Burnham Collection Intact! Preservation Papers Rescued from Auction Block
October 14, 2011 | by Elizabeth Rohn Jeffe, Vice-Chair
Article from the 2011 Fall Newsletter
Those who are passionate about preservation undoubtedly know about the incredible legacy of Alan Burnham (1913-1984). A practicing architect, architectural historian, and ardent preservationist, Burnham authored New York Landmarks: A Study & Index of Architecturally Notable Structures in Greater New York. Published in 1963, this magnificent illustrated volume remains a masterwork in the preservationist canon. Two years later, Burnham capped off his illustrious career in preservation by becoming the first executive director of the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission.
What many people probably do not know is the inspiring story of how Burnham’s collection of architectural and preservation books and personal papers, which became known as the American Architectural Archive (AAA), was rescued from the auctioneer’s block through the efforts of Jeffrey Lew. In 2008, just as the AAA was headed for sale piece by piece, Jeff stepped in and bought the collection in its entirety for the sake of preservation posterity. NYPAP became a critical partner in the second part of this rescue effort by helping Jeff find a repository at Columbia University’s Avery Library for the portion of the AAA consisting of Burnham’s papers.
Jeff, a New York real estate broker and investor, came to his mission through his association with Gordon McCollum, whose commercial real estate firm, The Galbreath Company, hired Jeff when he graduated from college in 1989. Jeff had the opportunity to work with McCollum on a number of projects, and he became, in Jeff’s words, “absolutely the catalyst for my interest in preservation.” An activist in the world of New York City preservation, McCollum purchased a townhouse on Prince Street in SoHo that he fully restored, painstakingly combing the country to find the architecturally correct components for his renovation. Having known Burnham personally, and understanding the importance of Burnham’s role in preservation, McCollum purchased Burnham’s collection of books and papers when Burnham died in 1986. McCollum used his Prince Street home as the repository of the Burnham collection and did much more than just save the AAA—he made the materials available to researchers. McCollum’s library, containing the Burnham collection, became a focal point for preservationists to gather and study. Because of Jeff’s friendship with McCollum, and his familiarity with the AAA in McCollum’s house, Jeff Lew was fully aware of both the importance of his friend’s role as a steward of preservation history, and the incredible value of the collection itself. According to Jeff, the AAA included “entire filing cabinets” of materials such as correspondence and proposals that had belonged to Burnham; these included a “tremendous amount of data,” something of particular value to preservationists who need hard facts to make the case for preservation initiatives.
When Gordon McCollum died in January of 2000, the McCollum family retained the Prince Street house, and the AAA remained there for eight years. However, in 2008, the estate tried without success to sell the Burnham collection intact to an institution. Now the mantle of safe keeper shifted to Jeff’s shoulders. Because he was friendly with the McCollum heirs, and was concerned about the AAA going to auction and being sold in various lots to different purchasers, Jeff stepped in and bought Burnham’s collection in its entirety. Once in possession of Burnham’s books and papers, Jeff realized that Burnham’s papers might better serve the preservation community if they were housed in an institution permitting public access. Searching on the Internet for assistance with this project, Jeff located the NYPAP website and contacted the organization’s president, Anthony C. Wood. Describing Tony as “ a “wonderful resource” who possessed “such focus” when asked for assistance in finding the best place for the Burnham papers, Jeff worked with Tony and together they found the right fit for the materials at Columbia’s Avery Library. His contact at Avery was Janet Parks, the Curator of Drawings and Archives at Avery’s Architectural and Fine Arts Library. Jeff was impressed by NYPAP’s ability to give him a broad range of advisory options so that he could consider what would be best for him to do and says that “in the end, I took all of Tony’s advice!”
Jeff can still savor the rich collection of Burnham books that he retained for his personal enjoyment and houses in the library of his seasonal home in Sag Harbor. Among these are invaluable works dating back to the latter 1800s, including a very early volume on Central Park, various Shepp’s Manuals of the City of New York, and a turn of the century picture book of New York City. Other items of historical and visual importance are “ceremonial books” celebrating the openings of the Woolworth and Empire State buildings.
Describing himself as an ardent preservationist, Jeff says that several things in particular have stood out during the many hours he has spent reading the contents of Burnham’s AAA. Viewing Burnham within the historical context of the groundbreaking efforts to protect New York’s heritage, Jeff says that “as I sifted through his papers, I was very taken at how he was part of a group of early activists who took a stand and communicated with others to present a vision to save their architectural heritage.” Jeff notes also that by reading Burnham’s papers, it became obvious to him that Burnham was very organized and wrote careful letters and thorough proposals. In Burnham’s “pre-internet” era, communication was still a matter of formal correspondence, and Burnham kept the old carbon copies of his letters. Looking through the photographs in Burnham’s books, Jeff says that he cannot help but be sad about how much as been destroyed in the City: “Time and again you see great buildings, including those in Chelsea, that were wiped out to put up marginal architecture…there are not enough people like Alan.”
For all those who, like Jeff, recognize the challenges for preservationists in New York, there is no doubt that Jeff has provided the community with an invaluable resource by saving the AAA, and NYPAP has been delighted to be of assistance to someone as dedicated as Jeff has to the NYPAP cause. As Tony Wood observes, “NYPAP’s interaction with Jeff is one of the services we are always happy to provide—matching a person who possesses preservation history documents with the best repository for those materials. NYPAP salutes Jeff for his significant contribution to preserving preservation’s history, and we hope that his efforts will inspire and educate others to do the same.”