Bankrupt! The New York County Supreme Court Insolvency Assignments Records

Affidavit of a petitioning creditor, Jacobus Lefferts, stating amount of debt owed to him, 1787. Jacobus Lefferts came from a wealthy family who had a large farm in Flatbush (now Brooklyn). The Lefferts family owned significant numbers of slaves, and engaged in the trade, sale, and purchase of enslaved people up until emancipation was enacted in New York in 1827.

Shortly after I began working as an archivist at the Municipal Archives in 2017, I was asked to write a finding aid for the “insolvency assignment” records. My first thought was… what’s an insolvency assignment? I had no idea. But I did notice that the date span of the records extended back to the late 18th century, so that was promising. With a little research I learned that an insolvency assignment was a legal process during which debtors and/or their creditors petitioned the New York State Supreme Court to appoint an assignee to manage the sale of the debtor’s property to pay off debts owed to his or her creditors.

Then, when I began to examine the records I discovered many of the insolvent debtors were not the destitute in New York City, but rather men and women of means. They were merchants and stockbrokers, some of whom came from well-established New York families. I found records of some stockbrokers who started what would become the New York Stock Exchange including Leonard A. Bleecker, Alexander Zunzt, Ephraim Hart, Benjamin Seixas, and Samuel March. Alexander Zunzt, who owed over 50,000 pounds in 1786, petitioned the New York Supreme Court for an insolvency assignment to be discharged from his debt four times—in 1786, 1798, 1804, and 1811. I also found the names of descendants from some of the earliest Dutch settlers of New Netherland such as Leffert Lefferts and Garret Rapalje. Both Lefferts and Rapalje came from wealthy families who made their fortunes from farming and were slaveholders.

Affidavit of a petitioning creditor, Gerard Bancker, stating amount of debt owed to him, 1787. In 1787 Bancker was the New York State Treasurer. He was the grandson of the 23rd Mayor of New York City, Johannes de Peyster.

The Archives’ insolvency assignment records provide documentation of the legal process as debtors and/or their creditors petitioned the New York State Supreme Court (at the county level) to appoint an assignee to manage the sale of the debtor’s property to pay off debt. Depending on the state or federal law, insolvency assignments could be either voluntary (petitioned by debtor and some of his/her creditors) or involuntary (petitioned by creditors if the debtor tried to flee or hide from creditors, or lived in another state or country). In the State of New York, the Legislature passed laws pertaining to insolvent debtors as early as April 13, 1786 when they passed the “Act for the relief of insolvent debtors” which allowed debtors to keep some clothing and bedding. As described in the 1991 publication Duely & Constantly Kept: A History of the New York Supreme Court, 1691-1847, documents found in a voluntary insolvency assignment usually included:

  1. Petition of the insolvent debtor and his/her creditors. The creditors had to represent three-fourths, or after 1813, two-thirds of the total amount owed by the debtor.
  2. Appointment of assignee(s) to the estate of the debtor who would serve as trustee(s) for the petitioning creditors and oversee the selling off of the debt during the legal process.
  3. Affidavit of each petitioning creditor stating the amount of debt owed to him/her.
  4. Account of debts of the insolvent debtor, with names of debtors and the amounts owed them
  5. Account and inventory of real estate and personal estate of the insolvent debtor. This is often in the form of an itemized list of property.
  6. Order by the judge for the assignee(s) to advertise the sale of the debtor’s property. The purpose of the advertisement was to notify other creditors to allow them the chance to challenge the sale of the property.
  7. Affidavit(s) of the publication of the advertisement to sell the debtor’s property. This included a clipping of the newspaper advertisement.
  8. Certificate of assignment by assignee(s) that affirms that the property had been delivered to them.
  9. Affidavit of the assignment by the judge that discharged the insolvent from further liability for debts incurred prior to the date of his petition.

Petition of Garret Rapalje and his creditors to Judge John Sloss Hobart, signed by Garret Rapalje, 1786. NYC Municipal Archives.

Garret Rapalje: Importer, land speculator, and insolvent debtor

Petition of Garret Rapalje and his creditors to Judge John Sloss Hobart, signed by his creditors, 1787. NYC Municipal Archives.

Garret Rapalje was born in New York in 1730. He was a descendent of Joris Jansen Rapelje (the family surname has been spelled numerous ways over the years) and Catalina Trico who settled in New Netherland around 1624. Rapelye Street in Brooklyn is named after the family. Garret Rapalje married Helena de Nyse and they had four children. Rapalje was a land speculator and importer based in New York City and also had an iron foundry and grist mill in New Jersey. During the American Revolutionary War, it appears that Rapalje was a Loyalist and he was briefly imprisoned in 1777 and 1778. In 1787, he filed an insolvency petition with some of his creditors in the New York County Supreme Court. At time of the petition he was in jail in New York City due to his insolvency. According to his insolvency assignment records he owned at least 10,500 acres in New York, New Jersey, and what would become Vermont (at the time, Vermont was not yet a state). Sometime after discharging his debt in 1787, he moved to the present-day Louisiana (it was not part of the United States at this time) where he had a plantation. Traces of Garret Rapalje’s history can be found in the Natchez District (now part of Louisiana and Mississippi) court records dating from 1793 pertaining to his plantation and his enslavement of people. Before he died in circa 1796 he moved back to New York City.

This account and inventory of real estate and personal estate of Garret Rapalje: “Moveable Estate of Effect in Cattle Negros Goods,” 1787, provides evidence that Garret Rapalje was engaged in the enslavement of people at the time of his insolvency petition. He would soon after move to his plantation in what is now Louisiana.

Account and inventory of real estate and personal estate of Garret Rapalje: Real Estate and Personal Estate, 1787. As you can see, he owned a lot of land in 1787.

Account and inventory of real estate and personal estate of Garret Rapalje: “Neccessarys and Wearing Apparil” (apparel), 1787. This lists clothes and other personal property of Garret Rapalje and his wife.

Account and inventory of real estate and personal estate of Garret Rapalje: Real Estate and Personal Estate, 1787. On the left side his petitioning creditors are listed and on the right side, non-petitioning creditors. Also of note is the reference to the 1786 law for the relief of insolvent debtors.

Appointment of assignees to the estate of Garret Rapalje, 1787. The assignees are Andrew Van Tuyle and Nicholas Bogart.

The Municipal Archives’ collection of New York County Supreme Court insolvency assignment records date from 1768-1908, with the majority dating from 1798-1900. They document insolvent debtors whose insolvency proceedings were held in the New York County Supreme Court and the legal actions that were taken in response to their insolvency. Actions included imprisonment (imprisonment for debt was abolished by the New York State Legislature in 1831) and/or selling the real estate and personal property of a debtor to pay creditors.

As a body of records, the insolvency assignments offer a lot of stories. They document financial history in New York City and the United States as they illustrate the numerous financial panics and subsequent state and federal laws that were enacted to deal with the repercussions of the panics. As all but four of the insolvency assignments date from after the American Revolution, they also help document the transition of the American legal system from one highly influenced by the British legal system to a uniquely American legal system. The records also have great research potential as they can help fill gaps in the historical record and can be used by genealogists and family historians.


Contact the New York City Municipal Archives for the finding aid to the insolvencies. For more information on the court system, read: Duely & Constantly Kept, A History of the New York Supreme Court, 1691-1847.  James Folts, The New York State Archives and Records Administration and New York State Court of Appeals, 1991.


NYC Celebrates Olympic Athletes

For almost a century, with receptions, special medals, gala dinners, and for some, the ultimate accolade—a ticker-tape parade—New York City has recognized American athletic achievement in the Olympic Games. The Municipal Archives and Library collections, notably the mayoral series and photographs, provide rich documentation of this happy tradition.

The oldest item in the collections is a seating list for the October 2, 1920, "Dinner Tendered to the Victorious American Olympic Team.” Mayor John F. Hylan’s Committee on Receptions to Distinguished Guests filled 96 tables at the Waldorf Astoria with athletes returning from the Summer Games in Antwerp, Belgium, along with their families and friends, and City dignitaries.

The first ticker-tape parade for Olympic athletes took place on August 6, 1924. The U.S. had swept all five titles in tennis and 13 out of 16 swimming events at the Paris games. American swimmer Johnny Weissmuller won three gold medals. He subsequently went to Hollywood where he starred in a dozen movies as “Tarzan the Ape Man.” Another member of the 1924 American team, rower Benjamin Spock, later achieved greater renown as a pediatrician and book author.

For the 1924 Olympic athletes, the Mayor’s Committee once again hosted a gala dinner at the Waldorf Astoria. The menu, along with extensive correspondence to and from guests invited to the parade and dinner can be found in the Mayor’s Reception Committee collection.

Heavy rain on August 28, 1928, cancelled the ticker-tape parade planned for American athletes returning from the summer games in Amsterdam, the Netherlands. Contemporary newspaper accounts noted that almost every team member purchased wooden shoes as a souvenir. Although they missed their parade, the City did treat them to a luncheon at the Hotel McAlpin. The Mayor’s Reception Committee file includes the S. S. President Roosevelt Passenger List specially prepared for the American Olympic Team.

Olympic World Champions at City Hall, February 19, 1932. Photo by Eugene de Salignac. Dept of Bridges/Plant & Structures Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

On February 19, 1932, Mayor Walker (in dark overcoat, front row center) posed on the steps of City Hall with Olympic athletes returning from the winter games at Lake Placid, New York. Walker singled-out New Yorkers Irving Jaffee, winner of the 5,000 and 10,000 meter skating races, Jay O’Brien, brake on the four-man bobsled, and sled driver Billy Fiske. Walker took particular pride in the fact that Jaffee had been educated in New York City public schools. The eight women in the photo made up almost half of the twenty-one women who competed in the 1932 Winter Olympics.

The Archives collection does not include photographs of Jesse Owens or any of the other athletes dating from 1936, but on September 1, 1964, Mayor Robert Wagner was photographed with the former Olympian Owens (at left) in front of City Hall during ceremonies to help launch a cross-country relay race to raise money for the U.S. Olympic team. Official Mayoral Photographs, NYC Municipal Archives.

On September 3, 1936, Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia honored the U. S. Olympic team with a ticker-tape parade on their return from the summer games in Berlin. African-American Jessie Owens upset Adolph Hitler’s theories of Aryan superiority by winning four gold medals in track and field events. Mayor LaGuardia presented medals to the American team at a ceremony on Randall’s Island after the parade. Alluding to the German press comment that Americans would have been nowhere without its “black auxiliary force,” Mayor LaGuardia said, “We are all Americans here and we have no auxiliaries in this country.”

After World War II, New York City continued to recognize the American Olympic teams. On July 7, 1952, the City staged a ticker-tape parade for athletes departing for the Helsinki, Finland games. The American team went on to win 75 medals in the international contest, the most of any nation. The second-place Russian team, competing for the first time since 1912, won 68 medals. The Mayor’s Reception Committee collection contains extensive documentation of the 1952 parade and related festivities.

The 1952 festivities included a gala dinner for the athletes at the Waldorf Astoria on June 28.

Former Olympic track and field medal winner Pat McDonald, and swimming champion Gertrude Ederle rode with Mayor’s Reception Committee Chairman Grover Whalen (at right) in the parade, July 7, 1952.

The American women athletes marching up Broadway. July 7, 1952. Mayor's Reception Committe, NYC Municipal Archives.

The City honored Carol Heiss, the women’s Olympic figure-skating champion with a parade on March 9, 1960. According to Sports Illustrated, the 20-year-old Queens native “delivered one of the most polished performances in Olympic figure-skating history,” when she won the gold medal at the winter games in Squaw Valley, California. Six week later she married 1956 Olympic figure-skating champion Hayes Jenkins. Before settling in Ohio to raise three children, she gave Hollywood a try, starring in the 1961 production of Snow White and the Three Stooges.

Carol Heiss arriving at City Hall, March 9, 1960. Official Mayoral Photographs, NYC Municipal Archives.

Although athletes returning from the summer games in Rome in 1960 did not get a ticker-tape parade, Mayor Wagner welcomed several medal winners to City Hall for special ceremonies.

Mayor Wagner greeted Muhammed Ali, then known as Cassius Clay, the light heavyweight champion at City Hall on September 9, 1960. Official Mayoral Photographs, NYC Municipal Archives.

On September 26, 1960, at City Hall, Mayor Wagner presented special medallions to Wilma Rudolph, the first American woman to win three gold medals in track and field at a single Olympics, and to broad jump champion, Ralph Boston. Official Mayoral Photograph, NYC Municipal Archives.

Lynn Burke, kissing Mayor Wagner as he presents her with a City medallion, September 1960. Official Mayoral Photographs, NYC Municipal Archives.

Flushing, Queens, resident Lynn Burke, winner of the 100 and 200-meter backstroke races, returned from the Rome games aboard a chartered Pan-American World Airways plane on September 8, 1960. The Journal-American newspaper account of her arrival quoted her father, Robert, swimming coach at the Flushing YMCA: “We are going to celebrate with a bottle of champagne without alcohol.” The article also noted Burke walked off the plane carrying an ornamental duck and dog.

During the late 1960s and through the 1970s, the City scaled-back its ticker-tape celebrations. Mayor Koch revived the tradition in 1984 for a parade to honor the U.S. Olympic medal winners from the Los Angeles Games. The parade took place on August 15, and gymnast Mary Lou Retton was the crowd’s favorite from among the more than 200 athletes participating in the event.

Mayor Ed Koch with Olympic athletes, including Mary Lou Retton, right, August 15, 1984. Mayor Edward I. Koch Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

More recent mayors have honored Olympic athletes with quieter ceremonies. On October 7, 1992, Mayor David Dinkins appeared at City Hall with Kristi Yamaguchi, Olympic gold-medalist at the 1992 winter games in Albertville, France, to unveil the 1992 annual Christmas Seal. Yamaguchi had been appointed the American lung Association Christmas Seal Chairperson.

Mayor David Dinkins with Kristi Yamaguchi, Olympic gold-medalist, 1992. Mayor David N. Dinkins Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

This year 242 Americans are competing in the 23rd Winter Olympic Games. Twenty-two athletes are from New York State, including NYC-born para-Olympic Alpine skier Staci Manella. Who knows—maybe another celebration is in order?

Got Milk (Regulations)?

Chocolate milk cap, 1936. Department of Health collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

Cardboard milk carton, 1940. Department of Health collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

Throughout the early and mid-1900s, dairy products were a significant source of foodborne illnesses. Hundreds of children died due to the consumption of milk, leading to the 1911 creation of milk stations that dispensed free pasteurized milk. During the 1930s and 40s the New York City Department of Health, under commissioners Shirley W. Wynne (1928-1933) and John L. Rice (1934-1942), took many steps to regulate the production and storage of dairy products, which were regularly consumed in high quantities by New Yorkers of all ages. Milk and ice cream were of particular concern.

Section of form used by Department of Health inspectors for examinations of dairy farms, 1930. Department of Health collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

During these years much of the Department of Health’s activity focused on enacting and enforcing regulations to ensure the eradication of foodborne illnesses caused by contaminated milk. Grades were assigned to milk and printed on packaging to inform the consumer of the quality of the product, prices were regulated (leading to distributor strikes), and strict regulations governed the distribution and packaging of milk. Mayor Fiorello H. La Guardia (1934-1945) was especially involved in milk regulation. La Guardia and Rice’s goal was to provide affordable and safe milk for New York City residents while also supporting dairy farmers. 

Unregulated milk distribution was a significant cause of disease. One strategy to combat disease spread by “bad” milk was to irradiate it. This refers to the process of ionizing radiation. Irradiation was—and is still—considered a safe way to prevent milk and other foodborne illnesses and reduce the spread of invasive pests, which also spread disease.

Regarding packaging, cartons needed to both preserve the milk and clearly state the milk’s expiration, as well as clearly indicate the milk’s grade. Regulations on the production of bottle caps were also strict. The caps needed to provide the same preservation function while informing the consumer of the grade of milk.

In 1936 a milk strike occurred after La Guardia attempted to create an affordable milk price policy with corporate distributors. The goal of the policy was to make milk affordable to regular people as well as maintain a steady and reasonable income for the dairy farmers. New York City residents consumed over 3 million quarts of milk per day, so Mayor LaGuardia and the Health Department prepared for a citywide emergency. The usual distributors refused to ship and sell their milk for the determined price and would not distribute to New York City until the price was raised. Distributors claimed that the price increase was essential to the continuation of their business. But the farmers producing the milk were barely breaking even and lower income New Yorkers struggled to purchase sufficient milk to sustain a family.

La Guardia had promised an over-the-counter price of 11 cents per quart. After the distributors withheld the shipments of milk to the City, La Guardia was forced to look elsewhere for a steady supply of milk. Smaller distributors, who were happy to have the extra business, agreed to the set price. Also, the City began rationing milk. This included providing milk to families with infants at a lower price and enforcing strict regulations on the quantity of milk one individual was allowed to purchase. The planned rationing went as far as requiring coffee shops to pour the allotted amount of cream or milk into the customer’s coffee or tea, rather than allowing them to do it themselves. This crisis was eventually solved and a promised over-the-counter price of 12 cents a quart was settled on. Distribution continued as normal. This price was not always attainable and the distributors continued to argue with La Guardia about not fulfilling his promised price.

Another milk strike emerged in 1939, but this time from the Dairy Farmers Union. The dairy farmers were demanding a blended payment of 5 cents a quart. Solving this issue required negotiations among the producers, distributors, city officials and consumers. La Guardia promised a blended price of 4 cents per quart to the farmers which triggered a backlash from the distributors who were now bound to pay the farmers 4 cents per quart of milk. Nevertheless the agreement was signed. Keeping this price fixed created issues, as prices for some grades of milk still fluctuated. It is safe to say that the mid- to late- 1930s newspaper headlines were chock-full of milk.

New York City Sanitary Code regarding categorization of frozen desserts, 1933. Department of Health collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

Ice cream was becoming an increasingly popular treat among New Yorkers at this time. In general, regulation of this dairy treat lagged behind the regulation of milk. Commissioners Wynne and Rice worked to ensure ice cream manufacturers complied with the City’s evolving Sanitary Code. The Code required ice cream be made with pasteurized milk in proper facilities, and prescribed specific labeling and classification of these products based on their ingredients. Enforcement included inspections.

Fudgicle wrapper sent to Department of Health in 1933. Department of Health collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

Letter from Fudgicle manufacturer arguing their product should not be considered ice cream, 1933. Department of Health collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

Manufacturers of frozen dairy products would sometimes contact the Department of Health for clarification of the rules if they wanted to sell their product within the confines of the city. In 1933, the Joe Lowe Corporation wrote to the Department of Health about their new product, the Fudgicle. The company argued that the Fudgicle (originated by Popsicle) is “neither an ice cream, an ice, or a sherbet, but rather a confection” and therefore should be exempt from the specific regulations governing ice cream products. The company included packaging and details about the ingredients as evidence. After considering the issue, the Department and relevant city officials decided the Fudgicle was indeed considered a frozen dessert under the Sanitary Code. The Joe Lowe Corporation therefore had to abide by City health regulations.

Fudgicle recipe leaflet sent to Department of Health in 1933. Department of Health collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

Bootleg ice cream became an issue as well. The Department of Health outlawed the sale of ice cream in packaging or containers other than the original, especially on the streets. It also established standards for the quality of ingredients and the cleanliness of manufacturing spaces.

Ice cream wrapper sent to Department of Health by manufacturer in 1941. Department of Health collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

Check back for more posts about the Health commissioners’ records!

This project has been made possible in part by a major grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities: Exploring the human endeavor. Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this blog post do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

The Grammys Return to the Big Apple

The Grammy Awards are returning to New York this weekend, which got us thinking about all the places here that are important to the history of music. From the days when jazz musicians dubbed New York “the Big Apple,” the City has been the place to make it big. A lot of the most famous music venues have been lost over the years to development and changing tastes, but many more always pop up, seemingly weekly in Brooklyn and Queens.

315 Bowery, CBGB’s, ca. 1985. DOF Tax Photo Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

315 Bowery, CBGB’s (1973-2006)

Opened in 1973 by Hilly Kristal to showcase Country, BlueGrass & Blues, CBGB’s quickly became the in-place for new music. The East Village dive was a must play for the early punk and new wave bands. The Ramones, the Misfits, Television, Blondie, the B-52’s, Joan Jett, The Talking Heads, and Patti Smith all got their start there.

126-38 East 14th Street, the Academy of Music, 1962. DOF Tax Photo Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

126-38 East 14th Street, the Palladium, ca. 1985. DOF Tax Photo Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

126-38 East 14th Street, Academy of Music (1927-1976)/Palladium (1976-1997)

On their first US tour in 1965, the Rolling Stones played at the Academy of Music, a movie palace and music venue. In 1976, The Band played the first show under the newly named Palladium. It saw a wide range of music acts, including the Grateful Dead, Bruce Springsteen, The Ramones, Iggy Pop, U2, Def Leppard, P. Diddy, and Lil’ Kim. From 1985 to 1997 it was a nightclub with the same name, it’s now a dormitory for NYU students.

289 Hudson Street, 1974. DOF Tax Photo Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

289 Hudson Street, the Half Note Club (1957-1972)

The Half Note Club was one of the premier places to hear jazz in the 1960s, and at least a half-dozen records were “live from the Half Note.” John Coltrane, Charles Mingus, Cannonball Adderly, Billie Holiday, and Judy Garland all performed here before it became a topless bar in 1974.  It’s now a deli.

511-27 West 18th Street, the Roxy, ca. 1985. DOF Tax Photo Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

511-27 West 18th Street, Roxy Nightclub (1978-2006)

This former garage was transformed into a roller disco at the height of that craze in 1978. Its wooden floors proved excellent for dancing as well and the Roxy became the place where the downtown art world, the punks and the Bronx b-boys all mingled. The Friday night parties in the early 80s were an important showcase for early hip-hop and breakdancing, and Saturday nights hosted the largest weekly gay dance party. Madonna, Blondie, Talking Heads, Run-DMC, Kraftwerk, The Beastie Boys, LL Cool J, Whitney Houston, Bette Midler, Cher, and Mariah Carey all performed there as well as legions of dance music DJs.

30-32 West 21st Street, Danceteria, ca. 1985. DOF Tax Photo Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

30-32 West 21st Street, Danceteria (1979-1986)

The second location of Danceteria had four floors of dancers hidden behind this dour façade. In its short-lived location it was known for new wave and post-punk music as well as early hip hop. Madonna, New Order, Duran Duran, Billy Idol, The Smiths, Cyndi Lauper, Depeche Mode, Sonic Youth, the Violent Femmes, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, the Beastie Boys, and LL Cool J all played here. If you missed hanging out with Madonna here, watch Desperately Seeking Susan. Danceteria reopened in the Martha Washington Hotel ballroom from 1989 to 1992 and a Hamptons’ outpost ran from 1984 to 1995.

286-88 Lenox Avenue, Lenox Lounge, 1961. DOF Tax Photo Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

286-88 Lenox Avenue, Lenox Lounge, ca. 1985. DOF Tax Photo Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

286-88 Lenox Avenue, Lenox Lounge (1939-2012)

This legendary art deco lounge survived for decades before submitting to changing tastes and development. Billie Holiday, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and a host of jazz greats all played here.

119/125 East 11th Street, Webster Hall, ca. 1949. DOF Tax Photo Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

119/125 East 11th Street, The Ritz, ca. 1985. DOF Tax Photo Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

119/125 East 11th Street, Webster Hall/The Ritz (1980-1992)

A theater and event space since 1886, Webster Hall was an important stop for union organizers and radicals like Emma Goldman. In the 1950s it was known as a folk music venue, with performers such as Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie, as well as Elvis Presley, Ray Charles, and Frank Sinatra. In 1980, a club called The Ritz (1980-1992) took over the space, and performers such as U2, Guns & Roses, Depeche Mode, Ozzy Osbourne, Run-DMC, and Duran Duran played gigs there. In the 1980s a new cable music channel called MTV broadcast its first live show from here and “Live from the Ritz” was a regular feature.

1546 62nd Street, L’Amour, ca. 1985. DOF Tax Photo Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

1546 62nd Street, L’Amour (1978-2004)

Located in a former industrial laundry building in New Utrecht, Brooklyn, L’Amour became known as the place to see hard rock in Brooklyn. On the night this photo was taken Quiet Riot was on the bill, and L’Amour was host to Metallica, Kiss, Blue Oyster Cult, Guns N’ Roses, The Ramones, Slayer, Anthrax, Cheap Trick, Jane’s Addiction, Sound Garden, Iron Maiden and a lot of hairspray.

34-56 107th Street, Queens, ca. 1940. DOF Tax Photo Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

34-56 107th Street, Queens, Louis Armstrong’s House (1943-1971)

This unassuming little house in Corona, Queens was home to jazz great Louis Armstrong and his wife Lucille. But more than just their home, it housed a recording studio and was where Armstrong worked on new music and entertained visiting musicians. The house is now run as a museum and archive of his work.

1520 Sedgwick Avenue, Bronx, ca. 1985. DOF Tax Photo Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

1520 Sedgwick Avenue, Bronx

An unremarkable apartment building in the South Bronx, like many others, but in 1973 something magical happened here. Cindy Campbell rented out the building’s small rec room for a party on August 11, 1973. Her brother Clive, DJ Kool Herc, showed his new technique of mixing the beats from two copies of the same record to extend the break for the dancers. His friend Coke La Rock rapped over the beats. It was the birth of a new type of music that would become known as hip hop, and inspired Grandmaster Flash, KRS-One, Afrika Bambaataa and many other kids in attendance to run home and imitate the new sound. When a friend and I snuck into the building ten years ago, the rec room was sadly filled with snow blowers and maintenance equipment, but in 2017 Mayor de Blasio renamed the street Hip Hop Boulevard.

253-59 West 125th Street, Apollo Theater, ca. 1985. DOF Tax Photo Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

253-59 West 125th Street, Apollo Theater

The most famous music venue in Harlem was opened as a “Whites Only” burlesque theater in 1914. It reopened as the Apollo Theater in 1934. From the swing bands of the 1930s to soul and gospel, rock, and blues, the Apollo has been host to Duke Ellington, Count Basie, the Staple Sisters, Mahalia Jackson, Ray Charles, Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin, Dave Brubeck, Stan Getz, Buddy Holly, Billie Holiday, Diana Ross & the Supremes, The Jackson 5, Marvin Gaye, Luther Vandross, Art Blakey, Dizzy Gillespie, James Brown, George Clinton and the Parliament-Funkadelic, Al Green, and in 2012 President Barack Obama singing Let’s Stay Together to Al Green.

215-28 West 23rd Street, The Chelsea Hotel, ca. 1985. DOF Tax Photo Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

215-28 West 23rd Street, the Chelsea Hotel

Opened in 1884, as a grand Co-Op Apartment building, the Hotel Chelsea became a long-term hotel for generations of bohemians, including artists, writers, and musicians. Famous musical residents included the Grateful Dead, Nico, Tom Waits, Patti Smith, Jim Morrison, Alice Cooper, Pink Floyd, Madonna, and Jimi Hendrix. Bob Dylan composed Blonde On Blonde in room 211, and later wrote about the experience. Leonard Cohen wrote Chelsea Hotel #2, a song about hooking up with Janis Joplin in room 222. Most infamously, Sid Vicious and his girlfriend Nancy Spungen rented room 100 in 1978 and after several months of epic drug abuse, Spungen was found stabbed to death in their bathroom. Sid Vicious was charged with the crime but died of a heroin overdose before the trial.

105 Second Avenue, ca. 1985. DOF Tax Photo Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

105 Second Avenue, the Fillmore East (1968-1971)

In 1968 the rock promoter Bill Graham bought a run-down movie theater built in the 1920s as a Yiddish theater, and renamed it the Fillmore East, after his Fillmore Auditorium in San Francisco. In its short-lived existence, Jimi Hendrix, The Allman Brothers, Grateful Dead, Miles Davis, Joe Cocker, Crosby Stills, Nash & Young, Derek & the Dominos, King Crimson, Jefferson Airplane, Led Zeppelin, and Frank Zappa all played the venue, and dozens of live albums were recorded there. After a few other incarnations, the theater was gutted and it became apartments. The lobby is now an Apple Bank.

All photographs featured in this post come from the Department of Finance Tax Photograph collections and can be ordered from the New York City Municipal Archives.

A Conversation between Barbara Hibbert, Reference Room Director and Ken Cobb, Assistant Commissioner, January 17, 2018

KRC:  Barbara, will we see you on Saturday morning?

BH: I’ll be here on the 20th, for our first Saturday—after that, once in a while. I think you’ll see some of our other archivists at the desk on Saturdays going forward.

KRC:  How long have you been doing this?

BH:  Former Commissioner Idilio Gracia-Pena hired me in February 1982, to design forms. I was finishing up at the New York School of Printing [a vocational high school]. I think they called it a work-study program—I would go to school until 1 p.m. and then head down to the Tweed Courthouse. When we moved to 31 Chambers, I also helped out in the darkroom printing pictures. I was hired full-time in 1984. One day around then I went into the reference room to help Carol with the genealogy work. And that was it. I never left.

The old research room at the Tweed Courthouse.

KRC:  Yes, Idilio Gracia-Pena was the Archives Director from 1976 to 1990, and he was great at finding all sorts of programs to get staff for the Archives. Mayor Dinkins appointed him Commissioner of DORIS in 1990. The Archives was located in Tweed from 1979 to 1984, and “Carol” is of course our Carolyn Dixon—she started around the same time as you did and retired in 2016.

KRC:  What’s the biggest change you’ve seen since you started?

BH:  The computer! Now you can search everything on-line. When I first started it was only microfilm.  And these were manual machines—you had to crank the rolls by hand!

KRC:  Yes, we do still have a lot of microfilm, but we’re planning to make the vital records we digitized available to our patrons in the reference room—so we’ll see fewer of the little reader machines and more computer terminals. And we’re just gearing-up to digitize the marriage license records (1908-1949).  

The 1905 marriage certificate of future president and first lady Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Eleanor Roosevelt (they were distant cousins) witnessed by then sitting president and first lady Teddy Roosevelt and Edith Kermit Roosevelt. NYC Municipal Archives.

BH:  Also, it seems to me that genealogy is a much bigger deal now than it was when I started in the 1980s.

The marriage certificate of the gangster Meyer Lansky, witnessed by his partner-in-crime Benjamin "Bugsy" Siegel in 1929. NYC Municipal Archives

KRC:  I always say it’s the number one hobby in the U.S. And lately I’m noticing that we’re receiving many more requests for vital record search and copy service from the U.K., Australia, New Zealand and Europe.

KRC:  What are you looking forward to in 2018?

BH:  Digitized tax photos!  I’m told that we’ll have them in six months. We like helping people find their pictures, but the microfilm is so horrible.

KRC: Yes, we have contracted with a vendor to digitize all 720,000 1940 tax photos. That will be a big relief to all concerned.

KRC:  What advice do you have for a beginning family historian?

BH:  Start with what you know. Or start with a record that you do have; even if it’s just one ancestor’s birth certificate, or marriage certificate. We can use that to find other records. Also, I always recommend that you work backwards in time.

Chief Medical Examiner report for inventor Nikola Tesla, who died in the Hotel New Yorker in 1943. NYC Municipal Archives.

KRC:  What is the most satisfying part of the job?

BH:  Sometimes we can really make a difference. I helped a lady find a death record of a grandparent from our OCME collection [Office of the Chief Medical Examiner]. The lady had medical problems and she found out that the grandparent had the same condition. She cried. It was a big deal for her.

KRC:  I’ve received many letters of appreciation for your good service. And, yes, the OCME series which dates back to 1918 can provide useful details about a death. The death certificate will indicate whether the OCME examined the body or conducted an autopsy—generally only if the death was unattended by a physician, or if it was unusual or suspicious.  

KRC:  What are some common problems...  and what advice can you give?

BH:  When people cannot find a birth certificate of an ancestor they come to us and say, “I know she was born in NYC… She had a passport! …. She must have had a birth certificate! … Why can’t I find it?” And we have to say that sometimes the doctor or midwife did not report the birth to the Health Department and that lots of people never had a birth certificate. We tell them to try for another record, like a marriage, or a census to confirm the year of birth.

The 1925 death certificate of "Baseball Magnate" Charles Ebbets, owner of the Brooklyn Dodgers.

KRC:  The census will also list siblings, and their ages. And with luck one of the siblings might have had their birth reported and that will of course provide useful information about the parents.

KRC:  I am noticing in your monthly productivity report that you are sending out a lot more “letters of exemplification.” [The letter of exemplification certifies that the certificate copy is “true” copy of the original.] As far as I know they’re only necessary if a person is applying for dual citizenship. When did that start?

BH:  November 9, 2016.

KRC:  Okay, I get it. 

Farewell to Tweed

As the Municipal Archives begins preparations for moving 200,000 cubic feet of records from our Brooklyn warehouse to a new modern facility we started to think about past moves. Moving an archive is a mammoth undertaking, but surprisingly, the NYC Municipal Archives, one of the largest repositories of historical records in North America, has led an unexpectedly transient life. In 1952, the then-new Municipal Archives and Records Center occupied space in a warehouse called the Rhinelander Building, at 238 William Street. When that building was demolished in the late 1960s to make way for the Police Headquarters, the Archives relocated to 23 Park Row. In the summer of 1979, the Archives had to move again—this time to the “Tweed” Courthouse in City Hall Park, as a temporary facility until renovations at the Surrogate’s Court were completed. And so began our four-year sojourn in a beautiful but imperfect building.