Any visitor to Albany has to consider the unique architecture styles that define the city. New York History had the recent opportunity to talk with Andrew Alberti, the program manager for Lakes to Locks Passage, about Albany’s architecture. Alberti studied the history of Albany’s architecture when he was a Masters student at the University at Albany’s public history program.
NYH: How did this unique style develop in Albany?
AA: In the second half of the 19th century, Albany was a booming transportation center at the hub of New York’s Canal and Rail transportation systems. As the government seat of the Empire State, Albany’s leading men looked to design Capitol Hill in the elegant architectural styles of the Victorian Era. During this period, one man saw the opportunity to design Albany’s most prominent buildings in his own unique style. A style he popularized and is named for him.
Henry Hobson Richardson attended Le École des Beaux Arts. He was only the second U.S. citizen to attend the École’s architectural division, but he could not finish because his families could not pay his dues (tuition) during U.S. Civil War. The prevailing architectural style in that period was the High-Gothic Style. When Richardson returned to the U.S. in 1865, he chose to pay tribute to an earlier style of Romanesque architecture.
In 1869, he designed the Buffalo State Asylum for the Insane (now known as the H. H. Richardson Complex), a massive Medina sandstone complex, now registered as National Historic Landmark. This design marks Richardson’s transition to his unique Romanesque design.
Making his name through his prominent work in Buffalo, Richardson found his way to Albany in 1876 to construct the Capitol Building. Thomas Fuller constructed the ground floor in the Classical style from 1867-75, but Lieutenant Governor William Dorsheimer then dismissed Fuller in favor of Leopold Eidlitz and Richardson who built the next two floors between 1875-1883. They were dismissed by Grover Cleveland upon his election to governorship and his review of the increasing costs of construction, and hired Issac Perry to complete construction. Despite concerns of costs of construction, the Great Western Staircase, also known as the Million Dollar Staircase, took 14 years to construct, and cost, more than one million dollars. Richardson had designed the staircase and Perry constructed it between 1883 and 1897. When completed in 1899 the total cost of the Capitol Building was $25 Million.
NYH: How did Richardson come to design Albany City Hall?
AA: In 1880, Albany’s City Hall burned, and a year later Richardson was chosen to design a larger and more imposing structure. The site was on the eastern edge of Capitol Hill, and the building is a prime example of the style for which Richardson became immortalized.
Richardsonian Romanesque is characterized by a rugged texture, massive stone walls, dramatic semicircular arches, sculptured shapes, deep windows, cavernous recessed door openings and bands of windows. Because of short funding, Richardson focused on the exterior design of City Hall. The walls are rusticated Milford (Rhode Island) granite with Longmeadow (Massachusetts) brownstone trim. The building is noted for the simplicity of its design and care for details, especially its intricate carvings. Many of the stonecutters who were brought to Albany to work on the capitol were hired to do the details on City Hall, particularly the gargoyles and foliated forms.
NYH: Is there other buildings that Richardson was involved in?
AA – Richardson became excited when Bishop William C. Doan announced a competition to design the Cathedral of All Saints which is adjacent to his other two projects in 1882. Richardson saw a unique opportunity to mold the city of Albany to his particular design. Richardson already dominated the hilltop with his major contribution to the Capital building and Albany City Hall, and he began work drawing up his most intricate design. Richardson was disgusted when he learned, relatively unknown, Robert Wilson Gibson received the commission. Doan had worked with Gibson on earlier projects and Doane had made clear that he intended a gothic revival church. In what seems like an act of karma, Gibson’s project was only half completed on the exterior due to lack of funds.
Richardson’s final project was the Sard house on 397 State Stree (1892)t. Built for stove manufacturer Grange Sard Jr, Richardson once again employed some of the stonemasons who worked on the Capitol. Though Richardson never designed another building in Albany, the Sard house made the Richardsonian Romanesque style a fad for residential design.
NYH: What is Richardson’s enduring legacy in Albany?
AA – As the Richardsonian Romanesque become more fashionable in Albany, many other designers were influenced by his style. Isaac Perry, who took over the design of the Capitol after Cleveland dismissed Richardson, would designed the Albany Armory and the Wilborn Temple in the Richardsonian Romanesque style. In the following years, many other buildings and styles would dominate Capitol Hill, particularly the State Education Building, the Corning Tower and the Empire State Plaza.
Sean Kelleher is the Historian for the Town of Saratoga and Village of Victory in the Upper Hudson Valley. Kelleher’s office is across the hall from Alberti’s office at the Saratoga Town Hall in Schuylerville NY.