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Preserving Preservation: A New Initiative at the New-York Historical Society

Preserving Preservation: A New Initiative at the New-York Historical Society

May 22, 2015
Article from the Spring 2015 Newsletter

Founded in 1804 and now one of America’s pre-eminent cultural institutions, the New-York Historical Society (N-YHS) is dedicated to fostering research and presenting exhibitions and public programs that explore the rich history of New York and the nation as a whole. From its beginnings to the present day, the institution has actively acquired significant materials related to the history of the region. In the words of one speaker at an N-YHS meeting soon after its establishment: “…without the aid of historic records and authentic documents, history would be nothing more than a well-combined series of ingenious conjectures and amusing fables.”

The N-YHS is currently seeking to partner with individuals, groups, and organizations to collect, preserve, and make accessible the documentary legacy of the preservation movement in New York City and the surrounding area. The goal of this new initiative is to create an ongoing program that provides a secure, professionally curated and managed home for archival materials in all formats. This resource will provide researchers, scholars, students, and others with the primary material critical to the history of the preservation movement in the 20th and 21st centuries. The N-YHS is interested in a broad spectrum of material: from ephemera, scrapbooks, photographs, and audio/video recordings, to correspondence, diaries and journals, formal organizational records, case study files, and campaign files. In short, the institution is interested in the wide variety of materials generated by individuals, groups, and organizations in the course of their work on behalf of historic preservation.

Although this initiative is new, it builds on foundations that have been in place at N-YHS. Among other items, the N-YHS holds the diaries of Harmon Goldstone’s years at New York City’s Landmarks Preservation Commission (1968-1974); the papers of Margot Gayle, best known for her work on behalf of the Jefferson Market Courthouse, the Victorian Society in America, and the Friends of Cast-Iron Architecture; and the papers of Shirley Hayes, active in Greenwich Village and vigorous opponent of Robert Moses. In addition, the N-YHS hold the records of groups active around the redevelopment of Washington Square Park in the 1950s and ‘60s; the Woman’s League for the Protection of Riverside Park; the Friends of City Hall Park; and small collections relating to Andrew Haswell Green, the Chapel Farm in Riverdale, and the involvement of the N-YHS and the American Scenic and Historic Preservation Society in the movement to preserve Castle Clinton. Furthermore, the N-YHS’s architectural collections hold primary documentation on many of the City’s most important buildings, which have served preservationists well over the years. Among this large archive of architectural materials are the records of McKim, Mead & White, Cass Gilbert, and George B. Post. There is also a large collection of brochures on 20th-century apartment buildings and hotels.

The Archive Project is thrilled that this renowned institution is addressing the urgent need to collect materials related to the nationally-significant historic preservation movement in New York City. By partnering with the N-YHS on this initiative, the Archive Project looks forward to working together to help create an established repository devoted to this piece of New York City history. The Archive Project has already been involved with placing some of Margot Gayle’s papers at the N-YHS and just this past summer we worked with the Society in transferring the Ladies’ Mile collections of Jack Taylor and Margaret Moore. 

For further information on this initiative, or for questions related to the current collection of preservation materials at the N-YHS, please contact Michael Ryan, vice president and director of the Patricia D. Klingenstein Library, at [email protected] or Ted O’Reilly, manuscript reference librarian, at [email protected]

Above: The Patricia D. Klingenstein Library; Courtesy of the New York Preservation Archive Project