An assemblage of Archtoberites and Open House New Yorkers explored the General Society of Mechanics & Tradesman today with Victoria Dengel, executive director of the organization. She was joined by two of her tenants, Lisa Easton, AIA, a partner at Easton Architects, and Seth Weine, a Fellow of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art (ICAA).
Theirs are among the many organizations and companies housed in the 1890 building, which began its life as the Berkeley School for Boys before being acquired by the General Society and expanded shortly thereafter.
Founded by 22 artisans, including a cooper, a coach-maker, and a tallow chandler, the society celebrates its 230th anniversary this year. Its first president was the blacksmith Robert Boyd, a fitting choice because blacksmiths made the majority of other craftspeople’s tools. The society’s records date back to its founding, and include a logbook with the names and trades of its members. Andrew Carnegie identified himself by his original job as a cotton spinner rather than the leading industrialist and philanthropist he had already become.
We started our journey in the library, which had once been the Berkeley School armory. Founded in 1820, before the society moved into the space, it was one of the first subscription libraries in the United States, with a collection of 4,000 volumes that has since grown to more than 100,000. Its mezzanine houses the John M. Mossman Lock Collection, which includes locks and keys dating from 4,000 BC to the twentieth century. Across the hall is a meeting room used for the General Society’s monthly meetings. It appears occasionally in ads and films, so keep an eye out for it this football season.
Next, we climbed the stairs to the sixth floor, where Weine showed us a collection of plaster replicas and molds of some of the finest works of classical art. We also got to step out of Easton Architects’ office and onto the magnificent fire escape that extends down toward the library’s massive skylight, which was restored in 1999 after being blackened out since World War II. Easton was an expert guide – she wrote the building’s 700-page historic structure report a couple of years ago.
After the tour, we wound our way back down to the library, stopping briefly in the sweet-smelling offices of the New York Botanical Garden. Although only a handful of today’s visitors had been to the building before, I’m certain that we will return to sample the General Society’s many programs, or simply to view the landmarked façade and building with a little more elbow room.
Tomorrow, we’ll check out the CUNY Advanced Science Research Center and the City College Center for Discovery and Innovation.