DID YOU EVER WONDER about how historic City records make their way to the Municipal Archives? Were all the documents, photographs, maps, ledgers, plans, etc. in the collection dutifully maintained in their “creating” City offices, and then carefully transferred to their permanent home at 31 Chambers Street?
Well…not always. Two of our most remarkable and iconic collections—the Parks Drawings and Brooklyn Bridge Drawings—made circuitous and uncertain voyages to the Archives. A closer examination of their ownership history lets us reflect on both the institutional history of the Archives and the sometimes precarious journey of government records as they evolve from the “working” records of a city agency, to historically important archival documents.
We think that the Parks drawings—more than 3,300 original architectural renderings of Central Park and several other parks built by the City during the 19th century—are some of the most visually appealing items in the Archives. Many could be considered works of art.
We look at these drawings today and see their artistic merit, with those of Central Park as the most extravagant example. Many are suitable to hang on a wall, or illustrate a book. But they were created for an entirely different purpose. The park architects and designers prepared the drawings to guide the workers and craftsmen who built the park. A few of the most spectacular renderings were meant to “sell” the idea of the park, but the rest were working drawings.
We do not know where the Parks Department stored the drawings between the completion of the Park in the late 19th century, and the 1960s. In a recent interview, Joseph Bresnan, former Director of Planning and Preservation at the Parks Department, recalled that soon after beginning his career, circa 1965, he was sent to Sara Delano Roosevelt Park in lower Manhattan in search of an “old” drawing. He was led to a building with a large basement storage room packed with plans—in tubes, and on shelves—all in considerable disarray. He specifically remembered finding a drawing of Central Park loose on the floor.
We also know that in 1966, Mayor John Lindsay created the office of Curator of Central Park. He appointed Henry Hope Reed, the noted architectural historian and early proponent of the preservation movement, to the new position. It seems likely that this job gave Reed access and/or the incentive to track the whereabouts of the Central Park drawings. The generally accepted story is that by 1973 Mr. Reed had identified the cache of drawings in Sara Delano Roosevelt Park, recognized their importance, and arranged for their transfer to Avery Library at Columbia University as a permanent loan from the Parks Department.
But why were the plans sent to Columbia instead of the Municipal Archives? After all, the Municipal Archives existed at that time, having been established in 1952. A short detour into the history of the Archives as an institution might help answer this query. Records had been created in the course of conducting city business from the day the first European colonists stepped off the boat in New Amsterdam in the early 1600s. Over subsequent centuries, countless clerks and other civil servants squirrelled away municipal records in filing cabinets and basements all over the city, mostly without regard to whether or not they needed to be saved.
The hero of this part of the story is Rebecca Rankin. Soon after her appointment as Municipal Reference Librarian in 1920, she observed historically important records haphazardly stored in municipal offices and determined to improve record-keeping practices. When Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia took office in 1934, Rankin persuaded him of the benefits of a records program. In 1939, he appointed her chair of a Municipal Archives Committee. After several years of work the Committee recommended that the city develop a records management system, modeled on state and federal programs being developed at that time.
Finally, on June 20, 1952, the day Rebecca Rankin retired from City service, the Municipal Archives and Records Center (MARC) officially opened. Rankin had already saved early mayoral and legislative records, and over the next twenty years the Archives continued to grow its collections of world-class historical materials.
However, by 1973, when Henry Hope Reed was looking to preserve the park drawings, the City’s finances were headed to a crisis. Half of the Archives’ staff had been laid off, leaving five people to care for a collection that measured in the tens of thousands of cubic feet. Space was also a problem. The bulk of the collections were stored in off-site warehouse facilities, and the administrative offices (the Rhinelander Building until 1968, and then 23 Park Row) were insufficient.
Given the uncertain status of MARC, transfer of the Parks drawings to the well-regarded Avery Library at Columbia University on “loan” from the Parks Department becomes more understandable.
By the late 1970s, there was a general recognition that the chronically underfunded MARC was inadequate to the task of managing the City’s records—both contemporary and historical. Pushed by Municipal Librarian Eugene Bockman and City Council President Paul O’Dwyer, the City Council amended the City Charter to create the Department of Records & Information Services (DORIS). Along with establishing the agency, capital funding was allocated to renovate the City’s Hall of Records at 31 Chambers Street for the Archives. The new facility included conservation and microfilm laboratories and climate-controlled storage rooms.
The law that created DORIS also granted the Municipal Archives the explicit authority to “receive” archival city records. With the renovations to 31 Chambers Street completed in 1983, the Archives was finally able to accession the drawings from Avery Library. In 1987, the Max Protetch art gallery in midtown offered for sale ten drawings that a private individual claimed he had found many years ago. Based on clear evidence that the drawings were City property, Mr. Protetch agreed to donate them to the Archives. In 1988, another ninety-seven drawings that had been loaned to the Museum of the City of New York by the Parks Department in 1935 were also reunited with the collection at the Archives. Over the next several years, City archivists and conservators embarked on grant-funded and multi-phase projects to fully catalog, preserve, and microfilm the entire collection.
The parks drawings subsequently provided invaluable assistance to the Central Park Conservancy (founded in 1980) as it embarked on the long-overdue park restoration. Parks landscape architect George Vellonakis made extensive use of the collection in his restoration of City Hall Park in the 1990s, and Washington Square Park in the 2000s. More recently, in 2011, another group of 128 drawings that had been “fugitive” from the collection were donated to the Archives by a private individual.
THE BROOKLYN BRIDGE DRAWINGS also followed a meandering path to the Archives. Author David McCullough recounted the saga of the Brooklyn Bridge drawings in a lengthy magazine article in the December 1979 issue of American Heritage. He began the story in 1969, when City engineer Francis P. Valentine was dispatched to a carpentry shop in a building on Kent Avenue underneath the Williamsburg Bridge in search of a drawing to repair a “trunnion” on the Brooklyn Bridge. There Valentine found ten thousand original blueprints and drawings, packed into dozens of huge wooden file drawers, covered in dust and dirt. Hundreds were signed by renowned bridge engineer Washington Roebling.
McCullough relates that despite their apparent historical significance, various institutions such as the New-York Historical Society, Long Island Historical Society (now known as the Brooklyn Historical Society), and the Museum of Modern Art, were not interested, or could not handle such a large collection. In 1976, the Whitney Museum borrowed sixty-five of the most aesthetically striking drawings, conserved them, and mounted a well-received and attended exhibit. By then, according to McCullough, the Municipal Archives and Brooklyn Museum had learned of the collection, each asserting a claim, with the Museum arguing they were better equipped to care for them.
Ultimately, as with the Park drawings, the City’s authority trumped both museums and the drawings were delivered to the Municipal Archives in 1976. At this point, the dedication and determination of Barbara Millstein must be acknowledged. Beginning at least as early as 1976, and up until the bridge centennial in 1983, Millstein made it her business to make sure those drawings received the attention they deserved. She had been a curator at the Brooklyn Museum, and then in the late 1970s joined the staff of the Municipal Archives as exhibitions curator. Her magnum opus, The Great East River Bridge, published in conjunction with the Bridge centennial in 1983, still serves as the ultimate authority on the bridge drawings. “Mrs. M.” as she was usually called, also supervised the several grant-funded projects to preserve, catalog and microfilm the drawings.
And so, two happy endings.
It is worth noting that the 1960s and 70s time period of this tale of two collections also coincides with the growth of the preservation movement and an increased recognition of the value of more traditional historical idioms as exemplified by the Central Park and the Brooklyn Bridge, two of the greatest public works achievements of the 19th century. And with their restoration, the drawings, these “working” documents, found a new purpose.