Historians can be found walking city streets, tracing the steps of their subjects. It can be valuable to get a sense of the physical surroundings, distances, and architecture. And there is something intangible, yet powerful, about standing in the shoes of your subject, even decades or centuries later. This isn’t always possible. Built environments, urban and rural, have often undergone many changes. Still, we return to these places looking for clues.
Where did Arabella Chapman and her family life during their years in Albany? We were prompted to ask this question by the inscription inside the front cover of Album II: “Presented to Miss Bella Chapman By R.H. Bundy, Albany, October 3rd, 1878. 193 Elm Street.” In pencil, likely added later are “68 LaFayette” and “70 LaFayette.” With just a little digging, a city directory for 1878 reports Arabella’s father, John Chapman, as heading household at 193 Elm Street.
With the address confirmed, could we locate precisely where Arabella and her family lived? What would we find if we went there today?
It was time to turn to maps, historical and contemporary. First, was the historic map collection at the Clements Library, which includes the city map tucked into the 1878 Albany directory. There was Elm Street, starting at Grand Street to the east and extending six blocks to Delaware Avenue to the west.
Then we turned to today’s map, courtesy of Google. We learned how things had changed. Elm Street still exists, though it is divided by the large New York State Museum and Cultural Education Center, built in 1976, and the parking lot for the 1852 Cathedral of The Immaculate Conception displacing the two central blocks of Elm Street. Here we had do some calculating. The house numbers (critical to locating Arabella’s home,) appear to have remained unchanged. The single digit numbers in the first block, go up to 68 by the end of the second block. Blocks three and four, now gone, were longer blocks with about 50 or more numbers per block. Block five is still present and starts with address number 179, which is about what we’d expect to see when the street was intact.
And 193 Elm Street? There is a house there. Red brick, three stories, with a wide set of stairs leading to the front door. A rather plain and simple design, with a high peak and bay windows hinting at the Gothic and Second Empire styles popular in the mid-19th century. Perhaps this was the very home that the Chapman’s occupied in 1878 when Arabella received the gift of a photo album.
One last bit of research. Using a database of aggregate public records, www.realtor.com, we learned that 193 Elm St. was built in 1853, likely making today’s 193 Elm Street the same home that Chapman family shared nearly 150 years ago.
Back to Google maps and their street view function and we can now “walk” the block that Arabella once did. (Of course, our friends in Albany may want to visit Elm Street and take “real” walk!) For all of us, this new information makes it easier to imagine her in a full skirt, headed to school, church, or a music lesson. The street is lined with mid-nineteenth century homes, many of them narrow row houses, some of which today proudly bear their date of construction. Arabella’s block, it seems, has long attracted interest for its historic buildings. Today, we’ve added something new. A small window into life inside those very same homes.
193 Elm street is just one of the places that Arabella Chapman lived. Her later homes in Albany on LaFayette Street, now razed, and her last home on Second Street, as well as the place where here children were born in North Adams, Massachusetts, offer us opportunities to further understand Arabella’s world. We encourage other sleuths, perhaps those located in Albany and North Adams, to follow these threads and share your findings on this site.
— Clayton Lewis
Reuben H. Bingham, [Map of] City of Albany, New York. (Albany : Sampson, Davenport & Co., 1877.) (Accessed June 3, 2015: http://www.loc.gov/resource/g3804a.wd000517/)
The Albany City Directory, 1878, Containing a General Directory of the Citizens, a Business Directory, Record of the City Government, its Institutions, &c. &c. (Albany: Sampson, Davenport, & Co., 1878.)
Map of the City of Albany. (Albany: Sampson, Davenport, & Co., 1866.)
Realtor.com. (Accessed Jun 5, 2015: http://www.realtor.com/realestateandhomes-detail/193-Elm-St_Albany_NY_12202_M37589-01818)