On Monday, July 2, 2018, the Municipal Archives began working on a project first envisioned more than 40 years ago—inventorying and re-housing architectural plans for buildings in lower Manhattan. Digitizing selected plans, not envisioned 40 years ago, will be part of the new project. Saved from near destruction in the 1970s, and containing materials spanning more than one hundred years, City archivists are looking forward to discovering long-hidden treasures and preserving this significant historical and cultural collection.
The origin of the collection dates to the early 1970s when the Manhattan Borough office of the Department of Buildings (DOB) initiated a project to save space by microfilming the architectural plans and permit correspondence accumulated over the previous century. They planned to dispose of the records after microfilming.
The project did not go well. DOB employed an inexperienced vendor and the microfilm did not meet acceptable standards. The project had been carefully monitored by the City’s community of historians, architects, preservationists as well as the Landmarks Preservation Commission. These entities persuaded the DOB to discontinue filming and urged transfer of the original materials to the Municipal Archives for permanent preservation.
In 1977, the Archives accessioned the plans and permits for all buildings on 965 blocks of Lower Manhattan, from the Battery to 34th Street. The plans date back to 1866 when architects and engineers (or all persons) planning to construct new buildings, or alter an existing one, were required to submit an application, including plans, to the newly-created Buildings Department, and receive approval before commencing the proposed work.
The plan collection comprises every possible form of graphic representation of a building, from rough pencil sketches by carpenters, to carefully measured sections and plans by draftsmen, and intricate elevations by trained architects. They encompass all types of reproduction processes extant during the relevant time period. Varying in dimension, the vast majority measure within a range of 36 x 48 inches. Some are relatively small (e.g. 12 x 12 inches), and others are over-size, measuring as large as 5 to 6 feet. The estimated total volume of the collection is about 100,000 items.
Janet Parks, Curator (retired Avery Architectural and Fine Arts Library at Columbia University), recently summarized the value and significance of the collection: “It is incredible to have such a quantity of architectural records documenting a wide range of building types, architects of all levels, construction techniques, and examples of ornament, etc. This is a significant historical and cultural collection.”
The time span of the collection provides unique documentation of how industrialization in Manhattan after the Civil War led to a rapid transformation of the built environment. The economic boom, combined with advances in building technology and the use of materials such as cast iron made it possible to build large open spaces with natural light suitable for retail and manufacturing activities. Dozens of retail establishments, loft factories and offices sprang up in the blocks north and west of City Hall, resulting one of the largest concentration of full and partial cast-iron facades anywhere in the world.
Prior to this era, most buildings in Manhattan were relatively simple structures usually constructed by skilled masons and carpenters. As the City’s economy became more complex, the need for larger and more versatile space became critical. The introduction of new technologies such as the elevator and steel-frame construction allowed ever-larger and taller buildings to rise along the narrow streets of lower Manhattan. These “skyscraper” buildings quickly filled with office workers in financial, insurance, and newspaper businesses. Advances in the water supply system, sanitary engineering, access to gas for illumination and cooking (and later electricity), and central heating systems added to the complexity of building construction in the latter half of the 19th century.
These types of structures required trained architects and engineers who could file plans that met the rigorous building codes enforced by the Department of Buildings. Establishment of the new Department in 1866 was the City’s direct response to the needs of the new urban infrastructure. It was imperative that the City could ensure that the larger buildings were safe and protected from the ever-present danger of fire.
The plan collection has value not just for their representation of the structures, but as samples of the general standard of practice of architecture in New York City. Architectural drawings, especially from the 19th century, often survived only if the firm had successor architects, usually sons of the architects. The records of some of the most prominent architects such as Cass Gilbert or McKim, Mead and White, for example, have long been preserved at the New York Historical Society. But more typically, plans were destroyed when the firm closed or when an individual architect gave up the practice. The Archives’ collection fills this gap, in great abundance.
As the practice of architecture became more professional (the American Institute of Architects was formed in 1857), and college-level instruction programs became available (Columbia University’s School of Architecture debuted in 1881, e.g.), so too did building “styles” become more sophisticated. By the late 19th century, the blocks of SoHo and Tribeca were lined with handsome buildings sporting facades in the Victorian Gothic, Neo-Grec, Italianate, and Second Empire styles. And the evolution of the skyscraper, from the Gothic-style “Cathedral of Commerce” Woolworth Building to the sleek Art-Deco facade of One Wall Street, can be readily traced in the streets of Lower Manhattan.
The collection documents residential buildings as well as commercial and industrial structures. Although many of these buildings pre-date establishment of the Buildings Department in 1866, the collection is rich with plans submitted with applications for alterations as architects, homeowners, and developers converted deteriorated row houses into “modern” dwellings by removing stoops and covering facades with light-colored stucco, mosaic tile, and shutters.
The plans illustrate the seemingly inexhaustible evolution of structures in Manhattan. Plans pertaining to the buildings in the SoHo and Tribeca areas are typical examples—from their original incarnation as lofts for factory and retail uses in the 19th century, by the mid-20th century they had been adapted to artist studios and lofts, revitalizing these neighborhoods—a trend that has been replicated in formerly industrial areas of cities around the world. And more recently, many have been reconverted into high-end retail establishments, art galleries, and offices—uses similar to their original purposes.
The significance of the plans also includes their value as artifacts. The careful rendering of even the smallest decorative detail and the use of color to define different elements of the design makes many of the items in the collection works of art.
When the DOB transferred the plans in 1977 the City’s fiscal crisis had reduced the Archives to only a skeleton staff without the necessary resources to preserve the collection. DOB’s microfilming process had disorganized the plans and there was no extant inventory. But recognizing its importance, the Archives applied for and received a matching grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities for essential processing. Unfortunately, the Archives was unable to raise the necessary matching funds and the project was abandoned.
In the succeeding decades, the Archives did manage to provide limited access to the collection. But more recently, the volume of building restoration projects has greatly increased demand for the plans, making the re-housing, inventorying and digitizing a priority. And now, with funding in the City budget, we have revived the long-postponed project to preserve this unique collection. Look for future blog posts and announcement on our web site highlighting project progress and significant “finds.”