St. Joseph’s Academy

Posted on August 23, 2011 at 10:10 pm
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In late 2011 Albany Barn Inc. will begin transforming the abandoned St. Joseph’s Academy building located in the heart of Albany’s Arbor Hill Neighborhood into a 40,000+ square foot creative arts incubator and community art space. Two months ago I was contacted by Craig Shufelt on behalf of a new gallery, “Stage 1”, located near the Academy. Craig, with the support of Albany Barn, was looking for new artists with an urban feel to showcase their work. I had donated a piece for a fundraiser at the same venue back in June but I was unfamiliar with this project. Willing to help, I accepted and asked friends Paul and Darren to join for a group show, on display until the end of August. Truth be told, the three of us were very curious about this ambitious renovation. A few weeks later, Jeff Mirel (of Rock2Rebuild fame, president), Craig, and Tony Iadicicco (of ACG fame, director) gave us the opportunity to explore St. Joseph’s Academy and take some photographs, to be featured in a fundraiser later this year. Here is what I brought back.

More photos below. Click on any of the thumbnails to open a larger view, or check the full-screen Flickr slideshow if you have Flash installed.

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Arbor Hill is an ethnically diverse, low-income neighborhood, and vital to the historic fabric of Albany. While many of Albany’s historic neighborhoods have benefited from investment and revitalization, Arbor Hill has not experienced the same level of attention. [...] Five years ago, stakeholders in Arbor Hill, developed a revitalization strategy called the “Arbor Hill Neighborhood Plan”. It was heralded as a breakthrough in collaborative community planning and continues to enjoy broad support during its implementation (source: the Academy Lofts page).

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As part of that Plan, it was recommended that one of the top priorities be the adaptive reuse of the abandoned St. Joseph’s Academy building (above). Albany Barn has partnered with the City of Albany and Albany Housing Authority to redevelop the 40,000 square foot St. Joseph’s Academy building into low-cost live-work apartments, work and rehearsal suites, a dance studio, a digital media lab and ample exhibition, performance and programming space (source: the Academy Lofts page). Renovation is anticipated to start in late 2011, with construction taking 18 – 24 months. Detailed floor plans can be found at the Barn site.

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All Over Albany recently covered Albany Barn’s undertaking, the people behind it, and its inspiration—an arts incubator in Providence, Rhode named As220. I invite you to check what Mirel has to say and how they successfully raised most of the $11 million necessary to rehab St. Joseph’s Academy. If you read this post or if you simply drove by the Academy, you may be wondering what hides behind these walls? Maybe these photos will help. Let’s start by playing “Spot the skeleton” in the photo above (disclaimer: Darren may have shuffled some tables around).

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The conditions in the Academy were peculiar. The city did a pretty good job at boarding the Academy, leaving us to operate in complete darkness except for the gymnasium. We quickly recon’ed the four floors to avoid any bad surprise and lower the spookiness factor, then explored the building top to bottom at our own pace. This might not be obvious from the photos but I was walking around with only a flashlight, a narrow beam pointing at the scene to help my camera focus. I would then turn it off to take a photo, my flash aimed at the ceiling to bounce and diffuse the burst back. This ended up doing the trick for me. Darren and Paul had a totally different technique based on long exposures and tripods. We were not shooting together in order not to interfere with each others’ lighting. Darren would carefully set his camera on a tripod, turn his flashlight off, and wave a diffuse light source in the air for 30+ seconds while the camera was recording the scene. This technique qualifies as light painting. He ended up with a very distinct look, and so did Paul—I don’t have their patience.

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The First Floor of the Albany Barn will feature a mix of commercial space devoted to performance space, work studios (expandable to large group studios), a community/multipurpose room, café space and offices. The original school gymnasium (above) and stage will be re-purposed as a dance studio, exhibition, performance/rehearsal and programming space (source: floor plan page). I hope they keep this great skylight. Air circulation is an issue at the moment, the boards keep the birds at bay but they need to go earlier rather than later—the building was humid and moldy, with a lot of water damage in some rooms. I’m no civil engineer but the structure looked fairly intact, we didn’t fall through giant, deadly gaping holes.

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The Third and Fourth Floors will include 8 loft and 8, 1-Bedroom apartments. These spaces are original classrooms (above) that will be converted into apartments and will maintain period architectural details in each space. I’m French but damn, the smell was very strong, almost unbearable on the last floor. The best way to describe it… I guess a putrid mix of dead pigeons and mold, two period details I’m sure won’t be maintained.

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St. Joseph’s Academy was a co-ed high school started in 1906 by Albany Bishop Thomas Martin Aloysius Burke. The place was still in operation in 1966, according to some old newspaper report (source: Linda, on Flickr). There was not a lot left, I recall rows of lockers, chairs, tables, chalkboards, the occasional fridge, TV, piano, fussbal, and a lone Commodore PET. There were, however, many signs, posters, photos, and memorabilia indicating a boxing program used the building for a while. Maybe AOA’s history scholars Carl and Akum would know some more? Fond memories were shared when we saw an old ad for a boxing match to take place in the defunct Starlite Theater, a favorite location of mine.

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The Barn/Academy Lofts will provide essential, affordable facilities to regional artists, musicians, writers, filmmakers, dancers and performers seeking an engaging, supportive environment in which to create and share their work, and broad arts-based programming to benefit residents of all ages. To that end, a key requirement of residency in The Barn/Academy Lofts will be community service including, but not limited to, mentoring, creative art instruction/activities, and neighborhood art installations/public space stewardship (source: the Academy Lofts page).

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I suspect this set of photos doesn’t depict a very romantic situation, but the absence of windows and natural light just didn’t  help. We have visited our share of abandoned buildings and seen much worse. In any case, I feel these will be a good testimony of the hard work the Albany Barn will have accomplished by 2014.  The North Swan Street neighborhood is changing for the best, it’s a great community project to support in my opinion and I trust we will have the opportunity to follow their progress in the next two years.

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Thanks to Craig A. Shufelt and the volunteers at Stage 1. Thanks to Jeff Mirel and everybody at Albany Barn. Thanks to Tony Iadicicco for risking an  asthma attack to get us inside the building. Check the Albany Barn web site for more info and to stay in touch via newsletter, Facebook, Twitter or RSS feed.

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More photos

Darren’s photos can be found on Flickr. They look very different from mine since we used two distinct lighting techniques. I had a flash, pointing at the ceiling to bounce back and he had a much more diffuse portable light source, better adapted to his long exposures.

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Paul’s photos on Flickr:

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Flickr user Linda has a couple photos online too:

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The Daily Gazette has photos and an interview with Jeff Mirel, dating back February 2008.

Urban Explorations in Print

“The Unnoticed” — A Collection in Print

Are you looking for more? I have assembled a hundred photos from 10 abandoned locations in my first photo book, “The Unnoticed”, available online and at different branches of the Albany Public Library. Find more about this 136-page volume, available in hard cover, soft cover, and eBook format for iPad/iPhone, in the book section.

More abandoned buildings are listed under the “Urban Exploration” category.


  1. julia says:

    These are stunning from a fine art point of view, archival and social commentary. Wow.

  2. Tim says:

    Amazing shots as always, and now I’m remembering the time my dad took me to an amateur boxing match at the Starlite back in the late 80′s or early 90′s. Oh how I’d love to get some camera time in that old place…

  3. Sally Reckner says:

    am very impressed with your composing such great shots when you were basically in the dark – you have a fast and excellent eye! thanks for bringing all this to us.

  4. ashallann says:

    Just amazing, always stunned by the way you bring these buildings back to life in an eerie way with one shot. Thanks for sharing!

  5. Carl says:

    Saw your shout out some time ago but didn’t get around to doing any research on this until just this week. The original St. Joseph’s Academy was at North Pearl and Colonie streets. not sure when it was organized but it was the second large school established in Albany, after which came a wave of school-building circa the 1870s. The school was served by the Sisters of St. Joseph, and had 718 pupils in 1886. That building burned on Feb. 10, 1906. The school shared space for some time with the Christian Brothers Academy, and then built its new building at Second and Swan streets, which I presume is the building here. Wish I could tell you more about this building — it’s mentioned in Kennedy’s “O Albany!” and McEneny’s book as well, but I don’t have either one handy.

  6. Always great to work with you. Amazing shots!

  7. Diane says:

    Has anyone come across any pictures of the school when it was up and running. My grandmother attended St Joseph’s early 1910′s. Would love to see what it was like back then.

  8. Sebastien says:

    @Diane: I would love to see that too…

  9. jack kicinski 1952 says:

    thank you.. brings back memories..send more info if available..

  10. scott miller says:

    Attended in 1978; the final year. Would like to obtain work.

  11. scott miller says:

    Good morning Sebastien; Was hoping that you might be able to connect with Section 3. Shortly after leaving my message with you; a call came thourgh. Meeting with Mrs. Davis on 1/3/13 to be interviewed ! Thanks.