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Oh, SmAlbany!

Daily posts and occasional longer essays about politics, culture, and life in the Capital Region...updated M-F, midmorning

"I write this not as a booster of Albany, which I am, nor an apologist for the city, which I sometimes am, but rather as a person whose imagination has become fused with a single place, and in that place finds all the elements that a man ever needs..." -W. Kennedy, from O Albany!

Big House to close...

We hardly knew ya: The TU is reporting today that the Big House will be closing it's doors at the end of the month. And they correctly point out the role that it played in the downtown nightlife revival:
When the Big House [opened] in Albany in 1996, it was the beginning of a resurgence in downtown. Once a booming shopping district, North Pearl had become a ghost town after 5 p.m. But following the Big House's success -- and the movement of thousands of state and private jobs into downtown -- pubs like Jillian's, the Pump Station, Mad River and Blue 82 opened. Today, the street is one of the city's premier nightlife destinations.
Undeniably true. I was never a big fan of the scene that sprung up down there. I was much more of an uptown/Lark street guy in the late 90's. I liked WT's better than McGeary's. I liked Mahar's on a quiet night. I was in college, so i really liked Bogie's music and Hughes' prices. I liked Mild Wally's pizza. And I just wasn't crazy about the Big House. While it was definitely amazing the first time I walked in there, it being the first "mega-bar" I had ever seen, I always thought it was poorly designed architecturally - the tables got in the way of the standing crowd, the booths were wedged against the bar, and the walking paths were difficult to navigate. The micro-brewed beer was expensive and not that good. They didn't have pitchers. And it was often so crowded that you had to fight your way to the bar for a drink.

But i can remember thinking how much respect I had for the people who took a chance and opened that place. It's hard to remember, but there was nothing down there at that end of Pearl. And for a while, the Big House was basically alone down there - Jillians didn't open until sometime in 1999, the Bayou cafe was a tiny little bar that was often closed at night, same with the Victory. Pearl, Blue82, and Mad River were years away, and it was a bit of a walk down to Doc's or McGeary's, neither of which were particularly the same crowd as Big House. And it always seemed like everybody was there. It was a lot like going to a fraternity party, except with people from SmAlbany instead of people from college.

Interestingly, the current Big House space is owned by the owner of the Long Branch, Anthony Renna. He had been leasing it to the owners of the Big House, and now he and a buddy are going to open a new bar/restaurant there:
The two men plan to reopen the business at 90 N. Pearl St. in late September under the name Skylight Lounge. Renna plans to sell the Long Branch. "I've always wanted to get into the restaurant business, and so does my partner," Renna said. "It's something we've always liked doing."
And just in case you thought Renna didn't have solid Albany roots:
Renna is also the captain of the Dutch Apple, the Hudson River cruise ship owned by the Renna family.
Wow. That's quite a trifecta - the Long Branch, the Dutch Apple, and the Big House property. Similarly, the current owner of the Big House, Stephen Waite, is working on a new venture:
Waite is working on an upscale eatery and entertainment complex on State Street in Schenectady, across from Proctor's Theatre. The complex, which will be managed by several former Big House staffers, is expected to open in early 2006.

"It's going to be an added benefit," said John Samatulski, director of the Downtown Schenectady Improvement Corp. He said many businesses were looking forward to the new enterprise coming to what will be known as the Proctor's Block.
The "Proctor's Block?" That might be a little much. But then again, this guy did jumpstart Pearl street a decade ago.

A few more thoughts on the Big House. These are mostly 90's thoughts, since I haven't been to the Big House more than a handful of times in the last 5 years:

#1) Does anyone remember the disporportionate number of limosines that used to collect around that place? I was always amazed at that. You'd be waiting in line to get in and there would be two limos parked on Sheridan Ave. and another one pulling up. Just strange. Especially since no one inside ever seemed like the type of person who would have just gotten out of a limo.

#2) I remember when the Giants started doing training camp at UAlbany, they would occasionally come down to the Big House en masse. That was always good for a few laughs, since there would immediately be 10 SmAlbany women surrounding each of them. My most vivid memory of this was when Joe Jurevicius was a rookie in 1998. I walked up to the second floor, and he was sitting there with three girls on his lap, two on one leg and one on the other.

#3) It's impossible to not remember that 1st floor dance party. While the 3rd floor was a more serious bump and grind scene, the first floor had that makeshift dance floor, usually some kickin' 80's music, and just a whole lot of awkward singles who knew they didn't belong on the top floor but still wanted to dance. You'd get some strange sights there - like a group of drunk 30-something single women trying to move in on some obviously underage college guys. Or a guy in a business suit groovin' with a girl in a tube top. All of this going, of course, to the sounds of Footloose or the Grease megamix.

UPDATE: Readers submit their own recollections of the Big House:

#4) "I recall once my friend getting "kicked out" of the third floor because he was being obnoxious to some girls. The security guard escorted us over to a private elevator, which was painted on the inside to resemble a jail cell."

#5) "At one point, around fall 2002 - my first year at Albany law - they began running just an absolutely rediculous special at the Big House. Beers were $1 and dinner was $2.49 before 8pm. I guess they were starting to feel the heat from competition by then."

#6) Shredded Eagles has some nice memories of the Big House here, including this funny-yet-true quote:
From 1998-2002, it was THE place to get drunk. Everyone went, from state workers, to politicians, television personalities, even rude college kids like us. Some supreme troublemaking took place within the walls of the historic warehouse.
Ah, Big House. You'll be gone but not forgotten.
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At 10:05 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said:

The Big House's opening also led to dramatic changes to the Lionheart Blues Cafe.

If I recall correctly, one of Big House's partners was Eric Schilling, who was also an owner of the LBC. When he left and the Big House opened, there was real competition for the Lionheart. The first casualty of the competition was the smoke-free zone, then the restaurant, then the beer and wine niche, then add in a pool table. At some point int there, the bands disappeared, too, and it lost the "blues" component. The place changed substantially. The only two constants were its owner, Jerry Aumond, and its Monday night bartender, Peter Barnett, who still pours on Mondays at the new site.

At the height of its time, the Big House catalyzed that change, and the Lionheart transformed from classy blues bar into college joint.    

At 5:25 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said:

Anthony Renna does not own the Big House, therefore he could not have been renting the building to anyone. Steve Wait still owns the building and is renting the space to Renna and his partner.    

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