If You Live Long Enough…
October 15, 2014 | by Anthony C. Wood, Founder & Chair
Article from the Fall 2014 Newsletter
At long last, it finally happened. After years of waiting, the call I had long hoped for finally came. No, it was not the one about winning the lottery. For decades I have been guided by the firm conviction that at some point in the future, the materials I have accumulated from my past preservation activities would be of interest to posterity. At times, as I have shuttled the growing stacks of bankers boxes containing my preservation files from one makeshift home to another, I have had my moments of doubt. However as a preservation history packrat (turned unofficial archivist in an attempt to justify my behavior) I remained resolute in my belief that these materials would be of value, and frankly I just could not face the thought of tossing these files out.
That phone call validated my preservation hoarding behavior. The subject of the caller’s inquiry was the 1984 effort to save the Rizzoli and Coty buildings on Fifth Avenue between 55th and 56th streets. Preservationists successfully campaigned for landmark designation of these two early-20th-century buildings, one of which housed the Rizzoli Bookstore, when a developer sought to demolish them to make way for an office tower. Many of you may remember one of the key discoveries that helped tip the scales in preservationists’ favor: famed glassmaker René Lalique had designed the cast glass windows spanning the third through fifth floors of the Coty Building. The caller’s interest in this historic event had been triggered by the more recent, failed effort to designate the building on 57th Street that the Rizzoli Bookstore relocated to in 1985. In the aftermath of that unsuccessful attempt, the caller—one of the activists involved in this recent campaign—contacted me looking for information on that first battle of Rizzoli; he had learned of my involvement in that earlier struggle and wondered if I had any materials on it. His goal was to examine both Rizzoli battles to draw conclusions, make observations, and take stock of preservation then and now.
Some day you or your preservation organization will receive a similar version of that phone call. And when that call comes, will you have what that researcher needs? Time passes quickly. Chances are that inquiry will come before you even have a sense that your current preservation work has become historic.
Just this August, I opened The New York Times to read a review of an exhibition at the Skyscraper Museum, entitled Times Square, 1984: The Postmodern Moment. The exhibition focused on the Times Tower Site Competition, a design contest organized by the Municipal Art Society in 1984. Could that really have been 30 years ago? Can that event already have become historic and worthy of attention? Yes and yes! For that competition over 550 architects and designers submitted proposals on 30-by-40 inch poster boards, about 20 of which the Skyscraper Museum had located. Three decades ago who could have imagined that this event and the material related to it would be of such interest? That’s just the point –one never knows! Everything cannot be saved (imagine storing 550 poster boards for 30 years hoping someday someone would do a retrospective). But we can document preservation’s past—luckily it is much easier to do so today—and we can be conscious about what we save and what we throw away.
The multi-year gala celebration of the 50th anniversary of New York City’s Landmarks Law currently unfolding (driven by the 140 member organizations of the NYC Landmarks50 Alliance) is a further reminder that preserving and documenting your preservation efforts is a valuable activity. The curators of Saving Place: 50 Years of New York City’s Landmarks Law—an exhibition scheduled to open at the Museum of the City of New York on April 20, 2015 as part of this celebration—recently went exploring in my stacks of bankers boxes. Who knew those old flyers from various 1980s preservation advocacy campaigns would be of interest? Authors writing articles about the past 50 years of the Landmarks Law have also come forward showing interest in documents that I literally salvaged from trash bins decades ago.
These recent experiences have caused me to reflect on my years as an unofficial recorder and hoarder of material documenting various episodes in preservation’s history. Looking back with the gift of hindsight, I suggest five behaviors (some admittedly a bit unorthodox) that could serve you well if you have the slightest inclination to play a similar role.
- Save documents without knowing why. I distinctly remember, decades ago, fishing out of the trash bin at the J.M. Kaplan Fund an old file containing early grants from the Fund to the Municipal Art Society (MAS). Though at the time I had no idea why it might be of future value, I knew in a general sense that MAS had a long involvement in preservation, so I rescued the file from the dustbins of history. Over a decade later, while researching some aspect of that organization’s role in preservation history, I stumbled on the old file in my archives. In it I discovered essential information that was available nowhere else. That information not only helped inform my book Preserving New York but only months ago an author at work on an essay about the last 50 years of preservation in New York City sought out this same material, having traced it to me through the footnotes in the book.
- Keep personal copies of select materials and basic documents from both your paid and volunteer preservation efforts. Sadly I didn’t do enough of this, but what I did copy has proven invaluable. The odds are that the originals I left behind with former preservation employers, or organizations for which I volunteered, no longer exist or are irretrievable. Do not trust the organizations you are involved with to treat the work files you leave behind in an archival fashion. If you have even the slightest inkling that something might be of future value, copy it and take it with you. That also goes for those items that are so abundant that you could never imagine they will one day be in short supply (e.g. advocacy brochures, newsletters, postcards, flyers from campaigns, etc.). Even basic institutional documents can be difficult to track down decades later. While exploring the files of civic activist Albert Bard I found copies of meeting minutes that the organization in question no longer had in its possession. Redundancy can be a good thing. One caveat on adopting this behavior: if you happen to work for a government agency or a large institution with regulations that might constrain your opportunity to put this behavior into practice, learn what you are allowed to do. So far there is no preservation archive whistle-blower defense fund!
- Keep good working notes of events while they unfold. Trying to reconstruct events decades after they take place is virtually impossible. In 1984, when I was working at the Municipal Art Society, I remember resenting having to prepare a board-briefing memo that summarized our campaign leading to the landmark designation of the Rizzoli and Coty buildings on Fifth Avenue because it seemed a redundant task at the time. Fast forward to the present and one can imagine how different my attitude was towards that report when I rediscovered it and had at my fingertips a chronology of events that would have been extremely difficult to recreate today.
- Record what appear to be mundane events and capture incidental reflections offered along the way. Trust me, in future years you will appreciate having readily available such basic facts as when meetings occurred, who attended them, who was put in charge of what tasks, etc. Also, take advantage of spontaneous opportunities to ask questions of those involved in past preservation events. Jot down that old preservation war story you may have heard last night at a cocktail party. These narratives can be very important because, despite the best of intentions, formal interviews sometimes fail to occur and the insights gained in spur-of-the-moment conversation and captured in your notes can provide useful knowledge.
- Take more pictures. The list of happenings (events, meetings, rallies, hearings, etc.) for which I now wish I had photographs is a long and painful one. When I do happen to rediscover a photograph or two buried in old files it is like finding a nugget of gold!
A final bonus admonition: Put complete dates on everything. When I go through my old papers I realize how few of the advocacy brochures and flyers that we created actually have dates on them. At the time everyone knew the year a meeting or hearing was taking place, so why print it on the material? Now, decades later, when trying to date such items, I come up with a decidedly different answer.
As we progress further and further into the digital era, some of these suggestions will become easier to follow and others not as much. The most important thing to keep in mind is that today’s breaking news is tomorrow’s history. The better documentarians we are today, the greater the chance that preservation’s story will be properly told when the next big anniversary roles around. And it will.