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Building an archive on architecture

Albany-- Educator to record how city was transformed by construction of Empire State Plaza and other modern sites

By ALAN WECHSLER, Staff writer
First published: Thursday, July 25, 2002

To some critics, the big modern buildings of Albany -- the Empire State Plaza, the University at Albany, the State Office Campus -- represent all that was bad about architecture in the second half of the 20th century.

To Ray Bromley, chairman of the UAlbany Geography and Planning Department, these buildings were pivotal works in modern urban development. He wants to start an on-campus archive of photographs, documents and interviews with those who worked on the big building and highway projects between 1948 and 1978. And he's co-planning a conference in November, along with the Historic Albany Foundation, called "Monumental Vision and Urban Transformation in Albany" to discuss the major changes in New York's capital city.

"I would argue that Albany is one of the most monumental cities in the United States, if not in the world," said Bromley, 54, originally from Great Britain who moved to Albany 17 years ago. "Something incredibly important happened in Albany, and whether you like or not we've got to talk about it."

Albany, Bromley said, is unique among small cities. Its state government complex, which cost nearly $2 billion to build, is the most expensive of its kind in the nation, possibly the world. The $68 million State Office Campus was the first office park modeled after a shopping mall, built for the ease of commuters. UAlbany is unique for its compact, symmetrical -- if not user-friendly -- shape.

"That's serious stuff," Bromley said. "It's got the first governmental campus for the motor age. It's got the world's most recognizable university as seen from space. It's like a signal to the great God in the sky."

But some people wonder why he's bothering.

"It's self-evident that things like the Empire State Plaza and the State Office Campus were big projects. It doesn't mean that they were good for the city," said James Kunstler of Saratoga Springs, a critic of suburbia and the author of the book "A City in Mind."

Kunstler said projects like the Empire State Plaza seriously damaged the city, both by destroying neighborhoods and by cutting off residents with its cliff-like walls and highway entrances. Meanwhile, the State Office Campus only encouraged people to leave the city and live a car-orientated life in the suburbs.

"The longer we put off getting rid of these structures, the more socially costly they're going to be in the end," he said.

The big construction projects of Albany were done at a time when city planners had a different mind-set. Today, many people think in terms of keeping the historic buildings alive and matching new facades to old. Fifty years ago, Bromley said, the idea was that the old buildings didn't work and needed to be replaced, at any cost.

And with two of the state's most powerful leaders with their hands in construction -- Gov. Nelson Rockefeller and Mayor Erastus Corning 2nd -- there were few voices calling for moderation.

A 1963 poster, commissioned by "The Temporary State Commission on the Capital City and the Albany-Capital Harbour " shows what might have been if every proposed project was complete. Where the Corning Preserve is now, planners envisioned high-rise apartment buildings, a helipad and a hotel for boaters. On the other side of the Hudson, Rensselaer would have been entirely torn apart, with highways, boat storage and garden apartments in place of the neighborhoods there today.

Perhaps it was just a pipe dream.

"I remember the city planner calling them pretty pictures," said William Kennedy, author of the book "O Albany!" "He didn't believe they would ever happen."

And there was a reason, Kennedy said: the Democratic machine, which controlled votes by threatening the property values of its enemies, would lose power if a bunch of apartment complexes were built downtown.

Many projects never got past the drawing board. One plan called for extending the highway beneath the Empire State Plaza to Washington Park, where it would meet underground with a highway built where Henry Johnson Boulevard is now. Neighborhood protests quashed that idea long before the backhoes could start digging.

The Slingerlands bypass was originally supposed to connect the airport with Delmar, and parts of Interstate 787 were to have been located farther west in Albany, away from the Hudson River, with the road extending into Troy.

Why did it not happen that way? That's one of the questions Bromley hopes to answer. He also wants to find why some projects caused huge protests and others almost none, and what residents thought of all this change taking place.

Bromley hopes to get enough materials for an archive in the university's special collections department. He's already gotten some fascinating documents, such as the only known copy of a 24-minute news documentary made in 1962 about the properties that would be condemned for the construction of the Empire State Plaza. The video shows many property owners were actually happy to move and has fascinating footage of a neighborhood that no longer exists.

Elizabeth Griffin, executive director of the Historic Albany Foundation, said Albany is famous in Europe for its modern construction. The foundation is constantly getting calls looking for more information about the city, she said.

"It's very much needed and would be used quite regularly," she said of the archive. "It's something that's a constant fascination."