THE EARLY TENEMENTS OF NEW YORK—DARK, DANK, AND DANGEROUS

Lower East Side, ca. 1890s. Department of Street Cleaning Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

We are a nation of immigrants. Whether our ancestors arrived on exploring vessels, slave ships, crowded steamboats from Europe and Asia or illegally from everywhere, most came seeking the American Dream. But while they searched for it, many endured racism, discrimination, and exploitation in schools, the workplace and housing.

Interior rooms of an Old Law apartment, n.d. NYC Municipal Archives Collection.

When they walked off their ships, hundreds of thousands of men, women and children stayed in New York and had to live in apartments—that were cramped, dark and impossibly small —in buildings that were decaying firetraps, with substandard or broken plumbing and conditions not fit for a human being.

Much that they found on the Lower East Side and northward is documented in records, government agency reports and graphic photos in the City’s Municipal Archives and Library. These include Jacob Riis’ ground-breaking book, How the Other Half Lives, and details about the nefarious “Lung Block,” the subject of a Department of Records and Information Services (DORIS) exhibition running thru August 2019.

It is a classic tale of exploitation, greedy owners and developers and battles in Albany and City Hall between real estate interests and people striving for better lives.

First Report of the Tenement House Department of the City of New York, 1903. NYC Municipal Library.

The Municipal Library held a copy of Riis’ book, published in 1890, which noted in chilling detail and sickening photos the conditions of Manhattan’s tenement houses. Buildings that once housed comfortable dwellings were cut up and added onto to accommodate the newly arrived immigrants who swelled the city’s population, eventually quadrupling it from 125,000 in 1820 to just under one million by 1870.

To meet the need for quick, cheap housing, Riis reported that the properties “fell into the hands of real estate agents and boarding house keepers… and in the old garden where the stolid Dutch burgher grew his tulips or early cabbages, a rear house was built, generally of wood, two stories high at first. Presently it was carried up another story, and another. Where two families had lived ten moved in.”

More than 20 years after the Tenement House Act of 1867, Riis described such horrendous conditions—crowded and dangerous buildings that incubated cholera, malaria and tuberculosis—it resulted in a public outcry and led to an investigation by the Tenement House Committee. The Tenement House Act of 1901, which echoed Riis’ findings and called for reforms, led to the creation of New York City’s Tenement House Department, which issued annual and biennial reports from 1902 through 1937—all of which are housed in the Municipal Library.

Wooden stairs of Old Law Tenement, destroyed by fatal fire, n.d. NYC Municipal Archives Collection.

Prior to 1867, tenements known as “Pre-Law” buildings had few strict requirements. The Act of 1867 brought the first “Old Law,” buildings which required fire escapes—most shoddily built. Subsequent “Old Law” buildings, erected between 1879 and 1901, required slender air shafts for ventilation. Buildings erected after 1901 were considered “New Law” buildings and had stricter requirements.

Still, in its 1902 report, the Tenement House Department noted that “tenement conditions have been found to be so bad as to be indescribable in print,” including “vile privies… cellars full of rubbish… garbage and decomposing fecal matter… dilapidated and dangerous stairs… dangerous old fire traps without fire escapes (and) disease-breeding rags… The cleansing of the Augean Stables was a small task compared to the cleansing of New York’s 82 tenement houses, occupied by nearly three millions of people.”

Outdated building design, shabby construction and greed-fueled attempts to squeeze as many people as possible into the tenements spurred the transformation of the old one- and two-story Knickerbocker dwellings with a large backyard on a 90-foot lot, to cut-up tenements—often housing a 10-member family in a single apartment—then to dark and dank to rear tenement “caves” with a small yard between the front and back building.

“If we take the death rate of children as a test, the rear tenement houses show themselves to be veritable slaughterhouses,” the report to the Legislature found. “The unfortunate tenants live virtually in a cage.”

The evolution of tenement design, from Pre-Law to Old Law to New Law, an illustration from the Tenement House Commission Report of 1895. NYC Municipal Library.

What followed was known as the “packing box” tenement with almost no ventilation, and a tiny yard, a design Riis described as “a hopeless back-to-back type, which meant there was no ventilation and could be none.” He noted that allowed “stenches from horribly foul cellars” to “poison” tenants living on the fifth floor.

Next came the double-decker” with a small air shaft. The state report called the double-decker “an evil which is peculiarly our own” and “the one hopeless form of tenement construction.” Though a slight improvement on the packing box, “the double-decker cannot be well-ventilated; it cannot be well-lit; it’s not safe in case of fire.”

The final iteration was the Dumb-Bell building, which had larger shafts along the sides in the middle, which gave the floor plan the look of that piece of weightlifting equipment.

Despite the new law, the Tenement Department, in its first heavily documented and illustrated report for 1902 and 1903 noted that “some of the conditions found in these buildings surpasses the imagination. It does not seem possible that human beings actually live under them and still retain the least vestige of health.”

First Report of the Tenement House Department of the City of New York, 1903. NYC Municipal Library.

The new department reported that in the first two years its employees made 337,246 inspections, filed 55,055 violations and made more than 21,000 repairs. It said that 16,768 families—or 83,840 people were now housed in new or upgraded buildings.

Shared toilet in tenement building, n.d. Credit Cosmo-Sileo. NYC Municipal Archives Collection.

It also breathlessly reported—perhaps too optimistically—that “the evil of prostitution has been practically abolished in tenement houses.” The report said all previously “dark” and “unventilated” rooms were now well-lit and ventilated and height and depth limits were set for all new buildings.

Among the first areas the new department targeted was the predominantly Italian “Lung Block,” bounded by Hamilton, Catherine, Cherry and Markets Sts. The 1907 and 1908 Tenement Department report noted that the block had the highest death rate of any block in the city; claiming there were 58 tenement houses in the 45-acre block with 829 families consisting of 4,145 people.

The reports of 1912-1914 noted the gradual elimination of many “Old Law” buildings but noted that some owners circumvented height requirements and limits on the number of allowable apartments by putting a store on the first floor that also contained apartments in the back.

Rear apartment rooms of a store at 193 Manhattan Avenue, 1935. NYC Municipal Archives Collection.

State lawmakers, apparently at the behest of owners and real estate interests, made periodic efforts to water down the law. The Department noted various schemes that included failing to file paperwork, making misleading and inaccurate claims and trying to grandfather in some dangerous buildings. In its 1915 and 1916 report, the Department said legislators passed various laws in “attempts to destroy” the “Department’s efficiency,” but Mayor John Mitchell vetoed them.

Rents continued to rise, and the Department noted that budget cuts and fewer inspections as part of a “do nothing policy” from 1918 through 1929 gave owners “no incentive to do anything” to improve rapidly deteriorating properties and deteriorated.

Family at kitchen table in a dumb-bell “New Law” tenement, ca. 1935. Note the angled kitchen window onto an air shaft. NYC Municipal Archives Collection.

In 1927, the State Legislature declared the Tenement House Law had “outlived its usefulness” and replaced it with the Multiple Dwelling Law. Around that time, as the Tenement House Department saw its effectiveness slipping away, the Fred W. French Company began buying and emptying buildings in the old Lung Block and used federal funds to erect the “affordable” Knickerbocker Village in what is now Chinatown.

Part of his argument, as quoted in the Lung Block Exhibit, was that poor people had no reason to live in Manhattan and should be replaced with “a certain class” of middle-class and more affluent people (aka gentrifiers) who were “wasting their time” commuting to work from the suburbs or other parts of the city.

Knickerbocker Village, Catherine and Monroe Streets, 1937. WPA Federal Writers’ Project Collection, Neg. 529. NYC Municipal Archives.

In 1933, French declared: “Another class of people, who live there now, and who need not live there… would thus make room for those tortured men and women who have suffered in the subways.”

Three hundred and seventy-nine Lung Block area families wanted to relocate to the “affordable” Knickerbocker Village, but only three could afford the rents.

Greenwich Village and the Square

Fifty years ago, the Landmarks Preservation Commission designated Greenwich Village as a historic district.  This anniversary prompted a search through the Municipal Archives’ WPA Federal Writers’ Project collection for records these talented authors created about the iconic neighborhood.  Given that Greenwich Village received extensive coverage—17 pages—in their enduring, and probably most famous, publication The New York City Guide, it seemed likely that the search would prove fruitful.   Thanks to the detailed cataloging work of the City archivists who processed the collection in 1993 (a project funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities), a carbon copy of a typed manuscript labeled Greenwich Village and the Square, was easily identified.  Expecting that it would be the original version of the text that appeared in the Guide, we were pleasantly surprised to find an entirely different narrative—equally informative and well written.  But, as is typical of the Writer’s Project, the author is not named.  Transcribed here is the complete previously unpublished text of Greenwich Village and the Square along with photographs from the collection illustrating places and events referenced in the article.   

Washington Arch in Washington Square Park. Date: 1937. Photographer: Edwards. WPA-FWP Collection, neg. 635b. NYC Municipal Archives

With the cream-white Washington Archives at the foot of Fifth Avenue as their private doorway, the Square and the Village, like two old aristocrats, remain secluded from the rest of Manhattan.  Both are inseparably linked in history and reputation, and are two of New York’s oldest and most cherished quarters.

Dominated by the arch, which was designed by Stanford White and erected in 1892 to commemorate the centenary of Washington’s inauguration, the park, about 10 acres in area, retains much of the dignity of the old unhurried New York.  Its greenness is bordered by tree-shaded walks and by a wide driveway where Fifth Avenue buses circle for their return journey northward.  An old-fashioned bandstand and gardener’s hut lend a rustic touch.  Winter and summer the park is never without its idling strollers, and well-to-do residents of the vicinity with their dogs.  And as soon as the first leaves appear on the elms, maples, lindens, and oaks, the benches below become filled with mothers and their children from the Italian colony south of the square.  In summer the central fountain back of the arch serves as a swimming hole for the youngsters.  Italy is further represented by Turini’s statue of Garibaldi near the arch; it was erected in 1888 by New York Italians.

Washington Square North. Date: 1937. Photographer: Edwards. WPA-FWP Collection, neg. 635e. NYC Municipal Archives.

The motif of the square’s gentility is struck by the old red-brick houses on the north side that were once the homes of many of the “400”; a few still are occupied by members of old Knickerbocker families.  The dwellings, some of them a century old, have served time and again as setting for novels, plays, and motion pictures, notably in Edith Wharton’s Age of Innocence and Henry James’ Washington Square (James was born on the east side of the square.) No. 14 Washington Square North, now combined with nos. 15 and 16 as an apartment house, is the oldest of these homes; it was built about 1825 by William G. Rhinelander.  In the 180’s Mrs. Richard Alsop, daughter of Nathaniel Hawthorne, hold a literary salon in her home at No. 5, and Rodman Wanamaker lived at No. 12.  Behind these houses, east and west of Fifth Avenue, are narrow cobbled Washington Mews and MacDougal Alley, lined with studios and homes that were once stables. Back of No. 14, sheltered by a tall brick wall facing Fifth Avenue , is another converted stable that is the home of the chancellor of New York University, whose chunky buildings occupy the east side of the square.

When the original University building stood there early in the nineteenth century it was the scene of many famous achievements:  Morse developed telegraphy there; Colt perfected the revolver, and Draper took the first daguerreotype of a human face.  Present-day students of the school accent the academic air of the square by using it as a campus.  Many of the undergraduates live in a dormitory in the Judson Memorial Church, a spired yellowish structure on the south side of the square designed by Stanford White and John La Farge, with stained glass windows by La Farge.

The church’s neighbors are old run-down dwellings, most of which are boarding houses for writers, artists and such; a few are topped by a studio’s expanse of glass. No. 61 is Madame Branchard’s “House of Genius,” once the lodgings of noted literati such as Theodore Dreiser, Frank Norris, Stephen Crane, John Reed, and Alan Seeger.  A tree opposite this house was planted to the memory of Seeger, who poem, I have a Rendezvous with Death, was written in the trenches during the World War a short time before he was killed.

Washington Square’s literary traditions live on, too, in places along Fifth Avenue, just to the north.  Mark Twain lived at No. 21, and the Hotel Brevoort at Ninth Street has been a writers’ and artists’ rendezvous for nearly a century.  Its guests have included Jenny Lind, Isadora Duncan, Sarah Bernhardt, Leo Tolstoi, Eugene O’Neill.  The Lafayette, another old hostelry, at University Place and Ninth Street, has often been called the cradle of New York’s Bohemia.  In spring gay sidewalk cafes blossom in front of the Brevoort, the Fifth Avenue Hotel, Longchamps Restaurant and No. 1 Fifth Avenue, making the street here reminiscent of Paris itself.

Brevoort Hotel. Date: October 17, 1938. Photographer: Eiseman. WPA-FWP Collection, 3377-15. NYC Municipal Archives.

A few apartment houses on Washington Square West inject a modern note into the area’s old-world atmosphere.  In the lobby of one of them, the Holley Chambers, there is a fountain fed by Minetta Brook, a now buried stream that once coursed through this part of the city.  When Minetta was up in the open the land about here was part of the Bleecker Farm.  (Bleecker Street in this section is a reminder.)  In 1789 the city bought a piece of the farm, the site of Washington Square, for a paupers’ graveyard and later put up the town gallows there.  Between 1797 and 1823 some hundred thousand victims of yellow fever were buried there, but in 1827 most the bodies were removed to Bryant Park.  The square then was made a public park the wealthy built homes around it.  During the Civil War recruits drilled and camped on its lawns.  From 1825 to 1899 it was called Waverly Park and during that period was enlarged to its present size.

Washington Square Art Show. Date: 1937. Photographer: Unknown. WPA-FWP Collection, neg. 72a. NYC Municipal Archives.

On the occasion of an important parade, such as the memorable one in 1918 when A. E. F. [American Expeditionary Forces] soldiers returned from overseas, the square is the staring or ending point.  And between parades and such events as the Annual Washington Square Folk Festival—a bright occasion held on Labor Day when the city’s foreign-born of many nations perform folk dances in native costumes—the square is taken over by Greenwich Village artists for the twice-annual outdoor exhibition.  Usually held the first week in June and the last in September, these displays in most cases the only opportunity for the painters to show their work) attract large numbers of persons, most of whom come to see what a real Village artists looks like, and some to buy canvases at bargain prices.

Why and when “Village” was added to Greenwich is a minor mystery, because Greenwich, itself meaning Green Village, was the name the British gave it after their conquest of the city in 1664.  Before that it was known to the Dutch as Nortwick; today it is simply the Village to most New Yorkers.  In 1807 surveyors mapped out a new city plan, but owners of property in the Village refused to have their boundary lines disturbed (many of the boundaries were cow paths), and thus came about the curious maze of streets there.  West Fourth Street crosses West Tenth, whereas they should be parallel, and other streets make sudden surprising turns into one another.  In all likelihood part of the Village’s reputation may be due to the antic spirit of the streets.  (In a story by O. Henry a bill collector meets himself coming back after a futile search for an address.) 

As New York’s Latin Quarter, or America’s Bohemia, Greenwich Village is one of the world’s best known art and literary communities.  From the time when Tom Paine lived at 59 Grove Street writing pamphlets to encourage the Americans in the War of Independence, countless writers, artists, and intellectuals have sought the seclusion of the Village.  In its long history it has passed through many phases; it had eras of little theaters free love, Freudianism, imagist poetry, Socialism, eccentric night clubs, and other crazes, fads and movement.  (Today the keynote is probably economics.  But all the while the Village, together with its more sedate sister, Washington Square, has been essentially a place wherein to live sheltered from the harshness of commerce and industry.

 

Montes Restaurant, 97 MacDougal Street. Date: 1937. Photographer: Unknown. WPA-FWP Collection, neg. 578a. NYC Municipal Archives.

Although its night life is not so mad as it once was, the Village still cuts capers in such places as the Black Cat, 557 West Broadway; the Village Grove Nut Club, 99 Seventh Avenue South, and the Pepper Pot, 146 West Fourth Street.  A few rendezvous like the Vagabonds, Seventh Avenue near Bleecker Street, and the Village Vanguard, Seventh Avenue near Perry Street, are frequented by the Village’s younger set, who gather to read their poetry to each other, discuss the progress of their hypothetical novels, or show their drawings.  Art and literature are usually forgotten on Saturday nights when these places are given over to dancing and mild revelry.  Politics joins the other grist for the mill of the table-thumpers at Welcome Inn, 432 Sixth Avenue, and the Jumble Shop, 28 West 3th Street. At Enrico and Paglieri’s, 66 West Eleventh Street they still talk of how Jon Reed, the poet and radical who lies buried in the Kremlin in Moscow, and his friends used to shake the walls with violent discussion.

MacDougal Alley. Date: March 28, 1938. Photographer: E.M. Bofinger. WPA-FWP Collection, neg. 689b. NYC Municipal Archives.

Washington Mews. Date: Oct. 17, 1938. Photographer: Eiseman. WPA-FWP Collection, neg. 3377-13. NYC Municipal Archives.

The Village’s romantic past is recalled by streets like Patchn Place, Milligan Place, and Bank and Bedford Streets, with their curious little houses jumbled together.  Milligan Place was the home of Susan Glaspell, the novelist, and her husband, George Cram Cook.  It is said that when Cook died his last words were “Milligan Place.”  At 75 ½ Bedford Street is one of the city’s smallest and narrowest houses.  Edna St. Vincent Millay, the poet, lived there.  A house on Grpove Street was the setting for O. Henry’s story, The Last Leaf.  But besides all these out-of-the-way places, Greenwich Village has its Main Street, too; and that is Eight Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues.  IT contains not only art and book shops, odd tearooms and restaurants, and studios, but prosaic things like drug and grocery stores, a movie house, delicatessens, and tailor shops.  Near Fifth Avenue is the Whitney Museum of American Art.  Looking into Eight Street from Sixth Avenue is the Jefferson Market Magistrate’s Court with its next door neighbor, the House of Detention for Women.  The courthouse has been a Village landmark for many years. Its former night court for women, a place of sordid drama, was the perennial subject of newspaper and fiction story, and artists never tire of drawing the dark, frim building with the familiar clock on the tower.  Women prisoners in the new House of Detention live in comparative comfort in a structure that resembles the better-class apartment house of the Village.

There was a time when the quarter had few dwelling houses more than three stories high, but the real estate boom of the 1920’s brought the firs tall apartments there, and now they are everywhere:  on Sheridan and Abingdon Squares, on Greenwich Avenue, and other streets, towering above the old structures that are part of the Village’s tradition. This spirit of commercialization also invaded Washington Square long ago, and residents of that section, as well as other New Yorkers, fear for the old homes there, especially those on the north side.  In 1935 Sailor’s Snug Harbor, owner of most of that property, announced that it was considering razing the dwellings and replacing them with modern apartment buildings.  Immediately there was a flurry of protest and many Washington Square enthusiasts shed a tear.  More than a year passed and the street remained intact. 

Despite the crowded huddle of streets and house in the Village, there are occasional open areas and wide thoroughfares.  Spacious Seventh Avenue (one of the main routes to the Holland Tunnel) intersects the district, as does broad by short Greenwich Avenue.  Sheridan Square, at Seventh Avenue and Washington Place, with its tiny triangle of green, is a potpourri of apartment houses, restaurants, night clubs, all-night coffee shots.  At night it is Times Square in miniature. Near the rim of the Village, at Eight Avenue and Eleventh Street, Abingdon Square with its old stone bandstand sits quiet, ignoring the nearby hubbub.

Latticini Cheese Shop, 276 Bleecker Street. Date: August 1937. Photographer: E.M. Bofinger. WPA-FWP Collection, neg. 499. NYC Municipal Archives

Along West Third Street, where the Sixth Avenue elevated runs a short way between Sixth Avenue and West Broadway, the sides of the structure are almost within reach of third-story windows in decrepit houses, which, however forbidding, always have their quota of impoverished artistic tenants.  Below here the Italian colony abounds in pizzerias, (grocery stores) and restaurants (Mori’s and Bertolotti’s are a few of the popular ones), wine shops, open air pushcart markets, and an army of children.  At 133 MacDougal Street, in the shadow of the elevated, is the stable-theater where the Provincetown Playhouse was born in 1916. (In 1936 the WPA Studio Theater was there.)  It was one of the country’s first and most famous little theaters.  Eugene O’Neill, the dramatist, a native of Greenwich Village, began his career there and Edna St. Vincent Millay acted in some of its productions.  Near the theater are the ancient-looking Minetta Street and Minetta Lane, named for the old brook.

On the other side of the Village, at Hudson and Barrow Streets, is St. Luke’s Church, where, following a custom that began in 127, free loaves of bread are given to the needy at the 10 a.m. services.  A short distance from the church stood the hose at 80 Jane Street in which Alexander Hamilton died when he was carried there wounded after his duel with Aaron Burr.  James Fenimore Cooper lived in this sector, on Beach Street ear Hudson Street, when he wrote The Pioneer and The Pilot.

Most striking of the characteristics of Washington Square and Greenwich Village is their mellow blend of Old World and New – the quixotic jumble of old streets and modern thoroughfares, tumbledown dwelling and high apartment structures, long-standing hotels and restaurants and modern cafeterias – and the feeling everywhere of tolerance and freedom.  John Reed spoke for countless kindred spirits before and after him when he wrote:

                             Yet we are free who live in Washington Square,

                             We dare to think as uptown wouldn’t dare,

                             Blazing our nights with arguments uproarious;

                             What care we for a dull old world censorious,

                             When each is sure he’ll fashion something

                             Glorious?

It is traditional that every generation of Villagers thinks it is the last to enjoy the free life.  Former habitues of the quarter often say, “The Village isn’t what it used to be,” and shake their heads sadly.  They will speak of Countess von Freytag-Loringhoven, who once shaved off her hair and painted her head a vivid green; of the girl, a poet and artists’ model, who used to war her fur coat with nothing beneath it; or of that epic event when a group of Villagers (their names are not on record) managed somehow to obtain the key to the door in the Washington Arch that opens on a stairway to the roof, and there on top of the monument held a midnight picnic.  But present young Villagers say that such gongs-on are frequent today, even though others do not hear of them.  Probably the next generation of Villagers will.           

Bedford and Commerce Streets backyard. Date: 1937. Photographer: Unknown. WPA-FWP Collection, neg. 127. NYC Municipal Archives.

A Flashback to the 1980s Tax Photographs

The Sunshine Movie Theater on Houston Street, which was being used as a warehouse in the mid-1980s. Note the graffiti: “Stop Gentrification.” If they only knew. DOF Tax Photograph Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

The recent digitization of the Municipal Archives collection of 1940s tax photographs, and the subsequent interest by the New York Times in the 1980s Tax Photographs, got us thinking about the truly weird history of the 1980s Tax Photographs.

Let’s start with the 1940s pictures. The Department of Taxation (as the City’s Department of Finance was then called) had started the photograph project in 1939 with help from the Works Progress Administration (WPA). Only part of Manhattan was shot in late 1939; most of the rest of the city was shot in 1940 and in early 1941. Work continued on the project until 1943, at which point WPA support ended, and the Department of Taxation took full control of the project. During the post-war boom, from 1946 to 1951, Taxation shot over 50,000 new photographs. The Municipal Archives has most of those negatives, but after 1951 the only records of the reshoots are the prints attached to the property assessment cards. These are dutifully stamped with the year, 1966, 1971, and so on. In some instances in the late 1970s color Polaroids of the property were attached.

3247 Richmond Avenue, Staten Island, ca. 1983. DOF Tax Photograph Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

A 12-inch Laser Video Disk containing photographs of Manhattan from the 1980s Tax Photo project.

This all worked out well for a time, but by 1979 the city had changed dramatically since 1939. The renamed Department of Finance realized that the time had come to completely redo the tax photographs. This updating of the 1940 photos took place from late 1982 to 1987 with some reshoots done in 1988. Using color 35mm film, the photographers captured every lot in the five Boroughs, including vacant property. And frustratingly, if the building was a condominium, they took as many identical photographs as there were apartments (each apartment in a condominium is assigned an individual lot number). Staten Island was the first borough photographed, because it had been transformed after the construction of the Verrazano Narrows Bridge in 1964. However, it was undergoing such rapid development in the 1980s that there were even more changes by 1987. Consequently much of Staten Island had to be reshot at the end of the project.

One of the questions we most often get about the 1980s Tax Photos is why do they look so murky online? Here is the answer. In order to provide the public with a state-of-the-art user experience, the Department of Finance made 4x6 mini-lab prints of the photographs, recorded them frame-by frame using a video camera, and transferred the frames to Laser Video Disks (LVD). The Laser Video Disk was introduced in 1978 as the first commercially available optical media. The 12-inch-wide platters look like CDs on steroids, but only held 30 to 60 minutes of video. Not only that, but the signal encoded on them is analog not digital—at what we would consider today to be low-resolution.

672 8th Avenue, Times Square, as it appears captured from the LVD screen. DOF Tax Photograph Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

672 8th Avenue, Times Square, as it appears scanned from the negative. DOF Tax Photograph Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

The system was not unique, and in fact multiple companies were selling similar technology in the mid-1980s to governments around the country and to real estate agencies interested in a system that could quickly pull up photographs of any property. Harvard even sponsored a conference on computer-assisted valuations. One of the few advantages of the LVD system is that it can skip to a direct frame input. When connected to a computer database it provided a searchable image bank. The NYC Department of Finance was interested in this system as part of their larger initiative of Computer-Assisted Mass Appraisal (CAMA). The director of both the CAMA initiative and the photographing project was James Rheingrover. The company that produced the LVD system was Landisc Systems of Dayton, Ohio (Cole, Layer, Trumble). Landisc had installed similar systems for other jurisdictions, but New York, with 900,000 photographs was the largest.

In 2009, Jim Rheingrover provided me with a lot of the project’s background. At its peak, they had 60 people in the field, working in teams of two, as photographers and data-collectors. The first photographers were originally data-collectors and then a photo component was added to the project. They tried not to hire photographers because photographers wanted to take “good” photographs and Finance wanted fast photographs. Many of the original data-collectors were highly-educated though, with a few PhDs in the bunch. They were not well paid, he recalled, but it was a recession. The photographers had to go through some tough neighborhoods in the 80s. He pointed out that there generally aren’t any people in these photographs because the photographers tried to wait until no one was in frame to avoid incidents. Often people were suspicious that the teams were undercover cops so the photographers always “wore their dorky DOF badges prominently displayed.”

Department of Finance staff demonstrating the laser video disc system to Mayor Edward Koch during a press conference, December 15, 1988. The image on the screen is City Hall. Mayor Edward I Koch Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

311 Roebling Street, South Williamsburg, ca. 1985. DOF Tax Photograph Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

He recalled only a couple of thefts (although the Times reported in 1987 that there were none), one camera stolen during a mugging and another one “supposedly” stolen from the trunk of the photographer’s car. The photographers were responsible for their own cameras and if any went missing the replacement cost came out of everyone’s salary. One of the staff developed the metal arm that attached to each camera so that the block and lot number would be in focus with the aperture stopped down. They never used tripods for the cameras. The film was 400 ASA Kodak film bought in bulk from Focus Electronics in Borough Park, Brooklyn.

The “Sanborn Team” would sit with a Sanborn map and the photograph and fill out a form for every property. He said condos have always caused a problem with data-collection and they probably should have kept the original lot number and assigned them a sub-number. The decision to take a photograph for every condo apartment was ultimately Jim’s since everyone reported to him. He said in retrospect it was a stupid idea, but it was done because they needed an image to attach to their data-collection forms.

In 2006 the Municipal Archives retrieved the 1980s tax photographs from the basement of the Municipal Building. They had been languishing in file cabinets in a cramped storeroom near the boiler and the abandoned northern entrance to the JMZ line. The archivists discovered that no one had the keys to the file cabinets and were forced to drill out the locks and pry them open. Grants from the New York State Library supported processing of the massive collection of negatives and 4x6 prints, and supplies—e.g. 250,000 negative sleeves.

528 E. 148th Street, South Bronx, ca. 1985. DOF Tax Photograph Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

But how would people access the collection? In 2009 we turned to the LVD system. Could we download the files from it? No. It was an analog system. Hmm, could we do screen captures? Yes, but how would we capture and name some 850,000 frames? A former intern who had become a software programmer discovered that code to operate a computer-controlled LVD player was readily available online. The same technology was the basis of the classic arcade game Dragon’s Lair, which was a sort of Choose Your Own Adventure animation more than a video game, but relied on an internal LVD player for content.

The system we rigged up played one frame of the LVD, paused it, and then saved a screen capture. Repeat. The whole process took over 8 hours for a single side of a disk and there were 21 sides to complete. For months I would start a disk in the morning, and if I worked a long day I could start another one in the evening. Sometimes we found that the player stuck and one frame might be saved multiple times and that session had to be scrapped. The original player acquired from the Department of Finance had a defective computer interface card, but the one we found on e-Bay had a faulty pause mechanism. So I took the interface card from it and put it in the original machine. Voila, a functioning player!

The LVD player during screen capture of the 1980s Tax Photos at the Municipal Archives.

This highlights one of the problems with any sophisticated technology… external dependencies. The Times had gushingly reported in 1987 that the LVDs would last 300 years and provide what the chairman of the Landmarks Preservation Commission called “an archive of this civilization.” But just over two decades later we were struggling to find a working LVD player. The next challenge was finding the corresponding data that would identify these screen captures. After several failed attempts, the Department of Finance was able to find a back-up tape of their RPAD (Real Property Assessment Data) from 1990. It required several months to edit the coded database into something a human could read and link it to the LVD frames. From start to finish the whole project took about a year.

We recognize that the final chapter of the tax photo project is to go back and digitize the original negatives, but without those weird clunky LVDs there was no way users could preview the properties, which they’ve done now for ten years.

2803 Third Avenue, South Bronx, ca. 1985. Fashion Moda was an important artist space in the birth of Hip Hop and Graffiti culture. DOF Tax Photograph Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

The Lung Block: A New York City Slum & Its Forgotten Italian Immigrant Community

On April 25, 2019, the Department of Records and Information Services opened a new exhibit: The Lung Block: A New York City Slum & Its Forgotten Italian Immigrant Community. Set during the Progressive Era of the last century, curators Kerri Culhane, an architectural historian, and cultural critic Stefano Morello tell a story of immigration, public health, and housing reform as reflected in the experience of one block in Manhattan’s Lower East Side.

Visiting Nurse in tenement backyard, Jessie Tarbox Beals, ca. 1912.

Visiting Nurse in tenement backyard, Jessie Tarbox Beals, ca. 1912.

Co-sponsored by The Center for the Humanities of The Graduate Center, CUNY, the Calandra Italian American Institute, and Queens College Makerspace, the exhibit will be on display at DORIS’ 31 Chambers Street gallery from April 26 to August 29, 2019.

Co-curator Stefano Morello is a native of Torino, Italy. In 2013, Stefano set out to solve a family mystery. He knew that in 1913 his great-grandmother, Salvatrice Nigido had emigrated to New York City from Militello in Val di Catania, a small town in Sicily. She left behind a 5-year old daughter and was never heard from again. Thanks to the availability of on-line indices to New York City vital records and the Municipal Archives’ mail-order service he obtained his great-grandmother’s death certificate. He learned that she had died in the Lung Block of influenza in 1920. In 2015, Stefano came to New York City for graduate studies at CUNY Graduate Center. While his dissertation research focused on the punk world in the San Francisco Bay area, he also decided to try to learn more about his great-grandmother’s life in New York. His research led him to Kerri Culhane, and the work she did researching the history of the ‘Two Bridges’ neighborhood of the Lower East Side. Together, they realized the story of this area, and specifically the Lung Block, was more complicated than the accepted narrative that had assigned to it such dire conditions that its destruction was inevitable.

The following excerpt from the exhibition narrative recounts the story of Salvatrice Nigido and some of her fellow villagers.


THE PLACENTES & FAVARAS ARRIVE, 1904-1905

In 1904, Salvatore Placente arrived in New York City from Militello in Val di Catania. He was the first paesano from Militello to set foot in the Lung Block, preceding over 1,000 fellow-villagers who settled in the neighborhood over the following twenty years. The community from Militello was one of the largest on the block, and one of several Eastern Sicilian clusters that coexisted with enclaves from Italian districts as far apart—culturally and geographically—as Abruzzi, Piacenza, Western Sicily, Irpinia, and Tuscany. Although the general narratives treated the Lung Block as a discrete entity, its residents were indeed part of a larger community that extended well beyond its borders.

Passport photo of Salvatore Placente, 1921. United States Passport Applications, 1795-1925 Collection, National Archives and Records Administration. Courtesy of FamilySearch.

In 1905, Salvatore’s brother Sebastiano and brother-in-law Francesco Favara joined him in his rented tenement at 31 Hamilton Street. Unlike the Gaimaris, who came from a family of artisans, the Placentes and Favaras worked as peasants in their native land and arrived in New York at a time when the competition for manual work was fierce.

In 1913, Salvatrice Nigido fled Militello in rural Eastern Sicily to join her brother, Mario, and her sisters-in-law Arcangela, Genueffa, and Maristella Ragusa, in New York City. She said her goodbyes to her daughter Antonia, only five years old at the time, with the ultimate goal of earning enough money in the new world to eventually reunite. However, things did not go as planned. In the Lung Block, Salvatrice became romantically involved with Salvatore Placente, at that time president of the Independent Sons of Militello Society, and a prominent figure in the Militellese colony. Though her family disperses—brother Mario back to Militello and her sisters-in-law to Plainfield, NJ, Salvatrice stayed in the Lung Block. After seven years working as a seamstress in the tenement apartment she shared with Placente at 47 Market Street, she passed away in February 1920, due to the pandemic influenza still ravaging the city. She was barely thirty-two. Her family back in Italy would not learn her fate until 2013, when great-grandson Stefano Morello uncovered her story and through it, the story of the Lung Block.

Photo of Salvatrice Nigido, 1919. Courtesy of Stefano Morello.

During his first year in the United States, Salvatore held several blue-collar jobs in and out of the city, mostly seasonal construction work common to Italian laborers. In 1905, Salvatore embarked on a white-collar career as a clerk for the local banca La Sicilia, serving the Militellese community from 61 Catherine Street. A banca—combination travel agency, post office, and bank—was a lifeline between the Italian immigrant and the home country. Francesco and Sebastiano continued to work as laborers in the neighborhood. Between 1907 and 1913, all the women in the family, Concetta and Grazia (Salvatore’s sisters) and Nicoletta (Sebastiano’s wife), also immigrated from Militello to New York City.


GAIMARIS, PLACENTES & FAVARAS IN THE 1910S-20S

The Gaimaris took ownership of the property at 142 Cherry in 1921, while continuing to act as brokers for other buildings in and around the block. Together with the Rofranos, the Garones, and the Torregrossas, the Gaimaris were among the Lung Block’s prominenti: middle-upper class Italian professionals and business owners, often earlier-comers, who gained financial and political prominence within the community. The family’s influence in local politics and their lobbying for neighborhood improvement continued throughout the decade. This is exemplified by the petition filed by Albert Gaimari in 1922 to convert the neighborhood from unrestricted use to residential and business, to protect the thriving community that had come to life.

In 1910, the Placentes & Favaras lived in different units of the building at 148 Cherry Street, owned by the Gaimaris. By 1915 on the Lung Block, most Italian residents were renting from fellow-countrymen. Although they tended to move frequently, Italians generally stayed within the neighborhood, in proximity to work, kin, and fellow-villagers. This trend of frequent residential mobility decreased as they were able to find steadier employment and more desirable living conditions. Between 1904 and 1914, the Placentes resided at several addresses on (or in close proximity to) the block: 31 Hamilton, 2 and 8 Monroe Street, 153 and 148 Cherry. Despite being employed in different parts of the city and different lines of work, after 1914, Salvatore and his siblings finally established lasting living quarters in the neighborhood: at 122 Cherry, on the Lung Block; and ½ a block away at 47 Market. …

Map of the “Lung Block” from A Brief History of the Campaign Against Tuberculosis in New York City, Department of Health, 1908. NYC Municipal Library.

Readers are invited to learn more of the fate of the Gamaris, Placentes and Favaras and their homes in the “Lung Block” of the Lower East Side in the new exhibit The Lung Block: A New York City Slum & Its Forgotten Italian Immigrant Community, on display at DORIS’ 31 Chambers Street gallery from April 26 to August 29, 2019.

Riots, Rebellion and the City’s Second Attempt to “Sink” Rikers Island

Rikers Island, 1980s Tax photograph. NYC Municipal Archives.

The tumultuous 1970s at Rikers Island described in Part One were just a quiet prelude to the 1980s and 1990s, as a raging crack epidemic and soaring rates of murder and violent crime exacerbated the overcrowding and incendiary conditions on what became the world’s largest penal colony in the 1990s.

After its failed 1979 attempt to get rid of Rikers by leasing it to the state for a downstate prison and replacing it with eight smaller jails across the boroughs, the city added nearly 4,000 beds to the complex, bringing capacity to 13,188. But even with the new Anna M. Kross Center and the North Facility aka the Otis Bantum Correctional Center, Rikers remained a pressure cooker on the edge of explosion.

Adolescent Reception and Detention Center plan from A Study of Violence and its causes in the New York City Adolescent Reception and Detention Center. NYC Municipal Library.

Records at the city’s Municipal Library show that in March 1986, a two-year City Board of Correction report, A Study of Violence and its causes in the New York City Adolescent Reception and Detention Center found the number of violent incidents and injuries in the facility were “far higher” than at other jails on the island. In November 1985, for example, 47 percent of all serious incidents on Rikers involved male adolescents, even though they made up less than 20 percent of the island’s population.

The report, which noted that young prisoners are generally harder to control than older ones, said corrections officers wrote an average of 19 reports a day involving serious incidents, including slashings, stabbings, broken bones and the January 12, 1983 fatal stabbing of a 16-year-old boy. It reported that self-inflicted injuries and suicide attempts increased 600 percent between 1983 and 1985 and recommended assigning more experienced officers to deal with the young, violent inmates.

The ink on that 1986 report was barely dry when Rikers was hit with what could best be a called a 10-day rolling riot at three buildings from October 9 through October 18. Things got so bad that the State sent an investigative team to the island on October 17 because “the situation presents an imminent danger to the health, safety and security of the inmates or employees.” In a report issued in April 1987, the state Commission on Corrections blamed the insurrection largely on “serious overcrowding,” noting that despite the recent expansion program the city was “unable to keep pace with the persistent growth of its inmate population.”

Inquiry into Disturbances on Riker Island, October 1986. NYC Municipal Library.

The kickoff incident in the rolling riot was a violent altercation involving 30 inmates in the law library at the always tense Adolescent Reception and Detention Center. Four days later, at 8 a.m. on October 13, 150 inmates who had been sentenced to state prison but were still in Rikers because the upstate jails also were overcrowded, barricaded themselves in a dormitory at the Correctional Institution for Men (CIFM) after refusing to stand for the morning count. The inmates took down the barricades after submitting a list of demands to Corrections Department officials that included more services and free time. Officials agreed to most of the demands, even though a search of the dormitory yielded “a number of weapons … and extensive structural damage” inside the dorm.

The next day brought a job action by CIFM guards who refused to take their posts for the second shift in anger over concessions to the inmates.

Tension boiled over again in a mess hall at 12:46 p.m. on October 17, when an inmate tried to take an extra juice with his lunch. An officer ordered the man to put it back; the inmate threw the juice at the officer. A melee broke out involving dozens of inmates; eleven officers and five inmates were injured.

At 11 p.m., on October 18, officers began a planned transfer of 133 inmates on buses from the Anna M. Kross Center to the Correctional Institution for Men. It turned into a violent insurrection, lasting hours. It began when an inmate kicked a guard in the chest, knocking him to the ground. Inmates began yelling and cursing. Mass confusion ensued as some inmates were pulled from buses and reportedly made to run a gauntlet through a double line of baton-swinging officers. Twenty-four inmates were injured, eight seriously with contusions, lacerations and possible broken ribs. Two altercations at the Anna Kross Center quickly followed.

The New York State Commission on Corrections issued a report on the October riots on April 17, 1987. The report concluded that officers used “unnecessary force” on several occasions and, at one of the incidents at the Anna Cross Center, found “a nearly complete breakdown in command … and a failure to maintain order and discipline” among staff. In addition to the overcrowding, the state said corrections officials were generally unprepared for such incidents, and recommended reorganizing the island’s Emergency Response Team, which was blamed for much of the “unnecessary force.”

Typical Dormitory, from The Disturbance at the Rikers Island Otis Bantum Correctional Center, August 14, 1990: Its Causes and the Department of Correction Response. NYC Municipal Library.

Overcrowding got ever worse as the city’s murder rate climbed steadily, hitting a record high of 2,245 homicides in 1990 and pushing the city’s jail population to 20,000. That year also featured one of the most infamous riots in Rikers Island history. In early August, three inmates beat, stabbed and robbed corrections officer Steven Narby, breaking his jaw, knocking out several teeth and stealing some jewelry. The corrections officers’ union demanded that the inmates be charged with attempted murder. When they were charged only with robbery and assault, hundreds of corrections officers blocked the entrance to the bridge to the island jail in a driving rainstorm, allowing access only to emergency vehicles. The officers, who blockaded the bridge for two days of tense negotiations, also protested the “use of force directive,” which they said limited their response to violent attacks by inmates.

The blockade meant hundreds of inmates could not be taken off the island for court appearances, food deliveries were halted causing shortages, jail movements and activities were curtailed, and prisoners were becoming unruly, facing off with officers who had worked more than 40 hours straight. Minutes after a settlement was reached on the blockade, the Otis Banum Correctional Center, which held 905 inmates, erupted in violence. Inmates erected barricades, armed themselves, set fires, flooded sleeping areas and smashed windows.

By the time the dust settled, 21 corrections personnel were injured and more than 100 inmates were hurt, 81 seriously. Inmates claimed they were brutalized. Mayor David Dinkins directed the city Department of Investigation to probe the riots.

After and before scenes from The Disturbance at the Rikers Island Otis Bantum Correctional Center, August 14, 1990: Its Causes and the Department of Correction Response. NYC Municipal Library.

The Archives contains an April 1, 1991 DOI report that concluded “correction officers used unnecessary or excessive force,” and that the bridge blockade “caused a rapid and severe deterioration” of conditions in the jail. DOI said most of the officers and supervisors in the Otis Banum center did not cooperate with the investigation: “They have chosen silence to protect those among them who may have violated their duty as uniformed officers.” The report also faulted corrections officials for failing to control the officers and found that “supervisors at every level failed to do their jobs effectively.”

There were periodic disturbances through the 1990s and several suspicious inmate deaths, for which the city paid out $11.8 million in settlements between 2012 and 2016. But through efforts and investments to reform the city’s justice system, crime and murder rates reached historic lows under Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration, allowing officials to reduce the jail population to about 8,000 and eventually close one facility on Rikers Island.

Demands for closing Rikers grew in 2015, after Kalief Browder committed suicide. He had spent more than three years on Rikers Island awaiting trial for stealing backpack at age 16 before the charges were dropped. His family attributed his death to mental and physical abuse he suffered on Rikers.

In 2016, then-City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito created a commission, headed by Jonathan Lippman, the former chief judge of the State Court of Appeals, to study what to do about Rikers Island. In language that was strikingly similar to the 1979 findings, the Lippmann Commission issued a scathing report in early 2017, calling Rikers a “19th century solution to a 21st century problem” and said it must be shuttered and replaced with “something that is more effective and more humane” within 10 years.

The commission recommended building smaller jails throughout the city, contingent upon the city reducing the overall jail population to about 5,000. In 2018, Mayor de Blasio announced a plan to replace the facilities on Rikers Island with four community-based jails—one each in Brooklyn, Manhattan, Queens and The Bronx. 

Hearings began in late March in an approval process that could take seven months. If the plan is approved by the City Council, it would represent a marked moment in New York City’s history.

The Central Park: Original Designs for New York’s Greatest Treasure, a conversation with author Cynthia Brenwall

The Department of Records & Information Services is pleased to announce The Central Park: Original Designs for New York’s Greatest Treasure, will be in bookstores beginning Tuesday, April 16. We asked author Cynthia Brenwall, conservator at the Municipal Archives, to share her favorite stories about the park and to highlight some of the beautiful drawings from the collection that are featured in the book.

Kenneth Cobb: One of the most striking drawings in the collection, the gilded bird cage, is on the cover of the book. Is it true that the cages contained live birds in the early years of the park?

Ornamental birdcage on a blue stone pedestal, 1864.

Attributed to Jacob Wrey Mould, architect.

Black ink and watercolor with pencil on paper, 18 ½ x 13 ¼ inches

Cynthia Brenwall: Yes, they put live birds in the cages for the enjoyment of visitors promenading on the mall near the Terrace. We do not know when they removed the cages, but their bases are still in the park today, used to hold large floral planters.

KC: It must have been difficult to choose from the more than 1,500 drawings of the park in the collection. Can you describe how you came up with the overall organization of the book?

CB: With so many amazing drawings in our collection, my hardest task was selecting items that best represented different areas of the park. The creators of the park, Olmsted and Vaux, felt that the view and the scenic landscape that they devised were the most important aspect of the park. I wanted to find a way to convey how they made sure a visitor would experience a “respite for the eye and the soul,” as I put it, from any point in the park. In the southern end of the park they installed a formal landscape with linear views and features such as distinctive bridges, natural looking bodies of water and pathways for pedestrians, horses and carriages. Moving northward in the park, the view becomes more rugged featuring the natural landscape of rock outcroppings, rolling hills and long vistas. Finally, there is the ceremonial and architecturally detailed Bethesda Terrace and Mall—the heart of the park.

Map of Central Park, c. 1875. Black ink on linen, 24 x 74 inches.

This map shows work both planned and completed as of the mid-1870s. It includes Drives, Rides, Walks, bridges, named gates, and major structures as well as several building that were being planned at the time but were never completed.

In the early stages of shaping how I would display the drawings in the book, I found a very detailed map of the park from 1872. As I began identifying all the places on the map that corresponded to the drawings I realized I could organize the book as though the visitor were strolling through the park, enjoying these ever-changing, but always pastoral, views.

Huddlestone Arch, plan showing the southern elevation and a schematic sketch of the north side, 1864.

Black ink with pencil on graph paper, 13 ¼ x 16 ½ inches

KC: We often say that along with the Brooklyn Bridge, Central Park was one of the greatest public works achievements of the 19th century. What were some innovative features of the park that you found illustrated in the drawings?

CB: Probably the best known feature is the transverse roads. Again, it was all about the views. The designers knew they had to accommodate vehicular traffic across the park but did not want to spoil the views, or the visitors’ sense of being in a natural landscape. The below-grade transverse roads brilliantly solved the problem. This design feature contributed to Vaux and Olmsted’s submission, “The Greensward” being selected as the winning entry in the contest to design the Park

Another of my favorite innovative designs is the Huddlestone Arch in the northern section of the park. It is constructed completely out of stones excavated during park construction. It uses only gravity (no mortar or other binding materials) to hold it together and it is still today a load-bearing (cars and trucks instead of horse drawn carriages) roadway carrying the East Drive over the Loch. The largest stone is estimated to weigh two tons.

Plan of Terrace drainage, showing drains and basin, 1863. Black and red ink colored washes and pencil on graph paper, 16 x 13 inches

Some of the most fascinating drawings are those pertaining to the unseen, but very necessary drainage system devised for the swampy areas of what became the park. George E. Waring, Jr., age 23, was the original drainage engineer. He developed a spider web of clay drains that carried water in and out of the park lands, and the collection contains stunning drawings of the wells and how the system worked.

Another new technology illustrated by the drawings were tree grates—probably not something that park visitors give much thought to. They were first developed in Paris as a way to allow trees to root deeper in the earth along walkways, and to prevent people from trampling on new plantings. The first use of tree grates in America was our Central Park.

Ornamental tree gratings, ironmonger’s details, c. 1872. Ink and watercolor on paper, 18 x 20 inches

KC: What are some of the other hidden secrets of the park that you discovered during your research for the book?

Drinking fountain on the Esplanade, elevation, stonecutter’s and ironmonger’s contract, 1865. Jacob Wrey Mould, architect.

Black and colored inks with colored washes on paper, 14 x 10 inches

CB: Drinking fountains! The park planners knew how important water would be for park visitors, both human and animal. And speaking of water for animals, the design for the drinking trough for horses is a lovely example of their attention to the smallest detail. We have two drawing that show drinking fountains for horses, one of which is still in the park today at Cherry Hill near the Lake. It features Minton Tiles and bird baths above the drinking trough.

The drinking fountains for people are placed throughout the park. Several near the Terrace included a hidden luxury—water would pass over blocks of ice providing chilled water on hot summer days. During the early years of the park, the drinking fountains featured a shared common cup attached with a chain to the fountain. Fears of communicable diseases, such as cholera and yellow fever, led to the end of the common cup practice after 1910.

KC: I expect that many readers will enjoy the drawings of the Paleozoic Museum and the rendering of what they thought a dinosaur would look like.

CB: There was to be a Paleozoic Museum on the west side of the park. They built the foundation for the museum, and plaster models of the dinosaurs, but the City’s political leaders at that time, ca. 1871, preferred lighthearted entertainment rather than educational or cultural institutions within the park.

Paleozoic Museum, transverse view with specimens, 1870. Ink and watercolor on paper, 19 x 26 inches.

This side view shows an example of an interior scene proposed for the museum, which was to include aquariums, geological specimens as well as reconstruction of dinosaurs in the main exhibition hall.

KC: Have you thought of a name for your dinosaur?

CB: No, not yet. Maybe we should make that into a contest… name the dinosaur??!!

KC: Are all the features of the park that we enjoy today included in the original design?

Swedish Schoolhouse (Svenska Skolhauset), perspective view and ground plan. Magnus Isaeus, architect, 1876. Black ink and pencil on paper, 21 x 14 inches.

The Swedish Schoolhouse is the only structure in park that was originally designed for something other than Central Park

CB: The Swedish Schoolhouse (now the marionette theater and called the Swedish Cottage) is the only building that was not designed specifically for the park. It had been built as the Swedish entry into the Philadelphia World Exhibition of 1876 and was later transplanted to Central Park. Over the years it has served as a bike shelter, an entomological laboratory, a library and even a Civil Defense headquarters during WWII.

And of course legendary Park Commissioner Robert Moses made numerous changes to the park. The original park plan did not include playgrounds as we know them, but rather large open areas for “healthful recreation.” Moses installed nearly forty “pocket playgrounds” throughout the park in the 1930s and early 40s.

KC: I know that you conducted a great deal of research to provide context for the illustrations in the book. What were some of the most useful resources?

CB: I made extensive use of Parks Commission and Department annual reports here in our Municipal Library, as well as the minutes and reports of the City’s legislative bodies—the Common Council, Board of Aldermen, etc. in the Municipal Archives. These government records helped me follow how changes in the city’s political landscape translated into changes in our park landscape. They also provided good factual data about payments, work timelines and specific projects that were completed during a given time period.

KC: What is your favorite place in the Park?

Drinking fountain for horses, bronze details, 1871. Black and red ink with colored washes on paper, 17 x 25 inches

CB: I love the more wild and untamed landscapes of the north end of the park. There are many hidden features to discover near the Loch and it feels like you are wandering through the country-side.

KC: Favorite drawing?

CB: There are so many amazing drawings in our collection. I love the tilework designs within the Bethesda Terrace Arcade. I spent a lot of time on the conservation treatment of that drawing and the tiles are stunning. But my absolute favorite drawing is the simple temporary enclosure post that I used at the end of the book. It is minimal and elegant and represented to me that no detail was too small to be overlooked in the design of the park. That, and the fact that it is one of the few drawings to include the names of the architects Calvert Vaux and Jacob Wrey Mould as well as Frederick Law Olmsted who was serving as the president and treasurer of the Board of Commissioners.

Temporary enclosure posts for Central Park, 1872.

Ink and watercolor on paper, 19 x 12 inches

This preliminary study was prepared by Vaux and Mould and was approved by Olmsted, who was serving as the president and treasurer of the Board of Commissioners at the time.