In 1907, the Albany Chamber of Commerce initiated a study of the city of Albany, and in 1912 they hired Arnold W. Brunner, a noted architect and city planner from New York City, and landscape architect Charles D. Lay to conduct this study.
A segment of the Brunner/Lay study addressed the development of the waterfront portion of Albany. Originally, there was a desire to secure a view of the Hudson River, but upon Brunner's investigation, he discovered that it would actually be a "view" of a large railroad yard, with passenger and freight trains, and a railroad bridge. Accordingly, he decided it would be better to obliterate this "view", by creating a plaza surrounded by buildings that would screen all of this from sight and create an attractive backdrop for the State Street neighborhood. This plaza would include a grassy park area and a turnaround for the trolleys from Schenectady, Hudson and Troy.
The Brunner/Lay plan was widely publicized. Articles on the transformation of Albany into a "City Beautiful" appeared in the Sunday New York Times and in two separate issues of the American Architect. In spite of this publicity, with the exception of the D & H office building and the Plaza, most of the plan was never implemented due to the change in priorities, values and tastes brought about by World War I.
At the time of the Brunner/Lay plan, Marcus T. Reynolds, a prominent Albany architect, was launching a crusade for a clean-up of Albany's then disreputable waterfront, with its "noxious wharves and warehouses," as he put it. For his appeal, Reynolds drew up a plan for a large, flemish gothic building, to sit at the foot of State Street. Reynolds based his plans for this building on the Nieuwerk annex of the Cloth Guild Hall, a huge flemish gothic structure located in Ypres, Belgium, which he had studied while he was in Europe.
Unless otherwise noted, photos courtesy of AlbanyGroup Archives on Flickr
Located at the north end of SUNY Plaza, the U.S. Custom House and Post Office was constructed by the Federal Government between 1874 and 1884. The building served as a customs house and post office until 1975. The architecture is identified in Federal records as late English Renaissance, but the architect is unknown. It is known that the government constructed several other post offices just like this one in other parts of the country. Originally, the building had a courtyard in its center, with a sky light, and offices were located on the outer perimeter. The building was obtained at a large educational discount through the Federal Government, and its renovation was financed from a grant from the Federal Government. The total cost of its original construction was over $600,000. To build it today would cost somewhere in the neighborhood of $22,000,000.