrong but didn't when a flash of movement caught my eye. As Ditonno and Sons was winding down its work for the evening, a gray cat ran over to the southern side of the building and meowed loudly. A black kitten emerged from the grass beside the southern bell tower. The duo moved slowly --the kitten was exhausted and terrified -- to the northern side of the church, where they paused to rest for a while. I called out to the mother cat in an effort to coax the pair away from the building, but she didn't trust me -- the neighborhood is home to a large feral cat population -- and her kitten simply didn't want to move. I looked for them on 13 and 14 July, but didn't see them. I hope they found sanctuary elsewhere.

I returned to the site on the evening of 13 July, by which time Ditonno and Sons had demolished the church's bell towers.

Owing to concerns about the structural integrity of the church -- a fire fighter at the scene told me that one of the side walls had started swaying ominously earlier that day -- Ditonno and Sons workers used sledgehammers to tear down the towers.

If you look closely at the remnants of the southern bell tower above, you can see just how badly the mortar holding together the bricks had deteriorated.

Bricks rained down onto the steps below the towers.

I stopped by the site immediately after work on 14 July to find that only part of the northern bell tower remained. As they had done throughout the demolition, Ditonno and Sons workers hosed down the rubble in an effort to keep down the dust.

They were also preparing to salvage the remaining stained glass windows. As noted above, Ditonno and Sons tried to save as many of the windows and wooden architectural elements as they could.

A fire fighter at the scene told me that the demolition of Trinity Episcopal Church marked the first time that a City of Albany demolition project had such a large-scale salvaging component, and he went on to say that, in his view, Ditonno and Sons "deserve a medal" for doing such great work. Having seen and filmed Ditonno and Sons remove the bricks and mortar surrounding the windows in the northern bell tower, I agree. I've never seen a backhoe operated with such precision and delicacy.

Apologies for the jumpiness of this footage -- despite the constant hosing down, dust was flying everywhere, and it got into my eyes a couple of times.

After the crew removed most of the brick and mortar surrounding a given window, a Ditonno and Sons worker (most likely one of the Ditonno sons) in a cherry picker tied the window, which had been sandwiched between sheets of plywood, to the work platform. He then pulled the window free of the building and carefully lowered it to the ground.

Owing to the church's poor condition, Ditonno and Sons wasn't able to save all of the windows. The fire fighter I spoke with on 12 July indicated that one window had been lost earlier that day, and a few minutes after I shot the footage above, part of the northern bell tower collapsed and the one remaining window fell to the ground. Owing to its plywood encasement and the relatively short distance it fell, it may be possible to repair this window, but I wouldn't bet on it.

At present, no one knows what will happen to these windows or to the other architectural elements that were salvaged. According to the Albany Times-Union, Ditonno and Sons, which per its contract with the City of Albany is entitled to keep materials salvaged from demolition sites, may be their legal owner. However, if the windows are extremely valuable, the City of Albany may be able to lay claim to them. And, of course, Trinity Episcopal Church's owner, who now owes the city almost $150,000 in demolition costs, may have a claim to them; however, she never listed the building on the City of Albany's vacant building registry, which was a condition of sale. For now, the windows and other materials will be placed in storage until experts can identify their creator and determine their cash value.

I left the site at shortly 7:00 PM on 14 July. By that time, Trinity Episcopal Church was little more than a pile of rubble. The iron railing at center right marks the approximate location of the church's front door.

A fragment of the southern bell tower remained standing, but it wasn't demolished until the following morning. Ditonno and Sons workers finished their day's work by sweeping the rubble off of Trinity Place. Behind the gap where the church once stood, you can see the Corning Tower, which is part of the Empire State Plaza.

I'm amazed and impressed that Ditonno and Sons was able to save most of the windows and other architectural elements from this historic church, and I'm deeply grateful that no one was hurt, killed, or rendered homeless as a result of Trinity Episcopal Church's collapse. I am nonetheless saddened and deeply angered by the loss of what should have been a carefully tended source of civic pride.

Warren Roberts, the distinguished historian of the French Revolution who has become an expert on the built environment of Albany, asserted last year that "no self-respecting city would allow Renwick's church on Trinity Place to decay [emphasis in the original]." On 12 July, the extent of Albany's lack of self-respect -- and, I fear, its lack of hope for its future -- became woefully evident.


Bill Leue said...

Thank you for posting the great photo essay on the sad demolition of Trinity Church in Albany!

C in DC said...

How tragic!

Bonnie Dayter Clark said...

Thank you for posting the loss of Trinity Episcopal Church. My family attended from 1948 to 1966. My sister Joy and I sang in the choir, and were members of the youth group. I have so many childhood and adolescent great memories. It is sad that the city of Albany and the Episcopal Diocese did not value this church.

Anthony Davis said...

Reginald M Field, Exec Sec Trinity Institution Inc., and rector Trinity Episcopal Church, who lived at 89 Grove Ave. saw to it that our church, Trinity Institute(Institution Inc), AND Trinity Camp(s) fed and nourished the diverse community which was the South End and beyond. I lived on Arbor Hill across the street from other Trinity Church members.

I can not sit in King's College Cambridge Chapel nor
Southwark Cathedral without thinking Trinity Episcopal Church, Albany.

Anonymous said...

5 years later, this seems even more terrible