Friday, January 05, 2007

A Rare Collection

SARATOGA SPRINGS - It has been a secret kept for more than 60 years and
everyone who was involved has either quietly moved on, or taken the
story with them to the grave.

Today, they gather at the marble columned Hall of Springs much as they
did then, toasting life beneath Belgian crystal chandeliers that hang
from vaulted ceilings 40 feet high. Few, if any know that the
labyrinth-like basement directly beneath their feet was used to secretly
store some of the greatest possessions this country has ever had.

The early 1940s was a season of fear. In December 1941, came the attacks
by Japan at Pearl Harbor. Adolf Hitler declared war on the United
States. England had already been under aerial attack from the Germans
for more than a year and by the spring of 1942 German U-boats were
roaming the Atlantic Coast, delivering potential German saboteurs to
American shores.

It was a time that Franklin D. Roosevelt served his second term in The
White House. The President knew New York well. Roosevelt was born in
Hyde Park and served as senator and governor for his home state. He was
a big supporter of creating an American health spa, one similar to the
health centers and tourists attractions popular in Europe at the time.
As he entered the White House in the early 1930s, a number of buildings
would be erected at what today is Saratoga Spa State Park. The Hall of
Springs would be among them. With war threatening the American homeland
in the early '40s, it would be used for a purpose Roosevelt couldn't
have imagined a decade earlier.

The decision was made to move one of the most precious collections in
the country from the New York Public Library and relocate it somewhere
for safekeeping. In the dark of night and under police escort in May
1942, 27,000 rare books, prints and manuscripts were moved from the
library in Manhattan and placed in two secure vaults located on the
basement floor of The Hall of Springs where they would stay for the next
2 1/2 years.

Among the collection, was the original, handwritten manuscript of George
Washington's Farewell Address, a 15th century Gutenberg Bible and an
assortment of documents from signers of the Declaration of Independence.
There were the private of the Gansevoort Family, a rare multi-volume
Audubon collection and a letter from Christopher Columbus that was dated
1493, announcing the discovery of the New World. In all, the collection
was valued in 1942 at $20 million.

Today, the banquet facilities in the hall are operated by The Glen
Sanders Mansion. Downstairs, the long hallway on the basement level is
lined with doors. Many lead to storage areas. One opens to reveal the
pumps that were used to power the marble fountains upstairs when it was
a drink hall.

They are still labeled with the names Geyser, Hawthorn and Coesa, names
of the waters that would flow from the springs. Also nearby are the two
vault doors. The first is an avocado green door reads
'Herring-Hall-Marvin Safe Co.' and opens to a room that is roughly 30
feet wide by 15 feet long. The other, which leads to a room
approximately 40 feet long by 20 feet wide, is fronted by a heavy slate
grey door that reads 'The Mosler Safe Co.' Both still wear their
respective tumbler locks, the combinations of which in the 1940s were
held by only three people working with the New York Public Library.

'The locks don't work anymore, they were drilled through,' said Donna
Sanders, office manager for Glen Sanders Mansion, who navigated through
the two vaults which are now used for storage.

One is filled with props for a Tuscan-themed event being held in the
hall upstairs. The other is filled with china and glassware, stored on
shelves that were especially built for the storage of the rare
collection of books many years ago. The interior walls inside both
vaults is heavily-lined with concrete block.

It was 62 years ago, in October 1944, when the collection was removed
for transport back to New York City. It was a few days before the
national election that would have Roosevelt re-elected to a term that he
wouldn't survive long enough to fulfill. Across the ocean, 15-year-old
Anne Frank was being confined to a concentration camp, the final entry
to her diaries penned a few weeks earlier.

Much of the shroud of secrecy in which the collection was moved in to
Saratoga also existed for its removal. The heavy vault doors were swung
opened and 15 specialized employees of the library carefully handled the
removal of the rare collection. They removed them through a service
entrance and up a flight of stairs next to the kitchen, which today
exists a few yards away from the main entry gates and ticket window of
the Saratoga Performing Arts Center. Once outside, they were loaded onto
three trailer trucks, with state police both in front and behind the
convoy, secured for the ride back to Manhattan.

by Thomas Dimopoulos,
published in The Saratogian, 2006.

Sunday, December 31, 2006

The New Year Rises in Saratoga

New Year's Eve 2006/2007. Fireworks over City Hall.

The exploding sparkle of lights draped long shadows across the Victorian porches of Union Avenue.
Along Broadway, a group of tourists stopped in front of the architecture with their digital cameras and smokers forced outside of Caroline Street taverns wore t-shirts as they huddled in the doorways with their cigarettes.

The announcement came that the 3,000th US serviceman had died in Iraq.

In Congress Park, the odd jogger crossed tracks with the dog walker while young couples strolled together, bundled in ear muffs, long scarves and tall boots.
The only reminder of summer was a black sign with gold letters that read: Please do not feed the ducks.

12.31.06 thomas dimopoulos