Van Olinda on the American Tavern. Final Part.

[Concludes from Part IV].

Old Dutch Ways With a British Accent

I’ll conclude the series with notes on the most venerable saloon canvassed by Edgar Van Olinda, and include some biographical information.

A 1964 profile of Van Olinda in the Albany Times-Union proved helpful, but I reviewed other bio as well appearing through the years in the Times-Union, sometimes from his own pen.

He was born in 1884, son of a church organist and chorale master, James Van Olinda. The family lived at Troy, a few miles from Albany on the Hudson, where James was employed as an organist. The family also lived for some years in Brooklyn where James held similar positions.

Edgar became a noted singer, both soloist and chorale, singing in churches and for a time with a boys’ ensemble on the road. Edgar met his wife Mabel in Albany singing circles. At 50 and following different occupations he joined the ranks of journalism, becoming the music and finally theatre and film critic for the Times-Union.

He was still writing for the paper in 1970, and giving speeches in town, at 86. By 1973 he had passed as that year the paper carried a notice of sale for estate effects of Mr. and Mrs. Edgar Van Olinda.

The oldest Albany saloon Van Olinda ever chronicled was the Shakespeare Inn, aka Shakespeare House. He mentioned the tavern numerous times, starting by my canvass in 1943.

His 1949 coverage provides a convenient summary, much of it, as the 1943 piece, based on earlier reportage in another Albany newspaper, the Argus, which I’ll reference presently.

The 1949 column (January 4) reads in part (via Fulton History):

We don’t get down around the Steamboat Landing these days, since things are pretty quiet, what with the passing of the day boats and the night boats. [Passenger service along the Hudson]. However, we did take a trip down that way last week to see what damage the high water had done.  One old landmark is missing. It is the old Shakespeare Inn which, 40 years ago, stood on the east side of Church street, south of Ferry. At the time it was pulled down for the erection of the D. and H. building [a Delaware and Hudson railroad terminal], it had stood for over a century.

Older Albanians will recall the sign, “Shakespeare House,” hung from an iron arm above the street door. It was run by William Watson as a place of entertainment and refreshment and patronized by Scotsmen and Englishmen who found Bill Watson’s ale most like that of the old countries. It was a quiet place for a game of chess or dominoes before the days of the pool table or the juke box.

The brew of the “Shakespeare Inn” was kept in the cellar, the time-honored place for casks and barrels. The proprietor would fill his orders, one by one, by descending through the trap door into the cellar, in the same manner as the oasis of Pike and Capron’s uptown.

The inn was built so that it faced the river and stood on its bank. That is, the front entrance was on the [i.e., that] side of the building, which later became its rear door. When Church street was cut through, the old building was cut in two, one half standing in the proposed new street. That made it necessary to rebuild the rear wall which then became the “front” door. The original “front” then became the “rear.” Pretty confusing, particularly after a couple of Watson’s still ales.

Mr. Watson used to enjoy taking visitors through his place. The side toward the river retained all of its original features. When visiting it, one could almost imagine it still being occupied by the old Dutch settlers, sitting around the doorway, smoking the then, new weed, tobacco, and relating stories of the Fatherland. The inn was built of bricks imported from Holland, and the floors, walls and ceilings were of hand-hewn timbers. The inside of the house was ornamented with old Dutch iron grilling in various shapes, with the great Dutch oven and its gleaming copper pot hanging from an arm which folded into the fireplace when not used…

The Argus both in 1908, when the inn was torn down, and in 1886, described the place in greater detail particularly on points of design and construction. The imprints of the Dutch brickmakers could still be seen on bricks, some of which were taken by bystanders as souvenirs.

No one thought, then, of saving the building for historical value. It was the last original Dutch architecture in Albany, wrote Van Olinda. He said the D & H should at least have moved the inn to a new location (it was then assembling land to expand its Albany base. Its semi-circular office complex nearby, completed in 1918, is today occupied by State University of New York).

The 1908 story stated the steep narrow roof “pierced” the chimney, which puzzled me until I found finally an image, in the older story mentioned:

 

 

Since the building was completed around 1808, the references in these news accounts to a seamless British and Dutch atmosphere can be confusing, and need elucidation and context.

The British had taken over what became Albany in the 17th century, in 1664 – needless to say long before even 1808.

The Dutch had ruled earlier, but once the British had aegis Dutch influence in Albany and the Hudson Valley ever waned. Still, especially in the Upper Hudson and more isolated areas, Dutch culture endured, into the 1800s.

Dutch as the language of the church was only finally abandoned in the early 1800s, for example.* Many families still spoke Dutch, a demotic form influenced by its American environment. The last speakers are said to have passed as late as the 1950s.

We can see, therefore, why around 1800, ostensibly quite late, a building could still be built in Albany in Dutch style, and why journalists of later periods saw the inn through a Dutch colonial prism.

They were able however to fuse this heritage with a British cast, evident for one thing in the inn’s name, but also its later patronage as mentioned.

Dutch and British-American folkways in the Hudson Valley seem to have melded slowly over the centuries, achieving a kind of unity. Ale from the cellar, British accents reverberating, ruminations of old Dutch pipes and ways, all a pleasing amalgam to the Fourth Estate by the late 1800s.

Today, at south Ferry and Church Streets, the interstate highway** obscures the plot where the inn lay. The river too is farther back now due to harbour and shoreline development. Nothing seems akin to how the site looked when the drawing of 1886 was made.

Such is the way of life and urban development, but still we can know of this unique Dutch-British-American corner of Albany history, the Shakespeare Inn. We know because Edgar Van Olinda cared enough to tell us.

He told me, and now I tell to you.

*See the December 18, 2019 blog article by Kieren O’Keefe, “When did New York Stop Speaking Dutch”, New York Almanack, Jay Heritage Center. In matters of education, by 1788 in Albany “most” public instruction was in English: see at p. 694 in (1886) Howell & Tenney’s  Bi-Centennial History of Albany.

**The interstate, built in the early 1950s, looks for all the world like the one in Buffalo, NY, like our own Gardiner Expressway in Toronto, and so on. They must have come from the same design.

 

 

 

 

 

 

4 thoughts on “Van Olinda on the American Tavern. Final Part.”

  1. I suspect the huge popularity of Washingron Irving’s writings helped extend the idea of the Dutch character of that area even longer than it was a significant part of the region.

    Reply
  2. Your posts on the van Olinda columns are very interesting. I think the retention of Dutch culture is at least partly due to the extremely conservative nature of the Dutch Reformed Church. My grandfather’s Dutch family immigrated to Dakota Territory in the 1880s, where some still live. However, my grandfather moved away physically and spiritually, to become a Unitarian.

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    • Thanks Arnold, no doubt the church did have a strong influence. One way or another Dutch culture did last a very long time there. Even though officially it is said Dutch has disappeared I think there must be some survival (apart the well-known words that entered American English such as cole slaw or cruller). Some aged persons on the Hudson probably still know old expressions handed down in the family. It has to be, I think but I hope some researcher is looking at it. Time is not on the side of any survival. There is a somewhat similar situation for the Jersey Dutch. I knew of a community as well in Michigan, I think, but not the Dakota states.

      Reply

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