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August 4 , 2007
The House At 48 Hudson
Thanks to one of Albany’s
best citizens, the Van Ostrande House
survives in an asphalt wasteland
My friend John Wolcott probably knows just about
everything that ever happened around Albany since the Dutch first
dropped anchor in the South End mud in 1609. It’s all knocking
around inside his head or his nervous system, a vast array of historical
details banging against each other trying to get out.
John Wolcott Inside 48 Hudson
Photo by Linda Champaign
What he knows about architecture in the old Dutch colony of Beverwick
could fill a floor of a library. This, of course, is the original
name of our City before the English conquered the place and renamed
it after one of their lords. The French were the first to pass
through, but the Dutch were the first Europeans to steal the land
from the Indians and build a settlement.
Sad to say, very few examples of Dutch architecture survived the
suburbanizing agenda of the 20th Century, the urge to destroy any
old thing of value in this City and leave a smoldering ruin of
crumbling bricks and asphalt. One by one the ancient buildings
were knocked down by our civic leaders to create unneeded parking
and weed-grown lots, a process that John calls “urban removal.”
During the latter decades of the 20th Century, John stood in front
of those buildings, all too often alone against the destroyers.
Eventually other concerned citizens stood with him, and against
all odds some of these historic buildings have survived to this
day. The destructive putzes in charge of this City have raged with
anger, but thanks to John and a few others public opinion has turned
firmly against ruination as public policy.
As the last century came to a close, our leaders continued to
hunger for destruction. Soon they were reduced to wrecking buildings
in the middle of the night to avoid public condemnation. One can
only guess why our leaders wanted ruination so badly, but we can
safely assume it had something to do with wads of dirty cash stuffed
in their slimy pockets.
In the 1990s an outfit called A. Ritz had most of the City demolition
contracts. Their yard used to sit at the end of my street, a very
bad neighbor. Every so often we would listen to their trucks rumble
out in the darkness around nine at night. Sure enough, the next day we would hear
that another one of Albany’s treasures had been sacrificed
in the middle of the night, and the boys in City Hall were having
another illicit payday.
Everything changed after Albany Mayor Jerry Jennings boneheadedly
destroyed the rum distillery, an act which is among the most embarrassing
blunders of his time in office. This
astounding archeological site, discovered in early 2001, was the perfectly preserved lower half
of an 18th Century distillery, including the wooden vats. Nothing
like it had ever been found.
Rum Distillery, Destroyed By Jennings
Jennings wanted an unneccesary parking garage on the site, and
he wanted it fast. Perhaps he needed to collect a personal “cash
commitment” with the project. No doubt he had “expenses.” How
else to explain such stupidity and civic self-hatred except blind
John was there. Over four thousand people filed past the doomed
site in two days, filled with wonder and amazement. Despite efforts
by The Mayor and his police force to cordon off the site, John
and a band of volunteers that he had recruited answered questions
and coordinated the crowds. But in the end, Jennings got his parking
garage and proved his deep hatred of Albany for all to see.
After this debacle, Jennings did not suddenly learn to stop crapping
in his own nest. But he seems to have learned that if he destroys
archeological treasures, then outraged Albanians will not hesitate
to scoop up his stinking merde and fling it back in his face. After
all, the Mayor wants to keep his job, and he wants to be liked.
And so the house at 48 Hudson is still with us, thanks to John.
The place is not much to look at. In fact, it looks like trash.
I wouldn’t have given it a second glance, and would have
shrugged if it had been torn down.
48 Hudson Looks Like A Dump
However, John looked at this pile of crap way back
in the 1970s and saw it for what it really is. Here’s a
letter to the Daily Gazette from 2003 in which he describes what he discovered:
Within the fabric of this building, I found a vestige of a much
older building. This vestige appears to be the entire west, half-timbered
wall of the house of Johannis Van Ostrande, a First Ward Common
Council member from 1728 to 1734. Moreover, this remnant may have
been part of an Albany Anchored Gable House.
This house type was what Colonial Albany was noted for. It
may have originated in Albany, or even earlier in Beverwyck,
probably as a reconciliation of conflicting status and budgetary
concerns. The type was, simply, a clapboarded half-timbered
structure, with a Dutch-style brick gable facing the street.
This gable was anchored to the timber frame with wrought-iron
wall anchors; hence the type name.
There is but one known complete, surviving example of an Albany
Anchored Gable House. It's the Abram Yates House in Schenectady's
able to date the structure to 1728, making it the oldest
standing structure in the City of Albany. The experts were impressed
with his proof by document, and agreed. I don’t quite get
it, but those who know about these things are in complete agreement
with John’s flawless research.
Original Clapboards On The West
Photo by Linda Champaign
Later, the current owner of 48 Hudson, Brian Parker, commisioned
a dendronology analysis of the original boards. This is basically
examining core samples of the wooden boards and counting the tree
rings. Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Sciences
Laboratory declared that the building without question dates to
1728, exactly like John said.
You see, John is probably the premier expert on Albany’s
historical deeds and public papers. I mean, he can actually read
the oldest documents from the 1600s, which were written in medieval
Dutch. When this stuff was penned 400 years ago, only lawyers could
read it. No problem for John.
But John is not getting any credit for his scholarly work on 48
Hudson, nor is he recognized for decades of labor fighting to keep
it from being destroyed. For example, note how this Hearst
Times Union article barely mentions John:
Brian Parker long suspected the rundown Albany
building with its leaky
roof and bountiful supply of rusty restaurant equipment was a
treasure. So, he took a chance and bought it.
It was a good gamble. Tests have indicated that
the former Saul Equipment Co. at 48 Hudson Ave. -- or at least
part of it -- is the
oldest standing house in Albany, dating to circa 1728.
What gamble? Mr. Parker, who is apparently no fool, purchased the building because John Wolcott
had convincingly demonstrated the age of the building. John’s
numerous contributions to this City have been consistently written
out of the “official” record. And over the years, more
than one slimy character has assumed direct credit for John’s
[NOTE: Certain persons with an agenda have been circulating false rumors that the above paragraph is a veiled attack on Mr. Parker's character. I do not know enough about Mr. Parker to judge his character, but I stand by my assertion that Mr. Parker "is apparently no fool."]
You see, John doesn’t care one bit if he gets acknowledged
for his work, or if some jerk claims credit in his place. John
won’t even bother to raise an objection. All he cares about
is preserving the buildings. That’s the only thing that’s
important to him.
48 Hudson From The Side
What a strange guy! Everybody in today’s world wants to
be noticed, wants to get what they deserve. It’s all about
me. No one bothers to do anything unless it makes a buck or advances
your career. Altruism went out of style with the election of Ronald
Reagan, baby. We’re living in Ayn Rand’s corporate
wasteland, get used to it.
John doesn’t seem to have much use for the prevailing culture
of greed and exploitation. He exists in the past, present and future
simultaneously. This is a point of view which does not allow wanton
destruction of our landscape and our countryside, because the effects
of our actions are felt throughout our existence, and these effects
don’t go away.
Are you following me here? No? Well, don’t worry about it.
Suffice to say that our elected officials and the “developers” that
they work for don’t have the slightest idea what motivates
John to do what he does. “What’s his angle, what does
he get out of it?” they ask each other with wonder. “He
must be crazy.”
Here’s what those people don’t understand. The old
buildings, the ancient cityscape, are part of our heritage. Our
heritage, our past present and future, is what we are. When we
destroy our heritage, or allow it to be destroyed, we are destroying
This cannot be permitted. It is our duty to fight self destruction
any way we can. That’s how John sees it.
Incidentally, John is first and foremost a preservationist, but
as a consequence he is also an environmentalist. To put it another
way, he approaches environmentalism as a preservationist.
From John’s perspective the natural landscape, with all
its life and beauty and complexity, is as much a part of our heritage,
ourselves, as the buildings that have sheltered us for hundreds
of years. So naturally he is a founder and current board member
of Save The Pine Bush, the citizen’s group that has fought
for more than three decades to preserve Albany’s ecological
Rear Addition, Mid 1800s
John’s tendency to consider the past present
and future simultaneously causes him to have a serious dilemna
concerning 48 Hudson.
You see, the building has undergone many changes over the years.
For example for more than a century it was the location and then
the offices of the Jared Holt wax factory. Before that it was a
private home. John wants to see elements of each of the eras of
the building’s existence preserved:
If the Van Ostrande House is fully restored, a different wood
should be used to maintain clarity as to what is original and what
is not. A large scale model should be made showing the situation
when Brian [Parker] started uncovering the later material to show
how the changes and incidental disguises took place.
This model should have explanatory panels, and photos next to
it. The model should be the focus for lectures on what happened.
If the mixed original and later components are to be left largely
as they are, then the opposite should be done. A large scale model
can be made of what the original components were arranged and what
they were orignally combined with.
My preference is this latter choice. There is plenty of room in
the rear later section, [which was added by] the Jared Holt Wax
See what I mean? It’s all important, and some part of everything
should be preserved. Of course, John has a good point. It’s
not as if the house has sat static for the better part of three
centuries. It’s been used, and the record of its use can
be found in the surviving fixtures and debris found inside.
Of 48 Hudson In 1834 (left)
And A Photo From The Late 1800s (right)
Vol. 9 No. 6-7
Of course all of this is moot if the Convention Center
Authority decides to destroy 48 Hudson. Apparently the people in
charge of this unneccessary boondoggle are planning to build their
mess around the archeological treasure. But John is not relaxing.
Long experience has taught him to not trust politicians or “developers” when
they make promises.
“I do not think” John wrote in a recent letter to
a well-known elected official, “ that anyone on the Convention
Center Committee is really qualified to decide on historic restoration
questions. Besides the Van Ostrande House is a community resource
and treasure and the Convention Center Committee should just back
off.” And furthermore:
There's a slight rumbling rumor over a possibility
that the Convention promoters want to build a fake believe imaginary "Dutch" houses
all in a row along Hudson Avenue west and east of 48 Hudson Avenue
to create the Dutch Village look that Jennings and company wanted
to do with much more fakery and a fake fort by the river a few
This is only as a kind of rumor passed on to me a few days ago
but there are reasons to think it could be true. The location as
a colonial period street isn't as phoney as the former plan, and
there's a touch of authenticity with the Van Ostrande House in
it's original position as the center piece. But I'm against this
plan none the less. It's just too much touristy, Disney Land fakery
I will take a position that if they conduct intense
archaeology of the house sites that I know were there, retrieve
and study everything about the structures from archaelogy and
manage to conduct the most intensive documentary research ever
conducted to look for paintings and or drawings of the houses
and find some, then I might agree to a row of recreated facades
based on virtually total reality. It would have to based on hard
work research and not lazy, cheap, uninformed, low standard tourist
promotion that is lacking in "truth
I’m sorry to say that John is a lot older than
he used to be, but that’s what happens. The Wife often hollers
at him to take better care of himself. After all, he is one of
those rare people who are irreplaceable. But as you can see, he
is as forthright as ever. He knows what is wrong and he
is going to do what he can to make things right, now and for all
Drawings On Display In The Window, With The Wrong Name
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