The Architecture of Downtown Troy

Between fires, floods and urban renewal, it’s remarkable that Troy retains any of its historic fabric at all.

Diana Waite’s new book, “The Architecture of Downtown Troy,” (Excelsior Editions; Illustrated edition – September 1, 2019), is a deep dive into the built environment of the city, focusing on 78 buildings in particular.

Beyond those buildings, the social history and material culture of the city and its residents provide a solid framework for a narrative that stretches from Dutch settlement in the 1700s to the early 20th century.

According to her online bio, Diana S. Waite is president of Mount Ida Press in Albany. She is the author of “Ornamental Ironwork: Two Centuries of Craftsmanship in Albany and Troy, New York,” and editor of “Architects in Albany and Albany Architecture: A Guide to the City.”

She also served as executive director of the Preservation League of New York State from 1975 – 1985, and served on the organization’s Board of Directors while I was Communications Director from 2003 – 2018. In that capacity, I had the pleasure of getting to know a bit more about at least three of the subjects featured in Waite’s latest book, all dating to the mid- to late-nineteenth century.

Homes on Washington Place

Washington Park is the second oldest private square (1838) in the United States, the first being Gramercy Park in New York City. In 2003, 10 townhouses at the south end of the park were named to the League’s Seven to Save statewide list of endangered historic places. The row was chosen to illustrate the need for Historic Preservation Tax Credits in New York.

The most imperiled address on the row – No. 8 Washington Place – was not even a building, but rather a shell, as the roof and interior floors had pancaked into the cellar. The adjoining houses were in danger of collapse as No. 8 continued to deteriorate. Fortunately, private citizens, local foundations, and the city of Troy chipped in some $46,000 to stabilize No. 8. Now, with a new townhome built behind the historic façade, the entire block of 1 to 10 Washington Place is featured in a walking tour booklet compiled by Troy’s Washington Park Association.

West Hall at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

The restoration of West Hall, which is one of the oldest buildings on the RPI campus, received an Excellence in Historic Preservation Award from the League in 2010. The earliest section of the structure was built between 1869 and 1873 as the Troy Hospital. Situated at the head of Fulton Street, the building is visible from most of the city.

Built to the design of Marcus Cummings, the hospital added a wing in the mid-1890s and later moved to a new location. The building was used as a barracks for the U.S. Army before being sold in 1922 to the Roman Catholic Diocese of Albany.

For some three decades, it was further altered to serve as Catholic Central High School. Shortly after Catholic Central moved to Lansingburgh, RPI acquired the building to house offices, classrooms and laboratories. After decades of deferred maintenance, it was extensively restored over several years beginning in 2004.

International Shirt & Collar Company – River & Adams streets

Year after year, in cities across New York, developers were breathing new life into abandoned or underutilized manufacturing buildings, but a cluster of buildings in Troy were being overlooked.

In 2012, the Troy Architectural Program (now known as TAP) successfully competed for a $5,000 Preserve New York Grant from the League to support the cost of a study of seven buildings along River Street. Their listing on the State and National Registers of Historic Places opened the door to new investment incentives in the Collar City.

Starting in 1893, the International Shirt & Collar Company at 2 River Street produced 48,000 collars and cuffs and 6,000 shirts daily. After 1906, the Troy Underwear Company took over the factory. The large brick building was later occupied by Tiny Town Togs and Old Brick Furniture Company. Fairbank Properties has floated plans to convert the property to apartments, and according to an employee reached on Tuesday, those plans are still “in the works.”

From private homes to civic infrastructure to manufacturing, these and other historic buildings are survivors. They’ll continue to tell the story of Troy for generations to come.

Sadly, Waite’s book is also richly illustrated with photos, drawings and floor plans of elements of Troy’s history that are irretrievably lost. There is no hand-wringing in the book, but its exhaustive and clear-eyed inventory of what remains and what has been lost is an object lesson in historic preservation.

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