Events & News

Archival First Responders

May 14, 2009
From the Spring 2009 Newsletter

On October 21, 2008, NYPAP received an urgent call – not a regular occurrence in the preservation archives world. Margot Gayle, an ardent preservationist who was pivotal in the establishment and designation of the SoHo-Cast Iron Historic District and so much more, had passed away just a few weeks earlier on September 28, 2008 and her two daughters were in town to sort out what remained in her apartment of the vast collection of files and clippings she had amassed over the years. Anything that was not claimed within those two days was to be discarded.

NYPAP’s Administrator, Sarah Sher, along with intern Melissa Umberger, headed to Ms. Gayle’s Upper East Side apartment with archival boxes and folders at the ready. The result of 50 years of research and correspondence was a room lined with books, papers, clippings, notes and other materials scattered all over the floor, and photographs dating back to the 1960s of New York City’s architectural treasures stuffed into every nook and cranny of the apartment. The Archive Project, along with staff members from the NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission and Pratt Institute’s Library, spent hour upon hour sorting through Ms. Gayle’s incredible collections, trying to identify anything that might be historically valuable.

Part of NYPAP’s mission is to provide in such emergency situations a temporary home for important preservation papers that otherwise would be lost to the dumpster. The Project then seeks to find an appropriate permanent home for such items with established collecting institutions. Though tempted to bring every last piece of paper from Margot’s apartment back to NYPAP’s 11×13 office space, only that which could be immediately determined to be significant could be retrieved. We returned to our building on East 80th Street with a box full of correspondence dating all the way back to 1948, hundreds of slides of New York City sites that are now in the hands of the NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission’s research department, and nearly one thousand photographs from the 1960s and 70s taken by Margot Gayle herself. 

The National Trust Library is now the steward of Margot Gayle’s Friends of Cast Iron papers. Various letters, books, and images were scavenged by NYPAP and other institutions with a deep interest in New York City and preservation history. Over the years Margot had given away the papers dealing with some of her earlier preservation efforts but having lived to a very active 100 years of age, she continued to generate new material until just before her death. Despite the valiant efforts of family, friends, and preservation organizations, it is likely that under the pressure of having to beat the clock, some Margot material of interest was lost.

This experience underscores the importance of both making plans for your preservation papers and of keeping those plans updated. Years ago Margot may well have thought she had planned for the future of all her important papers, but as her preservation advocacy and research continued unabated, she generated additional decades of archival material. If you have been involved in important chapters in the history of preservation in New York City you need to make plans for the future of your archival material—particularly correspondence, memos, and other original documents. NYPAP does not permanently collect such material but is eager to work with you to identify the most appropriate home for your archives.

Call NYPAP if you are aware of preservation papers heading for the dumpster. Better yet, call us before the emergency arrives. Even preservationists don’t live forever. We are here to help you preserve your piece of preservation’s history. Preservation organizations also need to make plans for the future of their archives so that preservation’s story can be saved. Give us a call; NYPAP is here to help.

Above: Archive Project intern Melissa Umberger at Margot Gayle’s apartment; Courtesy of the New York Preservation Archive Project