Albany reconsiders the rum in its past

18th-century distillery get a reprieve from city's bulldozers

May 17, 2001|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

ALBANY, N.Y. - Nearly every time a shovel breaks ground for downtown development here, it strikes something from the deep past: In recent years, archaeologists hired to do pre-construction surveys have found Dutch cemeteries, American Indian artifacts and, most recently, an 18th-century rum distillery.

And just as often, the shovel keeps on going: All of those discoveries have been unceremoniously reburied. Recently, the city dumped backfill over the distillery's vine-tied wooden fermentation vats to make way for a six-story parking garage.

But then Mayor Gerald D. Jennings, who has been pilloried in the local medias as lacking foresight and an appreciation of his city's history, announced that he had hired a professor from the State University at Albany to coordinate "our archaeological issues" and create a formal plan for preserving future discoveries.

In addition, the president and chairman of First Albany Corp., Alan Goldberg and George McNamee, pledged $40,000 to extricate and preserve some of the distillery - which now will have to be unearthed again.

McNamee says he was inspired to make the donation after taking his 6-year-old son to see the distillery, which was discovered on Quackenbush Square last December and has been drawing crowds.

The distillery, which operated from 1750 to 1810, includes 18 vats connected with an intricate system of wooden pipes, a still, a fireplace, a privy and the foundation of the manager's house.

"We're making personal gifts to underwrite the project because we'd like to see as much attention given to preserving the city's antiquities as possible," Goldberg said. "These are outstanding examples of life 300 years ago - apparently there was a lot of rum drunk here - and we're hoping the city will find some additional money to preserve more of it."

Perhaps the 4,000 visitors who crammed the distillery site before last week's burial, packing restaurants and clearing gift shop shelves at the nearby Albany Visitors Center, convinced Jennings that it might be worthwhile to make more of his city's 400-year history, especially in light of his efforts to revitalize the downtown. But he said this had always been his intention.

"It's not a change of heart on my part," he said. "We've undergone a billion dollars worth of growth and development in the last six years and for a city that was dormant for so long, we had to prioritize."

State Assemblyman John J. McEneny, who represents the district where the distillery stands and has written a book on Albany history, said the mayor - with whom he often disagrees - should be commended for responding to a public outcry.

"It's a step in the right direction," he said. "When you find the visible remains of the 17th or 18th century, the first reaction should be `Wow! this is tremendous.' But too often it's `Oh no, this is going to delay everything,' I've had literally dozens of calls and e-mails asking to save this site. And I believe there can be compromise."

To that end, McEneny has suggested enclosing the distillery in glass and building the parking garage around it - in the same way, he said, as a subway station in Mexico City displays Aztec ruins. That suggestion has been scoffed at by the chairman of the Albany Parking Authority, who says people will not visit a historic exhibit in a garage.

Preserving the vats in a museum would be the assemblyman's second choice. But others want the distillery to remain where it is.

"To remove a vat and stick it on a museum shelf does not for me hold as much resonance looking at it in its context," said Dennis Holzman, an antiques dealer who brought his 12-year-old daughter, Martha, to see the distillery recently and left angry that all she could see were backhoes and bulldozers.

There is no consensus yet on where the rescued vats - 8 feet wide, 5 feet high - will finally rest, and many may stay buried under the garage.

But their unexpected debut in the 21st century has already made a lasting impression.

Dr. A. Nancy Avakian, a retired university administrator who works at the Visitors Center, was shocked to learn that Albany-made rum had been part of the slave trade between Europe, Africa and the New World.

"They certainly didn't teach us anything about that in fourth grade," she said.

But Avakian takes the long view. "A hundred years from now somebody will take down that parking garage and plow over it to build something else," she said. "That's how things are. It's sad or it's progress, depending on how you look at it."

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