Saturday, July 16, 2011

The demise of Trinity Episcopal Church, Albany, New York

The now-demolished Trinity Episcopal Church as seen from Trinity Place, Albany, New York, 12 August 2011, 7:58 PM.

This post is the first in a series focusing on the history and built environment of Albany, New York and the Hudson River Valley.

It is not the post I planned to write.

As you all know, this blog focuses on electronic records and other archival matters. However, it's also a (partial) record of the interests and preoccupations of one electronic records archivist, and I thought it would be nice to put together a summer 2011 series of posts focusing on the distinctive architecture and history of my little corner of the world. The Hudson River Valley and New York's capital city are home to some fascinating things. Some, such as Crailo State Historic Site, testify to the enduring influence of Dutch culture in the former colony of New Netherland. Others, such as a temporary installation of kinetic sculptures by George Rickey, are more modern and more fleeting. I thought that you might like to learn a bit about these things -- and I knew that I would enjoy carving out some time to visit, photograph, and write about them.

Unfortunately, this inaugural post highlights failure and loss.

On the morning of Tuesday, 12 August 2011, one of the exterior walls of Albany's Trinity Episcopal Church collapsed and the City of Albany had to demolish the entire structure. The church was designed by James Renwick, Jr.,who also designed the Smithsonian Institution Building and the Corcoran Gallery of Art building in Washington, DC, St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York City, the Main Building of Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, and many other noteworthy structures. Most cities would be proud to have a Renwick building, but Trinity Episcopal Church had languished in disuse for several decades. Albany County put the building up for auction last fall, and a New York City woman purchased it for $500.00.

I visited the site on 12, 13, and 14 July and took some photos and videos that document the demise of this neglected landmark and the efforts of demolition firm Ditonno and Sons to salvage the church's stained glass windows, which may have been the work of Renwick's friend Louis Comfort Tiffany, and wooden architectural elements.

On 12 July, a pedestrian strolling past Trinity Place on Westerlo Street or Madison Avenue might have thought that the church was disused but structurally sound.

However, anyone who turned onto Trinity Place would quickly see that something was very, very wrong. By the evening of 12 July, the back half of the building had been demolished. Piles of rubble filled the gap between the church and the headquarters of the Trinity Alliance, a venerable social services organization once affiliated with the church. Pieces of plywood were set against the glass doors and windows of the Trinity Alliance building to protect them from flying bricks.

If by chance an observer failed to notice the plywood and rubble, one glimpse at the church's open front door would have revealed that only the front half of the church was still standing and that a backhoe was sitting atop the rubble in back. ( If you're curious as to what Trinity Episcopal's interior looked like, fellow Albany blogger Chuck Miller took some stunning pictures on 13 July.)

The mood at the scene was strangely buoyant. Many people were stopping by and taking photos and reminiscing about the church; I spoke with one 80 year-old woman who had gone to dances at Trinity as a teenager. Neighborhood residents, who were ordered to leave their homes for the duration of the demolition, filed in and out to pick up changes of clothing and other necessities and to lament the loss of a local landmark. Everyone was nonetheless relieved that no one had been injured or killed as a result of the collapse and that none of the adjoining buildings had been compromised; every now and then, the unanticipated collapse of a vacant Albany building does irreparable damage to a well-maintained and occupied neighboring structure.

I was contemplating all of the things that could have gone wrong but didn't when a flash of movement caught my eye. As Ditonno and Sons was winding down its work for the evening, a gray cat ran over to the southern side of the building and meowed loudly. A black kitten emerged from the grass beside the southern bell tower. The duo moved slowly --the kitten was exhausted and terrified -- to the northern side of the church, where they paused to rest for a while. I called out to the mother cat in an effort to coax the pair away from the building, but she didn't trust me -- the neighborhood is home to a large feral cat population -- and her kitten simply didn't want to move. I looked for them on 13 and 14 July, but didn't see them. I hope they found sanctuary elsewhere.

I returned to the site on the evening of 13 July, by which time Ditonno and Sons had demolished the church's bell towers.

Owing to concerns about the structural integrity of the church -- a fire fighter at the scene told me that one of the side walls had started swaying ominously earlier that day -- Ditonno and Sons workers used sledgehammers to tear down the towers.

If you look closely at the remnants of the southern bell tower above, you can see just how badly the mortar holding together the bricks had deteriorated.

Bricks rained down onto the steps below the towers.

I stopped by the site immediately after work on 14 July to find that only part of the northern bell tower remained. As they had done throughout the demolition, Ditonno and Sons workers hosed down the rubble in an effort to keep down the dust.

They were also preparing to salvage the remaining stained glass windows. As noted above, Ditonno and Sons tried to save as many of the windows and wooden architectural elements as they could.

A fire fighter at the scene told me that the demolition of Trinity Episcopal Church marked the first time that a City of Albany demolition project had such a large-scale salvaging component, and he went on to say that, in his view, Ditonno and Sons "deserve a medal" for doing such great work. Having seen and filmed Ditonno and Sons remove the bricks and mortar surrounding the windows in the northern bell tower, I agree. I've never seen a backhoe operated with such precision and delicacy.

Apologies for the jumpiness of this footage -- despite the constant hosing down, dust was flying everywhere, and it got into my eyes a couple of times.

After the crew removed most of the brick and mortar surrounding a given window, a Ditonno and Sons worker (most likely one of the Ditonno sons) in a cherry picker tied the window, which had been sandwiched between sheets of plywood, to the work platform. He then pulled the window free of the building and carefully lowered it to the ground.

Owing to the church's poor condition, Ditonno and Sons wasn't able to save all of the windows. The fire fighter I spoke with on 12 July indicated that one window had been lost earlier that day, and a few minutes after I shot the footage above, part of the northern bell tower collapsed and the one remaining window fell to the ground. Owing to its plywood encasement and the relatively short distance it fell, it may be possible to repair this window, but I wouldn't bet on it.

At present, no one knows what will happen to these windows or to the other architectural elements that were salvaged. According to the Albany Times-Union, Ditonno and Sons, which per its contract with the City of Albany is entitled to keep materials salvaged from demolition sites, may be their legal owner. However, if the windows are extremely valuable, the City of Albany may be able to lay claim to them. And, of course, Trinity Episcopal Church's owner, who now owes the city almost $150,000 in demolition costs, may have a claim to them; however, she never listed the building on the City of Albany's vacant building registry, which was a condition of sale. For now, the windows and other materials will be placed in storage until experts can identify their creator and determine their cash value.

I left the site at shortly 7:00 PM on 14 July. By that time, Trinity Episcopal Church was little more than a pile of rubble. The iron railing at center right marks the approximate location of the church's front door.

A fragment of the southern bell tower remained standing, but it wasn't demolished until the following morning. Ditonno and Sons workers finished their day's work by sweeping the rubble off of Trinity Place. Behind the gap where the church once stood, you can see the Corning Tower, which is part of the Empire State Plaza.

I'm amazed and impressed that Ditonno and Sons was able to save most of the windows and other architectural elements from this historic church, and I'm deeply grateful that no one was hurt, killed, or rendered homeless as a result of Trinity Episcopal Church's collapse. I am nonetheless saddened and deeply angered by the loss of what should have been a carefully tended source of civic pride.

Warren Roberts, the distinguished historian of the French Revolution who has become an expert on the built environment of Albany, asserted last year that "no self-respecting city would allow Renwick's church on Trinity Place to decay [emphasis in the original]." On 12 July, the extent of Albany's lack of self-respect -- and, I fear, its lack of hope for its future -- became woefully evident.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Alleged thieves apprehended at Maryland Historical Society

Barry Landau: Presidential Historian and Collector (November 14, 2007) from Gerald R. Ford on Vimeo. Have you seen Mr. Landau in your research room?

Barry Landau is a former White House protocol officer and a prominent collector of ephemera and artifacts associated with U.S. presidents; he has a particular interest in materials relating to presidential inaugurations and the dogs of presidents. Laura Bush consulted him when planning George W. Bush's second inauguration, he's met most if not all of the recent presidents at least once, and, as you can see above, he has spoken at the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library on at least one occasion.

He may also be a thief. On Saturday, Landau and his assistant, Jason Savedoff, were doing research at the Maryland Historical Society. A staffer observed Savedoff take a document, conceal it in a portfolio, and take it out of the research room. They kept an eye on the duo and called the police, who opened the locker assigned to Savedoff and discovered approximately 60 documents belonging to the Maryland Historical Society, including:
  • Papers signed by Abraham Lincoln and worth approximately $300,000
  • Inaugural ball invitations worth roughly $500,000
  • A Washington Monument commemoration worth an estimated $100,000
The police called in the Federal Bureau of Investigation, which has opened an investigation into the activities of Landau and Savedoff. They also took Landau and Savedoff, both of whom live in New York City, to jail, where they remain at the time of this writing.

It's important to remember that, in the eyes of the law, Landau and Savedoff are innocent until they have their day in court. However, the evidence against them seems quite damning -- and the judge who denied them bail apparently agrees.

Owing to the ongoing investigation, Maryland Historical Society staffers haven't said much about the arrest of Landau and Savedoff. However, it's pretty plain that they were on the ball: they were keeping an eye on their researchers, observed behavior that aroused their suspicions, and continued monitoring the research room while waiting for the police to arrive. Once they're at liberty to discuss the incident, we may learn that they were also providing "enhanced customer service," performing "quality control audits," and videotaping the duo.

It's also apparent that Maryland Historical Society staff weren't unduly swayed by Landau's prominence -- or by the fact that he and Savedoff brought them cupcakes. Archivists are, by and large, a helpful bunch, and most of us want to make the research process as user-friendly as possible. It's all too easy to conclude that the friendly researcher who frequently graces our research room is trustworthy and thus doesn't need to be monitored very closely. It's also easy to decide that a prominent researcher should be allowed to bend a few rules -- or that a powerful, well-known person shouldn't be challenged or provoked in any way.

The arrest of Landau and Savedoff is an excellent reminder that neither friendliness nor prominence should induce us to disregard our security protocols or relax our research room rules. The Maryland Historical Society could have suffered grievous harm not only to its holdings but also to its public image and staff morale. Thanks to the actions of its staff, its collections have not been compromised, its reputation remains intact, and staff can hold their heads high.

Before you heave a sigh of relief that Landau and Savedoff are off the streets and out of the archives, please keep in mind that they have visited other repositories -- and that they might not have used their real names when doing so. The Baltimore Sun is reporting that:

. . . . Lee Arnold, senior director of the library and collections at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, said Landau and Savedoff -- using the name "Jason James" -- had visited more than a dozen times since December, identifying themselves as uncle and nephew . . . .

Landau introduced himself as a scholar and donated a copy of his first book to the society, and each time he came bearing cookies. But when officials tried to write him a thank-you note, it was sent back as undeliverable. An email address Savedoff gave also appeared to be invalid. Staff became suspicious and called a meeting, and planned to check their driver's licenses upon the next visit.

Moreover, Savedoff doesn't seem like the sort of person a legitimate researcher would hire as an assistant:

Of Landau, Arnold said: "He certainly was very personable. He had class. He knew how to conduct himself in a research library." But Savedoff, of whom little is known, was "rough around the edges" and "repeatedly asked naive questions," he said.

"He never understood what we were saying," Arnold said.

In the coming weeks, many of us will have to spend a little time reviewing our researcher registrations. For at least a few of us, this review will be the first step in a long, intensive effort involving the FBI and exhaustive inventorying of collections accessed by Landau and Savedoff.

Want to avoid being victimized by the likes of Landau and Savedoff? The Society of American Archivists has published an archival security guide and regularly offers a first-rate archival security workshop, there's a peer-reviewed journal devoted to security matters, and I've posted some strategies and tips from the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration's new Holdings Protection Team here and here. Other resources are out there if you look for them.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Spontaneous Scholarships for SAA Annual Meeting

Kate T. over at ArchivesNext is a font of amazing ideas that would never in a million years cross my mind. A few days ago, she asked her Facebook friends and Twitter followers to contribute $20.00 each to help a grad student attend this year's annual meeting of the Society of American Archivists (SAA). The contributions quickly exceeded the cost of a single registration fee, and the Spontaneous Scholarships were born.

Here's the deal:
  • If you would like to attend the annual meeting but don't have the resources to do so, contact Kate at info[at] no later than midnight on Friday, 8 July. You do not need to explain why you are requesting one of these scholarships, but you must be an SAA member and note whether you are a regular or student SAA member. Kate will select scholarship winners -- and create a "waiting list" of applicants who will be funded if more donations are received -- by drawing applicants' names from a hat.
  • If you are in a position to make a donation -- large or small -- to this effort, you can do so via PayPal (there's a handy link on the ArchivesNext homepage) or via snail mail (e-mail Kate for a physical address). Kate will accept donations received after 8 July, but please keep in mind that recipients will need some time to make travel arrangements and that 11 July is the Early Bird registration deadline.
Please note that the Spontaneous Scholarships are meant to defray the annual meeting registration fee and that recipients will be responsible for all travel and lodging costs. However, this is a great opportunity for people whose careers are just starting or are between jobs at the moment, and, as always, I'm once again astounded by the inventive way in which Kate identified a problem and unhesitatingly took practical action. The Spontaneous Scholarships won't fix the larger problem -- the manner in which the annual meeting registration fee inhibits students' and new archivists' participation in SAA -- but they will help several people who might not otherwise be able to attend this year's meeting.

I realize that times are tough and that donating to the Spontaneous Scholarships fund isn't an option for everyone. However, if you are able to do so, please consider making a contribution.

Image: Fireworks over the Empire State Plaza, Albany, New York, 4 July 2011, 9:03 PM.