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Scenes in the Public Domain: New York City Views from the The New York Public Library

The New York Public Library made big news this month with the announcement it was opening up digital access to more than 180,000 items in its online catalogue. * With no known copyright restrictions, the items are now available for members of the public for use in any sort of way. The collections encompass a variety of materials - photos, lithographs, maps, menus, atlases, and more.

Rockefeller Center Parking Space, 40 West 49th Street, from Museum of Modern Art, 10th floor, 14 West 49th Street (Time and Life Building), Manhattan. Berenice Abbott 1935 Federal Art Project. Source page at NYPL.

The public domain expansion includes a great many items of interest to New Yorkers and those interested in the city - Berenice Abbott's documentary photographs of New York in the 1930s (above, her rather startling view of the parking situation at the new Rockefeller Center), stereoscopic views of the old city, and photographs of Ellis Island, among them. The library is actively encouraging the sharing and creative reuse of the material.

Here are just a few photographic treasures, needles in the NYPL virtual haystack, if you will.

Let's begin with a couple of stereoscopic views of Central Park. The NYPL has many of these in their Robert N. Dennis Collection of Stereoscopic Views. (While Walking Off the Big Apple is a bit cross-eyed anyway from years of digital production, it's sometimes easy to view these without a proper device by holding your index finger halfway between yourself and the image and then letting your eyes gently soften on the image.)

Skating scene in Central Park, winter 1866.


E. & H.T. Anthony (Firm)
Robert N. Dennis collection of stereoscopic views
Source page at NYPL website
Note: Skating has been popular ever since Central Park was created. This view would have been of skaters in the new Central Park, captured in the first year after the American Civil War. Stereographic views constituted a major source of entertainment throughout the latter part of the 19th century. The popularity of these uncanny 3-D devices continued to fascinate armchair travelers in later times, via the Viewmaster sets (big in my youth and a big influence on my wandering ways) and virtual reality headsets.

Central Park, in the Ramble.


Chase, W. M. (William M.) (ca. 1818-1901)
Robert N. Dennis collection of stereoscopic views
Source page
Note: Strolling in The Ramble has been a favorite recreational pastime since the beginning of Central Park. Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux designed the wild area north of The Lake to serve as a counterpoint to the more formal areas of the park. Read more about the early popularity of The Ramble on this website.

Passed and waiting to be taken off Ellis Island.


Levick, Edwin (1869-1929)
1902-1913
Photographs of Ellis Island, 1902-1913.
Source page
Note: The great wave of immigrants passing through New York Harbor at the turn of the century is well-documented in photographs. This photograph comes from a collection assembled by the Commissioner of Immigration for the Port of New York at Ellis Island, 1902-5 and 1909-13.

Exterior marble work, seen from the corner of Fifth Avenue and Forty-second Street.


1904
Collection: New York Public Library Visual Materials
Source page
Note: Not surprisingly, the NYPL kept a good record of its own work, including the construction of the main library branch on Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street. The construction scene is a little heavy on the advertisements.

• FIFTH AVENUE (1911) Washington Arch - No. 12 Apartment house, West 8th St.


From Fifth Avenue, New York, from start to finish
About this collection, from the NYPL website: "In 1907, alarmed at the approach of factories, the leading merchants and residents formed the Fifth Avenue Association. The "Save New York Committee" became a bulwark against the wrong kind of development. Perhaps inspired by this contemporary movement, photographer Burton Welles used a wide-angled view camera in 1911 to document this most important street from Washington Square, north to East 93rd Street."
Source page
Note: The wide-angle views of Fifth Avenue are worth viewing in their entirety. We can catch the last glimpses of Henry James and Edith Wharton's New York. Contemporary walkers may want to stroll Fifth Avenue to search for what remains.

Department of Docks and Police Station, Pier A, North River, Manhattan.



Changing New York
Berenice Abbott 1935
Source page
Note: In 1935, Berenice Abbott (1898-1991), a champion of the great Paris work of Eugène Atget (French, 1857-1927), launched a well-known documentary project for a rapidly modernizing New York. The Federal Art Project of the 1930s provided support for her work. Readers may recognize Pier A at the Battery, now repurposed as a restaurant.

Oliver Street, 25-29, Manhattan.


Berenice Abbott
1935 Federal Art Project
Source page
Note: 25 Oliver Street on the Lower East Side was the home of New York Governor Alfred E. Smith from 1907-1923. In a simple and balanced street scene, Abbott conveys energy and motion with a couple of walkers, a person emerging from a basement apartment, and a woman leaning out a window.

Penn Station, Interior, Manhattan.



Berenice Abbott
1935 Federal Art Project
Source page
Note: In other big news this month, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced ambitious plans for the renovation of the current Penn Station and the creation of a new train and retail hub in the Farley Post Office building across the street. (NYT story) Here's one of Abbott's haunting pictures of the old Penn Station, McKim, Mead and White's 1910 monumental masterpiece that was demolished in the 1960s. Fans of MAD MEN may remember an episode involving the controversy surrounding the preservation battle.

Begin your own explorations of the NYPL collections online here. *See press release for details.

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