Tuesday, November 10, 2009

The Empire State Plaza

This is the first of a few posts that I'm planning that will feature the most imposing element of Albany's skyline, the Governor Nelson A. Rockefeller Empire State Plaza. I've been referring to the massive state office complex in previous posts. This is it.

Looking north toward the capitol across the Plaza.

Back in the 1960s, when Nelson Rockefeller was governor of New York, he hosted then Princess Beatrix of the Netherlands on her visit to the former Dutch colony. The state of the city then embarrassed the governor. He thought the poor neighborhoods around the capitol and the declining economic situation in the city were not appropriate symbols for the state.

One of four identical 23-story office towers.

He worked with architect Wallace Harrison to devise a bold and monumental look for the capital that was to completely transform the city. Just south of the capitol building stood an old decaying neighborhood of brick and stone townhouses inhabited mostly by poorer residents; the middle class had moved out long ago.

The capitol seen from the Cultural Education Center.

These days, displacing nearly 10,000 people, most of them economically disadvantaged, for a government office building project would be a very difficult task. But back in the 1960s, apparently, it was accomplished, although not without a bit of controversy. But still, it was done.

The base of the 44-story Corning office tower.

Construction began in 1965 and lasted for almost thirteen years. Downtown Albany was a mess for most of that time as the demolition and building progressed. The project lasted for a good deal of my childhood. I can remember the sound of pile drivers echoing through the suburbs for what seemed like years, constantly pounding away in the background of school lessons.

Corning Tower reaches skyward.

I remember, too, when the old Dunn Memorial Bridge that connected Albany to Rennselaer across the Hudson was dynamited to make way for a more modern, but altogether unremarkable, freeway bridge. The new city grew up while I did, reaching heights that amazed me.

The old city and the new city still struggle to merge.

To this day, the Corning Tower at Albany is the tallest building in New York State outside of New York City, and it is visible for miles around. Rockefeller got his gleaming new capital, and the look of Albany was transformed forever.

Robinson Square, which is not a square, against the Plaza.


  1. Fabulous pictures and a great story, thank you. I had no idea about any of this. A very interesting chapter of American social history. And you were there!!

  2. Robinson Square, which is not a square, against the Plaza.

    Sounds like Australia Square in Sydney which is not a square but a circular fifty storeys tall building.

  3. I believe that they did that "deplacing" of poor folks in St. Louis, too.... but, we still have our share of very run down neighborhoods.

    Albany has some wonderful architecture, Walt! I still can't get over the State Education Building!

    I hope Vermont was fun!


  4. This Albany architecture tour is great. It's very interesting to follow along (and go further afield) with both Google and Bing maps. Google gives a wonderful walk-the-street view (especially good for the Ed Bldg) and Bing a terrific birds-eye view.

    Downtown Albany is chock full of interesting buildings...too bad there aren't more condos/apts to keep people living there. It looks ripe for it.

    Little Portsmouth, NH went through this cycle:

    1600's through 1960's; downtown very mixed residential/commercial.

    1960's through 2000; suburban flight, grocery/hardware/etc stores close.

    2000 to present; condo construction, inflow of downtown residents, return of grocery stores, etc. This makes downtown a great place to live. Ya don't need no car to get to groceries, entertainment, office, restaurants, and faucet washers.

  5. The same thing happened in Atlanta in the 60s when I lived there briefly. It was called "urban renewal" and neighborhoods were torn apart for new roads and buildings.

    Have a great trip back to les Boileaux. I bet Callie will be excited to see you!

  6. Walt

    Thank you for the tour of Albany- now I know that there are some interesting buildings to look at. Hopefully next spring when we go down to NYC , we will make a stop to visit the downtown area. We tend to stick to the North country so I did know much about the State capital.

  7. You have done such an amazing job of capturing Albany in all of it's glory. Such a super great eye for the camera. Here are a few of mine (minus the one where the cute boys were relaxing on the plaza!). I do have standards:


  8. You've certainly made Albany appealing with your pictures, too bad you can't do something about the weather.

  9. Walt,
    Great eye for great pics. I will continue to harangue you about a book on France.
    We are meeting with Sue's never met before relatives from Virginia next month - I'll report on the blog.
    Enjoying your holiday with you as I sit in my office.

  10. There was a saying in the 1960s:

    Urban renewal means Negro Removal.

    And it was true. Any time a performing arts center or big urban complex, or a highway slicing a city into sections isolated from each other was proposed and approved, the first thing that happened was that African Americans (and other minorities without sufficient political clout) lost their homes and neighborhoods.


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