Albany’s First Public Schools (Part I)

In 1795, the Albany Common Council passed an ordinance for the establishment of free schools.  An initial attempt to fulfill that requirement petered out by 1800.  And even by 1810, there were as yet no public schools in the city.  Many commentators have noted the slowness with which Albany advanced the cause of free public education.  The Lancaster School, established in 1811, was the first concerted attempt to address the need.  But less than thirty years later, the Lancaster School was closed, having proved inadequate to meet the needs of the growing city.

McGuffey Reader 1836 edition
McGuffey Reader (1836)

Even while the Lancaster School was still open, the Common Council began to take steps, however halting, to promote public education.  In 1830, the city was divided into nine separate school districts for ‘common schools.’  State funds provided partial support, but a tuition of $2 per quarter per student was authorized.  Each district was responsible for providing rooms for its school.  District #1 held classes in a former stable.  District #9’s scholars met in the cellar of an old church on Herkimer Street.  District #8’s students met in the relative comfort of a lecture room at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church.  But another district housed its students in the upper room of a fire engine house on William Street.  The inadequacies of these arrangements were immediately apparent.  A NYS Assembly report from 1833 revealed that of 5461 school age (6 – 16) children in the city of Albany, barely 2500 were attending the public schools.  There were, of course, quite a few private tutors and some private academies, but these all catered to very small groups of children from the wealthier families.

#2 218 State
School #2 at 218 State Street. From 1876 map.

In 1832, the Common Council authorized the construction of the first purpose-built school building since 1817.  A three story brick building was constructed at 218 State Street (which included space for a fire engine company!).  This would continue as Public School #2 until 1884, when the property was sold, and a new school was built at 29 Chestnut Street.  Both of these locations are now buried under the Empire State Plaza.

The year 1838 marked a new beginning toward realizing the dream of free public education in the city of Albany.  The school system was reorganized, a new district was added, and eight new school buildings were erected (a move necessitated in part by the closing of the Lancaster School in 1836).  All the new buildings were three stories high and of brick construction.  The smallest, School #3, accommodated 200 students; the largest, School #8, accommodated 338 students.  The following is a list of those new schools, their locations, and what happened to them:

#1        310 South Pearl St.  Used until 1889, when new School #1 built at Franklin & Bassett.  The site is now covered by a Rite-Aid.

#3 7 Van Tromp
School #3 on north side of Van Tromp. From 1876 map.

#3        7 Van Tromp St.  Sold in 1882; new School #3 built at Watervliet & Hunter.  Site now covered by I-787 exit ramp.

#4        55 Union St.  In use until 1892, when new School #4 was built at Madison & Ontario.  Union Street disappeared under the South Mall Arterial.

#5        172 North Pearl St.  A former house of worship for Tabernacle Baptist Church was purchased and renovated into a school.  Sold in 1882, and new School #5 built just up the street at 206 North Pearl St.  Original site is now an empty lot behind the Palace Theater.

School #7 56 Sheridan (Canal)
Former School #7. From Google Street View 2011.

#7        56 Canal St. (Sheridan Ave.)  In use until 1886, when a new School #7 was built at 165 Clinton Ave. The building still exists and has been renovated for offices.

#8        157 Madison Ave.   Rebuilt at same location in 1880.  Now a parking lot.

#9        The northeast corner of South Ferry and Dallius (Dongan).  The building was sold in 1889 and a new School #9 built at 333 Sheridan Avenue not until 1903.  The site of the original school is now an empty field.

School #10 182 Washington
Former School #10. From Google Street View 2011

#10      182 Washington Ave. Continued as school until 1890, when new School #10 was built at the corner of Central and Perry.  Shortly after it stopped being a school, the original   building was bought by James Holroyd, a knit goods manufacturer, who significantly  refurbished the building, including adding a Romanesque façade.  The building still stands, is called the Holroyd Mansion, and houses the Iron Gate Café.

The one school left off this list is School #6.  That district’s school building consisted of a one story wood frame structure on The Point, at the confluence of Madison and Western, perhaps the former Mohawk & Hudson railroad depot.  In 1849, the Albany school district boundaries would be reconfigured and a new School #6 built at 105 Second St.  The site of the original school is now a park in front of a police station. Altogether, this massive construction project cost the city $119,000 and provided space for nearly 2,800 scholars.  But by 1838, there were close to 7,000 school age children in the city.  Still, a solid foundation had been laid for future growth, though that growth was slow in coming.

Thanks to John McClintock and Al Quaglieri for their helpful assistance with this blog post.

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