Clinton Square, every hundred years or so

Clinton Square Albany 1920s Albany Public Library History Collection

We've had a bunch of items lately about the Clinton Square section of downtown Albany because the city is in the process of figuring out which projects there should get a slice of the $10 million from the state's Downtown Revitalization Initiative.

So we thought you might find this photo interesting. It's Clinton Square -- the area around the intersection of North Pearl Street and Orange Street -- from (we're guessing) the 1920s. The photo is from the Albany Public Library History Collection. If you follow that link you can zoom into the photo and see a bunch of details.

One of the things that struck us about this photo is just how different this part of the city is now. There's no Palace Theater -- the old movie house wouldn't be built until 1930. There's no federal building in the background. And that row of buildings along the east side is now Wallenberg Park.

More than anything, though, there's just something overall about this scene that feels more human scale. At least, it does via the photo. (Also: Streetcars!)

Clinton Square is one one of the oldest major intersections in the city and it's been a topic of debate and discussion regarding development there for 200 years.

The Common Council moved to create Clinton Square in 1829 at the urging of some prominent residents who wanted the area improved. (The Clinton Avenue Historic District Wikipedia article has a good recap based on Joel Munsell's Annals of Albany.)

And by the 1910s people were again urging some sort of redevelopment. From Arnold Brunner's 1914 Studies for Albany:

During the past few years there were constant objections to the condition of Clinton Square. It was urged that it was useless as a park and a distinct detriment to the property on the west side which was not accessible and consequently its value impaired for business purposes. These criticisms seemed reasonable as the Square was covered with grass through which ran a single diagonal path. The few trees that remained were in very poor condition and generally the Square presented a sad and neglected appearance.

Clinton Square 1913 from Studies for Albany
photo from Studies for Albany

So Brunner suggests a makeover. And judging from the diagram included in Studies for Albany, it looks from the 1920s photo that the city more or less carried out his plan.

Not long after the Palace would rise at Clinton Ave and North Pearl. Later off-ramps from 787 would be built onto Orange Street. The Leo O'Brien federal building went up in the 1970s.

And hundred years after that early 20th century makeover, people are again thinking about how to change this part of the city to make it a better connector, gateway, and public space.


+ You might be interested in this 2011 planning studio report about Clinton Square by UAlbany grad students. Many of the ideas mentioned in there are in play now.

+ In that photo at the top you can just make out the name "Battersby's" on the awning of the building where The Palace now stands. The Friends of Albany History have a closer photo of the grocery store.

+ If you're ever in the lobby of the Hampton Inn on Chapel Street downtown there's a fantastic old photo of Clinton Square on the wall near the exit to the rear parking lot.


This is the sort of content that will be so sorely missed. Thanks for the amazing work, AOA!

To echo Al, this is exactly the type of history-oriented content we will sorely miss when AOA shutters at the end of the year. Thank you so much!

Gosh, that upper photo is nearly unrecognizable. So little is left that it took me quite some time to confidently orient myself. I'd have to agree that, at least from the photo, so much about that scene seems built at a human scale. It's inviting. It'd be nice if we could figure out how to craft public spaces like that once more in Albany.

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