The Treasure From The Carpentry Shop

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This was still in 1969, the year of the landing on the moon, when a technological achievement like the Brooklyn Bridge seemed just a little quaint, a relic from a different world, let alone a different age, as I know from personal experience, for I, too, at that time, was digging my way through another long-neglected Roebling collection—letters, memoranda, personal diaries, scrapbooks, and the like, all pertaining to the bridge—which had been in storage for years, unsorted, uncatalogued, at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, in Troy, New York. Still, the more Valentine worked with the drawings the more fascinated he became—and determined to get them out of the carpentry shop and into safekeeping. He called the Long Island Historical Society to see if anyone there could advise him what to do. He called the New-York Historical Society and the Museum of Modern Art. He described what he had found. “Nobody seemed interested. Nobody felt it was important. They’d ask me how many drawings there were and when I said I thought maybe ten thousand, they’d right away say that was more than they could ever handle. I couldn’t get anybody even to come see what I was talking about. And back at the office a lot of people gave me the impression that I was out of my mind.”

He tried several newspapers, and at length, in 1973, the Trenton Times sent somebody over to the carpentry shop and ran an article. (Trenton was home for the Roeblings, home also of the Roebling wire company, and 1973 was the ninetieth anniversary of the completion of the bridge.) Still, nothing happened, not until a year or so later when Valentine discovered that David Hupert worked at the Whitney Museum of Modern Art. Until then Hupert had been only another of his neighbors in the Park Slope section of Brooklyn, a nice enough fellow who played on the same softball team. For some reason he can’t explain, Valentine had never known what Hupert did for a living, but once he found out, things began to happen. Hupert not only came to the carpentry shop (“I just stood there in utter amazement,” he remembers) but with Valentine’s help selected sixty-five of what he regarded as the most aesthetically striking drawings of the lot, then rounded up the necessary funds to have these properly cleaned and mounted for an exhibition at the Whitney’s downtown gallery. Most of the work on the larger drawings was done by the head “paper conservator” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Merritt Safford. A century of accumulated dirt had to be removed—mold, mildew, and thousands upon thousands of tiny, dark specks, roach feces, every one of which had to be picked off painstakingly by hand. The cost of preparing the sixty-five drawings was fifteen thousand dollars.

The show, when it opened in May, 1976—the first public display of the drawings—was a huge success. The longer it was up, the greater the attendance, which is just the reverse of the usual pattern. Remembering the response, Hupert says, “No show we ever did had such an outpouring of affection, all for that bridge.” Still, there was not money enough to do a catalogue—only a poster was published, a reproduction of the original thirteen-foot “presentation” profile which appears here as a gatefold—and the drawings on display represented but a tiny fraction of the whole, too tiny even to qualify as the tip of the iceberg.

Interest in the rest of the collection, all still at the carpentry shop, had become most intense meantime. The Municipal Archives and the Brooklyn Museum had gotten wind long since of what Hupert was up to, were highly displeased about it, and each commenced to lay claim to the collection. The drawings belonged to the city, insisted the Municipal Archives, and so therefore the drawings belonged in the Municipal Archives. The Brooklyn Museum argued that it was better equipped to give the drawings proper care and housing, and to put them on public view, and that after all it was Brooklyn’s bridge. More important, the Brooklyn Museum also sent an associate curator, Barbara Millstein, to appraise the situation at the carpentry shop, and if there is a point in the story at which one might say that the drawings were at last “saved,” this is it. For Mrs. Millstein’s commitment to the collection was to be unrelenting. Over the next several years, assisted by a volunteer co-worker, Gail Guillet, she did a thorough inventory of the entire collection, complete with descriptive data on each and every item, a simply staggering task. And while ultimately, in 1976, her museum lost out to the Municipal Archives as the rightful proprietor of the collection, no one, not Frank Valentine or David Hupert or anyone at the Municipal Archives, would ever contest Mrs. Millstein’s hard-earned standing as the authority on the drawings, and it will be the Brooklyn Museum that puts on a mammoth exhibit of three to four hundred of them in 1983, in honor of the bridge’s one hundredth anniversary.

The Municipal Archives, meantime, has physical possession of the treasure (the drawings were finally removed from the carpentry shop in 1976, seven years after Valentine first found them), and at this writing grants amounting to three hundred thousand dollars have been obtained to assure their safekeeping.

But what of the drawings themselves after all? What, finally, is the real value of this extraordinary mountain of paper?