Monday, October 22, 2012

The Education Building Turns 100

New York State Education Building

A feud between a Commissioner and a Bishop, a colonnade of massive marble pillars, a cardinal entombed in stone  --  these are the mythic elements of the New York State Education Building's genesis, which is celebrating its centennial this month.

When my grandparents arrived in Albany in May 1911, the building was still under construction. Nestled behind its over-sized frame, the Episcopal Cathedral of All Saints appeared small by comparison. Therein lies the first drama related to the building's construction.

Nave of Cathedral of All Saints Cathedral
Bishop William Doane, first Episcopal Bishop of Albany, dreamed of creating an English cathedral community complete with school, hospital, convent and church. In the spring of 1882, the Bishop announced a competition for the design of a cathedral, having acquired the site on which the the church now stands. However, he was unable to persuade the church trustees to purchase the adjoining land on Washington Avenue, where he hoped to place the other elements of the cathedral community.

Enter Andrew Sloan Draper, first Commissioner of Education, who had his own dream: a government building entirely devoted to education, and on a grandiose scale such that it would impress the population with the importance that education should hold in the Empire State.

Both men had their eyes on the same piece of prime real estate across from the Capitol Building. Both men played important roles in the community's life, and both had a plan and a vision for the use of the land. But only one won out: Commissioner Draper.

Rotunda of Education Building
And then the competition was on to select the design that would stand as a symbol of the importance of education. Sixty-three architects submitted plans. The winning design was that of Henry Hornbostel, who had studied architecture in Paris. If you ever have a chance to tour the building, you might notice that the second floor room that was originally the reading room of the New York State Library was pretty much copied after that of the Biblioteque Nationale (National Library) in Paris.

 Construction was begun in 1908, and continued for four years.

The most impressive exterior element is of course the block-long colonnade of 36 massive marble pillars. But let me tell you a secret: they are not solid marble; they are constructed with a Vermont marble facing over steel shafts. Although it was probably the impressive design of the fluted colonnade that won Hornbostel the contract, there was some controversy involved. The columns are of Corinthian style, but Hornbostel modified the classical design by adding some reverse volutes not used by the Greeks.

Reading Room Vaulted Ceiling

The building was scheduled to be completed by January 1, 1911, but as with many large-scale construction projects, the work took longer than expected. Unfortunately, if the building had been completed on time, the State Library, housed at the time in the State Capitol across the street, would have been spared the terrible losses it incurred when the Capitol caught fire in March of 1911.

Rotunda Chandelier
And what of the legend of the cardinal entombed in the building's stone? The cardinal in question was a pet bird with a broken wing. In fact, I have heard this story a couple of times, and at least once it was a robin, not a cardinal, that belonged to a stonemason who worked on the construction of the building. The bird died during the winter, when the ground was frozen and the mason could not bury it. Instead, he chipped a hollow space in a block of stone, laid the bird's body in it, and mortared the stone into place. No one knows the exact location of the tiny sarcophagus, but it is said to be over the front entrance or in one of the hollow columns.

Sculpted Electrolier
There is much more to learn about this magnificent example of architecture, including the sculpted electroliers by Charles Keck, the paneled room where the Board of Regents holds their monthly meetings, the seven levels of book stacks under what was originally the State Library (the Library and Archives are now housed in the Cultural Education Center, along with the State Museum), the Auditorium, now known as Chancellor's Hall, a replica of the Liberty Bell, and a series of mythically inspired murals painted by William H. Low when the building was brand new.

The following sources are a good place to start for more information about the building and its history:

"Celebrating 100 Years: 1912 - 2012 A Guide to the Education Building," The University of the State of New York, The State Education Department; Albany, NY; revised 2012

Celebrating 100 Years, NYS Education Building: Information and History:

Celebrating 100 Years: Video and Slideshow:

For more information about the history of the Cathedral of All Saints, go to:

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