Sunday, February 5, 2012

The New York State Court of Appeals in Albany's Tricentennial Year, 1886

Making History Together, The New York State Court of Appeals in Albany's Tricentennial Year,

Transcript of Ceremony held in Court of Appeals Hall, Eagle Street, Albany, NY, November 15, 1986


It is my privilege to introduce John Mesick, a noted Albany architect and acknowledged expert on the work of H. H. Richardson, who designed this room for the Court, a chamber which was originally in the Capitol building. John has quite recently completed a study for the Court of the court room, and a survey of the number of and condition of the pieces of Richardson furniture which are in our possession. It is my great privilege to introduce to you John Mesick.


Thank you very much, Chief Judge Wachtler. Members of the Court, Fellow Citizens:

It was with considerable delight that I learned today's occasion would take note of architecture in the tradition of the Court and the history of the City. Given our 300-plus years of existence, it probably is not surprising that architecture comes to mind. Certainly in our city, the chief image you carry away probably of the visible scene is this layering, almost geological, of buildings that have occurred in this city over a period of about two centuries, I would say, for our accumulation of buildings. As you look at that accumulation of buildings, what you are really seeing is each generation's trying to bring some sense of order out of the chaos and affairs of the day. And, if you think about it, that's exactly. I think, what jurisprudence tries to do — to bring order out of the chaos of human affairs. Indeed, any architect challenged with a job, tries to bring his image of order out of the cultural chaos of his times. And, very often, to his contemporaries, that seems like an unfamiliar and strange sort of creation. Generally it takes a few generations for it to become accepted, as something wonderful. I think all of us who lived through the 1960's and what happened on the hill here in Albany, understand what I am trying to say.

No doubt in 1842, when this building was completed by Henry Rector, I well imagine that the prudent Yankees and the frugal Dutchmen thought it was squandering a great deal of the State's money to build a massive building with walls five feet thick and, indeed, a guide book which Carroll Mealey gave to me the other day, boasts that this building, when it was built in 1842, was probably the most permanently fireproof-constructed building in the nation and, indeed, the world. I can well imagine the notion of building a Greek temple for a series of, not even the Legislature, but a series of State offices on top of the hill here did cause some raised eyebrows in the taxpayers' mind. We all in succeeding generations have been very grateful for that, and that Rector sought to build so well. Indeed, when it came 1909, they were thinking of tearing this building down but then-State architect Louis Pilster was able to save it.

I get ahead of my story because, prior to 1884, the court had been meeting in the second floor of the Capitol, in a room, a fragment of which still exists, where the Governor has given his press conferences in the last year or two. The Court did not like that room, for reasons that have not become clear and requested the Legislature to appropriate funds for another room. They did, and hired Henry Hobson Richardson, who had just completed the Senate Chamber on the third floor of the Capitol and the year before had completed the Executive Chamber on the second floor. Just above the Executive Chamber on the third floor of the southeast corner, this room was constructed. Opened in 1884, it was at that time both narrower, shorter and more lofty than the room we are in today. But most everything else that you lay your eyes upon was conceived by Richardson and built by a crew of craftsmen in the Capitol. The construction of the Capitol brought to Albany artisans in the building trades from all over the world. As the local news papers noted, the architects didn't like to think that their wonderful, open stone walls would be furnished by furniture out of a store or someone's catalog. So they established their own furniture shop in the basement of the Capitol; and, all the chairs that most of you are sitting in were manufactured in the basement of the Capitol by these artisans. And to truly appreciate this room, you have to approach the Bench on your hands and knees. The Chief Judge spoke about faces staring out, there are many more faces to be seen on your hands and knees if you look at the underside of this table or, indeed, even the front of the Bench. And this is clearly the Capitol craftsmen, I believe, sculpting one another in parody. There are very humorous little things that peer out at you here.

And unlike later architecture which became almost a machine- repetition of traditional motifs, you look nearly in vain for the same pattern twice in this room. There is always a feast for the eye, where ever you look. It is of the finest quality materials they could have of the day and, yet, a very quiet design that has survived well over time.

When in 1909 the justices had appropriation to build and renovate this building as the Court, they insisted their chambers go with them. And, so, this room was dismantled and brought over here. The ceiling was left behind and the window frames, which were arched in marble on both the south and the east facades, remained behind in what is today the Legislative Minority Conference Room of the Senate on the Third floor. And you can see what was left behind over there. But, when it was brought here, certain adjustments had been made given the size of this building and this rear wing was added to the building to include the court room. And scattered throughout the upper floors are other pieces of wonderfully crafted oak furniture that graced the various rooms of the Court in the old Capitol building. They were brought over and have been preserved to this day.

We all owe a great debt of gratitude to the foresight of succeeding generations of the Court that have kept this room intact and valued it for what it is. And, most importantly, in my work, has been the dedication and devotion of the staff of the Court to the preservation of this room. Indeed, I'd like to boast as I bring visitors to Albany and give them a tour, that this is one of America's most beautiful rooms. I think you might agree.

Thank you.

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