Classic buildings result of citywide fire

A covered bridge, amidst cows grazing on rolling meadows­—how serene, how rustic, how quaint. Yet in the early 1800s, covered bridges were state-of-the-art engineering, an immediate by-product of the Industrial Revolution. The Atlantic seaboard was covered with old-growth forests, with trees towering hundreds of feet tall. But it took water or steam-powered sawmills to translate that into useable lumber.

Wood bridges used massive timbers for trusses. However, preservatives like creosote were unknown and paint technology was in its infancy. The innovation of the covered bridge was that it was protected by an outer layer of wood, to protect the structural truss members from rotting. These boards took the brunt of the weather and could easily be replaced as needed.

For instance, Troy’s first railroad bridge across the Hudson (at the site of the current Green Island lift bridge) was a covered bridge, described at the time as “one of the noblest bridges in the Union.” Completed in 1835, the bridge was 1,512 feet long, and took 1.7 million feet of lumber to build. Imagine trying to cut all that by hand.

But wood is also vulnerable to fire. On May 10, 1862, calamity struck. Sparks from a passing locomotive set the bridge ablaze, and a strong northwesterly wind spread the fire to downtown. Over 507 buildings were destroyed, gutting 75 acres in the heart of the city.

This fire had several immediate and long-range ramifications. The city was quick to rebuild. For instance, the ornate Gurley Building (which now houses RPI’s Human Resources) was planned, constructed, and finished by December of that year, a period of only seven months. That building, as does so much of downtown, reflected contemporary styles, most notably what is called Norman or Victorian Romanesque. Norman architecture was based on castles and forts built circa 1100, it’s 1850s revival has all trim in brick with heavy use of semicircular arches for windows and decoration.

In particular, the cornice has what I call “brick icicles”—technically termed “machicolation.” The term is derived from the same Greek word that gave us “masticate,” to chew up. This feature was originally used on castles to project out the top section of a tower—look at the two towers on the Armory. Holes in the floor in the projected area let archers shoot directly down on attackers attempting to breach the wall, thus “chewing them up.”

This made Troy a thoroughly modern Civil War-era city. There was little reason to upgrade during the rest of century. In fact Troy is sometimes called “Hollywood on the Hudson” as a number of movies have been filmed here, using Troy’s remarkable architecture as a backdrop.

Back in 1824, RPI started in a small building in north Troy. Shortly afterwards they relocated to the former “Infant School” on 6th and State Streets (where the Troy police station is today). The school, too, was a victim of the Great Fire. Two years later, in 1864, RPI moved into its first new building, at the head of Broadway on 8th Street, now the site of the Approach. This was the first step in RPI’s grand march up the hill to the current campus.