Iconic photos of a changing city, and commentary on our Collections & Exhibitions from the crew at MCNY.org
While many New Yorkers had their eyes turned toward what was predicted to be a historic snowstorm late Monday evening, the New York Times shared the sad news that Christopher Gray, author of the Streetscapes column (among many other works and projects) and super-sleuth of New York’s built environment, had died Friday, March 10th at the age of 66. Mr. Gray frequently utilized images from the Museum’s collection in his writing and research, and over the years I was always anxious to read his column after receiving a photograph inquiry from him to see what new light he would shed on this city.
So on this snowy day, let us look back at some of the many, many, articles Mr. Gray has written about the city:
On April 28, 2011, Mr. Gray wrote “Way Uptown in Hospital Country,” a piece which not only discussed some of the luxury apartment homes in the Museum’s neighborhood along Fifth Avenue in the low East 100’s, but also directed readers to our new online Collections Portal, which was a mere four months old at the time. Mr. Gray discussed the transition of Fifth Avenue mansions to apartment buildings on Upper Fifth Avenue, and mentioned the photos from the collection of the interior of the apartment of Walter Seligman, who lived at 1200 Fifth Avenue at 101st Street.
Mr. Gray didn’t just stick to Manhattan, but explored the outer boroughs, as well. His column from August 30, 2012, “Still in Fashion, A Century Later,” explores the street of Columbia Heights, in the neighborhood of Brooklyn Heights, and opens with a photograph by an unknown photographer from 1884. The article touches upon many of the individual properties along the street, including numbers 176 and 178, and their notable residents.
While the Museum’s collection may have aided Mr. Gray in his research, he in turn often shed light upon some of our more puzzling photographs, and corrected mistaken identifications. “Gone With Barely a Trace,” from June 6, 2014, describes the Windsor Arcade, an extravagant example of Beaux-Arts architecture built in 1901 on the site of the Windsor Hotel, which had been destroyed by fire just two years earlier. The fire, which will have its 118th anniversary this Friday, on St. Patrick’s Day, was reported to have led to 45 deaths, with over 40 people still missing at the end of the day. Toward the end of the article, Mr. Gray mentions a photo from the Museum’s collection which was identified in a handwritten caption on the photo (prior to accessioning into the collection) as a “monument to the Windsor Hotel dead.” Mr. Gray points out that in fact, this was a chimney for the heating and electrical plant of the arcade. I’m happy to report the online record for the object has since been modified to reflect the correct information.
I was always impressed by Mr. Gray’s familiarity with our collection. Just last month, he wrote requesting access to an photograph from the Irving Underhill collection that he couldn’t find online. Mr. Gray didn’t just describe the subject matter of the photograph he was seeking, he referred to it by it’s negative number, a system established by the photographer himself and no longer utilized by Museum staff to identify the photos. How did Mr. Gray know this number? He informed me that he and his longtime colleague Suzanne Braley had in fact initially inventoried this collection in 1995. The photograph in question was of the U.S. Express Building & Trinity Building, taken in 1922, eight years after the image to the upper right. As the Underhill collection primarily consists of glass plate negatives, some were too fragile to be digitized. When I asked if he had any particular questions about the photo, his response was simply, “I’d like to see it someday.”