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Albany: It isn't just for politics

ALBANY – The New York State capital, rightly, brings to mind the workings of state government.

But it is so much more.

Beginning as a Dutch colony, peacefully taken over by the British, Albany, became a distinctive American city – a Dutch settlement under English rule. Established in 1614 it is one of North America’s oldest cities and when merely a colony it was known as Rensselaerwyck. In 1652 it became Beverwyck. And in 1797 Albany was named New York State’s capital.

Architecturally the city is a study in contrast. Prominent among Albany’s older dwellings is the The First Church In Albany. Founded in 1642 the congregation is New York’s second oldest. A “Blockhouse Church” was built in 1656 at State Street and Broadway and included an Hour-Glass Pulpit imported from Holland the same year. Today it stands as the oldest pulpit in the United States in a sanctuary built in 1798.

Construction began on the Capitol building in 1867. Thirty-two years later, it was completed with an approximate $25 million price tag.

A grand component is the Great Western Staircase designed by Henry Hobson Richardson. Comprising 444 steps, and reaching a height of 119 feet, it took 14 years to finish. Along its stairs are carved images of famous faces including New York’s first 30 elected governors, Presidents Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln, and civil and women’s rights advocates Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass.

The Capitol’s Senate chamber opened in 1881,and was designed by Richardson, as was its clock, the largest of three clocks Richardson incorporated into his Capitol conception. Another clock is visible in the Senate lobby.

The Assembly conclave conceived by Leopold Eidlitz features Tiffany-stained glass windows and contains chandeliers on a pulley system operated by metal wire and a winch. They are lowered annually for maintenance.

A notable area in the Capitol is the Governor’s Reception Room dedicated by Gov. George Pataki in 1997. Its 25 paintings tell stories of New York military events, were created by William deLeftwich Dodge, and represent traditional American art prevalent in the early 20th century.

The State Education Department Building is noteworthy for its neoclassical style; its 36 pillars make up the longest United States colonnade. Its 1912 opening was considered significant as the edifice was the first major government building erected solely for education.

There’s no denying the grand nature suggested by New York’s Capitol and Education Department Building. But stepping across State Street onto the Empire State Plaza platform you’ll feel as if you’re leaving the ornate world behind, and entering an entirely new arena. It was conceived by Gov. Nelson Rockefeller and is the work of architect Wallace K. Harrison, though Rockefeller it is said controlled each building’s design to an extraordinary degree.

Hard to miss and striking in its wide open expanse, the Plaza itself is an example of architectural ambiguity, incorporating elements of Modernism and Brutalism in an overall International style. With a reflecting pool in its center, the Egg entertainment complex to one side, the Corning Tower adjacent, the state’s tallest building outside of New York City, and opposite, four bland, lookalike towers.

Stretching the imagination you might envision a science-fiction realm upon eyeing the spaceship looking Egg. Two performing arts theatres are its centerpieces, and its interior renders it all the more unusual as within there are no harsh corners and straight lines are virtually nonexistent.

Farther down the Plaza platform is the Corning Tower. Named for Albany’s Mayor Erastus Corning, on its 42nd floor is a public viewing area that offers an optimal Albany and Hudson River view. And on a clear day, the Green Mountains of Vermont and the Berkshires are visible, as is the state of Connecticut.

Opposite the State Street opening to the Plaza, with the Corning Tower and Agency Building 1 looming over it is the New York State Museum. Conveying the solidity you’d expect in a building housing the New York State Library and New York State Archives, the library contains a rare book collection, the state law and medical libraries, and its assemblage emphasizes American and New York State history, while the archives store more than 200 million documents that tell the state’s story from the 17th century to the present day.

The museum features an exhibit entitled Logging in the Adirondack Mountains complete with logs, huge circular blades and larger than life pictures. Mining in the Adirondacks is also depicted, as is Wildlife in the Adirondack Wilderness. New York’s Native Peoples are represented in a Mohawk Iroquois village, and Native American art is displayed.

A significant, somber memorial marks events of 9/11, manifesting in a trailer installed on site by the New York Port Authority allowing victim’s families to view recovery operations. It became a place of rest, healing, and comfort as families left mementos and photographs.

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