A Century of Stewardship: Conservation and the Capitol Fire of 1911
On March 29, 1911 a fire swept through the New York State Capitol and destroyed extensive portions of the State Library and State Museum collections housed there, including Revolutionary War material. One person perished. Officially, the fire was blamed on faulty wiring. Staff members were quickly on the scene and brought as much material as possible to safety. State Archivist Arnold Johan Ferdinand van Laer and Library of Congress document restorer William Berwick mounted the salvage effort.
One hundred years later, we are still working to conserve those rescued documents. The State Archives did not exist in 1911, but was created in 1971 to manage the historical records of state government. When the new Cultural Education Center opened in 1978, these documents were transferred from the State Library to the State Archives. Archives paper conservator Susan Bove has since developed considerable expertise in the treatment of burned documents.
Click on the photos below to learn how the State Archives conserves the documents that were damaged in the Capitol Fire of 1911.
What happens to paper when it is burned?
Conservation involves the cleaning and repair of damaged artifacts. Conservators specialize in different types of objects, such as paintings, textiles, or ceramics. This sequence of images shows the general approach taken by a conservator of paper in deciding how to treat burned documents.
Removal of Silking
Silking was a very effective means of holding torn documents together. It was used in many of the major document collections in the United States and abroad. William Berwick, internationally renowned at the time he came to Albany from the Library of Congress to assist with the salvage effort, refined and used this method extensively and with great skill. However, as it ages, silk can become brittle and darken, and lose its effectiveness. When this happens, paper conservators often remove it. The next sequence of images shows this process.
Conservation has been described as an art, a craft, and a science. Sue's careful examination and analysis enabled her to safely immerse this document in water in order to help clean it and to loosen the deteriorated silk. In this silent clip, she skillfully manipulates the fragile and easily torn silk gauze off of the surface of the document, with a minimum of strain on the paper itself. Conservators need to be adept at changing their techniques to accommodate the particular characteristics of each work that they treat. Video clips courtesy of WMHT.
The next sequence of images shows a conservator carrying out a treatment that will strengthen the weakest areas of the document – the burned edges. Note that the goal of this conservation treatment is not to restore the damaged item to its original condition. The goal is to make it as stable as possible, so that it becomes accessible for research.
In the following silent video, Michael goes through the steps detailed in the still photographs. Here you can also see him position the Japanese tissue on the document, after which he confirms its adhesion by gently pressing it in place with a microspatula. Finally, he removes the clear polyester by rolling it off from two directions. Video clips courtesy of WMHT.
Paper's characteristic thin, flexible structure makes it highly susceptible to tearing. East Asian screen and scroll mounters have worked for centuries refining mounting techniques that will repair and in some cases prevent typical damages. Paper conservators have adapted many of these methods and materials for use with European papers, which respond well to many similar treatments.
The 1911 Capitol Fire
The New York State Museum presents "The 1911 Capitol Fire", now on view in the Museum's Madison Avenue Lobby.
American Institute for Conservation
For additional information about art conservation, please visit the website of the American Institute for Conservation. The AIC is the national membership organization for the conservation profession in the United States. It plays a leadership role in setting professional standards, promoting research and training in the field, and providing reliable resources for the public.
The New York Capitol Fire
WMHT has produced a comprehensive documentary about the fire, which will air on March 31, 2011. In the course of their research, they visited the New York State Archives and New York State Library's joint conservation lab to film staff members conserving burned documents. The New York State Archives is grateful for permission to show excerpts from this filming. Please visit The New York Capitol Fire for additional educational resources.
New York State Archives - Resources for Researchers
For an overview of State Archives resources, visit our Research web page. Here you will find subject guides, record indexes, and other tools to help you locate New York state records held by the Archives. The documents Sue and Michael are working on are from two NYSA series: J0038-92, Probated wills, 1671-1815, and A4682-99, Files related to Revolutionary War claims and other subjects, 1777-1830.
The New York State Capitol and the Great Fire of 1911
Historical account by Vicki Weiss and Paul Mercer of the New York State Library
Throughout the Ages: The New York State Capitol
Classroom resources, historical photographs, and lessons about the Capitol are available on the New York State Archives website. Lessons were developed by New York teachers and may be customized online to meet the needs of all learners.