One of Albany’s great buildings (now gone, of course). Built between 1830-1832 by the Mohawk & Hudson railroad as the first class passenger terminal for its route to Schenectady, it also included space for shops and other offices, as well as a large hall on the top floor.
In the summer of 1832, Joseph Henry strung wire from his laboratory at the Albany Academy to the roof of this building to see if his electromagnet could send a pulse across a distance. The cheers of the school boys on the roof of the Van Vechten building gave Henry the first intimation that his experiment had been a success.
In 1844, the Mohawk & Hudson built a new station on Maiden Lane, thus ending the building’s career as a train station. The building seems to have fallen under the ownership of the City of Albany from then on. My guess (and it’s just a guess) is that the building was named after Teunis Van Vechten (1785 – 1859), who was mayor of Albany for four terms beginning in 1837, alderman for much longer than that, and an attorney whose practice frequently involved the city government.
In December 1844, the newly founded State Normal School began classes here on the 2nd and 3rd floors, which the City offered rent free for five years, in addition to paying $500 for renovations. The Normal School would remain here until 1849, when it moved to a purpose-built building at Lodge and Howard. Some time afterward, the building became home to a private academy run by a Mr. Levi Carr or Cass.
In September 1868, the Albany Free Academy opened with 141 students. This was the first truly public high school in Albany, and it remained in the Van Vechten building until 1876, when classes were moved to the new Albany High School building on Eagle Street. Meanwhile, the top floor, known as Van Vechten Hall, was a space that was used for a great many events and purposes – a dance studio, an armory for the Albany Zouave Cadets, the venue for countless commencement exercises, fancy dress balls, lectures, union meetings, and even the Annual Fair of the NYS Poultry Society (complete with competitions for best duck, goose, and pigeon). In 1880 – 1882, after the Albany City Hall was destroyed by fire and before the new City Hall was built, the Van Vechten building was taken over by city offices.
The building survived several threats to its existence. In 1897, the consortium behind the new Ten Eyck Hotel considered purchasing the site for a hotel. In 1924, Mayor Hackett led the effort to build a massive Masonic Temple on this location, which he deemed ‘ideal’ for the purpose. In 1942, a major fire tore through the top floor, which by that time had been made over into apartments; but repairs were made, and the Van Vechten building continued to be a popular location for professional offices and lobbying groups (including the Anti-Saloon League).
But in the early 1960’s, the land was purchased by IBM. After nearly 130 years, the Van Vechten Building was demolished in 1962 and the new IBM building completed in 1964. 50 years later it looks non-descript and dated.