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.

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