For A Small City, Albany Has Capital Attractions

April 07, 1991|By Arthur S. Harris Jr.

First-time air travelers to Albany, N.Y., sometimes are startled to see, as they approach the city from the south, an enormous, pastel-colored half an egg almost as big as the Carrier Dome in Syracuse. And next to it, a skyscraper.

Europeans are especially disoriented, assuming that only such cities as New York, Miami and Chicago feature skyscrapers. Yet here in this supposedly sleepy city on the Hudson River is an edifice resembling the Pan Am Building on New York's Park Avenue.

In truth Albany's Corning Tower is not all that lofty -- only 44 stories -- but it's the tallest skyscraper in the state of New York outside Manhattan.

The explanation for this concrete and marble egg, and adjacent skyscraper, plus other assorted buildings and plazas, is simple. Some well-known people have resided in Albany, including Theodore Roosevelt, Nelson A. Rockefeller, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Al Smith and Averell Harriman, not to mention current resident Mario Cuomo -- all governors of New York.

Albany, of course, is the capital of the Empire State. Most governors, after departing the Governor's Mansion on Eagle Street, leave a legacy -- for example, the art deco 1930s Alfred E. Smith Building.

Among New York's governors, nobody was more anxious to leave giant footprints behind than Rockefeller, who later became vice president. His imprint on Albany is a small-scale Rockefeller Center, a series of 12 buildings with the tower, concert and meeting halls, office buildings, plazas, a museum and so forth. Many of the main buildings display artworks acquired during Rockefeller's tenure in Albany.

And the Egg? Or as some see it, half a grapefruit? Its actual name is the Performing Arts Center. There's not a straight line anywhere in it, which is why everyone knows it as the Egg.

The huge building complex, which necessitated destroying some 18th and 19th century houses in its way, was controversial from the start: Did Albany need so much office space even if much would be occupied by state workers? Could the city's stubby skyline aesthetically accommodate this 589-foot building?

Of course Rockefeller persevered. Tons of money -- with vast overruns -- were poured into the project, known officially as the Governor Nelson A. Rockefeller Empire State Plaza. In local parlance it's called simply the South Mall, a name Rockefeller rejected because it sounded like a shopping mall. Today it's been named after a multiterm Albany mayor, Erastus Corning 2nd, who, like George Bush, graduated from Yale and went on to politics. About 300,000 visit the observation deck of the Corning Tower yearly.

Despite horrendous parking problems, a new sports and convention complex is under construction, a Frisbee toss away from Empire State Plaza in downtown Albany.

Some wanted this new center a half-mile away on the other side of the Hudson River in Rensselaer. Long ago Amtrak moved across the river. Nowadays, through trains from Grand Central Terminal to Chicago or Montreal no longer stop at the in-town railroad station, which has been turned into a bank; they stop in nearby Rensselaer. (Incidentally, high-speed trains shuttle between Albany/Rensselaer and New York City. The 2 hour, 42-minute trip along the scenic east bank of the Hudson River is well patronized by downstate legislators who no longer reside in Albany during the long legislative session).

Few tourists set out, by private or public transportation, to visit Albany as a destination. Not yet is it a "destination resort." Unlike Montreal to the north, Boston to the east and New York to the south (all three cities about equally distant), New York's Capital District has increasingly become a stopover. Tourists from western New York on fall foliage bus tours to New England, for example, stay overnight in Albany -- or more generally, in the Tri-Cities area comprising Albany, Schenectady and Troy (metropolitan population: 850,000).

Motorists driving between New York and Montreal or the Adirondacks are vectored right through the heart of this upstate metropolitan area, for the Capital District is located just where the New York State (Thomas E. Dewey) Thruway turns west while the Northway heads north, slicing by nearby Saratoga Springs en route to the U.S.-Canadian border.

Most visitors come by private car or bus. And there's plenty to see in the revitalized Capital District.

Besides the Capitol itself, from which several governors emerged to become president or presidential candidates, there's the Albany Institute of History & Art, with a superb collection of Hudson River artists --and occasionally an exhibit of last-century, cast-iron stoves made in the Tri Cities area.

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