Three Rivers
History From America's Most Famous Valleys

The Centennial Celebrations of the State of New York
Prepared pursuant to a Concurrent Resolution
of the Legislature of 1878 and Chapter 391 of the Laws of 1879
By Allen C. Beach, Secretary of State.
Weed, Parsons & Co. Printers 1879.

The Old Capital

For nearly ten years, the Capital of New York was a small building situated on what is now the corner of Hudson avenue and Broadway in the city of Albany. The building was called the Stadt Haus, or City Hall. From an old cut of it to be found in Munsell's Annals of Albany it seems to have been an ordinary four story stone building with Dormer Windows and the Albanian gable ends, yet it contained for these ten years within its walls the municipal bureaus of the city, the courts of justice of the county,and the county jail as well as the Legislature. In its yard stood the whipping post and pillory. It is natural to suppose that the officials were very much crowded. In 1803, the common council of Albany passed the following resolution, four members voting against it:

"Resolved, That a petition be presented to the Honorable the Legislature, from this Board, for an act authorizing the erection of a State and Courthouse in the public square of this city, and that the present Courthouse be sold toward defraying the expense thereof. That ----- ------- ------- be a committee to prepare a petition and cause a map to be made of ground in the square sufficiently spacious and suitable for such purpose, and that they report an estimate of the sum necessary for such State and Courthouse."

John Cuyler, Charles D. Cooper and Jno. V. N. Yates were appointed the committee under the resolution. On March 7th following they made their report. In it they stated that "in forming the estimate of expense, you commissioners have taken a sum for which they conceive the contemplated State and Courthouse might be finished in plain and commodious manner with little or no decoration or ornament. Unwilling to lay any burdens on the county which might be deemed unnecessary,they have restrained from indulging themselves in a calculation upon too large or expensive a scale. They have therefore estimated the expense at $30,000 only, to be raised as follows.

From the sale of the present courthouse and ground belonging to it which they estimate at 17,500 Dolls.

The probable amount to be granted by the Legislature for furnishing apartments, etc., for them, the council, etc., 3,000 Doll.

There remains to be raised by tax on the city and county 9,500 Dolls. (Dollars)

The report proceeds to say that little more than one dollar would be the average rate on each taxable inhabitant of Albany, and recounts the merits of the project as likely to enhance the value of property. It says: "The number of lots belonging to this Board which are near and about the public square are twenty-seven. It is not supposed that at present they would produce more than $15,000, at the rate of $500 each for twenty lots on the square and $750 for the seven in State street. Yet it cannot be doubted that a State and courthouse erected in the square would increase this value, at least, 50 percent more, consequently the city would gain in regard to its public property at least $8,000 on this part of the subject." The report was adopted. *

*For efficient aid and direction in eliminating these interesting items from the ancient records of the common council of Albany, the editor is indebted to Martin Delehanty, Esq., clerk of the common council of Albany for the last twenty years.

The public square was then called "Pinkster's Hill." It was especially noted for numerous fresh water spring, which bubbled forth at various places on its surface, and for the general prevalence of cool breezes.

In the February number of Harper's Magazine, in 1859, is contained an account of Pinkster's Hill, by one who announces himself as an old Knickerbocker. It says:

"The road, since my recollection, passed up the hill on the south side of St. Peter's and the fort, and in the rear of the latter it passed over Pinkster Hill, on which the State capitol now stands. Pinkster Hill! What pleasant memory of my boyhood does that name bring up. That hill was famous as the gathering place of all the colored people of the city and for the country for miles around, during the Pinkster festival in May. Then they received their freedom for a week. They erected booths, where gingerbread, cider, and apple toddy were freely dispensed. On the hill they spent the days and evenings in sports, in dancing and drinking and love making to their heart's content. I remember those gatherings with delight, when old King Charley, a darkey of charcoal blackness, dressed in his gold laced scarlet coat and yellow breeches, used to amuse all the people with his antics. I was a light boy, and on one occasion Charley took me on his shoulders and leaped a bar more than five feet in height. He was so generously "treated" because of his feat, that he became gloriously drunk an hour afterward, and I led him home just at sunset. When I look into the State capitol now when the Legislature is in session, and think of Congress hall filled with lobbying politicians, I sigh for the innocence of Pinkster Hill in the good old days of the the Woolly Heads.

On April 3d, 1804, the bill authorizing the erection of the public building (now the old capitol) finally passed the Legislature, and was approved by the council of revision, April 6th, 1804. It appears as chapter LXVII of the Laws of 1804, and is entitled "An Act making provision for improving Hudson's river below Albany,and for other purposes." After some preliminary declarations, it says:

"And whereas the situation of the present courthouse in the city of Albany is found by experience to be highly inconvenient for the transaction of public business, and the corporation of the said city, having represented to the Legislature that they are willing to appropriate a lot of ground on the public square of the said city, for the site of a public building for the accommodation of the Legislature, and for a new City Hall, and have prayed that the present courthouse, and the lot used with the same, might be sold, and the proceeds thereof applied toward erecting and finishing such new State house; therefore

Be it further enacted, That John Taylor, Daniel Hale, Philip S. Van Rensselaer, Simeon DeWitt and Nicholas N. Quackenbush be and they are hereby appointed commissioners for the erecting and completing a public building in the city of Albany, on a lot to be designated for such purpose, as is hereinafter mentioned, with sufficient and commodious apartments for the Legislature, the council of revision, the courts of justice, and for the common council of the said city upon such construction, and plan as by them shall be judged proper.

And be it further enacted, That it shall and may be lawful for the said corporation, and they are hereby required, as soon as conveniently may be after the passing of this act, to proceed to the sale of the present courthouse in the city of Albany, and the ground thereto appertaining for the best price,and on the best terms they can procure for the same,and on such sale to convey the said house and ground to the purchaser or purchasers in fee simple; and that the moneys arising from such sale shall be paid to the said commissioners, in such manner and at such time of times as they shall require, the same to be applied by them toward effecting the object intended by this act. Provided, however, That nothing herein contained shall be held or construed to authorize the said corporation so to sell and dispose of the premises, as to admit the purchaser thereof to go into actual possession before the new State house shall be completed, until which time the present courthouse shall be occupied and appropriated as the same hath heretofore been done.

And be it further enacted, That the supervisors of the city and county of Albany shall cause to be raised, levied and collected by a tax on the freeholders and inhabitants of the county of Albany, exclusive of the said city, three thousand dollars, and by a tax on the freeholders and inhabitants of the said city, a further sum of three thousand dollars; which sums shall be raised, levied and collected in the same manner as the contingent charges of the said county are by law directed to be raised, levied and collected, which sums when raised, shall be paid to the order of the said commissioners for the purposes aforesaid.

And be it further enacted, That the managers of the lotteries herein before mentioned shall cause to be raised by lottery the further sum of twelve thousand dollars, in such manner as they or a majority of them shall deem proper, which sum when raised the said managers shall pay unto the said commissioners for the purposes aforesaid."

The law concludes with provisions for bonds to be executed by the commissioners, in $30,000 each, and for the filling of vacancies in their number should any occur, by "The person administering the government of this State."

The title of this law it will be seen has no reference to the erection of a capitol, except in the extremely indefinite terms "for other purposes." Under the Constitution of 1777, such cases were very frequent, and it is a matter of record that Aaron Burr obtained the passage of an act ostensibly for the purpose, as its title indicated, "to supply New York city with pure and wholesome water," under the provisions of which the Manhattan Bank at No. 40 Wall Street, New York city, was incorporated. It is not immediately within the domain of the present subject, yet it may be interesting to state that the Manhattan Bank at present maintains a reservoir in one of the most thickly populated parts of New York city, merely to carry out the provisions of that act. *

*The editor of the present volume recently received a note from Mr. James R. Morrison, president of the Manhattan Bank, describing in detail the water works which the corporation continues to maintain in Center Street, between Reade and Duane, in order to meet the provisions of its original charter. The reservoir, an iron tank 41 feet high, is supplied with water by steam power from seven connected wells in the adjoining streets, at the present day, under a contract.

Under the lottery system at that time, all the public improvements of the State were conducted. The system was established originally by virtue of "An act for the encouragement of literature," for the purpose of founding the common school fund, which is now the most sacred public trust of the State, and under its provisions, Union, Hamilton, and Columbia colleges were largely endowed. The system also extended to the laying out of roads and highways, the improvement of rivers, the building of bridges, the encouragement of the arts and sciences, and every thing which might be termed a State project. The Constitution of 1821 finally abolished the system and prohibited any lottery within the State borders.

Senate Chamber, Old Capitol

It will be seen by the act above that the original appropriation for the old capitol was $24,000 to which must be added the proceeds of the sale of the Stadt Haus, which amounted to $17,200 more. With this sum the commissioners proceeded promptly to work,and on April 23, 1806, the corner stone of the building was laid. Philip S. Van Rensselaer, then mayor of the city, performed the exercises in the presence of quite an imposing assemblage, including the chancellor (John Lansing, Jr.), the judges of the Supreme Court, the members of the city corporation, the commissioners of the capitol, and other officials. The papers of the day do not state whether any memorials at all were so deposited. The custom of depositing memorials in corner stones was then in vogue, because the newspapers of that day mention the fact of such deposits in the corner stones of other buildings undergoing erection in Albany at that time. The event of laying the corner stone of what was admitted to one of the most imposing and important edifices in the country, is thus modestly chronicled by the Albany Daily Advertiser:

"On Wednesday, the 23d of April, the corner stone of the State House was laid by Hon. Philip S. Van Rensselaer, in presence of the Chancellor, Judges of the Supreme Court, members of the corporation, State House Commissioners and other citizens. The site on which this edifice is to be erected is at the head of State street, on the west side of the public square. It is to be built of stone, one hundred feet by eighty, on an improved plan, embracing much elegance with great convenience and durability."

In March 1807, the first report of the commissioners was made to the Legislature. It appears in the Assembly Journal of that year, under date of March 5th. It says: "The commissioners, for erecting a building for public purposes in the city of Albany, report: 'That, in prosecuting the duties of their appointment, they have expended $33,200, and have on hand, of the materials purchased with money out of that sum, to the amount of $8,750. The architect estimates that to enclose the building will still require about $16,000; to complete the interior $20,000. The portico with steps of freestone, columns of marble and pediment of wood, $6,800. Total, $42,800. This estimate contemplates a wooden cornice around the building and a shingle roof. If the cornice be made of stone and the rood of slate, $10,000 more will be required.'"

In accordance with the suggestion of the commissioners, the Legislature soon afterward appropriated $20,000 further toward the erection of the building, the sum, as usual, to be raised by a lottery. In March, 1808, the commissioners made another report showing that the total amount received from all sources was $69,600, of which they had to expend for the work in hand $67,688. They announced also that they were of opinion that $25,000 was needed to finish the building.

The Legislature promptly passed a bill appropriating the needed $25,000. In 1809 $5,000 was appropriated for furnishing the new building, and in another bill $500 was appropriated "for the completion of the public building in the city of Albany, which building shall hereafter be know as the CAPITOL." Previous to this, every building for the accommodation of the State government had been known as the State House. In April, 1810, $4,000 was appropriated again toward finishing the building, and in 1811 the same amount was also appropriated. In 1814 the commissioners considered their work finished and rendered their final accounts. From this it is shown that the expense of erecting the old building amounted to $110,685.42, and was defrayed as follows:

Paid by the State
Paid by Albany city
Paid by Albany county

In section 48 of the supply bill for 1814, it is provided that the comptroller shall allow to the commissioners of the "publick building" one per cent out of the moneys expended, as a compensation for their services. Albany city and county, of course, held an interest in the grounds and buildings under the law, and they continued to do so until 1829, when (May 5, 1829) an act was passed authorizing the payment of $17,500 to the city and county, on condition that all rights and interests in the capitol and the park should be released. The terms were accepted, and since that time Albany (city or county) has had no right or interest in the Capitol or Capitol Park, except that of police surveillance, which is voluntarily contributed.

The building was considered,w hen completed, an edifice of great pretensions. Travelers and tourists described it in language of excessive admiration. Professor Silliman, in 1813, spoke of it as "a large, handsome building, the furniture exhibiting a good degree of splendor." Mr. Horatio Gates Spafford described the building in detail in 1823, and said of the senate and assembly chambers,which were then on the same floor: "In the furniture of these rooms there is a liberal display of public munificence, and the American eagle assumes almost imperial splendor." Mr. Spafford's description, except for the rear additions which have been made, will stand almost good at the present day. He said:

"It stands at the head of State street, adjoining the Public park, and on an elevation 130 feet above the level of the Husdon. It is a substantial stone building, faced with freestone taken from the brown sandstone quarries on the Hudson below the Highlands. The walls are 50 feet high, consisting of two stories, and a basement story of 10 feet. The east, or main front, is adorned with a portico of the Ionic order, tetrastile, the entablature supporting an angular pediment, in the tympanum of which is to be placed the arms of the State.* (See appendix, note 1.) The ceiling of the hall is supported by a double row of reeded columns; the floors are vaulted and laid with squares of Italian marble, diagonally checked with white and grey. The building is roofed with a double hip of pyramidal form, upon the center of which is erected a circular cupola, 20 feet in diameter,which contains a small bell for the use of the courts. On its dome is a statue of Themis, facing eastward: a carved figure of wood, 11 feet in height, holding a sword in her right hand, and a balance in her left."

It is even a matter of record that English travelers spoke of it in approving terms. With such pretensions advanced for the old building, how little could its originators have imagined that it would not outlive the allotted term of man, and how little could they have foreseen the progress of a State which in seventy years could grow beyond the uses of so magnificent an edifice!

Some question evidently arose toward the completion of the building as to the rights of Albany city and county and the rights of the State in its occupancy. On April 1, 1807, the common council of the city of Albany passed a resolution declaring that the sense of the Board is that when "compleated" the same publick building shall "be used for the accommodation of the Legislature, the Court of Chancery, the Supreme Court, the Court of Common Pleas for this county, the Mayor's court and common council of this city, and such other purposes as may not be incompatible with the uses above expressly designated." An in order to "confirm the said appropriation" it was ordered that a copy of the resolution should be filed with the secretary of state, and certified by the mayor.

Assembly Chamber, Old Capitol

The rooms of the Public building, when it first opened to public use, were occupied as follows: The governor's room was then, on the southeast corner of the first floor, as it is now, except that no additional room projecting upon the main hall was added during the rebellion, because of the increased duty devolving upon upon the governor and his military, staff. The council of revision met, it appears, in the governor's rooms. The apartments occupied by the adjutant-general now (in 1879) to which a similar additional room was added during the war, were devoted to the Albany Common Council. The assembly chamber was the same as in 1878, except that various additions have been made in the rear, while the senate chamber was to the left of the assembly chamber, as you enter from the main hall, and is at this date occupied by the department of public instruction. Until last summer, (1878), it was used as the post office and cloak room of the assembly. Where the present library of the court of appeals is, until lately the room of the court itself, was the gallery of the senate. When the senate chamber was removed to the large room on the second floor, a floor was constructed on the level of this gallery, and additional rooms thus secured to the building. In one of them the supervisors of Albany county held their meetings. On the upper floors originally, the supreme court, then the highest court of the State, occupied the main room, now occupied by the court of appeals, and occupied in 1878 by the senate. The other rooms were occupied by the court of chancery,the Court of Common Pleas, the court of general sessions and the mayor's court. In the attic were placed the mayor's office, the rooms of the society of arts, the State library and the State board of agriculture,while in the "abasement" were the offices of the county clerk, the marshal of the city, and the rooms of the keeper of the capitol. There was not a committee room in the entire building. It can hardly be conceived that the building could ever have rendered adequate accommodation for such a number of public offices, but this arrangement continued until the completion of the city hall, in 1831, when the city and county offices were removed to that building. Various changes have taken place since. The new State library was built under the law of 1851; the society of arts was abolished and large additions were made to the rear of the building, for the better accommodation of the clerks and members of assembly. But none of the various additions kept the capitol up to the increase of the needs of the State. The sessions of the Legislature so overburdened it that part of old Congress Hall, a whole private residence and numerous apartments in the Delavan House and elsewhere were required for committee rooms. Indeed, with so many of the departments located in other buildings, the capitol itself was but a center from which the various branches of the State government radiated, rather than a habitation in which they held their principal court. Nor did the various additions to the old building, deemed seventy years ago so magnificent, give it pace with more modern structures about it. The city of Albany, then the seventh in size in the Union, although with only 7,500 inhabitants, has since grown to a population of nearly 90,000 (although hardly now to be named among the large cities),and with this growth the ancient grandeur of the old capitol has been overtopped by several buildings within sight of it. The Cathedral, St. Peter's, St. Paul's and St. Agnes' churches, the city hall and the new State hall, all within a few blocks of it, far exceed it in magnificence, though none of them have an atom of its gray old picturesqueness, as it sits in the summer foliage and the winter snows a thing of equal honor and beauty, like a little old beldame among her grander sons.

In the quaint old chamber with sculptured cornices over the doors, deep wood-fire places and wide chimneys, here and there an odd looking modern improvement breaking forth upon its ancient surface, Daniel D. Tompkins, De Witt Clinton, Martin Van Buren, William. L. Marcy, William H. Seward, Silas Wright, Hamilton Fish, Washington Hunt, Horatio Seymour, and other of as great renown have had their official habitations. That one room itself is a wonderful center of historical associations. What consultations have been had there, and what strange plots and complications have been engineered there, is, of course, not within the historian's sphere, but that great state policies and great personal schemes have been bruited in the old chamber is beyond any question. The chief magistracy of the chief State in the Union has been well considered a long step toward the chief Magistracy of the Union of the States, yet strangely enough only one occupant of the government ever reached it.

In the governor's room, the Council of Revision, which had the veto power at present exercised by the governor alone, held its meeting in the early years of the building's history.

A history of the senate and assembly chambers would be, in effect, a history of the legislation of the State. Most of the great measures which have served to make the State great, found their utterances in these two chambers. The Erie canal project, the abolition of slavery in the state, and the important constitutional changes which were made in 1821 and 1846, received substance and cohesion in these rooms. There were, or course, many incidents hardly so important as these changes which also occurred within the walls of the senate and assembly chambers. The great constitutional conventions were held in the assembly chamber. LaFayette was feasted there in 1825; receptions to most of the State's distinguished visitors have been given there; the meetings of State agricultural, medical, military and other societies were annually held in it,and frequent political campaign gatherings have had their few hours of rant and rallying from its speaker's rostrum. An impressive scene of annual occurrence was the delivery of the governor's speech. Up to 1821 it had been customary for the governor upon being formally made acquainted with the fact that the two houses were organized and ready to proceed to business, to reply that at such an hour he would meet them in the assembly chamber. At that hour the senate would wait upon him, and he at their head with the lieutenant-governor would enter the assembly chamber, all the assembly standing as he entered, be received by the sergeant-at-arms and be formally announced by him to the speaker, who would then surrender his place to the governor, and the latter would read what is now known as his message. At the conclusion he would withdraw, accompanied by the senate, in the same impressive manner. In 1821, however, and extra-patriotic committee, appointed as was the custom to draw up an answer to the governor's speech, reported that the whole custom of gubernatorial speech making was a "remnant of royalty and ought to be abolished." Although this was voted down, the next governor, Joseph C. Yates, contented himself with the message as delivered at the present day, and the most unusual presence in either house during a session now is that of the governor. The assembly chamber was also the meeting place of the legislative party caucuses which nominated candidates for governor, and announced the voice of the parties in the State in favor of candidates for the presidency.

In 1812, Governor Tompkins performed an act which was, and may have been justly, termed a "remnant of royalty." He dissolved the Legislature by a decree of Prorogation. Perhaps this event was the most exciting in the history of the old capitol. A prorogation under the State organization had never been known before and has never been known since. The cause of the prorogation was the danger of the passage of a bill to charter the bank of America, which had been secured, as evidence seemed to show, by wholesale bribery and corruption. The passage of the bill by the tow houses would have carried it to the Council of Revision where Governor Tompkins could have had no control over it, beyond his own vote. In order to prevent its passage, he therefore sent a message to the two houses, on the morning when the final vote upon its passage was to be taken, recapitulating the charges relative to bribery and corruption, and suggesting that time should be afforded for reflection and for consultation with the constituencies of member, and declaring the two houses prorogued for two months, until the 21st of May next, then to meet in the capitol at the city of Albany. The presiding officers of both houses at once declared those bodies adjourned. The scene of excitement that ensued extended itself to the city, and the town was in commotion. Blows and oaths were exchanged within the two chambers, and repeated in the public places. When the two houses reconvened after the prorogation, they resumed business where it had been cut off by the order of prorogation,and notwithstanding the odor of uncleanness that the bill must have emitted, and notwithstanding the two months of reflection which had been permitted the members and their consultations with their constituents, the bill was passed finally, within three weeks from the reopening of the session. A committee drew up a resolution declaring the prorogation unconstitutional and dangerous to the liberties of the people, but its consideration was set down for a day when neither house was likely to be in session, a method at that time in vogue of delicately dissenting.

During the visit of LaFayette to this country in 1825, a platform was erected over the main portico of the old capitol, on which he stood and received the people. The spikes inserted in the pillars to sustain the platform remain there at present, a somewhat incongruous object to those unaware of their history. Another incongruous object which probably excited more curiosity than anything else in the causal observer, is a stone projection on the southeast corner of the building, oval in form, and having twelve notches in its outer rim. Probably hardly more than a dozen men are aware that this is a sun dial, and not half a dozen can explain its history. It was, however, the production of a gentleman named Ferguson, who had a taste for such matter, and who made it from an engraving of the famous Scotch Ferguson's sundial, as given in his "Lectures on Select Subjects in Mechanics, Hydrostatics, etc." The stone cutter Ferguson intended to make an exact working copy of the sundial, as there represented, but the hour marks were painted on and for may years have been effaced by the action of the weather. Simeon DeWitt, at that time surveyor-general and commissioner of the capitol, was so impressed with the worth of the dial that he consented to have it placed where it now is, and where it has stood since 1823. (See appendix, note 2.)

Governor's Room, Old Capitol

In 1843, the remains of Col. John Mills, who commanded the Albany volunteer regiment in the war of 1812, was permitted by a special act to be buried in the capitol park, and the Albany republican artillery company, which represented the regiment, was allowed the privilege, which they asked, of erecting a monument over his remains. In their report accompanying the bill for this purpose the committee of the assembly to whom the matter was referred detailed the services of col. Mills, ending with his death in a gallant charge of his regiment at Sackett's Harbor in 1813, and in relation to the proposed monument, said: "The posthumous honors which a nation bestows on distinguished public services are the rewards which alone stimulate a lofty and generous ambition. It is thus that great and distinguished acts of devotion to the country, when cherished and commemorated by a grateful people, reproduce themselves in after generations. New York may proudly point to other sons who equally deserve the most distinguished marks of honor, yet all concede that it would be worthily bestowed upon the devoted patriot and gallant soldier who fell in defense of his country, Col. John Mills."

The remains of the gallant soldier were interred with military rites and the great civic ceremonies in the park, and the monument -- was forgotten. Today the place of his burial is not designated by even a headstone.

Many efforts have been made to remove the capitol from Albany. In 1846, petitions poured into the Legislature bearing nearly 10,000 names, asking that some other location be designated and the capitol removed thereto,and declaring that "the capitol has long been detained at Albany by the same bad local feastings and other influences which formerly prevented the incorporation of any bank in whose stock certain inhabitants of Albany were not to have the lion's share." A committee reported in favor of taking the sense of the people upon the subject,and designating for their choice either Syracuse or Utica, but the bill for that purpose failed of passage. Attached to a minority report upon the question which discussed very full the merits of Albany as a capitol are the names of Thomas Smith, C. D. Barton, and S. J. Tilden. In 1877, a strong feeling for a change in its location was aroused because of the large appropriation demanded for the building now in process of erection,and a bill to remove the capitol to new York failed of passage in the assembly by only a half dozen votes.

The old building which this article commemorates deserves a better fate than the demolition which is to be its portion within the next two or three years. Its historic value is hardly exceeded by the national edifices in Washington, and, as an eminent speaker says, perhaps the only infelicitous incident connected with the erection of the new capitol is the fact that the old one must pass away.

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