Tuesday, May 7, 2024

Marcelle Hall, Saint Rose, the Ebels, and the Long Goodbye

by G. Jack Urso 
 
Marcelle Hall, 444 Western Avenue, Albany, NY (photo, G. J. Urso, 2024).

May 8, 2024, is the last day of the last semester of The College of Saint Rose before it closes down for good. 

Department name plate on the secretary’s desk, unoccupied for over a decade.
Marcelle Hall, located at 444 Western Avenue, in Albany, NY, is, at least until the end of this week, the home of a scattered, dwindling, group of faculty members for the College of Saint Rose, slated to officially close at the end of the current academic year, 2023-2024, after 103 years in existence, and, ironically, also marking its 100th graduation ceremony.

English Department poster.
A converted, large, single family, turn-of-the century (circa 1900) house, Marcelle Hall, on the campus of The College of Saint Rose, like dozens of other similar homes in the neighborhood, had been taken over by the college over the past 103 years of. Once the home the English department, by the time the college announced it was closing at the end of the Fall 2023 semester, only four of the five offices were occupied, only two of them by English professors, and one of them packed up his office and left the day after the college announced it was closing. One office was usually empty. Adjunct faculty were relegated to the nosebleed section of the third-floor attic, a converted large, open-space, former one-bedroom apartment. 

English Department posters.
The English department secretary seems to have retired about a dozen years ago and was never replaced. Her desk and office still preserved like a time capsule with photos of long-gone faculty, old VHS tapes, something called a fax machine, and other obsolescent relics of a time not so long ago. Other English department personnel were dispersed to different locations on campus rather than being holed up together in one dusty old house.

English Department posters.
As someone who has worked in higher education for over three decades in various capacities, I have grown unaccountably attached to old English Department offices. One college I’ve worked at for 20 years still has some of the same posters and prints on the walls as when I first started, and Marcelle Hall is no different. I’ve seen posters and notices on the walls going back to 2006 (Global Faulkner, see below, right) announcing various concerts, conferences, guest speakers, plays, and readings while silently guarding stacks of back issues of New Yorker, shelves of English textbooks, and boxes of old student papers and committee meeting minutes.

English Department posters.
This is probably endemic to most colleges. It seems an almost subconscious ritual symptomatic of academics mired in the study of the minutiae of the English language — leaving a mark somewhere to prove that you existed, that you worked here, that something important to you happened here — right here, in this place.

And in a few weeks, this place will no longer exist.

Pine Hills

A map of Pine Hills from William Kennedy’s book, O Albany (444 Western Ave. in red).
Having grown up in the Pine Hills section of Albany, NY, I must have passed 444 Western Avenue thousands of times. My scout troop, Troop 2, met at the Episcopalian church, St. Andrews, on the corner. It was on my way to Albany High School. In the 1990s, I lived a couple blocks away on South Main Avenue, passing it on my daily walks. In 1998, while working as a program coordinator for The Altamont Program, an addiction treatment center, I helped set up an on-campus house for female recovering addicts attending The College of Saint Rose. It was just a few doors up from Marcelle Hall, but by the time I started at Saint Rose in 2018 it had been taken over by another college department. Dozens of homes in the surrounding neighborhood were slowly absorbed by the college in the preceding 103 years, creating a small community within the city.
A student project.
The College of Saint Rose occupies (at least for a couple more weeks) a large swath of the city on Pine Hills, one of the first suburbs built as the trolley lines slowly expanded at the turn of the 20th century. It sits between the broad avenues of Western and Madison in a section originally inhabited by the upper-middle and upper classes. At its height in pre-war days, servants and their masters mingled side-by-side in grand homes right out of Upstairs, Downstairs or any number of English period dramas. Yet, even before the time it became my teen stomping grounds in the 1970s, many of the homes had already been converted to apartment buildings, doctor’s offices, and, of course, college housing.

The mural, before restoration, 2012 (photo, G. J. Urso, 2012).
The faded color is due to age as well as pressure washing prior to the restoration.
One iconic relic in the neighborhood familiar to several generations of Saint Rose students is the mural on the corner of Madison and South Main which shows the neighborhood how it existed in the late 1970s. I watched it go up during the summer of 1977 and in 2012 helped restore it. The mural captures local business at the time, like Mack Drugs, Clapp’s Bookstore, the Madison Theater, the Petit Paris restaurant, Sttigg’s Ice Cream Parlor, and Ann Peterson’s Beauty Salon — all gone now save for the theater which has been renamed a couple times since the 1990s. In a city of graffiti artists, it is notable that in the nearly 50 years it has been up, vandals have respected the artist’s work and left it alone.

The mural, a decade after restoration, October 2023 (photo, Google Maps).
Saint Rose extends down towards the city where the city campus of UAlbany picks it up on its eastern border. Running parallel to Western and Madison Avenues a half-mile to the southwest is New Scotland Avenue, both framing the Pine Hills neighborhood. Along New Scotland Avenue, on one end, one can find the Albany College of Pharmacy, Albany Law School, Albany Medical College, and The Sage Colleges Albany Campus. Further along is Maria College and scattered throughout are the Albany Academies for Boys and Girls and several other public and private schools. All located within a roughly rectangular area about a mile and a half square area.

When the school year is on, the entire area essentially becomes one huge campus. Removing the city’s second-largest college campus from the equation leaves a huge hole. Replacing an institution with over one hundred years of history typically takes about another century, so it is unlikely this delicate mix of college and community will ever be recreated. While the remaining schools continue, the closing of Saint Rose signals a sea-change — while other colleges remain, the Golden Age of Post-War higher education in the city of Albany is over.

444 Western Avenue – Home of the Ebel’s
 Detail from the front door.
Being of a somewhat sentimental and imaginative nature, I could not help but wonder about the history of 444 Western Avenue — when it was built and who lived there over the years. It was converted into apartments/rooming house in the mid-1970s after the death of the home’s long-time owners, Harry and Mary Ebel (more on them later). Saint Rose seems to have taken ownership of the building sometime in the mid-1980s. It was used as a residence hall (identified as “Western Hall” in the 1997 city directory), presumably as a single-sex dorm judging by the side-by-side showers in the second-floor bathroom that remain there. At some time in the very early 2000’s, 444 Western Avenue became Marcelle Hall and the home of the English Department.

The home has some unique features, like a butler’s pantry that provides easy access to the dining room featuring a bay window. The pantry was turned into a bathroom probably in the 1970s renovation. The living room, first converted into an apartment and then an office, features an entranceway with two small Roman columns, a not uncommon feature for turn-of-the-century upper middle/upper class city homes, with the area behind it walled off and filled in with floor-to-ceiling self-adhesive mirror panels  another relic of its 70s conversion into an apartment.

Living room décor. A former entranceway, there is just a wall behind the mirrors now.
Naturally, one begins to wonder about the history of the place. The Albany City Directories in the public library begin at 1950. The listing for that year indicates a Harry F. Ebel as the homeowner operating an unidentified business at the location. In fact, many of the former grand homes operating nearby on Western Avenue seem to have been converted into places of business by 1950. Harry lived there with his wife Mary through 1968 when he died at 75. His wife, who followed him in 1973, was still living at 444 Western Avenue at the time of her death. By then, the neighborhood must have seemed to be overrun with college students.
  Window in hallway.
I’m not sure what Harry’s line of business was at 444 Central Avenue, but in the 1930 and 1940 census he is listed as a teller. The 1940 census information, showing him living at 299 Western Avenue, identifies his age as 45 (born in 1895) and his highest level of education as the 10th grade. In 1940, Harry and Mary Ebel were listed as renting a home nearby at 299 Western Avenue, but by 1950 he is listed as the homeowner of 444 Western Avenue.

Harry, in fact, according the census records, originally lived on nearby Hamilton Street, just on the border between Saint Rose and UAlbany. Populated by tightly packed working-class homes, the 1930 census shows Harry and Mary living there at the time. None of the census data or directory information I found through 1973 ever shows any children or other residents living with them. I was able to confirm by comparing census records with Harry's V.A. Master Index File Card (see below) that Harry was living at 511 Hamilton Street in 1918 when he was drafted into the army. 

Harry Ebel’s Veteran’s Administration Master File Index Card (FamilySearch.com).
The 1930 census (see below) shows Harry and Mary living at 511 Hamilton Street with a Kirchner Family a couple doors down from where possibly Harry's parents and siblings still lived at 501 Hamilton, which is inferred by the similarity of their last names and Harry's middle name with the first name of the father listed at 501 Hamilton — Frederick. At 511 Hamiliton (which one can still visit virtually courtesy of Zillow), when Harry and Mary lived there, it would have been eight people living in that tiny home. Yet, 501 Hamilton is a larger home with fewer people living there (five, according to the census). Were the Ebel family living at 511 Hamilton in 1918 when Harry was drafted? Why were Harry and Mary living with the Kirchner's and not his family in a larger, if still crowded, home?  Curiosities, lost to time.

 
1930 Census, Hamilton St., Albany, NY. (left) with close-up of 501-511 Hamilton St. (right).

All of these locations lay within a half–mile area at most. Harry and Mary not only went up the social ladder, but onto larger houses, and alone, never wandering far from Harry’s home stomping grounds. Given the cramped, lower-class origins of the homes on Hamilton Street, 444 Western Avenue, with two or three times the floor space (including the finished attic apartment, possibly former servants' quarters), must have seemed like a mansion to them.
   Times Union, Apr.10, 1968.
For over two decades the Ebels lived at 444 Western Avenue and for at least fifty years lived in the same neighborhood as adults. Both lived into their 70s and Harry, except for the brief time he served in the Army in WWI, never moved more than a half mile away from where he grew up. Harry and Mary must have seemed like permanent fixtures in the neighborhood. When Harry died April 9, 1968, a fifty-word obituary appeared in the Albany Times Union the next day (see image on left), suggesting a not unexpected passing. Nothing in the brief obituary reveals where he worked, what his interests were, or if he had any children, and the only reason you’re hearing of him today is because I spent several hours searching through microfilm archives and old, falling apart, city directories in a forgotten, back room of a public library.

In fifty years, you should be so lucky.

Closing Down

A departing note for faculty leaving the third-floor adjunct office. 
My involvement with higher education has always been almost an afterthought. It was never my career goal, just something I fell into. My BA is in Communications; a field, however, I worked in mostly as a freelancer. I was certified as a NYS English teacher, but only so I could teach in Adult Education (high school equivalency programs). My MA is in Liberal Studies (history and literature), which probably doesn’t exist as a degree any longer, and which I only got so I could keep my teacher’s certification for Adult Education. I began working in administrative staff positions in colleges in 1989 but didn’t start teaching at that level until 2005 when a friend who was remodeling the kitchen of the head of the English Department of a local college suggested me when she asked if he knew anyone who could teach as she was short staffed the coming semester.
     
English Department posters.

Compared to those who spent the entirety of their education pursuing a career as an English professor, I could only ever be an outlier, even if I’ve taught at four colleges, up to three during the same semester, and up to six or seven courses a semester — more than the four or maybe five courses most full-time faculty usually teach. I’ve taught 100- through 300-level courses, including Comp I, Comp II, Public Speaking, and Technical Communication, and am fully conversant in four different online curriculum delivery platforms. In addition to those four colleges, I worked in staff positions at two others. 

Before Power Point, poster board, clippings, and a felt-tipped pen, were the state-of-the art in presentation visual aids. This student's project probably dates back to the late 1990s.
Yet, despite that, and having had a 25-year long career as a reporter, editor, and freelancer, and having earned more from writing than most of my colleagues who teach writing, I remain on the periphery. I get it. English majors are a dime a dozen, and I wasn't one, so I am grateful for the opportunities I’ve had and hoped I served well.
College ID.            
Still, as an adjunct, I feel like the last kid selected for the dodge ball team, a status I was reminded of only recently when I looked to see if I was ever listed as an adjunct on Saint Rose’s website. I don’t know why it hadn’t occurred to me in the last six years, but, before the place closes down, I figured I should take a peek. To my delight, there I was, yet they got my name wrong (I used my first name for academic-related work because it’s on my certificates, degrees, and paychecks) and they got email address wrong (my actual one has a “G” not a “J” in it). To my surprise, it seems I also had a phone number, which I had absolutely no idea existed. I have wonder where all those emails and phone calls have been going all these years.

Not my name on my paycheck, not my email address, and never knew I had a phone number. I guess should have looked at this several years ago.
I’ve been lucky to land another adjunct job, and this time back in Adult Education where I started out so long ago. There’s been talk in recent weeks of another college taking over part of Saint Rose’s assets and keeping it open as an extension of their institution. Maybe, maybe not — I hope so for the sake of my colleagues, but I’m skeptical. What happened to Saint Rose is part of an ongoing trend with small colleges impacted by COVID and a changing marketplace. Great colleges which produced great leaders are being closed down. The impact will not be fully felt for a generation.

English Department posters.
The College of Saint Rose, a four-year school with a prestigious academic reputation, represented for me that as an adjunct I had finally been accepted. I later began teaching at another four-year college, but Saint Rose kicked the door open, and that it was a college I literally grew up around makes it even more special, and sadder that it will soon disappear.

Name plates in the entranceway.
Before my last class this past December, I lingered a bit in Marcelle Hall, but there was no real point. I hadn’t gotten any mail since COVID and my office hours, which were on Zoom and from my home office, were done for the semester. After class, as I briskly walked through the crisp, late autumn air, a student from a previous semester ran by me. I thought to call out, but as quickly as I saw her, she was off on her way. 

No time for goodbyes, I mused silently. 

My office key and ID are now just more relics from yet another college where I no longer work, sitting in a box with other office keys and other IDs that no longer serve any use. If I was asked twenty or thirty years ago if I would one day teach at The College of Saint Rose, I would have responded that is just a dream . . . but now it is just a memory.

And, eventually, just like that student rushing by, even that will be gone.

Don't believe me? Just ask Harry and Mary. 

St. Agnes Cemetery, Menands, NY. (findagrave.com)
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Note: The posters pictured throughout this essay were photographed on the walls of Marcelle Hall on the campus of The College of Saint Rose in December 2023.