Friday, July 07, 2006

Historic church now has a future

First published: Friday, July 7, 2006
by Fred LeBrun

Slowly, cautiously, we can uncross our fingers over the fate of Albany's historic St. Joseph's Church.

After teetering on the brink of crumbling destruction for years, this gem of Albany architecture has been brought back. The efforts of Mayor Jerry Jennings' administration, the Historic Albany Foundation and a host of concerned citizens has pulled off a resurrection few believed would really happen.

We won't say it too loudly just in case, but it appears St. Joseph's is saved. It is, at least, stabilized and safe enough for regular public open houses and tours.

What a turnaround.

In December 2001, Troy consulting engineer Russ Reeves warned then-owners Mario and Elda Abate that a key internal column supporting the roof and sustaining two main walls was in "a dynamic mode of failure." Reeves added bluntly that "this is a dangerous situation. I am uncertain if the building can be safely stabilized at this point."

Because of Reeves' startling evaluation, then-Public Safety Commissioner Jack Nielsen soon condemned the building, clearing the way for the city to take the church from the Abates by eminent domain. That action is technically still in the courts, although long dormant.

Scaffolding went up immediately inside the church, and emergency repairs began on the failing column and roof. Over time, internal repairs became more sophisticated, increasingly with an eye for the enduring. Eventually and appropriately, ownership and responsibility were transferred to the Historic Albany Foundation.

Great credit goes to the city for spending the money needed upfront to save the building rather than tear it down, even when there was no assurance of recouping expenses. The state Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation later came through with a $300,000 matching grant that is still active.

The apparent saving of St. Joseph's, integral to the cultural history and contemporary skyline of the city, may be the most significant act of historic preservation that I've witnessed in nearly 40 years of covering Albany. An enormous testament to what can be accomplished when city government and an inspired citizenry go whole hog toward a worthy goal.

This Sunday, St. Joseph's, off Clinton Avenue a block up the hill from the Palace Theatre, will host an open house from 1 to 3 p.m. Come witness the resurrection, and view a historic exhibit about the church and the neighborhood.

Not that St. Joseph's is anywhere near being free and clear of controversy, or even guaranteed prosperity.

Foremost, there's the money needed for further restoration and maintenance. Unfortunately, major fundraising for St. Joseph's has not been as robust as the physical work to preserve it.

Although a grass-roots effort called Committee 150 is in the throes of trying to raise $150,000. The brainchild of Elizabeth Griffin, former executive director of the Historic Albany Foundation, and former Historic Albany board President Colleen Ryan, the idea is for 150 citizens to donate $1,000 each or somehow raise that much through parties or some creative venture. Ideas run from clambakes to Gershwin Garden parties to raffles. Check their Web site at

And secondly, what remains totally up in the air is what St. Joseph's will be used for. That, maintains Historic Albany's Erin Tobin, "is not for us to decide." Not now, anyway. For the moment, the focus remains solely on making sure a saved piece of Albany history stays that way.

Fred LeBrun can be reached at 454-5453 or by e-mail at


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