The 1911 Capitol Fire

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The 1911 Capitol Fire
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    (TEXT VERSION - Recovery Efforts)

    The Capitol in Ruins

    Portions of the building that were untouched by fire did not escape ruin. Falling debris, smoke and water from fire hoses accounted for much of the damage to the Capitol. However, the State Library, containing 600,000 volumes including documents dating back to 1776, suffered the most.

    New York National Guard

    The days immediately following the fire, the New York National Guard was called in to secure the Capitol building from looting and to assist with debris removal.

    New York National Guard

    Members of the National Guard patrol downtown Albany. The Capitol building looms in the background behind a solitary fire pumper.

    New York National Guard

    On April 10, the "Albany Times-Union" reported: "The soldiers saved thousands of dollars worth of valuables, worked like truck horses among the ruins . . . clearing up debris, moving desks and other office furniture and guarding valuables."

    Albany City Hall

    The city of Albany allowed the state senate to utilize City Hall as a temporary meeting place for legislative sessions and business.

    Joseph Gavit, Librarian

    Gavit played a major role in the rescue of important collections from the ruins. Having worked in the Library since 1896 when he joined as a junior clerk at the age of nineteen, Gavit's knowledge of the labyrinthine, overcrowded shelving arrangements made much of the salvage work possible.

    Joseph Gavit, Librarian

    Gavit worked for the State Library for fifty years, retiring as an associate librarian. At the time of the fire, he was superintendent of the stacks and reputedly knew where every book in the library was located. His eyewitness account of the fire is key to understanding the events of March 29, 1911, and their aftermath.

    Collapsed North Stack

    Gavit himself spent endless hours tirelessly searching through treacherous scenes like this one in the collapsed north stack. As the tangled wreckage cooled, bricks and debris would loosen and fall. Materials salvaged were often still smoldering and too hot to hold with bare hands.

    Calvary Baptist Church (State and High Streets)

    The Calvary Baptist Church (at left) graciously offered its basement to house and sort valuable documents salvaged from the Capitol fire.

    Sorting through Debris

    Makeshift shelving was constructed to help with the sorting and storage of the charred remains of thousands of historic records recovered from the fire.

    Sorting through Debris

    In order to salvage the documents, volumes were removed from their charred and water-soaked covers and then separated leaf by leaf to dry. Although the pages made it through the fire, mold and mildew were a constant threat.

    Untreated Latin Parchment

    The effects of heat and moisture are clearly visible in this untreated medieval Latin parchment.

    Audubon's "Birds of America"

    At first glance, this large stack of debris appears unidentifiable. However, Joseph Gavit recognized it right away in the midst of six to eight feet of bricks, mortar, wood and paper as the Library's folio prints of Audubon's "Birds of America". Although recovered from the fire, the location of the folios today is unknown.

    "Burnt Out Clerks"

    Library of Congress document preservation expert, William Berwick, assisted the State Library with its document recovery operation. In this photograph taken by Berwick, clerks pause momentarily from their tireless efforts to pose for the camera.

    Arnold Johan Ferdinand van Laer

    A.J.F. van Laer was the state archivist and a world-renowned authority on colonial Dutch records. He was reportedly so traumatized by the fire that it would be almost a decade before he began translating the charred remains of New York's Dutch colonial history.

    Early Dutch Records

    Van Laer's efforts saved thousands of documents related to the early Dutch colony of New York, including this letter from Kiliaen van Rensselaer to his "schout" (sheriff), Adriaen van der Donck, dated July 18, 1641.

    1675 van Rensselaer Document

    An example of one of the hundreds of documents restored by Van Laer, this 1675 document shows Maria van Rensselaer's account with a baker. A record of the purchase of "Sinterklaas" (Santa Claus) cookies, it is perhaps one of the earliest documentations of the celebration of the feast of Saint Nicholas in the New World!

    State Library Catalog Cards

    The singed corners of these catalog cards serve as reminders of their brush with fire.

    Bronze Bust of George Washington Survives Fire

    At far right, the bronze bust of George Washington sits calmly on a filing cabinet amidst the chaos as firemen battle the flames directly over the main entrance to the library from the Great Western Staircase.

    Bronze Bust of George Washington

    A remarkable survivor of the fire, the bust is an original first casting made directly from the life-cast plaster model at Mount Vernon. Mysteriously, it disappeared after the fire only to be returned in 1929 to the State and presented to Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt at the Executive Mansion.

    State Museum Display Cases Destroyed

    National guardsmen near the wrecked Museum exhibits in the aftermath of the fire. (Photo courtesy of Albany Institute of History & Art)

    State Museum Display Cases Destroyed

    Including household, personal, manufacturing, and ceremonial objects, all but fifty of some five hundred objects in the world-famous Lewis Henry Morgan Collection were on exhibit in the Capitol Building at the time of the fire.

    Arthur C. Parker

    Arthur C. Parker was hired by the State Museum in 1904 as the first New York state archaeologist. On the day of the Capitol Fire, he risked his life to save collections precious to him, both professionally and personally.

    Lewis Henry Morgan

    Established for the State Museum in 1849–1850, the Lewis Henry Morgan collection contained traditional objects from the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) communities in New York and the Six Nations reserve in Canada.

    "Gus-to-weh" Silver Head Band

    This sketch from Morgan's notebook depicts a "Gus-to-weh" (male head dress). Historically and today, it is worn by Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) men at significant public occasions. The number and placement of feathers identifies the man's particular Nation.

    "Gus-to-weh" Silver Head Band

    While the fabric crown burned in the fire, this silver head band remained intact. (NYSM E-51150)

    Cornhusk Salt Bottle

    This O-no-ne-ä Gos-ha-dä, or cornhusk salt bottle, was charred in the fire and is missing its stopper. (NYSM E-450)

    Handmade Beaded Skirt

    Caroline Parker, Arthur C. Parker's grandmother, was commissioned by Morgan to create this handmade beaded skirt. It is among fifty surviving objects from the Morgan Collection, and was probably stored for study in Arthur Parker's office when the fire occurred.

    Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation

    The Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation and other priceless historic documents were rescued from a safe in the Capitol. Bundled into a clothes basket, they were carried across the street to safety while the building continued to smolder.

    The Great Western Staircase

    In September 2006, a $2.8 million dollar restoration of the entire staircase was completed, removing a hundred years of dirt, soot, and grime from the stone and original light fixtures.

    The Capitol Today

    After the fire, the State Capitol was rebuilt and adapted to twentieth-century office needs. The Capitol was designated as a National Historic Landmark in 1979, and a Commission on the Restoration of the Capitol was established to restore the Senate Chamber and other spaces.