Washington Park Historic District
The Washington Park Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1973. Portions of the content on this web page were adapted from a copy of the original nomination document. [†] Adaptation copyright © 2008, The Gombach Group.
The Washington Park Historic District consists of a ninety-acre park in central Albany and all properties that face the park on Madison Avenue to the south, Willett Street to the east, State Street to the north and South Lake Avenue to the west. Included in the district are the buildings on Thurlow Terrace and Englewood Place - two streets running north-south off Western Avenue into the northwest corner of the park.
The level eastern section of Washington Park, an old parade ground, is the most formally planned area. In the past, flower gardens and a croquet lawn were maintained here and a tree lined promenade extends from Knox Street to Northern Boulevard.
As the topography becomes more rolling in the central section, curved roads meander through the park. Interspersed in the central and eastern sections are five memorials and statues.
A 1600' x 136' lake dominates the hilly southwestern corner of the park. A decorative yellow brick lakehouse built in 1929 overlooks the lake. Its Spanish features include a ceramic tile roof, glazed tiles inset in the exterior walls and a veranda. An iron arch foot bridge spans a narrow portion of the lake.
On a bluff north of the lake are two exceptionally fine residential streets - Thurlow Terrace and Englewood Place. Both are integrally related to the park and show as part of the master plan in 1891. Thurlow Terrace is a boulevard with four residences now owned by the State University of New York. Two imposing Victorian residences and two elaborate carriage houses that once served mansions, now demolished, are located on Englewood Place facing west onto the park.
Over sixty townhouses on State Street overlook the north edge of the park. The buildings are brick or brownstone, usually three stories, with fine details: iron railings, decorative tiles, terra cotta and stone relief work. The southern exposure these houses enjoy has always made this side of the park highly desirable. Many houses are architect-designed, the most notable being Richardson's "Sard House" at #397 State Street and Standford White's #465 State Street presently the Chancery.
Approximately thirty-three buildings on Willett Street face the eastern edge of the park. The First Presbyterian Church on the corner of State and Willett was built in 1883 and has an early twentieth century addition. With the exception of the church, Willett Street is entirely residential. In the block between Hudson Street and Madison Avenue, two larger apartment buildings stand where the earlier townhouses were destroyed by fire in 1906.
Approximately 90 structures line Madison Avenue facing the park on the south. The appearance of this street is divided in half at Robin Street. East of Robin Street are three blocks of late nineteenth century rowhouses, and west of Robin Street beginning with the Albany Medical Center building, formerly the Academy of Holy Names, is a long block of detached houses many of which are now used as doctors offices.
The corner of South Lake and Madison Avenues is distinguished by two pairs of outstanding late nineteenth century residences. Twenty-three rowhouses, one modern apartment building and a converted carriage house face the park from South Lake Avenue.
As a whole, the architecture surrounding the park is varied in detail yet homogeneous in proportion, materials, use, and period with virtually no mid-twentieth century intrusions.
Washington Park "...is the gymnasium and breathing place of the city," remarked an Albany chronicler in the 1880's who also noted, "It is surrounded more and more every year by handsome residences owned and occupied by some of Albany's best citizens."
With the urban crush of the mid-twentieth century, the open space and human scale of the Washington Park area is perhaps more important than ever before to the city and its inhabitants. Today the park is acclaimed as "a foremost example of the nineteenth century municipal garden still intact" and combined with the continuous facades of nineteenth century townhouses fronting the park on all sides, the district as a whole comprises probably "Albany's finest remaining urban environmental asset."
Although the park itself is only just over 100 years old, most of it is located on land designated for public purposes since 1786 when the city was first chartered during the reign of James II.
Albany's early development clustered down along the Hudson River and in the first decade of the nineteenth century, the future Washington Park was in the midst of scattered farmhouses. Within the present park boundaries were the city powder house (1802), the city burial ground (1800), and the Middle Public Square (dedicated in 1806) which was located between Madison Avenue and State Street from Willett to Knox Streets. The public Square was renamed Washington Square in 1809 and later Washington Parade Ground.
The parade ground was originally used as a drill field, but in the second quarter of the nineteenth century in spite of protests from the military faction it was often the scene of county fairs in the summer and skating parties on a flooded portion in the winter.
The need for a city park in Albany was evident, but for years the location and details of the park were debated. Finally in 1869 supporters of a scheme to amalgamate the burial ground, the powderhouse grounds and the parade ground secured the passage of a state law allowing for a public park. Several months before, the determined and confident supporters of the park hired Frederick Law Olmsted to make a consultation report. Olmsted, at that time, was establishing his reputation as America's foremost landscape architect with his work with Vaux an Central Park in New York City.
Work on the park began in July 1870 and its development took twenty years of piecemeal acquisition of private land bordering the public property which was the basis of the park. The finished product clearly shows the inspiration if not the actual direction of Frederick Olmsted. The plans adopted by the park's Board of Commissioners were prepared by Bogart and Cuyler, engineers who had worked with Olmsted on Prospect Park in Brooklyn the year before. Like Central Park in New York City, Washington Park combines purely natural scenery in the rolling meadows and lake at the western end with more formal spaces for specific games and activities - croquet lawns, swings, flower gardens and promenades, at the eastern end. Curving roads for through traffic are kept separate from pedestrian paths and depressed below eye level to prevent obstructing the natural vistas.
As the park neared completion throughout the 1870's the residential streets fronting on it became increasingly fashionable. During the eighties and nineties fine brick and brownstone townhouses replaced smaller wooden structures. The most favored location was State Street where houses by nationally known architects, H. H. Richardson and Stanford White as well as prominent local architects became the homes of Albany's bank presidents, industrialists, railroad executives and politicians. The townhouses along State, Willett Streets and lower Madison Avenue were followed by early twentieth century detached houses on Upper Madison Avenue, South Lake Avenue, Thurlow Terrace and Englewood Place surrounding the western end of the park, the last section to be completed. The most imposing mansions with elaborate carriage houses behind were built on Thurlow Terrace and Englewood Place.
Today  the park is no longer meticulously maintained, many houses are divided into apartments and doctor's offices, a few of the huge houses on Thurlow Terrace and Englewood Place are gone and one or two mid-twentieth century facades break the building line, but the overwhelming basic unity, the solidarity of character and texture of the architecture, and the brilliant subleties of landscape design make Washington Park Area an outstanding historic environment.
Fabos, Milde, Weinmayr. Frederick Law Olmsted, Sr. Founder of Landscape Architecture in America, University of Massachusetts Press, 1968.
Gerber, Morris. Old Albany. Vol. II. Albany, 1971.
Mesick, John I. "Survey of Historic District on Madison Avenue from Delaware Avenue to South Lake Avenue." February 2, 1972.
Minutes of the Albany Common Council.
Olmsted, Frederick Law, Jr. ed. Frederick Law Olmsted, Landscape Architect 1822-1903. Vol. I. New York. G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1922.
Proceedings of the Board of Commissioners of the Washington Park of the City of Albany.
† Brooker, Cornelia E., New York State Historic Trust, Washington Park Historic District, Troy NY, nomination document, 1972, National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places, Washington, D.C.