Until last week, two fine Italianate rowhouses bookended an unbroken Eagle Street block, diagonal from the Governor’s Mansion. They are now gone. Only rubble lies where they once stood.
The Mansion District is old, and these buildings were a testament to that history. 161 Eagle was standing on that spot by at least 1870, but may pre-date the Civil War. It had a neighbor at 159 Eagle by 1876. As a building with a storefront, 161 Eagle was not only a cornerstone of the block, it was a cornerstone of the community. Over the years it housed a number of well-known community establishments, one such was the Mansion Food Market, shown at right in 1975 when it was operated by Dominick Oppedisano.
The more recent history of these two homes is long and complex, so I’ll spare you the sad, familiar story, and only mention the highlights (or lowlights, I should say). If nothing else, this synopsis should give you a feel for our city’s continuing struggle against absentee and apathetic landlords.
The troubles at 161 Eagle began in 2012 when a small fire broke out in the second floor kitchen, leaving the upper floor uninhabitable. The upstairs tenant vacated, followed by the downstairs tenant a few months later. The building was never reoccupied. The owner refused to repair the damaged kitchen, or to repair the developing structural issues — yet they continued to pay their taxes. The owner had lost the building to the bank by 2017. It was quickly resold, sparking hope that 161 Eagle might be rehabilitated. That hope was snuffed out when representatives of the new owner — a wealthy Long Island investor — informed the City that they would not do repairs until work on 159 was complete. That decision doomed 161 Eagle and, ultimately, 159 as well.
The downward slide of 159 Eagle began around the same time. The owner-occupant overloaded the bearing capacity of the first floor, which caused a partial collapse. They were forced to vacate, leaving the building vacant. Following a familiar pattern, they refused to make repairs, but continued to pay their taxes, leaving the City — again — with limited recourse.
In late 2018 the City inspected both buildings visually and with a drone flyover. Then the Division of Buildings and Regulatory Compliance hired an engineer to draft a stabilization plan, which was presented to potential contractors. The cost for stabilization came back at $70-80,000, verse a $40,000 cost to demo. Unable to justify the additional cost to stabilize — the County makes this call — the City gave the green light to demo. Without a fund or grant to cover the $30-40,000 gap, and with small likelihood that the City would be able to recoup the stabilization cost from either owner, the decision was made to demolish.
This past Thursday an excavator from DiTonno & Sons tore down 161 Eagle. When it came down it destabilized its neighbor, as evidenced by a crack that had formed along the then-exposed southern wall. On Friday 159 Eagle came down as well.
This loss is especially hard to bear since the Mansion District neighborhood association, local advocate Dannielle Hille, and the City had fought for so long to save these buildings. As the Historic Albany Foundation noted in a Friday post, “this loss will symbolize decline despite their efforts.” This was personal setback as well. I had only recently learned about these buildings’ plight, and was a few days from beginning a fundraising campaign to cover the cost of stabilization. Alas, I arrived only in time to see them disappear.
The Italianates at 161 and 159 Eagle Street may only be a memory now, but there are many others that are still in need of help, and some that are just as prominent. But we cannot rely on the city, county or state government to singlehandedly save our historic buildings. They need our help — and the help of our neighbors, former residents, and anyone else who cares — to save our city’s historic fabric.