An urban historian brings a Buffalo icon to life
This weekend: Mark Goldman's book on the life and times of John J. Albright is accompanied by a play with original music
John Albright fishing at Wilmurt in the Adirondacks, circa 1910
Photo by Susan Fuller Albright courtesy of Albright Family
Perhaps nobody loves a good local story more than historian, scholar, entrepreneur, restaurateur, author, playwright, and general maestro of the urban scene Mark Goldman. The native New Yorker has made Buffalo his home for nearly five decades and is the author of the critically acclaimed City on the Edge. Goldman says studying local history attaches you to a place, and, “through learning its past, you become more committed to building its future.” One object of his study is John J. Albright, a man who, according to Goldman,“had his finger in virtually every aspect of turn-of-the-century Buffalo, and left no fingerprints.” The historian has uncovered enough to write a book about Albright and has also commissioned a play, accompanied by music, based on his life and times. The play, lectures, and photographic exhibit are presented June 2–4 (see schedule here) in three city venues, the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Burchfield Penney Art Center, and Buffalo History Museum.
Timeline: The Life of John Albright
1848: Born in Natural Bridge, Virginia; son of Joseph J. Albright
1872: Marries Harriet Langdon, sister of his coal business partner, Andrew Langdon. Harriet and John will have three children.
1883: Albright and Langdon move their booming coal transport business to Buffalo.
1889: Albright commissions E. B. Green to build First Presbyterian Church on Symphony Circle in Buffalo and the Albright Memorial Library in Scranton, Pennsylvania.
1894: Green is commissioned to build Welcome Hall, a settlement house, on Seneca Street.
1896: A year following the death of Harriet, Albright is named a director of the Buffalo Fine Arts Academy. He marries Susan Fuller a year later.
1899–1901: Serves as a director of Pan-Am Exposition
1900: Pledges $350k (over $40 million in today’s dollars) for Albright Art Gallery
1904: E. B. Green designs square-block mansion for Albright at 730 West Ferry
1906-1909: Development of Niagara, Lockport, and Ontario Power Company
1915: Nets $5 million from the sale of Ontario Power
1916: Disastrous relationship with the Van Sweringen brothers in Cleveland
1921–26: Albright auctions off art collection. Moves out of West Ferry Street house. In 1927, Susan Fuller Albright dies.
1929: Albright is awarded the UB Chancellor’s Medal.
1931: John Albright dies. Within four years, the estate is auctioned off, and the West Ferry mansion is demolished.
Spree: Who was John Albright?
Mark Goldman: Albright moved to Buffalo in 1882 as a representative of the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad Company. He was their primary coal broker in Buffalo—he arranged for the shipment of coal via lake steamer to the Great Lakes and by rail car to cities in the Northeast—and quickly amassed a fortune. With him was his wife, Harriet Langdon, the sister of his partner Andrew Langdon. The Langdon name should resonate here—Harriet was a cousin of Olivia Langdon, the wife of Mark Twain.
Albright also founded an electric power company on the Canadian side of Niagara Falls, calling it the Ontario Power Company. Early in the new century, he created a company whose sole purpose was to transmit the power generated at the OPC, the Niagara, Lockport, and Ontario Company, which transmitted electrical power to the largest manufacturing companies in Western New York, including Lackawanna Steel, which he had encouraged to move here from Scranton, Pennsylvania, in 1900.
Albright was also a banker who founded the Fidelity Trust Company and helped transform Marine Bank from a state to a national bank. As befit a successful businessman of the time, he hired renowned architect E. B. Green to build a mansion at 730 West Ferry Street in 1904; it was demolished in 1936. The magnate had earlier commissioned Green to build the First Presbyterian Church here, and the Albright Memorial Library, in Scranton, Pennsylvania, where he’d grown up.
As a director of the Buffalo Fine Arts Academy, Albright collected art, primarily paintings and tapestries from the French Barbizon school of Realism, a collection that included a Corot. In 1900, he pledged $350,000 ($40 million in today’s dollars), the single largest gift ever to the Fine Arts society, for an Albright Art Gallery. He was one of the city leaders chosen as a director of the Pan-American Exposition here in 1901. After he died in 1931, he faded from civic memory.
His estate was sold. What happened?
That’s been the looming question of my research, which has involved poring over archival records, examining documents from his contemporaries, and interviewing Albright descendants—the detective work of a historian. I wanted to find out how a guy this successful could fall so far. It has been a professional challenge, especially since there is so little evidence out there; for example, I could find only two copies of his signature. One thing we do know is he was very philanthropic—he gave money to Nichols School, Smith College, and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York. It is said he sold prime land on his estate, at the corner of West Ferry and Elmwood Avenues, at a bargain price for the construction of the Unitarian Universalist Church, of which he was not a member. Frankly, I don’t think he was ever comfortable with money, so he gave a lot away. He was bankrupt at the end.
So, you engage in creative speculation about his life?
I would say informed and educated speculation. Working with a playwright, we have crafted a theater piece about the life of John J. Albright, to be performed here as part of our tribute to Albright, the first weekend of June. One of the things we uncovered is a short movie by Thomas Edison, shot from a gondola seat overlooking the Pan-Am Expo. We know Albright was a director there; he likely saw that panoramic view of the fair—perhaps he rode in the gondola with Edison! We will also showcase an exhibit of photos taken by Susan Fuller, Albright’s second wife, who was an accomplished photographer. These are on loan from the private collections of family members. Also involved in the weekend celebrations are a series of lectures.
How did you get engaged here—an interest that’s led you to writing a book about Albright?
I can’t see living in a place where I don’t feel any ties. Uncovering the life stories behind names we hear around here all the time—Kleinhans, Burchfield, Albright—ties us more to place. I think of them as the Howard Zemskys of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and I wanted to know more.
Friday, June 2, 6:30 p.m., Burchfield Penney Art Center: Through a Different Lens: Susan Fuller Albright and Female Photographers of Buffalo, c.1900—slide lecture by Anthony Bannon, director, BPAC.
Saturday, June 3, 6:30 p.m., Albright-Knox Art Gallery: cocktail party followed by performance of a play inspired by the life of John J. Albright, written by Steven Bellwood. AKAG unveils a portrait of John J. Albright by Edmund Tarbell, a painting that has been in storage.
Sunday, June 4, 11 a.m., The Buffalo History Museum: illustrated lecture on John J. Albright and Andrew Langdon, Albright’s partner who served as president of the Board of the Buffalo Historical Society, by Melissa Brown, CEO of the Buffalo History Museum, along with Mark Goldman and Birge Albright, a descendant.
Maria Scrivani writes about local history and people who make a difference.