Returning to Glory
After years of neglect, St. Joseph's Church in Albany- a grand Gothic Revival landmark- is poised for resurrection.
Returning To Glory
Once threatened with collapse, Albany¡¯s spectacular ¡ª and long neglected ¡ª St. Joseph¡¯s Church is now poised for a rebirth
by Ann Morrow
Photographs by Randall Perry & Scott Bergmann
Veiled by construction dust, plaster seraphim kneel on the floor of St. Joseph¡¯s Roman Catholic Church, their torn-off wings stacked in a pile nearby. But for these fallen angels, there is hope that they will someday be returned to the lofty capitals from which they descended. They were among the chunks of plaster that fell from the upper reaches of the historic Albany church after water seepage reached the critical stage. As woebegone as the seraphim appear, crumbling plaster was not the worst of St. Joseph¡¯s problems. Two years ago, a marble column threatened to collapse the roof.
¡°The marble supports the timber that¡¯s concealed in plaster, the timber supports the hammerbeam, the hammerbeams and trusses hold up the roof,¡± explains Bill Brandow, director of technical services for the Historic Albany Foundation (HAF). As the waterlogged timber turned to compost, the beam atop it dragged the ceiling downward, shifting some of the other columns and readying the roof for a cave-in. In 2001, the city declared the building a hazard and took emergency stabilization measures. An ownership dispute ensued with a local restaurateur, who had purchased the church from the diocese for $1. Early last year, with snow loads and other natural old-building disasters on the way, the legal wrangling was settled by drastic action: the city seized the church by power of eminent domain. The deed was turned over to HAF, which had been advocating for St. Joseph¡¯s for several years.
Brandow says the hammerbeam and truss roof structure (a medieval engineering feat) is among St. Joseph¡¯s most significant elements. ¡°There are other Gothic Revival churches that have it,¡± he notes, ¡°but not this huge and elaborate.¡± Or this decorative. The wooden trusses arch skyward from the beams, forming beautifully curvilinear vaults. Carved within each truss is an airy pentacle. Carved at the end of each beam is a crowned angel.
The 31 larger-than-life angels are thought by many to resemble figureheads on the prows of ships ¡ª a fitting image for a 19th-century church that was built by a largely Irish-immigrant congregation.
Constructed from 1856 to 1860, St. Joseph¡¯s was commissioned by Bishop John Mc-Closkey (who later became the first American-born cardinal) to serve the growing population of Irish laborers and merchants in Albany¡¯s Arbor Hill neighborhood. McCloskey hired Patrick Keeley, the Irish-born architect who designed the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception on the other side of town. But there was a big difference between the raising of the two edifices. Unlike the tightly budgeted cathedral, which was built during ¡°the famine years,¡± says Assemblyman John J. McEneny, ¡°no corners were cut¡± on the lavish construction of St. Joseph¡¯s. McEneny, a former Albany County historian whose paternal grandparents were married at the church, relates that St. Joseph¡¯s was meant to signal the ¡°arrival¡± of the city¡¯s Irish community.
¡°By 1856, the famine was over, and some of the Irish in the Erie Canal industry had become quite prosperous and respectable,¡± he explains. ¡°But this was ¡®Know Nothing¡¯ America, one of the most bigoted periods of anti-Catholic, anti-immigrant feeling. McCloskey realized this was Victorian America, and that in this most materialistic age, he needed to put in a respectable, Gothic church. No expense was spared.¡±
A local landmark whose spire-topped front tower is a beloved feature of the city skyline, St. Joseph¡¯s is notably large and elegant for a parish church. The blue-gray exterior is made from Crone Elbow bluestone, accented with geometric trim in cream-colored sandstone. The three fancifully capped towers are embellished with verdigris copper; the slate roof sports an iron crest. Inside, there is Minton encaustic tile from England on the chapel floor, a chime of Meneely bells in the tower, and bas-relief sculpture on the walls. And unlike most churches, which acquire their stained-glass windows one at a time, St. Joseph¡¯s began with a full set in the latest fashion that are rumored to be from Germany.
Although dulled by decades of neglect, the interior still displays its Victorian-era profusion of color and pattern. The ceiling is hand painted in squares of blue, red, gold, and green, decorated with fleurs-de-lis, crosses, and other symbols. ¡°The ceiling is incredible,¡± says McEneny. ¡°Most of these old churches have drop ceilings, but this one is actually the wood under the roof. The top point is 85 feet high.¡± Brandow considers Keeley¡¯s design to be the church¡¯s strongest suit, and unhesitatingly gives the reason why: ¡°The massing ¡ª the proportions and the definition of space. And the quality of detail,¡± he adds.
Its churchyard now a gracious community park, St. Joseph¡¯s historic value is intrinsically linked to its surrounding streetscape, the Ten Broeck Triangle. In the 1850s, this three-street area of large brownstones and stylish town houses was one of the city¡¯s most desirable neighborhoods, developing after the removal of an old burial ground in 1848. According to McEneny, the Triangle included well-to-do Dutch and Yankee families, lumber barons, brewery moguls, and Protestant pillars of society. ¡°The dean of the law school lived there, and the first Irish-Catholic mayor,¡± he says. ¡°It was the ideal place for McCloskey¡¯s new church.¡±
Ideal, that is, until the exodus to the suburbs in the 1960s. In following years, St. Joseph¡¯s parish dwindled away until the diocese merged it with another and relinquished the building. Abandoned in 1994, St. Joseph¡¯s was on the road to ruin when an engineer discovered the perilous condition of the hammerbeam roofing ¡ª inadvertently sparking the ownership dispute, a flurry of media attention, and an outpouring of support from the community. Spurred by the efforts of HAF, the de-sanctified church received a $300,000 matching grant for repairs from the state Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation. Toward the end of 2002, St. Joseph¡¯s and the remarkably intact Ten Broeck Triangle were placed on the annual Seven to Save list issued by the Preservation League of New York State.
¡°We choose sites that have statewide implications,¡± says the league¡¯s president, Scott Heyl. ¡°There are so many urban churches that have suffered from disinvestment and abandonment, and St. Joseph¡¯s is emblematic of this enormous problem.¡± The league describes St. Joseph¡¯s as one of the finest Gothic Revival churches in the state. Says Heyl: ¡°For a pre-Civil War church, the distinction of its architecture is extraordinary.¡±
John G. Waite Associates Architects, for whom Brandow also works as a project architect, is overseeing the church¡¯s renovation. Now that the majority of its rotting timbers have been replaced with solid brick and preparations are underway to repair the leaky intersections of the roof, St. Joseph¡¯s faces yet another challenge: finding an adaptive reuse that will ensure the building¡¯s future. To that end, HAF held a series of public meetings to generate ideas for an architecturally appropriate, neighborhood friendly, and financially feasible reuse. A tall order, even for a structure that reaches over 200 feet into the air. The favored reuses under consideration are a library and a multipurpose community and arts center. And the biggest obstacle? The church¡¯s soaring interior, which is extremely expensive to heat.
Undoubtedly, St. Joseph¡¯s will find a way back to being a vital part of the neighborhood, and beyond. As public officials and local residents often say, it¡¯s just too beautiful and significant to lose. ¡°St. Joseph¡¯s reflects the growth and prosperity of the city, and the immigrants rising from poverty to respectability,¡± says McEneny. ¡°It¡¯s not just an Arbor Hill church, it¡¯s a symbol of the history and pride of Albany.¡± ¡ö