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Exhibit Recognizes History Of Empire State Plaza

It's been 50 years since the cornerstone of Albany's Empire State Plaza was laid in place. A new exhibit at the New York State museum tells the story of Governor Nelson Rockefeller's vision, the history of the location, and the workers who made the project a reality.

The Empire State Plaza, known for its modern towers and tunnels, turns 50 this year, and the New York State museum is telling its story in a new exhibit.

Beth Berlin, acting Commissioner of State Education, speaking inside the echoing marble interior, said the exhibit features photographs, displays, and sketches from the draft-design through the construction phase. It also explores some of the more curious subjects of the plaza's history.

"Like how over a billion years of geological history are showcased at the plaza. And that over 1 billion pounds of  steam is generated to heat and cool 9.4 million square feet of office space every year. And art enthusiasts will be happy to see some people of the Empire Plaza Display art collection at the exhibition."

Including Andy Warhol's portrait of former Governor Rockefeller, who dreamed up the project — which includes the hulking Corning Tower and The Egg and has come to define Albany’s skyline.

Admired—and in some quarters, despised — for its distinctive architecture, the plaza swells with state workers each day. But as demonstrated by the popularity of the recent public television documentary The Neighborhood That Disappeared, the city of Albany itself has a complicated history with the plaza.

Much of that history can be told by the workers and masons who built the site.

Andy Martello did work on the building that houses the museum.

"Mostly downstiars on the walls, ya know, and upstairs on the fourth floor. We prepped for these guys that put the marble up, ya know? A lot of prep work."

One of the most controversial aspects of the construction was the state's buying and demolishing of hundreds of properties to make way for the project.

The plaza now stands where Martello's family home once stood.

"I lived right here, the museum, until they took the property. So this is my home."

Mason Tom Marinello began working on the plaza after returning from the Vietnam War.

"The contractor was Ireland, the shop steward was from Italy, and the foreman was from Germany. So I learned to cut stone from stone masons and I didn't realize at the time how significant that was. But it really was as a very, very big opportunity."

Construction on the plaza ran from 1965 to 1978, overlapping with the height of the Vietnam War. Kevin Hicks, a retired president of the Empire State Council of Carpenters, remembered a tense moment between construction workers and war protesters at the nearby capitol building.

"We walked off this plaza, probably 2,000 hardhats, we walked over there... It was very confrontational at the time. I had just returned back from Vietnam. I went there thinking there was gonna be a fracas. It actually never came off, but it was a very testy time. We marched with American flags and these guys were burning American flags."

The Empire State Plaza at 50 exhibit opens to the public on June 21st at the New York State Museum in Albany.

Lucas Willard is a news reporter and host at WAMC Northeast Public Radio, which he joined in 2011. He produces and hosts The Best of Our Knowledge and WAMC Listening Party.
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