Painting by James Eights as
he remembered looking down State Street before the Dutch Reformed Church was demolished in 1806! Many slightly different versions of this view exist in color and in black-and-white. This image is copied from a "cheap" print in the Colonial Albany Project Graphics Archive.
On the far left or behind the upper north side of State Street is the head of Maiden Lane. The hill in the distance is up from the river in Greenbush and beyond the Albany riverfront skyline. In the foreground on the right (south side) are two men sawing a log in front of James Chestney's chair factory at 134 State Street.
In 1857, Harper's Magazine presented an illustrated article entitled "Albany Fifty Years Ago." It was reproduced in volume II of Munsell's Collections. In an expression of community iconography, some of what we believe is James Eights's descriptive narrative is exerpted (and somewhat adapted from Munsell beginning on page 14) below:
The house seen on the left is that of Philip S. Van Rensselaer, a younger brother of the Patroon, who was mayor of Albany from 1799 to 1814.
The two houses next to Van Rensselaer's belonged to the brothers Webster, the early printers in Albany and the frame building next to them was their office, and was familiarly known as The Webster Corner. They were twin brothers. Charles commenced business in 1782, as a newspaper publisher, and in 1784 he established the Albany Gazette. It lived until 1845, a period of almost sixty years. A complete file of it is preserved in the State Library. They also published books. From that noted corner cart-loads of Noah Webster's spelling books were scattered over Northern and Western New York by those enterprising men.
Next below Webster's is seen the Livingston House and elm tree, and the Lydius House - occupying opposite corners, and delineated in detail with gable in front. A house just below the Lydius corner, yet remains, and is occupied by the State Bank. Pearson, a tobacconist, and Doctor Dexter, a druggist, occupy the next taller buildings.
Almost in front, and at the steepest part of the street, is seen one of the old well-curbs of the city, used before the construction of the water-works, which now supply the inhabitants. They are all gone now, and will be entirely forgotten when another generation shall have taken our places. All the old travelers
and tourists described the well water of Albany as peculiarly offensive to the taste, it being filled with insects
which, on account of their size, might have looked down with contempt upon the infusoria.
The old Dutch Church seen near the foot of the street we will consider presently. The tall house seen over its angle on the left belonged to the
Kanes, well-known merchants who made a large fortune by dealings with the white people and the Indians of the Mohawk valley. A greater portion of their dwelling and store house in the valley may yet be seen near Canajoharie. An anecdote is related, in connection with the Kanes, which illustrates the proverbial shrewdness of the New Englanders, and the confiding nature of the old stock of Dutchmen in that region. A Yankee peddler was arrested for traveling on Sunday, contrary to law,
and was taken before a Dutch justice. The peddler pleaded the urgency of his business. At first the Dutchman was inexorable, but at length, on the payment to him of a small sum of money as a bribe, he agreed to furnish the Yankee with a written permit to travel on. The justice requested the peddler to write the pass. He wrote a draft on Messrs. J.
& A. Kane, for fifty dollars, to be paid in goods, which the unsuspecting Dutchman signed. The draft was presented and duly honored, and the Yankee went on his way rejoicing. A few days afterward the Dutchman was called upon to pay the amount of the draft. The whole thing was a mystery to the magistrate and it was a long time before he could comprehend it. All at once light broke in, and the victim exclaimed vehemently, in bad English, "Eh, yah! I understand it now. Tish mine writin', and dat ish de tam Yankee pass." He paid the money, and resigned his office, feeling that it was safer to deal in corn and butter with his honest neighbors than in law with Yankee travelers.
The house on the right of the church, in range with the most distant lamp-post, belonged to Dr. Mancius, and there the city post-office was kept. The perspective in the drawing in this streetview of this side is so nearly on a straight line that the forms of the buildings in the lower part of State street can not well be defined. In the portion of the street opposite the Livingston elm were two noble but dissimilar buildings: one of them was
erected bv Harman Wendell in 1716; the other was built by John Stevenson and completed in 1780. The former was in the ancient Dutch style. The owner was a rich fur trader, and many a traffic with the Indians was made within its walls. The Stevenson House was then a wonder in architecture, it being in a style quite diiferent from any thing in Albany. It was purely English throughout, and it was known as The rich man's house. Both of these buildings were demolished in 1841.
Coming up State street, on the south side, we find the spacious brick mansion of Greorge Merchant, over which six birds are seen. Mr. Merchant was a fine scholar, and for some time occupied the Vanderheyden Palace, on North Pearl street, as an academy. There many boys of Revolutionary times learned their Greek and Latin, under Mr. Merchant's instruction. Among them was my elder brother, who figured quite conspicuously in public affairs at the time when the Federal Constitution was under discussion throughout the country. He made a patriotic speech at the dinner in the great Federal Bower (erected where the State Capitol now stands), on a hot August day, in 1788, at the close of the great procession in honor of the ratification of the Constitution.
The peaks and chimneys beneath the single bird are those of the old Geological Hall, which stood back of Merchant's house, and occupied the site of the present Geological Rooms. The building with a projecting ridge for hoisting, was a carpenter's shop ; and the last one seen on the right of the picture, was the chair factory of Mr. M'Chesney, a Scotch-man, who died a few years ago at an advanced age. He always had his timber sawed in front of his establishment.
Eights's reminiscent accounts conjure up images even today. Stand on the "island" in the middle of State Street (with the County office building on the right, look down the hill, and recall Albany's main street more than 200 years ago!
Please accept and consider the clickable image as presented above. It makes up a small part of the overall community mosaic. Also, please bear with us as we strive to present a more serviceable fascimile transcription of the magazine article itself and a better quality version of the painting/print itself. Until then, see this offering from the Harper's archive.
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first posted: 11/20/02; last revised 11/1/12