See 120 years of NYC art and architecture planning at the Public Design Commission’s Archives

November 13, 2018

Plans for a never-built “Italian Fountain” at the Bronx Zoo, disapproved by the Commission Feb. 10, 1903; DC French’s “Brooklyn” and a Guide to Prospect Park via PDC

On the third floor of City Hall, in what was once an apartment for the building’s caretaker, a small agency known as the Public Design Commission reviews works of public art, architecture, and design proposed on or over city-owned property. Projects as varied as West End Avenue’s Straus Memorial, Central Park’s Bethesda Fountain, Greenpoint’s now-defunct Huron Street Baths, and all of the City’s spectacular WPA murals, have come before the Commission for approval and safeguarding.

Since the Commission was established under the New York City Charter in 1898 and approved its first project, the Maine Monument in Central Park, designed and carved in the Bronx by the great Attillio Piccirilli, the commission has conferred or withheld its blessing on more than 7,000 projects. Thankfully, what those projects are and where you can find them is all a matter of public record. Since 1902, the Commission has maintained a meticulous archive documenting all the projects it has reviewed. The Archive includes original drawings, photographs, and architectural plans of more than a century of the City’s public works.

Guide to Prospect Park showing Ocean Avenue Gateway, approved November 28, 1903 via PDC

For the last 120 years, representatives of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Brooklyn Museum, the New York Public Library, and the Mayor’s Office have been joined by an architect, a landscaper, a painter, a sculptor, and three lay members to create the Commission’s 11-person committee.

The PDC’s archives show a special slice of New York’s history, and you can trace a number of “firsts” through its collections. For example, you can see plans for the murals at Harlem Hospital, the major US Government commission awarded to African American artists.

Plans for viaduct carrying Gun Hill Road over the Bronx River Parkway, designed by Stoughton and Stoughton, approved August 22, 1916, via PDC

Today, the PDC’s archives are housed at 253 Broadway, across from City Hall. The collections are open to the public, and once a month, the Commission’s in-house archivist and records manager offer tours of the archive. We hopped on a tour last week, and thought we’d share some highlights from the collection.

Plans for a never-built “Italian Fountain” at the Bronx Zoo, disapproved by the Commission Feb. 10, 1903, via PDC

 Washington Irving High School, designed by C.B.J Snyder, 1908, via PDC

Interior decoration for NYPD headquarters, 240 Center Street, designed by Francis L.V. Hoppin, 1907 via PDC

Trinity Bridge, approved August 18, 1912, via PDC

Plans for Gates Avenue Court House, designed by Wilkinson and Magonigle, approved September 8, 1903, via PDC

Gatehouse clock in Central Park at 85 Street, approved January 12, 1909, manufatured by the E. Howard Clock Company, via PDC

George B. Post’s design for the 39th Street Ferry Terminal, Brooklyn, approved March 10, 1908, via PDC

Maquette of “Invisible Man” by Elizabeth Catlett, for Ralph Ellison Memorial in Riverside Park, approved April 9, 2001, dedicated May 1, 2003  via PDC

Daniel Chester French’s “Brooklyn,” originally for the Brooklyn Approach to the Manhattan Bridge, now at the Brooklyn Museum, 1915, via PDC

Going Electric! In 1903, the Municipal Art Society held a competition for “Electrollers” in Times Square. This winning design was approved by the PDC October 13, 1903  via PDC

Verrazzano Monument, Battery Park. The sculptor Ettore Ximenes is seen here at work, 1909 via PDC

Washington Heights and Inwood War Memorial, by Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, 1923, via PDC

Can’t get enough archival documents? You can follow the PDC archive on tumblr or sign up for a tour of the archive here.

Lucie Levine is the founder of Archive on Parade, a local tour and event company that aims to take New York’s fascinating history out of the archives and into the streets. She’s a Native New Yorker, and licensed New York City tour guide, with a passion for the city’s social, political and cultural history. She has collaborated with local partners including the New York Public Library, The 92nd Street Y, The Brooklyn Brainery, The Society for the Advancement of Social Studies and Nerd Nite to offer exciting tours, lectures and community events all over town. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

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