Sunday, February 20, 2011

The Map

The 1770 map before (left) and after (right) its restoration.

I'm always fascinated when something old and shriveled and long-forgotten is found in some obscure corner of a dark and dusty room - like that time I found my penis in the drawer of a desk we were about to throw out. While it wasn't someone's manhood that was discovered this time, it was nonetheless noteworthy when a delivery truck stopped at the Brooklyn Historical Society's office in May 2010 to drop off some old and yellowed maps and prints to be catalogued.

When Carolyn Hansen - the society's map cataloguer - began the process of unrolling the old documents, she quickly realized that something was different about this latest trove. As she started to unfurl the map - browned with age and dry and crisp as a potato chip - it began to rip. She immediately stopped. She'd unfurled enough, though, to see something that took her breath away. There was something written on the map: 'Ratzer 1770'.

Now, to me [and probably you and the rest of the world], that name would have stirred nothing in our brains; except perhaps the realization that the poor bastard who created the map probably got teased like hell as a kid with such a shitty last name. For Hansen, though, the name was like Babe Ruth or Abraham Lincoln.

She immediately went to find someone when she ran into James Rossman, the chairman of the society who just happened to be in the building at the time. "We have a Ratzer map!" she told Rossman excitedly. To others in the room who heard the reverential tone in Hansen's voice, the discovery registered the same recognition it would have in you or I. To Rossman, though, it was as magical as it sounded when Hansen said it.

That's because the name Ratzer is invoked by scholars and cartographers the way 'John Lennon and Paul McCartney' is by scholars of music. While it is difficult to pick one song for which Lennon/McCartney is most famous, for Bernard Ratzer his masterpiece was Plan of the City of New York in 1770. In her hands, Hansen was holding an early, previously unknown edition Plan of the City of New York. Since at the time there were believed to be only three copies of the exact map still in existence, this discovery would be filed under 'Deal, Big'.

One copy of the known maps belonged to King George III, and remains in the British Library in London, where it is displayed occasionally. The other two — one legible, the other tanned and dark with shellac — are at the New York Historical Society,and remain in storage but for two or three times a year, when they are pulled out for students.

This fourth map - while a breathtaking discovery for Hansen and Rossman - presented a challenge. It was aged beyond its 240 years by its destructive shellac coating. In its current condition it was literally untouchable. The story of how it was transformed from that state to a clearly legible and mounted [behind glass, of course] legendary artifact unveiled at a private party at the society last month is equally amazing as its discovery.

The folks at the Brooklyn Historical Society knew that map had been delivered from the society’s warehouse in Connecticut, but they had no catalog listing the map or when it had been acquired. It had been shellacked and mounted on linen, with a wooden pole attached at the bottom. It had been cut in long strips to allow it to be rolled up for storage. The ripping that Hansen had heard was one of the brittle strips breaking.

As for its creator, Ratzer was a British Army officer in America as well as a surveyor and draftsman. After its publication his map was immediately praised as a step forward from those of his predecessors - although he was dismayed when his name was misspelled on initial versions of his maps and called the "Ratzen plan."

The map included a detailed depiction of New York's slips and shores and streets in Lower Manhattan. To eyes in 2010, the map is a mix of the familiar and the long-forgotten. "Manhattan, at least the part shown here, was mapped as precisely as any spot on the Earth at the time," Robert T. Augustyn, co-author of Manhattan in Maps: 1527-1995, told the New York Times. "There was no more beautiful or revealing a map of New York City ever done."

Ratzer included notable buildings like "The Powder House," "The City Hall," "The Prison," as well as a detailed topography including the hills and woodlands near Kips Bay and Turtle Bay that have long-since disappeared. The Ratzer map is "one of the ways we know about how this place looked before the grid really took hold," Matthew A. Knutzen, geospatial librarian in the New York Public Library’s map division, told the Times.

The bottom of the map contains a striking illustration of the view of Manhattan as seen from Governors Island, with ships, soldiers, waves and smoke. Brooklyn - or "Brookland," as Ratzer called it - appears as a patchwork of farms of different shades, bisected by Flatbush Road. That probably is the first time "farms" and "Brooklyn" have been in the same sentence since the early 19th century.

Ratzer issued another, far more common version of the map - in 1776 - that is nearly identical to the first except for a tiny line of text from the publisher. That is why Hansen became excited when she saw "1770" written on the map [even though, most likely, Ratzer actually completed it in 1769]. The 1770 version, however, is the one that was presented - almost immediately - to King George.

The two 1770 maps at the New York Historical Society were gifts of its founder, John Pintard, on January 4, 1810, according to its catalog. That makes the map Hansen found the first Ratzer discovered in 200 years.

Exactly where this fourth version originated is still unknown, although on the back of the linen that Hansen began unrolling last May she saw the name 'Pierrepont' clearly legible. While the Pierreponts were a prominent Brooklyn family, there is no indication as to how or when it ended up in the Connecticut warehouse.

Fearful of causing more damage, the society called in Jonathan P. Derow, a paper conservationist. "It was in terrible condition," Derow told the Times. "I suggested it not be rerolled. Every time it was handled, more pieces were broken apart, and the damage was increased."

It was too brittle to move to Derow's office, so he made a makeshift plastic tent in the society’s office and inserted a humidifier. The hard paper softened, and Derow carried it away. He washed the map for four days in an alkaline bath [don't try that at home, folks] that removed acid and grime, and he cut away the linen backing. Derow then aligned the pieces, using a strong magnifying glass and tweezers, and let the map dry, only to see tiny gaps appear between strips, the result of the paper’s shrinking. So, he rewet it and started over, but let the pieces overlap slightly. That worked: the map shrank perfectly in place.

White lines were visible where the map had ripped, the brighter inner fabrics of the paper standing out from the stained surface. Derow came up with a simply brilliant idea. He went to a bookstore specializing in old, obscure books and bought a handful. To give you an idea of how obscure the books were, when was the last time you picked up your copy of The Select Dialogues of Lucian, to Which Is Added, a New Literal Translation in Latin, With Notes in English [1804]? The key ingredient was the cloth paper upon which such old books were printed, as opposed to the wood pulp that is used today.

While book-lovers might chastise him, Derow took the books and baked them in his kitchen oven. He then boiled them in water to create a simply delightful stew. Although no doubt tempting, Derow didn't eat the mixture but instead painted the now-liquid cloth onto the white lines, matching them to the rest of the map. He then framed the finished product behind plexiglass.

Derow charged the society $5,000 for the restoration - which apparently is a reduced rate. Still, the work is amazing. From an historical standpoint, the document is now protected for hundreds of years.

copyright 2011 by EBBP Redux. If you are reading this on a blog or website other than EBBP Redux or via a feedreader, this content has been stolen and used without permission.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Grade A

President Ronald Reagan's official White House portrait [above], taken early in 1981. His physical appearance changed noticeably after the assassination attempt on March 30th of that year.

When the nation celebrated the 100th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln's birth, they put his visage on the penny. The story is interesting: President Theodore Roosevelt, in the final days of his Administration [remember, in 1909 the new President (William Howard Taft) wasn't inaugurated until March 4th], Roosevelt sought to suitably commemorate Lincoln before he turned over the White House to his bloated successor. So, Roosevelt instructed a well-known sculptor named Augustus Saint-Gaudens to redesign the penny [actually, while he was at it, Roosevelt told Saint-Gaudens to start to redesign all the United States coins]. Unfortunately for Saint-Gaudens, he up and died before completing the Lincoln project, leaving Roosevelt to find a new designer.

Victor David Brenner - to my knowledge, no relation to the comedian - had previously sculpted a bronze plaque of Lincoln that Roosevelt admired. Running out of time, Roosevelt chose the Brenner bronze as the new face of the penny. Unfortunately, by the time the new penny design was complete, Roosevelt was off in Africa shooting things. Still, the Lincoln penny was minted and began circulating in August 1909 - still within a time frame to call it in honor of his 100th birthday.

Not quite so with another American icon. Back in 1829, when I was a boy, the country prepared to celebrate the 100th birthday of George Washington three years hence. Seeking a suitable way to honor the 'Father of His Country', a group of citizens in Maine organized a commission to construct a 'Washington monument' somewhere in the nation's capital. The idea was to have the monument up and ready by February 22, 1832 - the actual 100th anniversary of his birth.

Initially, private donations poured in and the effort was taken over by a national commission. While originally the Maine group wanted to have the monument financed entirely by private donations, had they stuck to that the odds are the Washington Monument would be about six feet tall. So, 1832 came and went. Somehow, the commission actually lost money. So, missing the desired date of the unveiling by a cool 22 years, the commission was distraught when the private funds dried up. For once, the Congress of the 1850s did something positive and made a $200,000 donation in 1854.

It looked like the monument was just around the corner. Then Congress slipped back into its' more traditional bone-headed thinking and for some reason invited foreign governments to donate a marble block as part of what was now going to be the Washington Monument with a capital 'M'. They were invited to donate the marble block with their own message of congratulations on what was now being billed as a 125th anniversary celebration of Washington's birth. The reason I say it was bone-headed is that this was smack in the middle of the Nativist movement in the U.S., when anti-Catholicism was the national pastime [soon to be replaced by baseball]. So, when Pope Pius IX made a marble donation on behalf of The Papal States, the Nativist political party known as the Know Nothings [which, incidentally, could be the name of every political party] decided they'd seen enough.

It had been decided that an election would be held to select members of a new Washington Monument Commission [for some reason, Congress didn't trust its $200,000 with the group who blew through the donated money]. So, the Know Nothings relied on that age-old American political tradition and rigged the elections. The result was a commission filled with Know Nothings who proceeded to - literally - remove the papal marble block and throw it into the Potomac River.

Congress thought this was rude and immediately rescinded its appropriation and work on the Monument was halted. The country was too busy tearing itself apart, what with a civil war and all, so work didn't resume until after that conflagration. By the time the Washington Monument was finally dedicated, it was for the 150th anniversary of Washington's birth, in 1882. Oh, and the papal marble block was replaced with a new one in 1982, at the direction of President Ronald Reagan.

A wonderful segue [if I do say so myself] into a post on the 100th anniversary of the birth of President Reagan today. First, in the interest of humanity and dignity, we should consider it a blessing that the poor man is not still with us. Indeed, at one time doctors were telling Nancy Reagan that her husband's physical make-up was such that he could well live past 100, even though he no longer opened his eyes - a period that lasted four years until his death in 2004. For a man as vibrant and sunny as Reagan, his long and drawn out decline into death was hard on the country but much harder - devastating - to his family.

So, today we celebrate not the ill dying Reagan but the 40th President of the United States. There are many, many examples of men who became unlikely Presidents. Indeed, out of the 43 men who have occupied the office, probably a third were perhaps the least likely men to grow up and become President in their city, town or village. Our current President certainly fits that mold.

Does Reagan fit into this category? Yes and no. Actually, it is probably more no than yes. Reagan's detractors would scoff at that and say that Ronald Reagan was the least likely - and least qualified - man to assume the Presidency - ever. Of course, these are folks who are too young to remember Warren Harding's stag parties in the White House, but that's another story.

While it is true that Reagan did not turn to politics until he was well into his middle-age, too often his detractors belittle what he did during that first phase of his life. Those who did not appreciate that period of his life now lie by the political roadside alongside the carcasses of hundreds of others who underestimated Ronald Reagan.

Those putting Reagan in the unlikely/unqualified category point to that early career - first as a radio announcer, and then a Hollywood actor - as proof-positive that he belongs there. His detractors love to call him a 'Grade B actor' - which is horseshit. His movies were 'B' movies, but Reagan's acting was not. Despite the fact that the scripts were dreadful and he was surrounded by true 'B' actors, Reagan's performances are actually quite good. Indeed, even setting aside the fact that you know the man is going to become President 40 years hence, watching these horrible films you find yourself focusing on Reagan's characters simply because they are the only ones who are interesting.

Of course, his detractors also try to have it both ways. They say he was a horrible actor in the 1940s and 1950s but then the greatest 'actor' of all time while President of the United States. This defies logic - which, of course, has never deterred the Left on anything. In fact, I would say that Reagan's acting was not 'B' - ever.

But his supporters also misread him when they try to underplay his acting abilities as President. That is just plain silly. The man played a role of a lifetime from 1981-1989. He used his knowledge of communication, voice inflection, projection and knowing his audience to simple perfection. That's not a slap at Reagan, by the way. In fact, another President I admire - a guy from Arkansas - might have beat out Reagan for an Oscar if they gave one to Presidents' for their acting ability.

So, the whole 'acting' angle is more complicated than people think. Because it is so complicated, in fact, that tends to lead me to believe that it is at the crux of any study of Ronald Reagan. We should study it because one of the traits of the greatest actors - being a brilliant observer of people and taking those observations to project those qualities into a character - helped make Reagan a successful President. He was intelligent, but not brilliant. This led some to say that he had literally no intellectual curiosity. He had a limited attention span for most of his entire life, which often led those who were trying to get their point across to him in a meeting walk away thinking Reagan was a dolt. More likely, the dolt was the guy talking to Reagan. Reagan had gotten whatever he wanted or needed from the person and, with that done, the President had simply 'turned off the TV', so to speak. He listened, he learned, he studied, and then his mind was gone from the discussion.

The one intrinsic part of Reagan's character, though, was understanding and knowing people. That is ironic because Reagan himself was perhaps the least 'known' person ever to occupy the White House. I don't mean he wasn't famous; I mean almost no one 'knew' Reagan. He had no best friend other than his wife, Nancy. Beyond her, of all the hundreds of men and women who would work closely with Reagan over his political career, not one could say they 'knew' Reagan. Perhaps because he could read people so well he refused to allow himself to be read by others. Perhaps it was his childhood experiences with an alcoholic father with a temper [never a good combination...unless you're Charlie Sheen] made him so introverted, so removed. We'll never know.

But that's where Reagan's acting comes in. Because, although Reagan was an introvert with no confidants, he made every single person he encountered in his life feel as if they knew Reagan; that they were his confidant, buddy, pal. His acting skills allowed him to watch people, learn from people, entertain them, make them feel like they were a part of his life while - in reality - shutting them out his true self entirely. And that ability made him the President he became.

So, in my view, rather than dismissing him as a 'B' actor, in fact we should recognize - and not in a derogatory way - the role that Reagan's acting talents played in his successful leadership of the country. His acting career was not something to be passed over in a few pages in a biography: it was a key component of his being.

In the most positive sense - and not as a swipe at him - I say Ronald Reagan was no Grade 'B' actor. In fact, he was Grade 'A'. The only 'B' I'd give him is an academic mark. I believe he was a good [B] - not a great - President.

So, Happy 100th birthday, Mr. President. In this equation, A + B = a man worth honoring on this day.

copyright 2011 by EBBP Redux. If you are reading this on a blog or website other than EBBP Redux or via a feedreader, this content has been stolen and used without permission.