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August 4, 2007


A weblog about the politics and affairs of the old and glorious City of Albany, New York, USA. Articles written and disseminated from Albany's beautiful and historic South End by Daniel Van Riper. If you wish to make a response, have anything to add or would like to make an empty threat, please contact me.

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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
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
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 corruption?

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
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 Stockade.

John was 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 Side, Photo by Linda Champaign
Original Clapboards On The West Side
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 tireless work.

[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
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 ourselves.

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 heritage.

Rear Addition, Mid 1800s
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 Factory.

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.

Reconstruction Of 48 Hudson In 1834, HVVA Newsletter, Vol. 9 No. 6-7 A Photo From The Late 1800s, HVVA Newsletter, Vol. 9 No. 6-7
Reconstruction Of 48 Hudson In 1834 (left)
And A Photo From The Late 1800s (right)
HVVA Newsletter, 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 years back.

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 for me.

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 in advertising"

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 time.

Drawings On Display In The Window, With The Wrong Name
Drawings On Display In The Window, With The Wrong Name


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