Pastures Historic District
The Pastures Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1972. Portions of the content on this web page were adapted from a copy of the original nomination document.  Adaptation copyright © 2010, The Gombach Group.
The Pastures Historic District consists of a thirteen block area in the South End of Albany. Ten blocks of the district are bounded on the north by Madison Avenue, on the east by Green Street, on the south by South Ferry Street, and on the west by South Pearl Street. Also included are three adjacent blocks on the east, which are bounded on the west by Green Street, on the south by South Ferry Street, on the east by Dongan Avenue, and on the north by South Lansing Street.
The buildings in the Pastures Preservation District constitute the physical evidence of the development of this section of Albany's South End. Fortunately for posterity these buildings, even those built as speculative ventures, were constructed during an era when a high quality carpenter-builder tradition prevailed, so that succeeding generations may benefit by the continuing use of the structures.
The oldest buildings within the Pastures Historic District were in general erected either by merchants or manufacturers whose businesses were located in the South End or by speculators who rented the buildings to other parties engaged in these enterprises. James Boyd, who built four houses now standing on Ferry Street, owned a brewery on the opposite side of the street. The other houses were occupied by his sons, who were brewers and Broadway merchants. The Staffords, who erected dwellings on Madison Avenue west of Franklin Street, operated a hardware business a few blocks east. The row of dwellings on Green Street between Bleecker Street and Herkimer Street and on Madison Avenue east of Franklin were built by two wealthy Albany businessmen, John Lansing Jr. and Dudley Walsh.
Through such ownership these speculators continued the earlier tradition of land holdings in this part of the pasture. Several whole blocks of lots and many adjoining lots had been purchased directly from the Reformed Protestant Dutch Church by prominent Albany and New York businessmen. Some of them, like Lansing, Walsh, and Cornelius Ray, erected buildings on the lots. But other lots, such as those owned by David Waters, were not improved until heirs sold them singly to individuals. Within the Pastures Preservation District, and probably within the other areas of the pasture, the lots were seldom purchased by persons of limited means during the late eighteenth century.
The dwellings erected during this period, as in later periods, adhered to a common building style. They are two-story residences, usually with high basements, and have facades of brick laid up in Flemish bond, and gabled roofs, occasionally with dormers. Over the windows are splayed stone lintels, and the arched doorways often have paneled reveals. A few of the buildings are three stories high. They are all of an important urban building type, the rowhouse, designed to take full advantage of narrow city lots. The exceptions to this patterns are No. 96 Madison Avenue which is considerably larger in scale and No. 100 Madison Avenue, which although now remodeled beyond recognition, was built almost as a freestanding structure, rather than as a rowhouse.
The ownership of structures erected during the next period of development — the late 1820's and the early 1830's — was characterized by some notable differences. Merchants and other middle class individuals were now able through auctions to acquire single lots on which they erected houses. Speculators often acquired two, three, or four adjoining lots, subdivided them, and erected dwellings. But these speculators were considerably different from the earlier group. They were very often carpenters and builders, and almost without exception they occupied one of the dwellings which they erected. After renting the buildings for several years, they frequently sold the buildings separately to individuals, who in many cases had been tenants. These builders often constructed their carpentry shops on part of the lots on which they had erected the houses. This practice became one of the first examples of mixed residential and commercial land uses within the Pastures Historic District. Another important example was the establishment of stone yards, one on Herkimer Street near Green Street and another at the corner of Franklin and Westerlo Streets. An exception to this pattern is the block of dwellings on the east side of Green Street between Westerlo and South Lansing Streets. These were built during this period by William James, who had purchased the lots at auction and continued the tradition of absentee ownership.
Architecturally, while these buildings were quite similar to the buildings of the previous period, there were some important differences. Although many were two stories in height, a greater proportion were three stories, such as those on Ferry Street, midway between Green and Franklin Streets. In the gabled roofs were pairs of dormers, framed by finely carved moldings, and pilasters or engaged columns. Arched doorways were superseded by square-headed openings, in which the paneled door was flanked by columns and sidelights, and was often topped with a broken cornice and leaded transoms. Windows were decorated with paneled lintels, carved with Greek fret designs, or with pointed molded lintels.
The dwellings erected during the last few years of the 1830's and during the 1840's reflect the simplest, most austere facet of the Greek Revival movement. The plane of the facade is relieved only by the openings having undecorated lintels, flat friezes and simple cornices. The entranceways are deeply recessed and on only the most elegant houses are framed by architraves. The doors are often flanked by very plainly detailed pilasters. While many facades were laid up in Flemish bond, the use of American and running bond became increasingly common. One of the most significant changes in this period is the appearance of the flat roof, made possible by the manufacture of new roofing materials. The ownership patterns of individuals and owner-builders continued through this period. Some small businesses, such as grocery stores, were established in frame buildings on Green Street.
The buildings which were constructed during the first half of the century were intended to be single family dwellings, with only one or two exceptions. Most urban rowhouses of this period followed a similar plan. The high basement provided light for the dining room and kitchen. On the first floor were double parlors, while the bedrooms and servants' quarters occupied the second and third stories. It would be interesting to study the interiors of buildings in the Patures Preservation District to determine whether they conformed to this general arrangement and what deviations occurred over a span of time. The exceptions to this general pattern are No. 91 Herkimer Street, which was built to house two families, and No. 138 Green Street, which had a store on the first floor.
Several buildings erected prior to 1850 were constructed on what had been gardens adjoining earlier residences. This practice probably indicates the changing needs of the occupants of the earlier buildings, as well as the demand for land in the area.
The building styles of the third quarter of the nineteenth century left an important mark on the Pastures Historic District. Several large three-story single family dwellings were built throughout the district, usually as infill housing on lots often previously occupied by frame dwellings, although the clock at Nos. 51 through 55 Westerlo Street also dates from this period. These buildings are characterized by bold detailing and the enlivenment of the facade through the use of widely projecting lintels and cornices. Along Green Street, South Ferry Street, and Madison Avenue a building form relatively new to the district became common — the three-story structures with commercial space on the first floor and living quarters above. Often these buildings were not occupied by the owners. While the upper stories of these buildings frequently cannot be differentiated from the facades of residences of the period, the first stories often had cast iron or richly detailed wooden storefronts, such as those at No. 104 Madison Avenue and No. 79 South Ferry Street School 15 was also constructed at this time.
During this period many of the earlier houses, particularly those from the 1840's, were modernized through the addition of metal window lintels, ornate friezes, and bracketed cornices. Several buildings were enlarged through the addition of a third story. These changes, along with the new construction, clearly indicate that this section of the South End was an economically-viable, popular neighborhood during this era.
This was the last period of large scale building in the Pastures Historic District. During the final years of the century some infill construction and remodeling of residences into commercial buildings occurred on Madison Avenue west of Franklin Street, and was probably related to the development of South Pearl Street. No. 77 Westerlo Street, constructed in 1886, with its ornate brickwork, is conspicuous in its singularity. The simplicity of Nos. 68 and 70 Westerlo Street, erected during the turn of the century, probably indicates their speculative nature. But the erection of the Beth El Jacob Synagogue in 1907 and of St. John's Church in 1903-08 is indicative of a certain confidence in the future of the area by residents at that time. The conversion of many basements into small shops should be analyzed more carefully; many probably date from the early twentieth century. Aside from one or two garages, there has not been any new construction in the Pastures Historic District within the past few decades.
The Pastures Preservation District has been established by the Historic Sites Commission of Albany in recognition of its unique qualities. It is hoped that this area which retains so much of the architectural fabric and fine residential scale of Albany's early nineteenth century development can be rehabilitated so as to insure the conservation of this heritage for the benefit of the City's residents in this century and the next.
Beginning in the seventeenth century, this area was set aside by the Dutch founders of the city as a communal pasture. In 1687 the city deeded the pasture land to the Dutch Reformed Church, which retained ownership until after the Revolutionary War. Then at the urging of the City Council, the church divided the area into lots which were subsequently sold. Gradually, as the rapid development of Albany occurred in the early nineteenth century, homes and businesses were erected on these lots. Indeed, more than three quarters of the surviving houses were erected in the years between 1815 and 1855.
The Pastures Historic District reflects an era of more cohesive social patterns when people of varying means and different races chose to live in the same neighborhood. Wealthy businessmen built elegant homes adjacent to more modest tradesmen's and craftsmen's dwellings. Homes of free black citizens were scattered amongst these as well. Workplace and dwelling place were frequently side-by-side.
The urban architecture of the late Federal period survives throughout the Pastures Historic District. Building continued at a steady rate through the phases of the Greek Revival style almost up to the Civil War. In the latter part of the nineteenth century many dwellings received Victorian modifications, and a few houses were built. School 15, erected in 1871, is a focal point in the neighborhood as well as a landmark building in the history of education in Albany. No significant construction has occurred in the twentieth century. What remains today is a complete visual catalog of nineteenth century urban residential architecture. Today, one is impressed by the extraordinary unity of these buildings constructed over a hundred years' period. This unity resulted from the universal use of red common brick and the adoption of a standard row house type. The predominant pattern is one of contiguous structures of two and a half or three and a half stories set directly on the street. Each is of three bays with the entrance to the raised first floor placed to one side. Such successful relating of various structures erected over a period of time has yet to be matched by contemporary architectural practice.
It is most significant that the entire Pastures Historic District retains an urban residential scale of the kind which has proven most desirable in numerous cities in the present day. Dwellings never filled all the lots. Gardens and open spaces were spotted throughout the area. The narrower alleys — Bleecker, South Lansing and John Streets — alternated with wider streets to furnish a variegated spatial experience. In the same manner, community service facilities such as shops, churches and schools were situated as needed throughout the District. Over the decades, a most humane environment was created. This did not deteriorate as long as the one family per dwelling pattern held. However, after the First World War numerous homes became lodging houses or were broken into several flats. Absentee ownership ensued with its attendant neglect and decay. The deterioration has continued largely unabated to the present time.
Recent developments have established clearly defined boundaries to the Pastures Historic District. The new interstate arterial is situated immediately to the north and east. To the south new urban renewal projects have been completed. On the west, the proposed widening and redevelopment of south Pearl Street will complete the perimeter. Now the realization has taken hold in Albany that the existing city fabric, if properly conserved, can frequently present a more humane environment with greater historical and visual texture than wholesale demolition and reconstruction. With the preservation of the Pastures Historic District a significant segment of the city's earlier development can be made to provide once again the kind of social and visual amenities that first found expression in the early days of our republic.
Roberts, Ruth W. "Report on Black History of the South End of Albany to Albany Urban Renewal Agency." Typewritten, 1971.
Waite, Diana S. "Report on Developmental History of Pastures Preservation District to Albany Urban Renewal Agency." Typewritten, 1971.