The Address to One of America’s Biggest “What Ifs”

Blog - 34 Green Street Header

Finding something previously lost in Albany history really isn’t that rare when you think about it. With 400 years of European history stomping around these streets, there are bound to be little nuggets that fall through the cracks of those old granite setts. When one of those little morsels is a piece of one of Albany’s most popular and ironic tales, then you know you’re sailing in strange waters. The story I’m referring to is, of course, the tale of Abraham Lincoln and John Wilkes Booth walking our familiar Albany downtown on the very same day.

As the story goes, Lincoln arrived in Albany on the afternoon of February 18, 1861, while John Wilkes Booth was preparing to return to the Gayety Theatre on Green Street. Six nights earlier, he accidentally injured himself with a prop dagger that was in his coat’s inner right pocket. It’s odd to think that while Booth was bleeding profusely on a small Albany stage, Abraham Lincoln was celebrating his 52nd birthday in Cincinnati, Ohio.

The Gayety Theatre first opened two years earlier, in the spring of 1859. When we say the place was small, we’re not kidding. A packed house held 600 people and that was probably breaking every fire code in the book.

There’s always been one little caveat when it came to the Gayety. Where exactly was it located? Well, it’s complicated and we didn’t really know for sure – until now.

Why would finding the address of an old Green Street theatre be that hard? For starters, there was another theatre on Green Street named the old Green Street Theatre that ran for a number of years in the early 19th century before converting to a Baptist Church and again some years later in the mid-1850s. After the Green Street Theatre closed in the 1860s, it was later reopened and renamed the Gaiety Theatre at 61 Green Street. Yeah, same name, different spelling. Over a number of years, this has led to a bunch of misconceptions as to where the actual Gayety Theatre, where John Wilkes Booth performed, is located. To make matters worse, another stage called the New Gayety Theatre opened in the early-mid 20th century on that same street (and in a different location than the Gayety and Gaiety Theatres at 74 Green St). That’s a lot of Gai(y)ety for one narrow little street.

Blog - Gayety Theatre Excerpt, Players of a Century- A Record of the Albany Stage Page 305

Through the process of elimination and the power of the 21st century internet, the location of the Gayety Theatre has been found. How did we get there? In the 1880 book “Players of a Century: A Record of the Albany Stage,” it states the Gayety Theatre sat on “the east side of Green Street, two or three doors south of Beaver.” Excellent start. The hunt was immediately chopped down to one side of one block: Green Street’s even numbered buildings between Beaver Street and Hudson Avenue.

Blog - 34 Green Street 1876 City Atlas

Now that the exact block is known, it’s time to dig up the Albany City Atlas of 1876. This atlas goes in depth on where each numbered lot sits. Between Beaver Street and Hudson Avenue are the addresses that range from 26 – 44 Green St.

Blog - 34 Green Street 1866 City Directory copy

Next up – combing through the 1866 Albany City Directory and searching each individual address. No hits came up for 26, 28 or 30 Green St. A little firework goes off for 32. It states it’s a carpeting and upholstering business. Interesting. Prior to opening as a theatre, the building was, in fact, a carpet store. Let’s dog-ear it and keep looking. 34 Green Street is next on the list and a search turns up it was the home of the American Theatre, which also served as a saloon. Could it be? The name was gone but the service is there. A man named Samuel Fitzpatrick was the proprietor. No further searches were found stating an American Theatre ever existed on Green Street. The trail went cold for the building, but Samuel Fitzpatrick opened a whole other method of hunting. According to an 1862 edition of the “Albany Morning Express,” Fitzpatrick was a proprietor of the Gayety Music Hall (home of the “late Gayety Theatre.”)

Blog - 34 Green Street 1862 Morning Express

Fitzpatrick is now tied to the former Gayety Theatre (we have no address) and an American Theatre (we do have an address). More searches would show Samuel Fitzpatrick was tied to the Gayety Music Hall all the way through 1864, when one article from the “New York Clipper” stated the Gayety Music Hall was being “thoroughly renovated, painted and upholstered,” and hoped to reopen in August of that year.

Blog - 34 Green Street 1865 City Directory

It must have reopened at some point, at least for a little while, because according to the 1865 Albany City Directory, Sam Fitzpatrick worked for the Gayety Theatre on 34 Green Street. There you have it, the long lost spot of the Gayety is 34 Green Street (currently slated to become a portion of the Tower on the Hudson.)

Blog - 34 Green Street Current Map

Its exact location has no fanfare and is merely a parking lot and parking garage. This chunk of blacktop and brick is the site where our American history could have been completely altered. This is the site where John Wilkes Booth’s blade could have gone an inch deeper into his right armpit, causing him to completely bleed out and die on that little Albany stage on Lincoln’s birthday. Instead, it’s nothing more than a tragic side note in local theatre lore. Had that happened, Abraham Lincoln would have never been assassinated, he could have completed his second term and ridden off into the sunset. James Garfield would have become the first U.S. president to be murdered and labeled the country’s martyr. You can go on and on with all of the “what ifs.” We’ll never know because that blade landed where it did. But what we do know now is where it all happened. 34 Green Street, the site of one of America’s largest “what ifs.”

Blog - 34 Green Street Current Photos

Plan for the Capital City; What Might Have Been

In June of 2014, All Over Albany, expanded upon a tweet we had about a defunct plan for the city of Albany that was unveiled in 1963. To celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Empire State Plaza’s cornerstone ceremony, the New York State Museum recently put a large scale model of the city on display in their main lobby. Wouldn’t you know it, it’s the same one devised from the Albany: Plan for the Capital City commission report. Below is the map of the commission’s grand plan of Albany by 1980.Albany Plan for the Capital City Map

With a quick glance you’ll notice much of downtown Albany along with the Arbor Hill and Center Square neighborhoods would be razed in place of 1960s era buildings. Most of this plan was never realized, and fifty years later it appears that the city dodged a deadly bullet. While the Empire State Plaza gutted 98 acres of neighborhood in the downtown area, it looks like child’s play compared to what was proposed.

Below is a series of pictures of the scaled model of the city’s plan. The gray colored buildings are already in the Albany landscape while the white ones would’ve been new construction. That’s a lot of white. A few things didn’t translate from the plan to the model due to constantly changing ideas. For instance, in the map the South Swan Building is no where to be found but in its place is a series of curved apartment buildings. Speaking of housing, Sheridan Hollow is completely devoid of any housing and is replaced with what appears to be a park.

If you haven’t had a chance to get down to the New York State Museum to see it, it’s definitely worth the trip. You could easily spend 20 minutes on this model alone deciphering what survived and what could have been. It’s also enormous. The pictures don’t do justice to the size of the model. The exhibit is on display through January 17, 2016 at the New York State Museum.

Albany Scale Model circa 1963 01Notice some of Center Square and most of the Lincoln Park neighborhoods have been wiped out with apartment buildings.

Albany Scale Model circa 1963 02Running between the VA Hospital and Hackett Middle School was the proposed Washington Park Arterial. That never materialized either.

Albany Scale Model circa 1963 03
Albany Scale Model circa 1963 04Much of downtown Albany was wiped clean. A slew of hotels and office buildings would’ve popped up all along Broadway and State Street. This is also how the Dunn Memorial Bridge would have looked if it was completed to its original potential.

Albany Scale Model circa 1963 05A view of downtown from North Albany

Albany Scale Model circa 1963 06This was the proposed Convention Center on lower Hudson Ave, around the spot of the Van Ostrande-Ratliff House. Albany’s oldest building would have gone down with the ship.

Albany Scale Model circa 1963 07Here’s Sheridan Hollow, completely lacking any residential, but the Hawk Street Viaduct survives, and even has a new companion; “The New Eagle Street Viaduct.” In the foreground are footbridges to the Creative Arts Center and marina.

Albany Scale Model circa 1963 08The Riverfront Interstate, or as we know it now, I-787. Named for being in front of the river, AKA why everyone hates it.

Albany Scale Model circa 1963 09The view of Albany from the area around the Patroon Island Bridge. Even the planners knew they couldn’t get rid of that monstrosity of a cold storage building. It still stands, along with the Livingston Ave Bridge.

Albany Scale Model circa 1963 10
Albany Scale Model circa 1963 11
Albany Scale Model circa 1963 12Notice the D&H Plaza? It’s been chopped in half and Hudson Ave would’ve extended right to the D&H Administration Building.

Albany Scale Model circa 1963 13
Albany Scale Model circa 1963 14