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Guide to the Robert M. Lester Photograph Collection
 PR 215

New-York Historical Society
170 Central Park West
New York, NY 10024
Phone: (212) 873-3400

© 2011 New-York Historical Society

Collection processed by Jennifer Lewis and Margaret Evans

This finding aid was produced using the Archivists' Toolkit on August 23, 2017
Description is in English.

Descriptive Summary

Creator: Lester, Robert M. (Robert MacDonald), 1889-1969
Title: Robert M. Lester Photograph Collection
Dates: 1946-1956
Abstract: The Robert M. Lester Photograph Collection consists of color slides and black and white photographs depicting locations in and around New York City taken by philanthropy executive and educator Robert M. Lester between 1946 and 1956. Included are views of the United Nations Headquarters construction, the East River, the Hudson River, the snow-covered cityscape after the blizzard of December 1947, theater marquees and signs on Broadway, the construction of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace building, and Greenwich Village art exhibitions.
Quantity: 1.26 Linear feet (3 boxes)
Location note: Department of Prints, Photographs, and Architectural Collections
Call Phrase: PR 215

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Biographical Note

Teacher, education scholar, and philanthropy executive Robert M. Lester was born in Center, Alabama, on November 7, 1889. He received degrees from Birmingham Southern College and Vanderbilt University. He became a teacher and later superintendent of schools in Mayfield, Kentucky, and then served in the Army during World War I. Lester taught and served as an administrator at Columbia University, and in 1934 was elected Secretary of the Carnegie Corporation and the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching in New York. Lester served on a variety of educational boards and foundations, and counted among his achievements an appointment as a trustee of American University in 1941. In 1954, he left the Carnegie Corporation to become executive director of the Southern Fellowships Fund of the Council of Southern Universities, Inc., a position he held until 1968.

Lester wrote and spoke frequently on issues relating to education, libraries, and philanthropic programs. He published several books and articles relating to his work with the Carnegie Corporation, the Southern Fellowship Fund, and other fundraising organizations, including the well-received Forty Years of Carnegie Giving: A Summary of the Benefactions of Andrew Carnegie and of the Work of the Philanthropic Trusts Which He Created (New York: C. Scribner's Sons, 1941).

Lester resided on East 52nd Street near First Avenue in Manhattan from the 1930s through the early 1950s. As an amateur photographer, he pointed his camera toward the radical changes in the face of the city just blocks from his home where the United Nations Headquarters complex was undergoing construction between 1947 and 1954.

Robert M. Lester died in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, on February 21, 1969, after a brief illness.

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Scope and Content Note

The Robert M. Lester Photograph Collection is comprised of black and white photographic prints, contact prints, and color slides depicting attractions in and around New York City taken by amateur photographer and education scholar Robert M. Lester between 1946 and 1956. The collection is organized into two series based on format: Photographs; and Slides.


The collection is arranged in two series based on format:

  1. Series I: Photographs
  2. Series II: Slides

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Access Points

Subject Names

  • Lester, Robert M. (Robert MacDonald), 1889-1969.

Document Type

  • Color slides.
  • Contact prints.
  • Gelatin silver prints.
  • Photographic prints.

Subject Organizations

  • John F. Kennedy International Airport --Pictorial works.
  • La Guardia Airport -- Pictorial works.
  • United Nations -- Buildings -- Pictorial works.
  • United Nations -- Headquarters

Subject Topics

  • Blizzards -- New York (State) -- New York.
  • Parks -- New York (State) -- New York.
  • Signs and signboards -- New York (State) -- New York.
  • Theaters -- New York (State) -- New York.

Subject Places

  • Broadway (New York, N.Y.) -- Pictorial works.
  • East River (N.Y.) -- Pictorial works.
  • Greenwich Village (New York, N.Y.) -- Pictorial works.
  • New York (N.Y.) -- Pictorial works.

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Administrative Information


Gift of Robert M. Lester, April 18, 1961.

Access Restrictions

Open to qualified researchers.

Photocopying undertaken by staff only. Limited to thirty exposures of stable, unbound material per day. See guidelines in Print Room for details.

Use Restrictions

Permission to reproduce any Print Room holdings through publication must be obtained from:
Rights and Reproductions
The New-York Historical Society
Two West 77th Street
New York, NY 10024
Phone: (212) 873-3400 ext. 282
Fax: (212) 579-8794

The copyright law of the United States governs the making of photocopies and protects unpublished materials as well as published materials. Unpublished materials created before January 1, 1978 cannot be quoted in publication without permission of the copyright holder.

Preferred Citation

This collection should be cited as Robert M. Lester Photograph Collection, PR 215, Department of Prints, Photographs, and Architectural Collections, The New-York Historical Society.

Related Materials

Robert M. Lester's papers are held by the Special Collections Library of Duke University. Papers relating to Dr. Lester's activities with the Carnegie Corporations can be found in the Carnegie Corporation of New York Records in the Rare Book and Manuscript Library of Columbia University.

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Container List

Series I: Photographs

Scope and Contents note

Series I dates from 1946 through 1956 and includes 733 3 x 4 inch or smaller gelatin silver photographic prints and 35mm contact prints dry-mounted in groups on briefly captioned boards. Some of the boards have punched holes and may have originally been arranged in albums; most of these mounts have been dated with a stamp on the front and bear stamps on the verso with Robert M. Lester's name and mailing address in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Photographs are arranged by date.

A large number of photographs of the United Nations Headquarters complex, under construction between East 42nd and East 48th Streets along the east side of First Avenue during the period of Lester's photographs, is depicted at various stages of development between 1947 and 1953, from initial excavation to the final dominating tower of the Secretariat building. Lester used a variety of vantage points to capture the construction, including several rooftop views. Other construction photographs focus on the building of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace building in 1952.

The East and Hudson rivers, including large ships, small boats, and the Brooklyn, Queensboro, and George Washington Bridges were captured by Lester's camera. Photographs along the Hudson River in upstate New York are also included.

Photographs from December 1947 depict the snow-covered cityscape of New York in the aftermath of a major blizzard. Other New York street scenes focus on the theaters, marquees, and signs of Broadway and Times Square.

Greenwich Village art shows, including the Sculptors Guild Exhibition in the spring of 1948, are detailed in a series of photographs, many of which show lively crowds gathered in Washington Square Park.

Included in this series are a few aerial photographs, such as those of Coney Island and Ebbet's Field taken from an airplane in 1950; also included are views of Idlewild (now John F. Kennedy International) and LaGuardia airports. One self-portrait of Robert M. Lester is available in a folder of undated photographs at the end of the series.

Container 1 Container 2   Title Date
Box: 1 Folder : 1 Hudson River; Tompkins Cove, NY
Box: 1 Folder : 2 Century Centennial
1947 Apr. 26
Box: 1 Folder : 3 United Nations construction; scenes in New York City after blizzard
1947 Dec.
Box: 1 Folder : 4-5 Central Park; Chelsea; the Cloisters; East River; George Washington Bridge; Gracie Square; Greenwich Village Art Show; Hudson River; Hunter College sign; Newburgh, NY; Radio City Music Hall; St. Mark's in the Bowery; Sutton Place; Times Square; Tompkins Square; Washington Square Park
Box: 1 Folder : 6 Columbia University; Sculptors Guild Exhibition in Greenwich Village
Box: 1 Folder : 7 Battery Park Underpass construction; Broadway; Brooklyn waterfront; East River; Lillian Wald Houses
1949 Feb.
Box: 1 Folder : 8 East River; United Nations construction
1949 Mar.
Box: 1 Folder : 9 Easter Parade; Hudson River (and ships); Idlewild Airport [now John F. Kennedy International Airport]; United Nations
1949 Apr.
Box: 1 Folder : 10 Broadway and Times Square
1949 May
Box: 1 Folder : 11 West 42nd Street; West 45th Street
1949 June
Box: 1 Folder : 12 42nd Street road repair
1949 Aug.
Box: 1 Folder : 13 East River; United Nations
1949 Sept.
Box: 1 Folder : 14 Chelsea; East River; United Nations
1949 Oct.
Box: 1 Folder : 15 United Nations
1950 Jan.
Box: 1 Folder : 16 East River; United Nations
1950 Feb.
Box: 1 Folder : 17 Battery Park and Castle Clinton; East River; Fulton Street; United Nations
1950 Apr.
Box: 1 Folder : 18 Hudson River; George Washington Bridge; Times Square (theaters); United Nations; Weehawken, NJ (Hamilton-Burr duel site)
1950 May
Box: 1 Folder : 19 Beekman Tower; Hudson River; Queensboro Bridge; United Nations
1950 June
Box: 1 Folder : 20 Broadway; East River; Irvington, NY; John Street Theatre; Rockefeller Guest House on East 52nd Street; Staten Island; Times Square
1950 July
Box: 1 Folder : 21 Coney Island and Ebbet's Field (aerial views)
1950 Aug.
Box: 1 Folder : 22 East River; United Nations
1950 Oct.
Box: 2 Folder : 23 Broadway (theaters)
1951 Mar.
Box: 2 Folder : 24 The Cloisters; Fifth Avenue and 43rd Street; Tenth Avenue
1951 Apr.
Box: 2 Folder : 25 Central park; East River Drive; First Avenue and 49th Street; Fifth Avenue and 59th Street; Plaza Hotel; St. Jean Baptiste Church; Sherry-Netherland Hotel; United Nations
1951 May
Box: 2 Folder : 26 Broadway; East River; United Nations; Ward's Island Park
1951 June
Box: 2 Folder : 27 Broadway; East River; United Nations; Rivoli Theatre; Hotel Astor
1951 Aug.
Box: 2 Folder : 28 Idlewild Airport [now John F. Kennedy International Airport]; La Guardia Airport; New York Harbor (aerial view); United Nations
1951 Sept.
Box: 2 Folder : 29 Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (construction); United Nations
1952 Jan.
Box: 2 Folder : 30 Battery Park area; East 52nd Street
1952 Feb.
Box: 2 Folder : 31 Manhattan skyline from Queens
1952 Apr.
Box: 2 Folder : 32 Battery Park (construction); Broadway (marquees and billboards); Brooklyn Bridge; Carnegie Endowment for International Peace; Central Park; East River; First Chinese Presbyterian Church; Presbyterian Church of the Sea and Land; gold ingots piled on Hudson River docks; India House; Old Slip; South Street
1952 May
Box: 2 Folder : 33 Battery Park; Chinese Junk; East River; George Washington Bridge; Hudson River; Manhattan from The Bronx; Queensboro Bridge
1952 June-1952 July
Box: 2 Folder : 34 Broadway (theaters); The Bronx; Fifth Avenue; Harlem River; Highbridge Tower; Jumel Mansion; Yeshiva University
1952 Aug.
Box: 2 Folder : 35 Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (construction); United Nations
1952 Sept.
Box: 2 Folder : 36 Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (construction); United Nations
1952 Oct.
Box: 2 Folder : 37 Broadway (theaters); Manhattan House (200 East 66th Street); New York State Supreme Court; Rivoli Theatre
1952 Nov.
Box: 2 Folder : 38 Broadway (theaters); Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
1952 Dec.
Box: 2 Folder : 39 42nd Street; Beekman Place; Bryant Park; Carnegie Endowment for International Peace; Central Park; East River; Highbridge Tower; Queensboro Bridge; Times Square; United Nations; Saks Fifth Avenue; White Turkey Restaurant and Gobbler Bar

General note

[multiple dates mounted together]

Box: 2 Folder : 40 Pennsylvania Station (interior); Old Merchant's House (East 4th Street); First Avenue at 49th Street
Box: 2 Folder : 41 Horn & Hardart Automat; Broadway (theaters)
Box: 2 Folder : 42 Columbia University
Box: 2 Folder : 43 R.M. Lester at the United Nations construction site; portrait of Levering Tyson; Pennsylvania Station; United Nations; theaters; the Mauritania; Times Square; the Cloisters; Town Hall

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Series II: Slides

Scope and Contents note

Series II consists of 244 35mm color slides, the majority of which are filed in vintage Filmdex slide files which are gathered into subject-based string-bound albums. Each album has an informal title page which has been briefly captioned in Lester's hand; albums are arranged alphabetically by title. One folder of Lester's loose slides of New York street scenes, signs, and theaters, is available at the end of the series.

"Art Shows" includes views of Greenwich Village art shows, mostly in Washington Square Park. The color slides show portrait artists at work, side-walk painting displays, and guitar toting musicians gathered with singers in the park. "Big Snow" depicts the city streets after the blizzard of December 1947. "Parks, etc." includes views of sun-drenched flowers, landscapes, ponds and birds in Central Park, The Bronx, and Fort Tryon Park near the Cloisters. Included are a series of photographs of children and adults launching large toy sailboats in Central Park. "United Nations Area" includes views showing the developing United Nations Headquarters site during and after construction between 1947 and 1954. "Waterfront" includes views of the Hudson River, the East River, the Queensboro and Brooklyn Bridges, the Midtown Skyport, seaplanes, tugs, ships, and docks. "Various" consists primarily of New York City street scenes, including views of shop windows, street construction, flowers, brownstones, and Washington Arch.

Container 1 Container 2   Title Date
Box: 3 Folder : 44 "Art Shows"
Box: 3 Folder : 45 "Big Snow"
1947 Dec.
Box: 3 Folder : 46 "Parks, etc."
Box: 3 Folder : 47 "United Nations Area"
Box: 3 Folder : 48 "Various"
Box: 3 Folder : 49 "Waterfront"
Box: 3 Folder : 50 [Miscellaneous loose slides: New York street scenes, theaters, signs, buildings, etc.]

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