Events & News

Selma Rattner Papers Saved!

May 14, 2011
Article from the Spring 2011 Newsletter

The Archive Project received the first distressed notification about the endangered Selma Rattner papers early on a Thursday morning. Within days we found ourselves knee-deep in drifts of drawings, slides, newspaper clippings and upturned furniture in an abandoned office at the former Paragon Paint Factory. This early-twentieth-century industrial building in Long Island City – the site of George and Selma Rattner’s Paragon Paint & Varnish Corporation – was recently auctioned after being vacant for more than a decade. Suddenly, the offices in which Selma had stored many of her personal papers – a treasure trove of architectural research and documentation of preservation battles – were about to be cleaned out, and the papers casually discarded among the detritus that had accumulated in the unused factory.

Selma Rattner, who passed away in 2005, was an architectural historian, significant early preservationist, and expert on architect James Renwick, Jr. A 1977 graduate of Columbia University’s Historic Preservation Program, Selma’s masters thesis, “Renwick’s design for Grace Church: religious doctrine and the Gothic Revival,” explored one of the architect’s New York City masterpieces in the context of Gothic Revival architecture in the United States. She continued to study, lecture and publish on Renwick throughout the 1970s and 1980s. She therefore amassed a significant amount of primary and secondary material on the architect, much of which is archived in a special collection at Columbia University’s Avery Library. But Rattner was also active in various preservation organizations, including the Landmarks Preservation Commission, the New York Chapter of the Society of Architectural Historians, the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, and the Victorian Society in America, for which she served as Director from 1980 to 1989. And she consulted on an array of historic preservation projects, including the restoration of the historic core of Mexico City, and the proposed reuse of Roosevelt Island’s City Hospital. The papers related to these activities were unaccounted for, until now.

Lee Miller, urban planning student at Pratt Institute, uncovered this impressive collection of archival material on a walk-through of the former Paragon Paint Factory with John Krevey, owner of the Frying Pan and Pier 66 Maritime. Krevey had purchased the building in an auction about 6 months ago, with plans to preserve the industrial character of the building, house a waterfront restaurant (the building has frontage on Anabel Basin), and provide homes for a variety of small fabricators and waterfront- and arts-based non-profits. Lee’s non-profit, the New Rust Exchange, was one of these. Stumbling across piles of papers that included, among other things, original drawings of Grace Church, ephemera on preservation battles for Victorian structures and research on the architecture of the West Village waterfront, Lee recognized their worth but was not exactly clear on whose property they were. But upon Krevey’s sudden death and the subsequent resale of the factory, it became apparent that the building management – unaware of the papers’ worth – was planning to discard the contents of these offices in advance of the sale. Lee knew she had to take action. She contacted Vicki Weiner, Director of Planning and Preservation at Pratt, for help. Vicki immediately contacted the New York Preservation Archive Project, and the wheels were put in motion to rescue these papers. Matthew Coody, administrator of the New York Preservation Archive Project, gained access to the building by working closely with Lee Miller, her boyfriend Benjamin Wellington, and preservationist Huntley Gill, who happened to be working with the new building owners on reuse-related issues. Soon enough Matthew was leaving the factory with a van-full of Rattner’s papers. Janet Parks, Curator of Drawings & Archives at Columbia’s Avery Library, immediately expressed interest in these papers and they were quickly transferred to the safety of Avery Library, joining Rattner’s Renwick collection.

The ongoing loss of preservation’s own past often includes the personal papers of preservation pioneers like Selma Rattner, who contributed so much to the preservation movement in New York. As a reaction to this, the Archive Project has made it one of our missions to assist in properly archiving these important papers, photographs and documents. We were delighted to help in this archival success story and would like to thank everyone who helped make this achievement possible, especially Lee Miller, Benjamin Wellington, Vicki Weiner, Huntley Gill, Gaby Rattner and the Paragon Paint Factory building management.

Above: Paragon Paint Factory office in which the Rattner papers were found; Courtesy of the New York Preservation Archive Project