The Treasure From The Carpentry Shop

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Early in 1969, because a bit of hardware on the Brooklyn Bridge had begun to show signs of wear after nearly ninety years, a young civil engineer working for the City of New York’s Department of Transportation was delegated to hunt up the original drawings of the item. The “trunnion,” as it is called, is a steel joint assembly, or gudgeon, about eighty of which are used to connect the vertical cables of the Brooklyn Bridge to the roadway out at the center of the river span where the greatest movement occurs. It is not an especially complicated or interesting device and it need concern us no longer, but like every other part and piece of the bridge, it had been custom-made to begin with and so could be replaced only by remaking it from scratch. Hence the need for the drawings.

Francis P. Valentine, the man sent for the drawings, was then twenty-nine years old, large and bearded, a native New Yorker and resident of Brooklyn who has been rightly described by his friend David Hupert as “an absolutely dedicated public servant.” His instructions were to go to the department’s carpentry shop at 352 Kent Avenue, a small, nondescript brick building beneath the Brooklyn end of the Williamsburg Bridge, and to look through the files that were in storage there. He was advised to wear old clothes, but he had no idea what to expect.

What he found, what he saw the morning he first walked into the shop, was one of the most remarkable treasures in the whole history of the building art, a collection like none other, totaling some ten thousand original blueprints and drawings, and what is so amazing is that for all the bewildering disorder they were in, the layers of dust and filth, he sensed almost at once the extent of their value. And in this he was the rare exception, for the drawings had been known to others in the department for nobody knows how long. Kept mainly for possible reference needs, for just such emergencies as the trunnion problem, they had been gone through, in part, by perhaps as many as twenty or thirty people at one time or another. Yet the idea that they might be worth something, that many were, in their way, magnificent works of art, not to mention historic documents of great consequence, had thus far failed to dawn on anyone of authority. In fact, one official, the engineer in charge of all East River bridges, previously had ordered that the drawings be thrown out because they were taking up too much space, and this would have been their fate had it not been for the carpenters who worked in the shop—William Jeblick and Joseph Vecchio, among others—who decided it might be best if they simply ignored the order and who thus each deserve a medal. As Jeblick remarks, “It would have been a shame to see such things go to the dump, when they should have been in a museum.”

Most of the drawings were packed into huge wooden file drawers, giant chests as old as the bridge itself, but hundreds of others were piled in rolls on top of these chests, and on shelves, tables, every which way, wherever there was space. The light was poor and the dirt and dust were “unbelievable,” as Frank Valentine remembers. “Every time I pulled open a drawer a cloud of dust came out in my face. None of it looked like much at first, mostly blueprints, what you’d expect. Then after maybe four or five drawers, I began finding wonderful hand drawings, some of them enormous. I noticed many of these had WAR written on the bottom and I couldn’t for the life of me understand why anyone would want to write ‘war’ on the bottom of a drawing. I saw the drawings were dated—I realized they were a hundred years old —and I thought, ‘My God, what am I looking at here?’

“Then it struck me, WAR, that’s Washington A. Roebling, the engineer who built the Brooklyn Bridge—these were Roebling’s own signed drawings!”

After going through approximately seventy drawers, he found the trunnion drawings he had been sent for, but in the weeks following he kept insisting to his superiors that he had found—rediscovered—something of far greater importance and that steps must be taken to preserve the collection. “The people who had seen the drawings before never seemed to realize that they included Roebling originals,” he explains. “They had no idea of the extent of the collection, never knew, for instance, that it included a profile of the bridge, a drawing mind you, measuring 30 feet.”

But presently Valentine was told by his immediate boss, the late Edward Backus (”a wonderful, wonderful man"), that if the drawings meant that much to him then he might take a day or so a month to keep going through them, to determine what all was there.