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Guide to the New-York Historical Society Original Building Planning & Construction Records

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

New-York Historical Society

Collection processed by Larry Weimer

This finding aid was produced using ArchivesSpace on July 19, 2019
Finding aid is in English. using Describing Archives: A Content Standard

Biographical/Historical Note

For the first 53 years of its existence, from 1804 until 1857, the New-York Historical Society (N-YHS) did not own its own building, but operated out of rented or other quarters. On November 3, 1857, N-YHS dedicated its newly-constructed eighth home, the first it owned, at 2nd Avenue and 11th Street. The push for this building officially began on June 1, 1847, when N-YHS members voted to raise $50,000 to erect a fireproof building. A Buildings Committee was formed to solicit subscriptions for a Building Fund. Luther Bradish was named Chairman of the committee.

By January 15, 1850, the committee was able to report at a N-YHS meeting that $25,000 had been subscribed. This was the level at which the subscription commitments became binding and collections into the Fund began. Administratively, this triggered the creation of a new committee to implement the project itself: the Committee, or Trustees, of the Building Fund. At the trustees' first meeting, on January 29, 1850, Frederic De Peyster became Chairman and Benjamin H. Field was named to the Treasurer position. The trustees also created various (sub)committees to carry the work forward. Among these was the Buildings Committee, which had responsibilities for site selection, solicitation of design plans, and other core project activities. Luther Bradish, who had become N-YHS president at this same point in time, in January 1850, was named Chairman of the trustees' Buildings Committee.

It is worth emphasizing that the Buildings Committee formed in January 1850 was a sub-committee of the Building Fund trustees. It differed from the earlier Buildings Committee mentioned above, which was formed in 1847 and was a committee of N-YHS itself. The N-YHS Buildings Committee continued to exist after 1850 and to solicit additional subscriptions because the anticipated full project cost had not yet been achieved. By 1852, the N-YHS Buildings Committee was known as the Committee on Subscriptions to the Building Fund and remained in operation until 1857. (These distinctions are important to note in part because the minutes for the committees were maintained in separate books; all three are found in Series I of this record group.)

After consideration of various sites, and even the possibility of jointly acquiring land and constructing a building with the New York Society Library, the 2nd Avenue and 11th Street site was selected and purchased from Peter and Julia Stuyvesant in early 1854. Plans for the building were then solicited; among the designs submitted were those from Georg Carstensen & Carl Gildemeister, the team that had designed the New York Crystal Palace in 1853. Eventually though the firm of Mettam & Burke won the job. The architects' specifications for the mason and other work were distributed in 1855 and contracts awarded. The cornerstone for the new building was laid on October 17, 1855.

Despite this progress, there remained insufficient funds to complete the desired building. Accordingly, it seems that cutbacks in the plans were initially made, while efforts to acquire further funds continued, with a renewed appeal in 1856. These efforts were successful, leading to changes in design during the project to accomplish N-YHS's goals. By late 1857, construction was complete and the building was dedicated on November 3, 1857. The location would remain N-YHS's home for fifty years, until the Society moved to the present Central Park West site in 1907. In 1911, the 2nd Avenue property was sold.

Shortly after moving into the 2nd Avenue building, N-YHS began expanding its museum and art collections in significant ways: in 1858, it acquired the collection of the New York Gallery of Fine Art; in 1859, James Lenox donated his collection of Nineveh sculptures; and in 1860, the purchase of the Abbott Egyptian collection was completed. Consequently, almost immediately the possibility of acquiring expanded quarters was a consideration. This possibility was pursued for a time, beginning at an Executive Committee meeting on August 14, 1860, when Librarian George Moore broached the topic of locating a Museum of Antiquities, Science, and Art on the site of the Arsenal in Central Park. A committee, chaired by Luther Bradish, was formed to look into the matter.

By March 1861, the committee had considered and agreed on the desirability of the Arsenal site, and they approached the Board of Commissioners of Central Park with a proposed memorial to offer the State Legislature. By late 1861 the Commissioners had concurred with N-YHS's proposal and a bill was proposed in the Assembly. The bill passed on March 25, 1862, authorizing the Commissioners to set aside the Arsenal and surrounding land for N-YHS. In response, N-YHS formed another committee, also chaired by Bradish, to establish a plan for proceeding. This committee delivered its report to the Executive Committee on June 1, 1863, resulting in the formation of a Building Committee, chaired by Bradish, and a Committee on Subscriptions, chaired by Frederic De Peyster. Bradish died shortly after and Charles D. Kirkland assumed the chair.

Partly as a result of Bradish's death, the Arsenal effort stalled for a time, but was resurrected in early 1864 by Kirkland. Through 1864, Kirkland was in contact with Andrew Green, Comptroller of the Board of Commissioners, to acquire a resolution from the Commissioners agreeing to the conveyance pursuant to the Legislature's Act of 1862. It appears that disagreements between N-YHS and the Commissioners developed over the conditions to be attached to the conveyance, and negotiations carried into 1865. Finally, the Commissioners approved a resolution on May 11, 1865, which was accepted, apparently with some reservations, by the Society. Conditions of the resolution included the requirement that N-YHS commence building within two years, completing it within five years. Separately, on the fundraising front, an effort to raise subscriptions had not gone forward, pending the approval of building plans by the Commissioners.

By December 1865, N-YHS submitted to the Commissioners designs developed by architect Richard M. Hunt. These plans were not accepted by the Commissioners, and N-YHS was requested to submit new plans for a new location north of the Arsenal site, on 5th Avenue between 79th and 85th streets. This was a subject of negotiation between N-YHS and the Commissioners through 1866, until in December 1866, the Commissioners communicated formally to N-YHS that the original Arsenal plan was not satisfactory and would not go forward. This set back the N-YHS effort and the Building Committee was disbanded in July 1867.

Still, N-YHS had not completely given up on the possibility of a Central Park site. A new committee was formed in July 1867 to reconsider the matter, leading eventually in April 1868 to acceptance of the Commissioners' proposed site. The committee sent a memorial to Albany requesting appropriate legislation and this was passed in April 1868, authorizing the Commissioners to provide the 5th Ave and 79th to 85th street site to N-YHS. Little subsequent action seems to have occurred until January 1871 when N-YHS contacted the Commissioners to re-open discussions about plans. No response was received. A follow-up letter from N-YHS in April 1872 led to meetings that year, with no resolution. Although N-YHS maintained committees on the subject, no action took place. The matter lingered with N-YHS as late as January 1876 when Edward de Lancey reported to the Society on the desirability of reopening discussion with the Commissioners, but the moment, if it ever was truly an option, was gone.

Nonetheless, N-YHS's interest in moving to new quarters did not end with the close of the Central Park possibility. In March 1880, N-YHS established a General Committee to consider the future of the organization, particularly in terms of securing a new building, developing an endowment, preserving its collections, and strengthening its Publications Fund. Although subscriptions were solicited in 1880-81 for the endowment, the building initiative was not advanced until May 1885 when the Executive Committee formed a new committee for the purpose of raising funds for a building. The effort was encouraged by a conditional gift from an anonymous donor: $100,000 had been placed in trust, to be distributed to N-YHS if it was able to raise an additional $300,000 for a building by November 1887. An appeal was distributed, but less than half the $300,000 was raised by the deadline. Rather than withdraw the offer, the donor agreed to reduce the target amount to $150,000 and to extend the deadline to November 1888. With a final push in mid-1888, $150,000 in commitments was raised and the funds collected that fall, just in time to meet the deadline and have the $100,000 held in trust at Central Trust Company of New York released to N-YHS. A few years later, the donor was identified as Mrs. Robert L. Stuart.

With these funds in hand, N-YHS began seeking a new site. In early 1891, N-YHS acquired much of its current site--ten city lots on Central Park West (8th Avenue) between West 77th and West 76th streets. But the purchase price of $186,500 left N-YHS with insufficient funds for construction. A Committee of Fifteen was formed in November 1891 to issue an appeal for construction funds of $1 million. By 1893 the funds had not been committed and, with the onset of the Panic of 1893, the subscription effort was ended. Consequently, the Central Park West site remained vacant and N-YHS remained in the 2nd Avenue quarters through the 1890s.

A renewed, and ultimately fruitful, fundraising initiative began in March 1901, led by N-YHS President Eugene A. Hoffman. In order to increase the likelihood of success, the initiative focused on raising funds to construct just a portion of the desired building. This would become known as the "central portion," with north and south wings to be funded and built at a future time. In the summer of 1901, with fundraising just beginning, the Committee called for design proposals from architects. The firm of York & Sawyer was selected, and their renderings and floor plans were featured in the fundraising appeals by early 1902. In December 1901, York & Sawyer was authorized to begin developing full working drawings. In June 1902, Eugene Hoffman died. In January 1903, his position as N-YHS President and as leader of the building initiative was filled by his son, Samuel V. Hoffman.

By October 1902 only about $165,000 had been raised by the Building Committee, well short of its $300,000 target for the central portion. Nonetheless, the Committee decided to move forward with construction, anticipating that progress would spur additional contributions, as well as out of a wish to be able to occupy the new building by N-YHS's 100th anniversary in November 1904. The possibility of cutting back the scope (and cost) of work was also considered when estimates were requested of contractors. Ground was broken at the site in September 1902, and excavation work and the laying of the foundation was done by John F. O'Rourke. In November 1903, the cornerstone was laid.

Significant funding was still needed so in late 1903, Librarian Robert H. Kelby suggested to Samuel Hoffman that he might approach long time N-YHS member Henry Dexter to ask him to consider a sizable donation in memory of his son, Orrando Perry Dexter. Orrando had been murdered in September 1903 at his estate in the Adirondacks. Dexter proved to be agreeable to this, although with various stipulations that had to be negotiated, including the type and source of the granite to be used. By November 1904, a formal agreement with Dexter was in place, and he deposited $150,000 in trust at the Van Norden Trust Company. As construction progressed, funds were transferred from the trust account into N-YHS's Building Fund to pay the bills presented by the general contractor, Andrew J. Robinson Company. Dexter would later agree to additional donations, eventually totaling about $250,000. The Building Committee turned its principal focus from raising funds to expending them, renaming itself the Trustees of the Building Fund.

Dexter's donations ensured that the central portion of N-YHS's building would be completed. It opened to the public in December 1908, and final work in the galleries was completed by mid-1909. It was a happy conclusion to a project that, over the course of a decade, had been fraught with disputes and ill feelings: between York & Sawyer and the Building Committee over changes in plans and billings; between Dexter and Samuel Hoffman over perceived delays in construction and personal slights; and between Building Committee members, especially between Hoffman and N-YHS Recording Secretary and Committee Secretary Sydney Carney, who would resign from his active role.

Still, the building was understood to be incomplete, particularly in terms of the desirability of adding north and south wings to it. Short of major expansion, renovations of the book stacks and other aspects of the library were conducted in the 1910s. Steps toward expanding the building were taken in the 1920s as property on both West 77th and West 76th streets were purchased. York & Sawyer submitted plans in 1925. But no construction was undertaken until the late 1930s. The triggering event was the death in April 1935 of Mary Gardiner Thompson. The death of Thompson, the last of three siblings, resulted eventually in the release of a bequest of about $4 million to N-YHS. N-YHS, then under the leadership of President John A. Weekes and Librarian (Director, after 1937) Alexander J. Wall, decided to use part of the bequest to expand the building.

Although York & Sawyer, architects of the central portion, presented a design in 1936 (updated and revised from their 1925 proposal), N-YHS did not select them for the expansion. Instead the firm of Walker & Gillette was chosen. Perhaps because adequate funds were in hand, experienced leaders headed the organization, and a more efficient governance structure was in place, the construction project seems to have gone much more smoothly than the project of 1902-1909.

At a special meeting of N-YHS in June 1936, authorization was granted to proceed with the project. The building closed for construction in May 1937, the adjoining buildings purchased in the 1920s and 1930s for this moment were demolished, construction was completed in 1938, and the new building was officially reopened to the public in April 1939. In addition to the long envisioned north and south wings, the project also included fifteen floors of new book stacks by Snead & Company of Jersey City at the rear of the central portion, as well as other renovations in the original building. Turner Construction Company was the general contractor for the job. Garrett H. Winter was hired, at N-YHS's insistence, by Walker & Gillette as Clerk of the Works to inspect the work. (Winter would later be hired by N-YHS as its Superintendent of Buildings, a position he held until about 1960.) One notable aspect of the project was the desire to include state of the art museum lighting techniques in the building; the resulting skylights were drafted and installed by J. J. Fisher Company of Brooklyn.

Although the N-YHS building was now completed, new possibilities continued to present themselves. Some properties acquired by N-YHS on West 76th Street had not been used in the 1937-1938 expansion and so were employed as a garden. In the mid-1940s, the possibility of expanding the N-YHS building into this section to create an Education Building was considered. Architect Philip N. Youtz drew up preliminary plans, but the project was not pursued. In any case, although renovations would continue into the twenty-first century, by the close of the 1930s, N-YHS had established the fundamental footprint and structure of its current Central Park West building.

(Principal sources for the above were R.W.G. Vail's Knickerbocker Birthday and the records themselves.)