Location!

Reception to Japanese Commission, City Hall, Sept. 27, 1917

Sometimes, this is simple. Well-known buildings make locating quick work. Our location process largely relies on descriptive metadata created by collections staff or photographers themselves. When this information is lacking, helpful hints within the photos aid in locating: unique architectural features, corner street signs, and recognizable (or research-able) clues like infrastructure and advertisements.

Sometimes hard!

At times, locating a photograph is not quite so effortless. It requires dogged persistence, a willingness to be frustrated, considerable time, and knowledge that even with all your hard work, map searching, and New York Times Archive combing, you still might not be able to pin down the location close enough for inclusion in the app. For an example of this zeal to find the location and, happily, a success story, look no further than my colleague’s research into this ca. 1888 photograph.

Occasionally, the locating of an image is impossible and, more importantly, unrewarding. In the photograph at left, the buildings have no distinguishing architectural features or visible addresses, and the background is of no help. Would it be excellent to discover the location of these buildings? Of course. But is it worth the time? Probably not. We have access to thousands of other photographs that are more easily located. Our goal is a substantial mapping of photographs that illuminate the richly contextual architecture and culture of the city.

What makes a photograph easy to locate?

  • Quantity and quality of metadata attached to photograph
  • Easily distinguished features
  • Understanding of place

In all of the aforementioned examples, the ability to locate is most often dependent upon the quantity and quality of metadata attached to the photograph. Metadata is just that: a set of data about other data; the information used to describe, understand, and organize artifacts, books, or archival documents. While standards for metadata collection and creation exist, museums, libraries, and archives have access to differing amounts of information. Certain descriptive metadata is recorded contemporaneously. In the case of some photographs, like those in the Subway Construction collection at the New York Transit Museum, the photographer detailed the time of the exposure down to the very minute, “The image was taken at 10:37 am”, and noted the extremely specific location “Camera [is]3 feet north of south curb of 11th Street and 6 feet west of west cub of Ely Avenue looking south.” We are not always so fortunate. Sometimes a photograph is accessioned (taken in) to a collection with no information beyond what can be gleaned from the subject: no year taken, no title, and no idea of the creator.

What is metadata?

A set of data about other data; the information used to describe, understand, and organize artifacts, books, or archival documents.

Good metadata… down to the minute!

Challenges

  • Sometimes metadata is incorrect!
  • Standards for metadata vary

Lost Building #1

Metadata
Bronx, East Tremont, Washington Avenue (Bronx)

This photograph is titled on the institution’s collections portal as “Nathan Hale Apartments, 181st St. & Washington Ave.” As such the keywords attached to the photo include: Bronx, East Tremont, and Washington Avenue (Bronx). The keywords are based on the location, which is included on the negative itself. In this case, the location metadata is taken from a text annotation on the photographic print, itself.

Here though, the topography does not match the historic photograph, particularly the considerable drop of a hill on the street to the left of the historic structure. Google Street View navigation of the surrounding neighborhood reveals this area is populated with small and low-rise apartment houses, residential homes that look to date to the late 19th or very early 20th century, and a handful of contemporary buildings (such as the green-roofed one at left). Clearly, this photograph does not depict this corner.

Here though, the topography does not match the historic photograph, particularly the considerable drop of a hill on the street to the left of the historic structure. Google Street View navigation of the surrounding neighborhood reveals this area is populated with small and low-rise apartment houses, residential homes that look to date to the late 19th or very early 20th century, and a handful of contemporary buildings (such as the green-roofed one at left). Clearly, this photograph does not depict this corner.

Building is not lost!

A quick search of “Nathan Hale Apartments, 181st Street & Washington Avenue” returns a number of results that properly place the building at 181st Street and Fort Washington Avenue in the Fort George neighborhood of upper Manhattan.

Lost Building #2

March 11, 1888

This photograph shows a street scene in the days after the blizzard, with a snapped telegraph pole suspended over a Manhattan intersection.

It neatly captures the hazard posed by above-ground telegraph lines, even after much of the snow had melted and New Yorkers, blurred by the camera’s long exposure, had resumed their daily activities.

The Scene

New York Times, 1888

In a Blizzard’s Grasp

“The worst storm the city has ever known.”

Important Clues

In the foreground, a street sign marks Avenue A. In 1888, Avenue A ran between Houston and 24th Streets downtown. Uptown, York Avenue and Sutton Place were also known as Avenue A. That leaves some 62 intersections for further study.

Beyond the Avenue A sign is the second clue: an elevated railway station at the next intersection. The cameraman was facing west (there were no elevated lines east of Avenue A), toward one of four Second Avenue El stations along First Avenue: First, Eighth (St. Mark’s Place), 14th, or 19th Street.

Important Clues

62 intersections!

In the foreground, a street sign marks Avenue A. In 1888, Avenue A ran between Houston and 24th Streets downtown. Uptown, York Avenue and Sutton Place were also known as Avenue A. That leaves some 62 intersections for further study.

Beyond the Avenue A sign is the second clue: an elevated railway station at the next intersection. The cameraman was facing west (there were no elevated lines east of Avenue A), toward one of four Second Avenue El stations along First Avenue: First, Eighth (St. Mark’s Place), 14th, or 19th Street.

Important Clues

Facing west
(no elevated lines east of Ave A), toward one of four Second Avenue El stations on First Avenue: First, Eighth (St. Mark’s Place), 14th, or 19th Street.

*Note the uniform cornice height

and setback of the tenements.

We’ll assess the candidates by matching the buildings on either side of the mystery block to contemporaneous maps. Here, we’re looking for a key feature: a nearly uniform row of five-story tenements lining the uptown side of the block.

  • 19th Street .

2. Eighth Street (St. Mark’s Place), 1891

Along Eighth Street, a number of buildings are either set back from the street or of irregular width.

3. First Street

On the south side, two frame dwellings (in yellow) sit next to a vacant lot. It’s difficult to be certain, but there does not appear to be a three-lot-wide gap in the photo.

First Street appears plausible, but two areas raise questions. On the south side, two frame dwellings (in yellow) sit next to a vacant lot. It’s difficult to be certain, but there does not appear to be a three-lot-wide gap in the photo.

On the uptown side, several buildings on the western end have wood-frame additions at the rear (also yellow), indicating a possible difference in construction, compared to the eastern half of the block.

3. First Street

On the uptown side, several buildings on the western end have wood-frame additions at the rear (also yellow), indicating a possible difference in construction, compared to the eastern half of the block.

On the uptown side, several buildings on the western end have wood-frame additions at the rear (also yellow), indicating a possible difference in construction, compared to the eastern half of the block.

First Street, 1903. “3B” notation indicates a building with three stories plus a basement

A look at the 1903 Sanborn Co. insurance map confirms this suspicion: many of the tenements on First Street have only three stories.

4. 14th Street

The feature we’ve been looking for! A row of seventeen five-story tenements, each between 54–56’ tall:

Detail of 225 Avenue A

Meltzer Bros. beer sign visible

225 Avenue A, ca. 1920.

Hassler via NYHS

Resources

  • NYPL old maps
  • NY Times Machine
  • NYPL, Library of Congress
  • Urban Archive!
Locating Collections at Urban Archive - Google Slides