Manhattan’s Civic Center Plan, 1964

While selecting architectural plans of buildings in lower Manhattan for a display in connection with the recent Open House New York event, City archivists came across an over-size multi-page set of detailed plans and elevations for a “Manhattan Civic Center,” circa 1964. If implemented, this grand scheme would have demolished 31 Chambers Street (home of the Municipal Archives) and radically transformed City Hall Park and the blocks between Broadway and Lafayette Street, from Chambers Street north to Worth Street. The plan called for a 54-story office building that anchored a three-level landscaped platform with reflecting pool, restaurants, shops, and two levels of underground parking for 1,400 cars. Only the City Hall and Municipal Building remained; every other extant building would have vanished to accommodate this grand vision. But it never happened. Why? For answers we turned again to the always rewarding Municipal Library vertical files and publications, and Municipal Archives collections.

City Hall Park, City Hall, Municipal Building, Surrogate’s Courthouse, high view from Park Row, 1950. Department of Public Works Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

Proposals to increase the capacity of New York City’s City Hall were promulgated almost as soon as the building was finished in 1811. Mayor Hugh Grant in 1889, and Mayor Thomas Gilroy in 1893, even went so far as to advocate demolishing and replacing City Hall, widely admired and beloved as an architectural “jewel box.” After creation of the Greater City of New York in 1898, and the concurrent expansion of municipal government, the need for office space became acute. Although construction of the Municipal Building, opening in 1914, took the pressure off City Hall, calls for an improvement in the overall civic center area—charitably called a “hodgepodge” of buildings and traffic—continued unabated through the early years of the 20th century.

New York Civic Center plan, 1964. NYC Municipal Archives.

The post-World War II era brought new opportunities to act on the desire for a civic center appropriate to a world metropolis. In 1949, the City Planning Commission proposed a “Master Plan for the Civic Center” that resulted in some modest changes—a new Civil Court and improvement to the approaches to the Brooklyn Bridge. But it was not until November 1961, when Mayor Robert Wagner budgeted $3 million for a new office building on the site of the Tweed Courthouse that any comprehensive planning would take place. Wagner’s proposal met with a storm of protest from civic organizations who decried desecration of City Hall Park. In response, Wagner launched an in-depth study for a Civic Center plan, which would take into consideration building functions, traffic patterns, parking, pedestrians, transit and future expansion. Wagner appointed a Civic Center Committee that subsequently hired architectural and traffic consultants to carry out the study.

On December 7, 1962, the Civic Center Master Plan was released with a full-scale press conference covered by newspapers, radio, television, national magazines and technical journals. It was lucky they chose that day; the next day all of the New York City newspapers embarked on a strike that lasted 114 days.

They offered an ambitious plan, and initially, it received good reviews. The New York Herald Tribune described the new Civic Center as “…a sort of Rockefeller Center downtown, only much more so in expanse and open welcome to the pedestrian.”

But there were obstacles ahead. Among them was the already-underway Federal government plan to construct an office building adjacent to Foley Square that complicated the City’s new scheme. On January 2, 1963, Mayor Wagner wrote to President Kennedy: “We respectfully urge that you …take the necessary steps to bring the new Federal Building into harmony with the great Civic Center which we hope to realize in New York City.” Kennedy replied via his Administrator of the General Services Administration, saying, essentially, it was too late.

Local business owners in the area whose properties would have been seized for the Civic Center also objected to the plan. Notable among this group was Henry Modell, proprietor of the sporting-goods chain, a long-time tenant at 280 Broadway. A greater and more tenacious obstacle came from the architecture and design community. In a letter to Mayor Wagner, dated February 4, 1964, Jack Kaplan, writing on behalf of thirteen prominent architects, including Philip Johnson, Walter Gropius, Edward Larrabee Barnes, and I.M. Pei, offered his foundation’s (The J. M. Kaplan Fund) support to Mayor Wagner if he would open the plan “…to conduct an international competition for the purpose of securing a better design for the proposed Civic Center.”

New York Civic Center plan, showing view of the sunken plaza behind City Hall. NYC Municipal Archives.

In May 1963, the City had started to address concerns like these by commissioning noted architect Edward Durell Stone, along with architects Eggers & Higgins, to coordinate the actual design of the Civic Center. Released to the public in April 1964, Stone’s new proposal followed the basic recommendations of the earlier studies, but combined two office buildings into one 54-story skyscraper. Reporting on the new building, New York Times architecture writer Ada Louise Huxtable commented that its façade of “…slender panels of white marble aggregate, with gently cured surfaces, alternating with gray glass … is meant to lessen the impact of its size in relationship to the diminutive 19th-century City Hall.”

In replying to the Kaplan letter on February 17, 1964, Mayor Wagner expressed hope that the Stone proposal “… will interpret the intention of the overall plan with enough latitude to produce a distinguished architectural concept.” Based on the correspondence found in Mayor Wagner’s “Civic Center” subject file in the Archives, it was clear that the architecture and planning community did not agree with Wagner’s hope. They continued to protest, right up to the last days of his administration in December 1965. And with that it looked like the clock may have run out on the vision of a great new Civic Center.

Phase One of the New York Civic Center, after the destruction of the Sun Building, The Emigrant Savings Bank, and the Tweed Courthouse. NYC Municipal Archives.

Final phase of the Civic Center Plan, with the removal of the Surrogate’s Court Building at 31 Chambers Street. NYC Municipal Archives.

It did live on for a while, though. The “Civic Center” subject file in Mayor John Lindsay’s papers is thin; perhaps reflecting different priorities for the new administration or the realities of a city facing a variety of urban ills. In 1966, Lindsay designated William C. Mattison, his Public Works Commissioner, as the “coordinator of all phases of the planning and construction of the Manhattan Civic Center…” In 1967, he replaced Mattison with Richard H. Buford, the Director of the Office of Lower Manhattan Development. The only other correspondence in the file is a letter from Buford to Mr. Herbert Epstein, President of the Architects Council of New York City, explaining that the Civic Center plan needed to be “approached from a fresh viewpoint and brought in line with the Lower Manhattan Plan of 1966.”

Mayor Lindsay’s successor, Abraham D. Beame tried to keep the plan alive with Executive Order (No. 13) issued on March 28, 1974, calling for “Establishment of the Manhattan Civic Center Task force.” Like the predecessor committees and task forces this new group would: “…expedite and coordinate the planning, design, property acquisition, construction and development needed to provide a modern City Hall annex and otherwise improve the Manhattan Civic Center area as required to achieve more efficient conduct of the City government, consistent with the aesthetic setting of the existing City Hall.”

No other documentation has been discovered in the Beame administration archive to shed light on the work of the task force. Interestingly, a few weeks after promulgating the Executive Order, Beame sent out a press release announcing “…a Special Task Force…created to determine the feasibility of preserving the old Tweed Court House and modernizing its interior, or replacing it with a new structure, as a City Hall Annex.” Again, documentation of this task force’s work has yet to be discovered, but in this case, the end of the story is evident. Tweed survived; was designated a landmark in 1984 and in the late 1990s underwent a spectacular rehabilitation. It currently serves as the home of the Department of Education.

“Civic Center” as a subject does not appear in the records of Mayor Koch (1977-1989). By then, several buildings originally slated for demolition had been designated landmarks: Surrogate’s Court in 1966; Tweed in 1984; the Emigrant Industrial Saving Bank (51 Chambers Street) in 1985; and the Sun Building (280 Broadway) in 1986. This rendered implementation of the plan as it was envisioned in 1964 effectively impossible. And if that wasn’t enough, construction of the second federal office building, on the block between Reade and Duane Streets, beginning in 1989 led to the discovery of what would now is known as the African Burial Ground, making any further construction in this neighborhood a perilous undertaking.

Concourse, New York Civic Center. Edward Durrell Stone, Eggers and Higgins Associated Architects. NYC Municipal Archives.

Since the demise of the grand modern civic center, the City has settled for incremental changes—City Hall Park received a long-overdue restoration in the late 1990s; developers have purchased the Emigrant Savings Bank for a luxury residential conversion; and government agencies are being dispersed throughout the Boroughs—as the saga of the ever-changing New York City landscape continues.

Additional information and images of the Civic Center can be viewed in the Archives’ exhibit gallery:

Mission Possible: Engaging Communities around Preserving Their History

It is perhaps not surprising that those of us who work at the NYC Department of Records and Information Services (DORIS) see the value in the services we perform preserving the records of City government and helping communities connect with that material. In a more recent development, many colleagues are extending the agency’s mission into organizations and communities across New York City. The agency is grappling with how to improve accessibility to the Archives and Library holdings, and reaching out to various communities. So it makes sense to look to members of our team for inspiration—people who are engaging with public history and living the mission through their volunteer work and extracurricular pursuits.

This week, we are spotlighting a relatively new member of the Municipal Archives staff: Porscha Williams-Fuller. She joined the agency in June 2018 as a conservation technician on a special project inventorying and re-housing architectural plans for buildings in Lower Manhattan.

Porscha—a Queens native who holds undergraduate and graduate degrees in public history – recently shared the distinctive way she acclimated herself to living in a new neighborhood. After moving to East New York, Brooklyn, she was inspired to explore the history of the area and became deeply involved in her new community’s efforts to preserve their history.

Sectional Aerial Map of the City of New York, Plate No. 17, Brownsville, East New York, Brooklyn. Aero Service Corp. 1951. NYC Municipal Archives

Preserving East New York

While growing up in Queens, Porscha developed a strong impression about Brooklyn. “You would hear about Brooklyn—there’s always something going on. It’s energetic. It’s fun. You’d go there to do a little shopping … but then you go back home to Queens.” Once East New York became her home, Porscha launched into one of her favorite activities: deep research. It was during this process that she stumbled upon an organization called Preserving East New York (PENY) and its founder, Zulmilena Then.

The historic East New York Savings Bank was built in 1889. 1940s Tax Photo Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

PENY began in 2015 after Zulmilena—who grew up in East New York—learned that the East New York Savings Bank was scheduled to be demolished. Built in 1899, the four-story Renaissance Revival structure served as a fixture in the community and in her childhood. Because the permit had already been issued to destroy the bank, there was nothing that could be done to save it. After wrestling with her fear that more important buildings could be lost unless someone took action, Zulmilena decided that preservation could be used to help her neighborhood and give residents a voice in the changes ahead.

Zulmilena started by handing out flyers at a public rezoning hearing and invited people to email her if they wanted to be involved. Zulmilena described receiving that first response one day later: “It was exciting to get that first email and realize that there was support out there. I understood deep down that our community was interested in saving the special places in our neighborhood but perhaps did not know how to. I wanted to create a community or group where we could all learn the process and, by learning together, create the movement that engaged everyone to save the buildings and history of the neighborhood.” Zulmilena reported that although she worked in the architectural field - renovating historic buildings—getting a building landmarked was a very different process so she was learning along with everyone else.

Empire State Dairy Company buildings – the earliest of which was built in 1906-1907. 1940s Tax Photo Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

Likewise, the impending demolition of the East New York Savings Bank also served as a flashpoint for Farrah Lafontant – who would ultimately join PENY, serving as the “bullhorn” for the group. A long-time resident, Farrah described a beloved routine, “I would drive by some of the buildings that seemed important and beautiful to me—even in their state of disrepair.” After hearing about the East New York Savings Bank, she made sure that the former 75th Police Precinct Station House on Liberty Avenue dubbed “The Castle,” which had become derelict, was not also slated for demolition. Farrah reported that she prayed for a way to help and, shortly afterwards, met Zulmilena at a public hearing.

Farrah happily counts herself among the “small army” assembled by Zulmilena. “What we lack in experience, we make up for in energy and a willingness to try anything that help the effort.” This small group has very quickly made significant strides in the community. Counted among one of their first victories is the land-marking of the Empire State Dairy Company buildings, located at Atlantic and Schenck Avenues.

Empire State Dairy Company Buildings, 2018. NYC Department of Records.

The Renaissance/Romanesque Revival-style collection of buildings designed by Otto Strack feature a unified façade and two ceramic tile mosaics depicting the countryside. In part, as a result of the efforts of PENY and other key individuals, such as historian and tile expert Michael Padwee and the president of Friends of Terra Cotta Susan Tunick,the Landmark Preservation Commission voted unanimously for its designation in 2017.

From left to right, Porscha Williams-Fuller, Zulmilena Then (founder of Preserving East New York), and Farrah Lafontant, pictured in front of café along Pennsylvania Avenue in ENY.

The PENY team described their layered approach to identifying landmark-worthy buildings: conducting extensive research at institutions such as the Department of Buildings and the Municipal Archives, utilizing the rezoning plan for the neighborhood as an opportunity to introduce preservation into conversations with community officials, partnering with institutions such as the Historic District Council and Municipal Arts Society, and remembering to celebrate the community as a whole while moving the group’s mission forward.

When describing the work, Porscha observed, “It’s somewhat of a duty—especially in this day and age with technology at your fingertips—for archivists, librarians, researchers, historians to reach out to get the community engaged with the history. I want to get the newcomer (from Ohio or Texas) to learn more about the community that they are moving into and becoming a part of—whether through old newspaper clippings, a traditional museum exhibit, or through social media. We can push the mission—using those platforms and developing attention-grabbing and meaningful content.” This sounds like a good model for the agency.

New Lots Community Church, New Lots and Schenck Avenues in Brooklyn. Formerly, the Reformed Protestant Dutch Church in the town of New Lots, founded in 1824 and landmarked in 1966.

Fish Strike

Strikes. New York’s had a few. And maybe never so many as during the 1930s. It seems as if every industry had a strike, judging from New York Police Department and Mayoral records. The NYPD Deputy Chief Inspector developed a list of the most important strikes between 1928 and 1937, inclusive. There was the paper-box strike, the Eagle pencil strike, the clothing salesmen strike, the Fur Workers, the Bee Line Bus workers (on multiple occasions), the Dugan Brothers Chauffeurs, the Cushman Bakery workers and the Building Services workers (requiring the deployment of 2,064 NYPD personnel—a record number) among others. All were related to fair wages and working conditions.

South Street Fish Markets, ca, 1938. Clifford Sutcliffe, WPA Federal Writers’ Project Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

Another interesting strike came to light in reviewing records about markets in the collection of Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia: the Fish Strike of 1934. Mayor LaGuardia was no stranger to food strikes. He must have been aware of the 1910 actions by Lower East Side housewives over the price and quality of meat. And, as a member of Congress in 1923, he vigorously supported the strike over the exorbitant price of meat. It began in East Harlem and spread throughout the City. However, the strikers in those instances were consumers. The fish strike was all about the sellers. Not for the first time. According to a September 1946 New Yorker article the first strike in the City occurred in 1741 and involved food. A group of bakers refused to ply their trade unless they were paid more. Taken to court, they were convicted but given a suspended sentence so they would resume baking bread and the City avoided a bread shortage.

Actually, better to call it fish strikes as there seemed to be rolling events roiling the waters around the Fulton Fish Market throughout 1934. In March, 1934 an incident imperiled the making of a Passover holiday staple: gefilte fish. Demanding the right to collective bargaining, retail fish dealers went on strike. Supplies of whitefish, perch, etc. quickly dried up. The Jewish Daily Bulletin reported that the strike ended at a raucous meeting between the wholesalers and retailers that resulted in an agreement reducing the price of such fish during the Passover holiday. And then, things apparently simmered down. The first mention of possible trouble in the LaGuardia Departmental Correspondence Files is a brief letter dated August 15, 1934, from the Acting Commissioner of the Department of Public Markets advising the mayor that the fish retailers and wholesalers differences had been settled. But that was not to be.

Letter to Mayor LaGuardia from William Fellowes Morgan, Jr., Commissioner of the Department of Public Markets, Weights and Measures, Oct. 16, 1934. Mayor LaGuardia Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

The Department of Public Markets, Weights and Measures was originally created by Mayor John Hylan in 1917 to monitor the price of food and ensure that scales used in retail markets were accurate. LaGuardia announced the appointment of Commissioner William Fellowes Morgan, Jr. at the annual meeting of the National Association of Butter and Egg Distributors, held at the Hotel Pennsylvania in January, 1934. LaGuardia’s announcement was met with great applause and he promised the new commissioner would root out racketeering in the City’s food markets.

The seventh Commissioner of the Department of Public Markets, Morgan knew quite a bit about seafood, having been the President of the Middle Atlantic Oyster Fisheries and head of the National Fisheries Association. This background was used against him by the United Retail Fish Dealers Association during the fish strike who charged him with drawing a “red herring to obscure the real issues and to stifle the heart rending cries of thousands of retail fish dealers,” and claimed that “he puts his personal interests in the fish business first and the public interest last…” This must have been a bitter charge because Morgan had fought against racketeering at the Fulton Fish Market, going so far as testifying before the Samuel Seabury Commission investigating corruption in the City.

Fish Peddler, ca. 1937. WPA Federal Writers’ Project Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

There were characters aplenty involved in the fish strikes—the Mayor, the Commissioner of Public Markets, the fresh water fish wholesalers, the retail fish sellers, fish peddlers, alleged gangsters, communists, you name it. The 1934 fish strikes had it all. It wasn’t a full strike-nothing like the general strike for the 8-hour day or 1909 shirtwaist strike for better conditions. And, not all fish sales were included—mostly it was just the sellers of bony fresh water fish specimens comprising the genus Osteichthyes. The salt water guys continued to buy and sell.

On October 15, 1934, 500 fish dealers who bought seafood from wholesalers and resold it to retail stores closed their businesses, depriving approximately 2,000 stores, and their customers, of fish. Sal Wolpow who headed the strike committee gave a rousing quote to the New York Herald Tribune, “We started a strike and we’re going through with it. Under no condition will you go back to your business unless we are guaranteed enough to meet our bills. We are fighting for the right to support our families. I challenge the Commissioner to a public hearing. Let the people know the truth about our cause.”

United Retail Fish Dealers Assoc. letter of demands, Oct. 16, 1934. Mayor LaGuardia Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

United Retail Fish Dealers Assoc. letter of demands, Oct. 16, 1934. Mayor LaGuardia Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

On site at the Fulton Fish Market, Commissioner Morgan contacted the Police Commissioner and asked for NYPD protection for the retailers and the Italian fish dealers who wanted to buy directly from the wholesalers.

Memo to Mayor LaGuardia from secretary L.B. Dunham, Oct. 16, 1934. Mayor LaGuardia Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

According to a memo from L. B. Dunham, Secretary to the Mayor, the Commissioner of the Department of Public Markets, Weights and Measures phoned in a report that the “strike was largely under the domination of a radical group” that demanded a fixed price for fish and that their organization should have the exclusive right to sell fish. Morgan followed the phone call with a letter describing the demands: a fixed price for fish (which he pooh-poohed); a ban on fish sales to pushcart peddlers; and that non-members of the retailers association be charged a higher price for wholesale fish. Further, he reported that those on strike were the Jewish Fish Dealers and that the Italian Fish Dealers had broken from the group.

Deposition of Daniel Remson, retail fish merchant. Mayor LaGuardia Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

Two depositions taken that day indicate the seriousness of the strike.

In one, a retail fish merchant who went to the docks at 5:10 a.m. to collect the day’s supply of fish only to have tires on his truck slashed, despite paying $2 per week for its “care and upkeep” while at the fish market. He consulted with the president of the Mutual Fish Dealers, of which he was a member, and was informed that “their members could buy fish as they had nothing to do with the strikers, and were not in favor of the strike.” The fishmonger then purchased 1,000 pounds of fish and headed to his store. “Later a Studebaker approached and eight tough looking men got out” and told him “that was a pretty raw deal which he had received this morning and there was no need to get “hot” about it. Deponent felt very angry about the way in which he had been treated. The men stated that they were advising him in a nice way, that they would make up the damage done to his truck but also advised him to take the fish back until the strike was over….He took the fish back to the market. Wholesaler was very peeved because deponent returned the fish.”

In the other deposition, the owner of eight fish stores claimed he was forced to keep his businesses closed because “Sol Wolpole (sic) has united about 85% of the retail fish dealers and intimated them into joining up with his Communist ideas….I am keeping my stores closed because Wolpole and his organization will picket my stores. If I keep open they will harm my business and divert it to other directions....The Walpole followers demand that the market set one price instead of fluctuating it according to the laws of supply and demand. This, to my mind, is a principal (sic) of Communism which I will never adhere to….

The fish suppliers walk-out lasted seven days, from October 15 to October 23, 1934. It paused, according to the New York Times, when the parties agreed to a 30-day truce during which, Major Benjamin Namm, the Mayor’s “peace representative in the fresh water fish industry” would negotiate a permanent settlement, with the assistance of the American Arbitration Association.

Telegram to Mayor LaGuardia from the United Retail Fish Dealers Assoc. Oct. 16, 1934. Mayor LaGuardia Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

Telegram to Mayor LaGuardia from the United Retail Fish Dealers Assoc. Oct. 16, 1934. Mayor LaGuardia Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

Major Namm soldiered on. In a November 7th memo, Lester Stone, Secretary to the Mayor, reported that the Major thought the Fresh Water Fish controversy was coming to a successful conclusion. Still on the table was the retailers desire to “fix” the price of fish. Finally, on November 13th agreements were made between the salt water wholesalers, the fresh water wholesalers and retailers. In his letter to the Mayor that week, Commissioner Morgan described how the Department of Public Markets would be helpful in carrying out the agreement. Inspectors would monitor the market to ensure that wholesalers only sold fish to licensed retail peddlers. No additional fish pushcart licenses would be issued by the Department. The Fulton Fish Market scales were to be tested to ensure “honest weights”. And the public affairs bureau at the Department would promote the consumption of fish in its regular radio broadcasts. He noted that an impartial arbitrator would settle issues among the parties going forward and worried that the Industry might refuse to abide by the ruling of the impartial arbitrator.

That was not the end. On November 23, the United Retail Fish Dealers letter to the Mayor appropriately began, “We regret to have to annoy you again in as much as we feel we have already imposed upon your good nature in the past, but unfortunately the serious condition in which the retail fish dealers find themselves is compelling us to lay our grievances again before you, knowing that any possible relief of which the City is capable of will be given to us.” The complaint: unlicensed fish peddlers.

Fish vendor, August 17, 1937. Ezzes, WPA Federal Writers’ Project Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

Major Namm was not called back into service. Instead, City Hall referred the matter to Commissioner Morgan. In his response, Morgan referred to the clause in the agreement that no fish was to be sold to unlicensed peddlers and reported that the departmental inspectors were reporting if the agreement wasn’t being followed. But, he wrote, “This will not cover the entire situation, however, as a considerable amount of fish is trucked from Fulton Market and then distributed to unlicensed peddlers uptown.” By whom, you might wonder? Possibly the fish suppliers themselves.

Thus ended the Fish Strikes of 1934. 

Legacy Cataloging at the NYC Municipal Archives

Cataloging, this week’s blog, is the first in a series about the ‘behind-the-scenes’ work City archivists perform to preserve and provide access to the collections.

Many of the most heavily-used collections, such as the records of mayoral administrations, have always been well-cataloged. But even these collections required researchers to separately search each series within the mayor’s papers for the relevant information on the subject or topic.

The Municipal Archives is widely known for both the quantity of its holdings—more than 246,000 cubic feet and 185 Terabytes—and their value for researching diverse topics in New York City and American history. But the information about the collections—the finding aids, catalogs and inventories needed to provide access—are not yet at a level commensurate with the world-class quality of the records themselves.

Like many archival institutions, the Municipal Archives has adopted computer-based technologies that are transforming the way patrons discover and access library and archival materials. At the Archives, it began with a single PC, acquired in 1985. Today, the agency’s IT division operates a network of dozens of computers equipped with the latest tools and applications that enable the Archives to manage more than 185 terabytes (and growing) of electronic data.

By the late 1980s, the Archives was creating inventories in database and spreadsheet formats. But the volume of the Archives’ collection, and the lack of consistent resources, particularly in the 1990s and 2000s, left these efforts incomplete. In 2014, under the leadership of Archives Director Sylvia Kollar, the Archives prioritized the work necessary to gain comprehensive intellectual and physical control over its holdings.

It was not a lack of information about the records that caused difficulties; if anything it was the opposite. The archivists discovered a plethora of sources for collection information—accession registers, card catalogs, shelf lists, microfilm targets, databases, lists—dating back to the 1950s, in every possible format ranging from hand-written penciled notes, to formal finding aids with folder and sometimes even item-level inventories.

The first step was to adopt an archival content management system. After research and consultation with colleagues in other institutions, ArchivesSpace (AS) was chosen as the most suitable public interface. AS is a web application that allows the public easy access to all of the descriptive information needed to identify relevant materials in the Archives’ collections.

The next step was to begin the arduous process of assembling and preparing the information about collections that would be made publicly available in AS. The archivists charged with making that happen faced some daunting challenges.

This typed inventory of materials received from the Mayor’s Office on May 14, 1958, provides an example of an intriguing and specific list of correspondence and a scrapbook, but with outdated location information. Considerable time would be spent confirming the existence of and current location of these items.

 Complicating the quantity of data (or lack of) about the records, were the inconsistencies in how records were described and how names and titles were spelled and listed. Here are three catalog entries referencing Mayor Vincent Impellitteri.

Complicating the quantity of data (or lack of) about the records, were the inconsistencies in how records were described and how names and titles were spelled and listed. Here are three catalog entries referencing Mayor Vincent Impellitteri.

Although there were multiple sources of descriptive data for most collections, for some there was only rudimentary, or no, catalog information. Even the accession database, the most comprehensive extant record of the Archives’ holdings lacked information about important collections, among them, the Brooklyn Bridge drawings. The story of the collection’s discovery in a Department of Transportation carpentry shop in 1969, and eventual transfer to Municipal Archives in 1976 had been the subject of an article in American Heritage magazine (vol. 31, 1979). The collection was subsequently featured in Ken Burns’ Brooklyn Bridge documentary film and many drawings had been included in exhibitions and books. But the collection was not listed in the accession database. Finally, in 2017, the archivists retrospectively accessioned the Brooklyn Bridge drawings.

Brooklyn Bridge Drawing #656: Caisson in Position, Brooklyn Side, September 28, 1869. Washington A. Roebling. NYC Municipal Archives.

The archivists completed a restrospective accession in 2017 and the field notes now state: “According to David McCullough's December 1979 article in American Heritage (Volume 31, Issue 1), Francis P. Valentine, an engineer for the Department of Transportation, discovered roughly ten thousand drawings in the department’s carpentry shop at 352 Kent Avenue in 1969. After contacting a variety of museums and historical societies, the Whitney museum conserved and displayed 65 of the most striking drawings. They were then transferred to the Municipal Archives in 1976.”

Guide to the Municipal Government of the City of New York, NYC Municipal Library.

In preparation for the introduction of ArchivesSpace, the archivists developed a plan to clean-up the data. One of the most important steps was to adopt consistent description protocols based on national standards and authority records.

Another of the important aspects of the project was to research agency histories. The Municipal Reference Library’s Guide to the Municipal Government of the City of New York, authored by MRL Librarian Thelma Smith was an indispensable tool for archivists tasked with researching agency histories. However, the most recent edition of Smith’s guide is from 1974—leaving the archivists with much additional research to bring agency histories up to date.

As illustrated in this chart, the Commission on Human Rights, formally established in 1962, originated as the Mayor’s Committee on Unity in 1944, evolving into the Commission on Intergroup Relations in 1955. Agency histories are important for patrons who may not realize that there was a previous iteration of the agency, or function, with a different title. By searching Commission on Human Rights in AS, they will access all the other associated and predecessor entities that are in the Archives collection.

The Official Directory of the City of New York, first published in 1914 was another essential source for agency history information.

Many of the most heavily-used collections, such as the records of mayoral administrations, have always been well-cataloged. But even these collections required researchers to separately search each series within the mayor’s papers for the relevant information on the subject or topic. Similarly, it was not possible to simultaneously search across multiple collections. ArchivesSpace will enable patrons to easily perform this type of all-collection research.

We are pleased to announce that ArchivesSpace is scheduled for an initial public roll-out in November 2018.

“Good Morning Housewives” - Milk

Promotional milk brochure, 1939. WPA Federal Writers’ Project Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

Visitors to the Municipal Archives’ new exhibit: Feeding the City: The Unpublished WPA Federal Writers’ Project Manuscript, 1935-1942, will have the opportunity to view rare vintage recipes and photographs, bold and colorful advertising brochures, and excerpts from the manuscript. It’s all about food and New York City’s role in the global food marketplace, with fascinating materials drawn from the Archives’ collection of the NYC Unit of the Works Progress Administration (WPA) Federal Writers’ Project.

The blog this week highlights another of the City’s food-related initiatives that got its start in the depths of the Great Depression. Beginning on March 26, 1934, at 8:25 a.m. every weekday morning, WNYC radio listeners could hear Frances Foley Gannon’s five-minute program about food—what was available in the markets that day at a good price, recipes, and advice on healthy food choices. Appointed by Mayor LaGuardia as the Deputy Commissioner of the Department of Markets, Bureau of Consumers’ Services, in 1934, Gannon hosted her ‘food talk’ program for almost thirty years until she retired in 1963. Transcribed here is her radio program about milk, from June 28, 1940:


            Our milk supply usually reaches its peak in the month of June when the cows are put out to pasture, where they can eat plenty of green grass. According to the United States Department of Agriculture, milk production this year is a little above any previous record.

Promotional milk brochure, 1939. WPA Federal Writers’ Project Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

            Much of this extra milk is made into cheese and butter. Some of it is evaporated, condensed or dried, and by using it in these forms, it is possible to get the food values of milk in concentrated form.

The food values contained in milk are really something to talk about. You know, milk is classed as the “almost perfect food” because it is rich in so many nutritional elements.

            Its fat content can be observed when the cream rises to the top of the bottle of milk. You can also see the protein in the form of curd when the milk sours, and the slightly sweet taste is evidence enough of the sugar content.

            Milk is especially valuable for its calcium and phosphorus, so important for sound bones and teeth. In addition, scientists tell us that milk is particularly rich in vitamin A and G, and that it also has some vitamin D, and small amounts of B1 and C.

            So, it is easily understandable why the nutritionists recommend a quart of milk a day for growing children and a pint a day for adults. Some of this quota can be in the form of cheese or evaporated milk.

            In fact, in 5 ounces of American cheese, there is the same amount of calcium, phosphorus and protein as you would obtain in a quart of milk. In manufacturing evaporated milk, about one-half the water is removed from fresh fluid milk. So, when you use the evaporated milk, you can mix it with water- measure for measure. This “reconstructed” milk will have about the same food value as an equal amount of fresh milk. You can dink it, or you can eat in in cream soup, scalloped dishes, muffins, bread, cake, custard and any number of other dishes.

            Milk is an ideal hot weather drink for both children and adults. It is not only cooling but it is also nourishing and safe. Many find a glass of cold, sweet milk delightful. Buttermilk is a summer favorite of others who enjoy the tang of its slightly acid flavor. With most of its butterfat removed, it offers a splendid choice to any who may be watching a waist line.

Woman posing with milk relief posters, ca. 1938. WPA Federal Writers’ Project Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

            Children are especially fond of flavored milk drinks and if they have difficulty consuming their quart per day allowance of milk, this is an excellent method of getting them to drink their quota.

            A wide variety of inexpensive, mixed milk drinks can be made at home. Chocolate milk shakes, fruit juice and fruit syrups of all kinds are other good suggestions.

            Now a word or two on the care of milk. Producers and distributors must take every precaution to protect the quality and wholesomeness of their milk. This should serve as an example to the housewife caring for milk after it is placed outside the door.

            Have the milk delivered where it will not be exposed to the sun, and take it into the house as soon as possible, especially in hot weather. Then place it in the refrigerator at once and allow it to remain there when you are not using it. Keep the milk in the original container until needed for immediate consumption; do not put it into a bowl or pitcher for storage. Carefully wipe the containers before pouring any milk from it, because of its exposure to contamination while left standing on the doorstep and finally, when storing in the refrigerator, keep milk away from foods with strong odors as they are readily absorbed.

Label for Borden’s “irradiated” evaporated milk, ca. 1938. WPA Federal Writers’ Project Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

When Frances Foley Gannon broadcast her milk talk in 1940, New York City was the largest market for milk in the country with 3,200,000 quarts of milk consumed daily at homes, schools, restaurants, hotels and hospitals. Gannon’s radio broadcast may have been prompted by a relief program launched in 1940 by Mayor LaGuardia and the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture that aimed to increase the consumption of fluid mild and strengthening child health.  Children were told to drink a quart of milk every day; adults two full cups. In the decades since then, milk consumption has decreased dramatically, in favor of other beverages. 

Feeding the City: The Unpublished WPA Federal Writers’ Project Manuscript, 1935-1943, will be on view in the NYC Municipal Archives 1st Floor Gallery, 31 Chambers Street, Manhattan, through March 2019. Visit our website for opening hours and upcoming programs.


 Subway excavation workers. Date: 1941. Photographer: Andrew Herman. WPA-FWP Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

Subway excavation workers. Date: 1941. Photographer: Andrew Herman. WPA-FWP Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

This week’s blog features images from the Municipal Archives’ installation at the 2018 Photoville exposition at Brooklyn Bridge Park.  The photographs in the exhibit were selected from the Federal Writers’ Project (FWP) photograph collection.  The FWP was one of the innovative Works Progress Administration (WPA) programs devised to alleviate mass unemployment caused by the Great Depression of the 1930s.

Historian William E. Leuchtenberg described the Depression as a “knife that cut down impartially through the entire population cleaving open lives and hopes of rich as well as poor.” For the millions who found themselves without work and unable to feed their families, there seemed no place to turn.  The funds provided by private charities and by state and local governments were soon exhausted.

 South Street Seaport. Date: January 13, 1937. Photographer unknown. WPA-FWP Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

South Street Seaport. Date: January 13, 1937. Photographer unknown. WPA-FWP Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

In the presidential campaign of 1932, Franklin Delano Roosevelt promised a “New Deal” and was elected by a landslide.  His first priority was to put people back to work, preferably in jobs that would preserve their skills.  One result was the WPA, which ended up employing over 8.5 million people from 1935 to 1943; 700,000 in New York City alone.

 WPA Activities, Sewing Project (Ironers), Date: 1937. Photographer: Andrew Herman. WPA-FWP Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

WPA Activities, Sewing Project (Ironers), Date: 1937. Photographer: Andrew Herman. WPA-FWP Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

The WPA did not just improve parks and build roadways—a portion of the money was set aside for unemployed professionals in the “arts.” As director Harry Hopkins explained, “they have to eat like other people.” It was called Federal Project Number One, and consisted of Art, Music, Theatre and Writers’ Projects. The Federal Writers' Project (FWP) was the only one to operate in all 48 states and the territories of Alaska, Hawaii, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands, as well as New York City.  At its peak, in April of 1936, there were 6,686 on the payroll nationwide; approximately 40% were women.

The New York City housed the largest FWP Unit, employing, nearly 300 people.  The writers produced the New York City Guide, New York Panorama, Almanac for New Yorkers, a number of ethnic studies, Who's Who in the Zoo—a total of 64 proposed books. The New York City Guide proved so durable and popular that it was re-published in 1966, 1982 and again in 1992. To illustrate the books, the NYC unit acquired photographs from trade organizations, other branches of Federal Project One, and sent staff photographers to document many aspects of New York City.

 Charlie Wagner tattooing a woman at his world-famous Bowery studio, 11 Chatham Square. Date: 1938. Photographer: Daniel Triestman. WPA-FWP Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

Charlie Wagner tattooing a woman at his world-famous Bowery studio, 11 Chatham Square. Date: 1938. Photographer: Daniel Triestman. WPA-FWP Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

The tour-guide nature of the books explains the curious absence in the photographs of the sordid Depression-era realities. (In addition, in 1938, the House Committee on Un-American Activities, under Chairman Martin Dies, (D-Texas), used photographs from the NYC Unit of the FWP to target alleged Communist Party members on the staff. Photographs that depicted social “unrest,” such as strikes or breadlines, were removed from the Project files.)  The NYC FWP photographers adhered to a documentary approach; there was no attempt to glamorize.  The result is an unsentimental portrait of bartenders and carny barkers, wrestlers and garment workers, blacksmiths and tattoo artists, fishmongers and pretzel vendors—the gritty reality of 1930s New York.  

In 1943, after controversies over funding and mismanagement, the necessities of World War II brought the WPA to a close.  The NYC Unit of the FWP transferred its files, including the photographs, to Rebecca Rankin, Chief Librarian at the NYC Municipal Reference Library; the collection was later transferred to the Municipal Archives.

 Counter of the Unique Lunch, 195 West 135th Street. Date: December 14, 1937. Photographer: Aubrey Pollard. WPA-FWP Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

Counter of the Unique Lunch, 195 West 135th Street. Date: December 14, 1937. Photographer: Aubrey Pollard. WPA-FWP Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

The photographs in this exhibit include the work of well-known photographers Dorothea Lange and Berenice Abbott alongside others of equal talent including Sam Brody, Ralph DeSola, Charles Eiseman, Andrew Herman, Sol Horn, Sol Libsohn, Aubrey Pollard, David Robbins, Clifford Sutcliffe, James Suydam, Daniel Treistman, and Jack Rosenzweig. 

The Photoville display was inspired by an exhibit at the Municipal Archives curated by Barbara H. Millstein in 1980.  It highlights many images from the more than 5,000 prints in the collection that previously had been overlooked or were from negatives not yet available in 1980.  In 1993, the National Endowment for the Humanities provided generous support to the Municipal Archives to preserve and microfilm the collection. 

 Worker on the New York tower of the George Washington Bridge. Date: December 22, 1936. Photographer: Jack Rosenzwieg. WPA-FWP Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

Worker on the New York tower of the George Washington Bridge. Date: December 22, 1936. Photographer: Jack Rosenzwieg. WPA-FWP Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

Photoville is open to the public over two long weekends, Thursday–Sunday, 9/13–9/16 and 9/20–9/24.