Monday, June 5, 2017

Creation of the Empire State Plaza: Destruction of a Neighborhood

In a previous past I had wrote about the city of Albany,NY.  Now I wish to speak to you about the Governor Nelson A. Rockefeller Empire State Plaza, also referred to as simply the Empire State Plaza

We must now go back to when this plaza was not even built. The time is around 1960, like many cities after WWII, this location began seeing a decline in the white population and beginning of urban decay. These factors would help decide in its future, and its fate.

This area was made up of several ethnic areas, such as an Italian and African American. Other places saw the population consisting of single men, mostly poor or the elderly. Businesses here included hotels, and bars.  The area was known as “The Gut”.  The area consisted of over 1,200 buildings and 7,000 residents.

Princess Juliana of the Netherlands was visiting Albany celebrating the Dutch influence in the area.  As Governor Nelson Rockefeller was giving her a tour of Albany, he felt embarrassed as they road through the Gut. The Governor had set his mind in changing the landscape of the capitol of New York forever.

Wallace K. Harrison, an architect and personal friend of Nelson Rockefeller, was hired to design the project. Not surprising, as a younger man Harrison worked on the construction of Rockefeller Center in New York City.  Harrison using drawings from the governor began his plans for the plaza.

As with any construction of this size, the major steps were financing, and obtaining the property. The initial cost of the complex was to be 250 million, it ended up being 2 billion.  To fund the project the Mayor of Albany, Erastus Corning, with Governor Rockefeller devised a plan using county bonds.  This would mean the county would own the property, then the state would repay the principal and interest on these bonds.  Ownership of the property would eventually go to the state, in lieu of local taxes.

The seizing of property for imminent domain for this project did not progress without opposition. Many in the area opposed this project and tried to resist.  Those who did not accept payment for their property, soon saw their buildings condemned by the city.  This was not uncommon in the time of Urban Renew, where many cities that demolished older sections so they could be reborn into the leaders own vision.

The local PBS Station aired a documentary about the destruction of the houses and businesses called “The Neighborhood thatDisappeared” by Mary Paley; you can see a mini version of this called “Echoes from The Neighborhood that disappeared” on YouTube.
The view from the base of the Plaza is spectacular....

The project ran from 1965-1976.  When it was finalized the following buildings had been completed:
...but the view from the observation level of the Corning Tower is breathtaking
Corning Tower

Erastus Corning Tower: The tallest building outside of New York City. It is 42 (589 feet) floors tall. At the top floor there is an observation deck.
Agency Building 1-4

Agency Buildings 1-4:  Is over ¼ mile long. It was modeled after the temple at Deir el-Bahri, Egypt.
Cultural Education Center

Cultural Education Center: Is a 11 story, 1.5 million square foot building. It houses the New York State Museum, the New York Archives, and the New York State Library.
Robert Abrams Building

Robert Abrams Building for Law and Justice formerly known simply as the Justice Building: Robert Abrams was the Attorney General of New York form 1979-1993.  In 2009, then Governor David Patterson renamed the Justice Building in his honor.

Legislative Office Building

Legislative Office Building: As the name suggests, many of the offices from the different legislative branches are located here.
The Egg

The Egg: Named for its unique shape. It houses two theaters.

In the summer there are numerous events held at the Empire State Plaza. Please refer to this link to find out more.

When the Plaza was completed over 25,000 steel pilings driven an average of 70 feet to support the structures.  60,000 cubic feet of stone imported from 3 continents, cover some of the 240,000 cubic feet of concrete. 

Some of the art work, Colleoni II on display, a statue by  Jason Seley

Art also plays a main part in the decoration of the area. Also on the grounds are numerous memorials dedicated to veterans, firefighters and others. There are numerous fountains and trees to decorate the area (when first completed hundreds of Norway Maples were planted, these now are considered an invasive species).
Memorial to fallen Firefighters from New York State

One of the entrances to the Concourse

Under the plaza is the Concourse, or Underground Albany. It is a subterranean space that connect the plaza to the Capitol Building. Here there are numerous shops, a bus station and a post office.

The Empire State Plaza was, and maintains, a lightning rod of both praise and criticism. To many it is an architectural masterpiece which has highlighted the capitol area; to others it is a massive heartless monolith, even being described as “Fascist Architecture”.  Whatever your thoughts about it are, it is there, and will be possibly as long as there is a state of New York.  I would encourage you to visit Albany, NY, and view the traditional historical buildings with the new, and judge for yourself.

Next Time:  Back to a Renaissance Festival
W.A.Rusho is an author, historian and professional wrestler. You can contact him at his website, or via email.


  1. Thank you for sharing. Interesting information. The Gut is an awful expression and conjurs up images of ghettos.

  2. William, this is an interesting history of how the Empire State Plaza came to be. - Looks lovely now but built on how much heartbreak? I've read many books about urban renewal and how people who lived in those areas didn't want to move were forced - sometimes violently - to comply.

  3. Fascinating post about Albany, New York, William. I have yet to get there, but it sounds like there is a lot to see!

  4. I always enjoying reading backstories about places and people. I have mixed feelings about the whole issue of development. There is a place in Maui that was once the home of kings and queens during the ancient days of Hawaii but it was abandoned and ended up beneath a trash dump. A small group which I had the privilege to be a part of began the work to clear it and we brought in archeologists from Bishop Museum to survey the site. As the project proceeded there were the inevitable protests and I could not help but wonder if they cared so much why did they let the place become a dump? Anyway, it's now being developed as a cultural heritage site and peace once again reigns. :-) Thanks for sharing this fascinating story William.

  5. I work on the Plaza. I used to think it was an amazing, vibrant area to work. Now I'm feeling a little different.

  6. Interesting story about the Empire State Plaza, William.

  7. I've never heard of Empire State Plaza. Nor have I ever been to Albany, even though I'm originally from Upstate New York. I think there is always a lot of mixed emotion when there is change. Where I live, architects keep knocking down the older Spanish style homes and building these monster modern homes in their place. The block south of mine looks completely different than it did 2 years ago.I don't love it, but I guess you can't please everyone.

  8. I have never been there before so the photos were great in showing me what it looks like. It's really interesting that it was constructed because of the Governors embarrassment - great example of taking a negative and turning it into a positive!

  9. William - wonderful story and photos. I've been to the Plaza but never inside any of the buildings. My husband and I owned a home in Petersburg (Rte. 22 near the Petersburg Pass to Williamstown). Over the years we occasionally visited Albany. I would say on balance, the renovation was more positive than negative.

  10. I've never been to this part of the state, so a remarkable blog to read. I always marvel at how we haven't, from the start, built things to last in our country--especially after a trip to Europe where buildings are continually repurposed. So seeing another neighborhood demolished to make way for the new--well, always a pro and a con. The new buildings do look good. The one is so huge!