A Church Mission Leads to a New Church Building (1910-1917)

During the late 1890s, the growing industrial and commercial uses in Albany’s downtown were causing residents to migrate out of the downtown and westward toward the suburbs.  At this time, the area around New Scotland Avenue was largely undeveloped and often described as “rural.”  By the early 1900s, the only notable buildings in the area consisted of an ice house, various sheds, and service structures. However, residents were moving into this area to escape the downtown industrial climate.

When trolley service was again rejected for the area in 1911, the Woodlawn Improvement Association established its own bus route along New Scotland Avenue to improve access into the city center. With the improved access, the Woodlawn neighborhood saw a surge in construction of single and multi-family homes as well as commercial growth along the north side of New Scotland Road (later renamed “New Scotland Avenue”).

During this time, a small non-sectarian Sunday School was being held in the chapel of the Allen Women’s Christian Temperance Union on Seneca Street (near the intersection of Woodlawn and Ontario). In need of assistance, Harry E. Cowles was enlisted to serve as superintendent of the Sunday School. Cowles, a trustee of First Congregational Church, used this as an opportunity to create a connection between the church downtown and the Woodlawn neighborhood.

Meanwhile, concerns with the church building on Beaver and Eagle streets were starting to mount. The Rev. Charles S. Hager, pastor of First Congregational Church, had observed that many of the residents left in the downtown neighborhood were predominantly “non-Protestant.” While the church continued to be one of the most prominent in downtown Albany, Hager noted “whatever may have been the condition when the (1869 second) church was first built, it has ceased to be a good residence section.”

The church building downtown was also becoming costly to maintain, having finally reached a condition requiring extensive and costly repairs. In order to help pay for some of the building maintenance, a portion of the church lot was sold in early 1912 to the J.B. Lyon Company for construction of a business block. It was during these negotiations that the company revealed their interest in purchasing the entire church property (including the church building) for redevelopment. With maintenance costs spiraling out of control and a declining neighborhood population, church leaders began to contemplate a relocation of First Congregational Church.

On May 2nd 1912, a special meeting was held to consider sale of the entirety of the church property to the J.B. Lyon Company. An overwhelming majority approved a resolution to sell the lot and building. However, the congregation would Keep the organ, pulpit, pews, bell, gas fixtures, and furnishings (for relocation to a new church building).  Although the transaction with the Lyon Company was never realized, the congregation was already committed to selling the property and relocating elsewhere.

At the same time, the Woodlawn neighborhood Sunday School program was gaining momentum. The program was so successful under Cowles leadership, that in October 1914 it was decided that the regular evening service at First Congregational Church would be omitted so that the pastor, organist, and precentor could hold an evening service for Woodlawn neighborhood residents in the Allen Chapel on Seneca Street. 

The first service at the “Allen Chapel” was held on October 18th, 1914.  Growing attendance at the Sunday School and evening chapel services caused church leaders to soon realize a “church of the Congregational type” was needed in the Woodlawn neighborhood. On January 13th 1915, the “Allen Congregational” organization was formed, affiliated with the First Congregational Church, to give “order and support for the growing constituency.” While the sale of the old church continued to stall, church members active with the “Allen Congregational” mission continued to become more engaged with the community.  By fall of 1916, the neighborhood saw many single-family homes being constructed as a residential neighborhood began to take shape.

However, despite the success of the mission, new construction in the neighborhood, and a desire to relocate out of the downtown, the Woodlawn area was never considered as a new site for First Congregational Church. With streetcar service still lacking in this portion of the city, the pace of development was modest and the area considered “remote” and inaccessible for many of the current church members downtown.

With the church’s interests split between a non-residential downtown and the growing Woodlawn area, church members called for action. Some felt First Congregational Church should continue to focus on a downtown presence, leaving Allen Congregational to form their own wholly separate group to serve that community. Others advocated for a “mother church” in the downtown, with a branch in the Woodlawn neighborhood.

To help provide some guidance in the matter (but without any real authority), directors of the New York Congregational Conference paid a visit to Albany to advice church leaders on the matter. Offering their services in council, the State Conference Directors suggested a canvass and survey of the Woodlawn neighborhood to gauge interest and opinion on church efforts in that area. In October 1916, church volunteers began to canvass and poll the Woodlawn community. 

While the survey was underway in the Woodlawn area, progress had been made on the sale of the church building downtown.  William V.R. Irving, Commissioner of Public Safety for the City of Albany, was looking for sites for a new municipal building. Irving was very interested in the First Congregational Church property on Beaver Street and offered a purchase the property from the church. At its annual meeting on January 15th 1917, the congregation authorized the sale of the church property for $35,000, excluding building fixtures.

At the same meeting, results of the Woodlawn canvass were presented to church leaders. Rev. Hagar advocated strongly for selecting the Woodlawn neighborhood as a new church home based on the following reasons:

  1. Several influential families in the church had recently moved near the Woodlawn neighborhood, which was fast becoming a desirable residential area
  2. The canvass revealed (1) residents were enthusiastic about the prospect of First Congregational relocating to the neighborhood; (2) many of these residents had children of Sunday School age; and (3) a number of residents had Congregational affiliations in the past.
  3. There were no churches of any denomination “within a convenient distance”
  4. The bus-line was already a success and it was only a matter of time before citywide transportation services were improved and connected to the neighborhood
  5. Location anywhere else within city limits would place the church in “too close proximity” (and in competition) with other churches

Therefore, not only was a church needed and desired in this area, it was also the only logical location.

A resolution was immediately put forth at the meeting, recommending the purchase of several building lots on the corner of Woodlawn Avenue and Quail Street. The parcels were assessed and could be purchased for approximately $9,500.  After some investigation and with the approval of the congregation, the Board of Trustees modified the lots in question.  Rather than an orientation towards Woodlawn Avenue, Trustees found it possible, and preferable, to secure frontage along Quail Street between Maple and Woodlawn Avenues, with a reduced frontage on Woodlawn Avenue. The cost was noted as being roughly the same. The alteration was approved on February 5, 1917, authorizing the board to purchase the lots.

Rev. Hagar's last service at the downtown church was held in July 1917. The Eastern Star Hall at the corner of Hudson Avenue and Lark Street was used for worship.

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