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.
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.