The City as It Was, A Web Site Away
By CAROL VOGEL
For decades photographers like Berenice Abbott and Samuel H. Gottscho captured New York City — its streets and neighborhoods, landmark buildings and bridges, famous haunts and hangouts. And for decades thousands of these images and others dating from as early as the mid-19th century have been languishing in the storerooms of the Museum of the City of New York.
But as the passionate photography world has just discovered, 52,000 of these vintage shots, including work by other masters like Jacob A. Riis, the Wurts Brothers and the Byron Company, have started appearing on the museum’s Web site. Days after a preliminary unveiling of this new section of the site, museum officials said 18,279 people had viewed 292,001 pages. The users were not just New Yorkers but from around the globe — Brazilians, Australians and Israelis, among others.
Online visitors first see filmstriplike rows of photographs flashing across the screen. They can then choose the work of a photographer; zoom in on any part of the image to, say, read the lettering in a sign; study more photographs of related themes and subjects; even save works they might want to see again in their own “light box.”
“We’re going to be real, and we’re going to be 21st century,” Susan Henshaw Jones, the museum’s director, said on a recent blustery morning. Sitting in her office, views of Central Park behind her that bore an uncanny resemblance to some of the photographs online, she added, “We’ve finally turned a corner.”
A decade ago the question was, Could the Museum of the City of New York survive? It had financial problems; attendance was down; its programs were lackluster. And for years it struggled. There was the proposed merger with the New-York Historical Society, which never materialized; the idea to place it at ground zero, a suggestion that was rejected by the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation; the plan to move it to the Tweed Courthouse in Lower Manhattan, a notion spearheaded by Rudolph W. Giuliani when he was mayor and then scrapped by his successor, Michael R. Bloomberg. And with so much else happening on the New York cultural scene, many asked, Who needed a museum devoted to the history of New York City anyway?
Pose that question to Ms. Jones today, and she has a battery of answers ready. “I see us as the city’s official museum,” she said. Since she arrived there in 2003 after jobs as director of the National Building Museum in Washington and president of the New York Landmarks Conservancy, Ms. Jones has been out to transform the museum from a sleepy institution into a destination people will want to visit more than once.
“I am a New Yorker,” she said, “and this is a real New York story.”
For many longtime residents, the museum is synonymous with its amazing collection of dollhouses dating from the late 18th century, but its holdings go far deeper. They include three centuries of costumes, among them garments worn by Gypsy Rose Lee, Cornelius Vanderbilt, Mary French Rockefeller and Marian Anderson. The museum has a large collection of theater memorabilia too, an array of antique toys and, of course, photographs.
It has more than 300,000 images of the city, among them shots taken for the Federal Art Project during the Depression and pictures made for Look magazine (whose photographers included a young Stanley Kubrick). As of now, 52,000 images are available on the Web site, with more to come.
And the public is starting to notice the museum. Attendance rose to nearly 250,000 in 2010, from fewer than 60,000 in 2002. A modernization project to renovate and expand its home has helped: more than halfway finished, this is the first major update since the building, a Georgian-style mansion on Fifth Avenue between 103rd and 104th Streets, went up in 1932.
The other morning, on the sidewalk outside the museum, construction crews were working on the facade, while a gaggle of sixth graders from Public School 105 in the Bronx were pouring into the education center. Some came to learn about Manhattan’s street grid and build a model reflecting principles of urban planning; others were participating in “From Wampum to Windmills,” a program that let them explore historic New York interiors.
“Our job here has always been a three-legged stool,” Ms. Jones explained. “First, to revitalize the mission of the museum through its exhibitions, public programs and publications; then to modernize the building so that our collections will be safe, with proper climate controls and storage; and the third, what I call collections initiative, meaning making its holdings accessible.” Eventually, she said, all of the museum’s collections will be online, but completing that effort will take many years.
For now the museum is growing into its new skin. A three-level addition containing a new curatorial center — with “cool” and “cold” rooms for the preservation of photographs — and a climate-controlled gallery was finished in 2008. Almost complete are new offices and classrooms for the 40,000 schoolchildren who visit each year. Work is under way to renovate and add climate control to the galleries in the building’s south wing. The final phase, which officials hope to start next year, will focus on modernizing the north wing, including three galleries and the auditorium, an undertaking that is expected to be done by 2013.
So far, $68 million has been raised for the $85 million renovation project. Of that, the city has contributed more than $40 million, while private money has been provided by benefactors like the museum board’s chairman, James G. Dinan, and the Puffin Foundation.
As for staying in its original home, both the staff and the museum’s trustees are glad none of the previous plans were realized. “We’re at the top of Museum Mile, close to Queens, a heartbeat from the Bronx,” Ms. Jones said.
Besides attracting international visitors, she is also eager to serve the immediate neighborhood, and so she has instituted the “I’m a Neighbor” program, which extends free admission to any resident of Upper Manhattan. (General admission is $10.)
“We’re not an art museum,” Ms. Jones added. “So we can do off-the-beaten-track exhibitions.” In the last few years the museum has presented shows about high fashion and even baseball.
“They’ve figured out how to dig deep into different kinds of stories and tell them well,” said Kate D. Levin, the city’s cultural affairs commissioner. “And they’ve done programming that looks to Harlem, the Bronx, Queens.”
Ms. Levin also noted the museum’s recent collaborations. Last year it joined the Wildlife Conservation Society to present “Mannahatta/Manhattan,” about the city’s natural history. And in February it is working with the Apollo Theater to offer lectures and other programs related to an exhibition on the theater. (The show itself is being organized by the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service.)
Mr. Dinan said he hoped that the institution would become a must-see for first-time visitors to New York. With technology like the Web site and eventual cellphone applications, he added, “we will soon be able to personalize the visitor’s experience.”
Both he and the board’s vice chairman and chairman emeritus, Newton P. S. Merrill, point to other city museums around the world. “There are first-class city museums in Berlin, Paris, London, and we’re on our way too,” Mr. Merrill said.
Ms. Jones also talks about the institution with civic pride. “If we didn’t exist,” she said, “they’d invent us.”
^ The detail in that first photo is just amazing. It's really sad that the Singer Tower and City Investing Building aren't in today's view, along with the wonderful survivors.
^A lot of the turn of the century Detroit Photo Co. shots on the Library of Congress site are great. They're huge TIF files and take a while to download, but they're worth the wait and space. I'll post some more as I get a chance, like these ones..
From the Singer Building ENLARGE
The just completed Williamsburg Bridge ENLARGE
Trinity Churchyard ENLARGE
The Woolworth Building almost complete ENLARGE
Flashback: Growing Manhattan, 1916
"Columbia University: Athletic Field, Library, Lecture Halls. New York City, 1916."
We stumbled upon the New York State Archives image library last night, and dug up these old photos of Manhattan, all from the year 1916. That year New York City was the largest Metropolitan area in America, with a population of 5 million and growing, it was experiencing a building boom. At the time, it was home to the world's tallest skyscraper: the Woolworth Building (built in 1913). That year, New York passed the first zoning law in the county, "and because New Yorkers did not want to cap the height of skyscrapers, they decided that they would regulate the shape of skyscrapers.
The idea was that that light and air would reach the sidewalk... the height that you could build up to depended upon the width of the street on which your building was located."
That year Popular Science published an article proposing "a project to reclaim fifty square miles of land from New York bay, to add one hundred miles of new waterfront docks, to fill in the East River, and to prepare New York for a population of twenty million." Just 8 years later there would be another plan to drain the East River proposed in an effort to ease up on traffic congestion. Alas, the body of water has escaped a concrete spill this long, so it's probably in the clear.
Here's the Manhattan Bridge under construction 1908-09 ENLARGE
1948 Procession at Yankee Stadium for the late Babe Ruth ENLARGE
The House that Ruth Built in the '50's. Fans used to actually walk on the field after the game ENLARGE
Another New York ballpark was the Polo Grounds, home of the Giants (until they left in 1957), and the Mets in 1962-63. It was torn down soon after this photo was taken to be replaced by more public housing
This photo shows just how close the 2 parks were...less than a mile across the Harlem River ENLARGE
And the last of NY's 3 great ballparks was Ebbets Field ENLARGE
...which was demolished soon after the Dodgers fled town after the 1957 season
A LITTLE LARGER
To be replaced by another of Robert Moses' high rise housing projects
The above stadium pics from baseball-fever.com
More from the LOC
What used to happen when the horses passed away? They just layed in the street until someone (the owner, the city?) loaded it up and carted it away on a horse drawn cart.
City Hall around 1900 ENLARGE
A colorized version ENLARGE
Broad St ENLARGE
Bowling Green 1900 ENLARGE
The Bowery Early 00's ENLARGE
23rd St YMCA ENLARGE
28th St Subway station ENLARGE
Brooklyn Bridge subway Station under construction 1904 ENLARGE
229 5th Ave & 27th St ENLARGE
Last edited by Radiohead; January 14th, 2011 at 10:56 PM. Reason: fix
Photo courtesy of Daily News Pix. Taken 12/1/43. Lots of good ones there.