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The New York Genealogical and Biographical Society (NYGBS) is a non-profit but executive managed institution located at 36 West 44th Street in New York City. Founded in 1869, it is the second-oldest genealogical society in the United States. Its offices are not open to members or the public. Its purpose is to collect and make available information on genealogy, biography, and history, particularly as it relates to the people of New York State. The Society also publishes periodicals and books, conducts educational programs, maintains a Committee on Heraldry, and offered several other services.
The New York Genealogical and Biographical Society was organized on the evening of February 27, 1869, by seven gentlemen meeting at the home of Dr. David Parsons Holton in New York City. On March 26 a certificate of incorporation was filed in the office of the Secretary of State of New York, stating that "the particular business and objects of the Society are to discover, procure, preserve and perpetuate whatever may relate to Genealogy and Biography, and more particularly to the genealogies and biographies of families, persons and citizens associated and identified with the State of New York." In April the By-Laws were adopted and officers elected, the first president being the historian Dr. Henry R. Stiles. The seal of the Society was adopted on May 8, 1869.
In establishing the Society the founders were inspired by the example of the New England Historic Genealogical Society, founded in 1845. In at least one respect, however, they differed from the New England model. While women would not be admitted to membership in the Boston society until 1898, the New York society on May 1, 1869 elected Mrs. Frances K. Forward Holton a member, followed by many others.
The Society immediately established a library, and in December 1869 published an eight-page Bulletin. The reception of this publication encouraged the Trustees to launch a quarterly journal, The New York Genealogical and Biographical Record, the first issue of which was dated January 1870. Thus were established two of the oldest institutions in American genealogy. Today the Society is the second oldest genealogical society and library in the United States, and the Record the second-oldest genealogical periodical in continuous publication in the English-speaking world.
The Society's first permanent home was at Mott Memorial Hall, a house at 64 Madison Avenue. In 1888 the Society obtained space in the Berkeley Lyceum Building at 19 West 41st Street, and two years later moved to the new Berkeley Lyceum building at 23 West 44th Street. In 1891 Mrs. Elizabeth Underhill Coles died, leaving the Society a bequest of $20,000. With this money the Society was able to purchase in 1896 a four-story brownstone at 226 West 58th Street, between Broadway and Seventh Avenue. This became Genealogical Hall, the home of the Society for the next 33 years.
The Society's former building held many mementos of Genealogical Hall. There was a plaque in the lobby commemorating Mrs. Coles' gift, and the library was graced by a beautiful stained-glass window which was presented to the Society by the Record Committee in 1898. The window was installed in the Library until 1929 and then languished in storage until 1992, when it was carefully restored and installed in a north window of the library, largely due to the generosity of then president Henry S. Middendorf.
One of the Society’s most ambitious early projects was the erection of a statue of Christopher Columbus on the Mall in New York’s Central Park. The statue was unveiled in 1894 as part of the Columbus quadricentennial, and it can still be seen in the Park today.
By 1912 Genealogical Hall was already inadequate to hold the library, and the Trustees decided to try to raise $65,000 to acquire the adjacent building lot for expansion. J. Pierpont Morgan contributed $10,000 on the condition that the Society raise the remainder, and this was accomplished by the end of 1913, mainly through the efforts of president Clarence Winthrop Bowen. Various factors intervened to prevent the proposed expansion, and Mr. Bowen was still president 16 years later when the Society moved across town into its former building at 122-124-126 East 58th Street.
The new facility, erected at a cost of $300,000, replaced three brownstone houses on the site. It was designed by the noted New York architectural firm of La Farge, Warren and Clark. The formal dedication on December 11, 1929, was attended by an impressive list of dignitaries, headed by former President of the United States Calvin Coolidge and former Governor of New York and Secretary of State (and future Chief Justice of the United States) Charles Evans Hughes.
The new building provided impressive and ample space for the growth of the library. Over the years the Society had also expanded its publications program. By 1929 each issue of the Record ran over 100 pages, and it had become recognized as one of the leading scholarly journals of genealogy. Since 1890 the Society had also published several volumes of its Collections, starting with the marriage and baptismal registers of New York State's oldest church, the Reformed Dutch Church of New Amsterdam and New York City.
The Great Depression and World War II slowed the Society's progress — the Record, for example, became greatly reduced in size. In this period, and the years after the war, interest in genealogy was low and some may have questioned whether the Society could survive. But amazing changes were in the offing.
At the Society's 100th annual meeting in March 1969, the new flag of the organization, designed by Henry S. Middendorf, was unveiled. The Society’s membership was 734, one-sixth of the total in 2005. The budget was $92,000, less than one-tenth of the 2005 budget (not accounting for inflation). In 1969 the library reported it had 78,000 titles, while in 2005 the total is almost 130,000.
When the Society was founded in 1869, the only New Yorkers who had an interest in tracing their roots, or the time to do so, were those whose lineages stretched back to the colonial period, and the Society for its first hundred years catered almost exclusively to that part of the population. Even among those with colonial ancestry, however, there were relatively few who had more than a passing interest in their family history. Genealogy remained a rather obscure hobby and its status as a profession was even more tenuous.
In the 1970s there were the first signs of change. The 19th century was now more distant than the 18th had been in 1869, and there was increasing interest in its records, which were also now becoming more accessible. Descendants of 19th century immigrants, and Americans of African descent, discovered that they too could delve into genealogy. The telecast of Alex Haley's book Roots and the 1976 Bicentennial were catalysts that precipitated this new wave of interest. The increased mobility of the population, leaving so many Americans far removed from their roots, and an increase in leisure time, especially among older Americans, were other factors in the expansion. All over the country new genealogical societies, publications, and activities developed, and the older institutions began to experience unprecedented growth as well.
The Society was affected by this growth, although it came slowly. In the late 1980s computers began to be used in administration, publishing, and the library. The library began to significantly expand its microform holdings to facilitate research in late 19th century and early 20th century sources, while also expanding its colonial collection. In 1990, The NYG&B Newsletter was launched and became an instant success; in 2004 it was renamed The New York Researcher. At first an eight-page publication, each issue now contains an average of 20 pages. In 1995, after the Society celebrated its 125th anniversary, the Record passed the same milestone, and in 2003 the Society began publication of all past issues of the Record on CD-ROM. The Society also continues to publish books dealing with New York genealogy. The Society’s formal education programs began in 1977 with a fall lecture series. Today each year’s local calendar is filled with a variety of lectures as well as book signings and walking tours. In 2000, 2002, 2004, and 2006 groups of out-of-town members came to the city for a week of guided research. Beginning in 1992 the Society has also conducted many out of town programs, at such locations as Albany, Saratoga Springs, Buffalo, Tarrytown, and Elizabeth, N.J., often in cooperation with other genealogical societies. The Society has also established a presence at national, regional and local genealogical conferences sponsored by other organizations.
In the mid-1990s genealogy began to undergo a "sea change" with the advent of the Internet. The numbers of people who were pursuing genealogy skyrocketed as a result. The Society joined this new world in December 1998 when it launched its own website, nygbs.org (now newyorkfamilyhistory.org). It has been immensely popular and has brought many new members to the organization, particularly after the Society contracted with ProQuest to give members home access to The New York Times and HeritageQuest Online. The site has been completely redesigned twice since its inauguration, and will continue to be updated and expanded.
By the late 1990s the Society's record growth had led to unprecedented crowding in both the library and offices, and major changes had to be made to the facilities. The firm of Macrae-Gibson, Architects, was employed to develop a master plan for the building. To implement the changes, the Society was faced, for the first time in many decades, with the need for a major capital fund drive. In 1999 it was possible to begin the first stage of the plan, which converted the former custodian's apartment into new office space, freeing up former office space for library expansion. Creation of the new library space, the Technology Center for micro form and computer media, was completed in 2001. Future stages of the plan would have included cleaning of the building facade, remodeling of the lobby and reception area, and replacement of the elevator.
The Technology Center proved to be extremely popular for several years, but the internet “sea change” had an unforeseen impact on inhouse usage as more and more members spent less and less time at the library, preferring instead to make use of the online offerings from home. As a result foot traffic slowed down and it was again time to reassess the mission of the Society.
The building was showing its age and in need of major rehabilitation and upgrades. This reality, combined with the change in control, brought the Board of Trustees to the decision to sell the building and combine our wonderful library collection with that of the New York Public Library. The building was sold to one of our tenants in November 2007 and in September 2008 the bulk of our collection was transferred to the Public Library’s Irma & Paul Milstein Division of United States History, Local History, and Genealogy, thus instantly transforming that collection into the premiere repository for New York genealogical research. Much of the G&B collection is already available and the entire collection should be fully cataloged and available for inspection by fall 2010.
With the transfer of our collection to NYPL the G&B began a new partnership with that venerable organization. Several co-sponsored programs have already been held and plans for several more, both large and small, are in the works. This arrangement is already proving to be an excellent move for the Society and its membership. With the sale of our long-time home came the necessity of finding another. In November 2008 the Society purchased a commercial condominium at 36 West 44th Street in the landmark Bar Building and created entirely new offices on the 7th floor. The well-known New York architect Peter Pennoyer, his associate Sean Blackwell, and designer John Claflin put the finishing touches on the plans. The space has been completely cleared and brand new, extremely beautiful, G&B offices, library, and meeting room were constructed. At 140 years of age, The New York Genealogical and Biographical Society is one of New York's oldest institutions. It has had a remarkable history, and from all indications an even more remarkable future lies ahead.
The 58th street building experienced brief infamy in 1991 as being the unfortunate site where musician Eric Clapton's son Conor died, having fallen onto the roof from the 53rd floor of the Galleria condominium complex on East 57th street.
In late fall 2006, the Society agreed to sell its headquarters building to the Hampton Synagogue, a former tenant. At that time, several members objected to the sale. As required by law, the sale was reviewed by the Charities Bureau of the New York Attorney General’s office which agreed to let the sale proceed.
By the summer of 2007, the Board of Trustees presented a proposal to the existing membership to eliminate the traditional membership format in favor of the Board's being named the members of the corporation. Vigorous debate and controversy ensued. When the ballots were tallied at a special meeting of the membership, held on 19 July 2007, the Board's position prevailed against the objection of several members present.
The Society's membership no longer has voting rights on the organization's plans and direction. Plans for the disbursement of the library and collections were announced in July, 2008. The Society's library of 75,000 published works, 30,000 manuscripts, 22,000 microforms, 1,300 periodicals and digital computer media were to be donated to the New York Public Library (NYPL). A new location for the Society's executive headquarters was purchased and renovated at 36 West 44th Street, in the prestigious Bar Building.
Launched in November 2005, the NYGBS e-Library provides Society members with the ability to remotely access digitized versions of paper manuscripts from the NYGBS Library's collection. The e-Library was funded by a grant from the Homeland Foundation, as well as the donations of several New York Genealogical and Biographical Society members.
There are currently over forty thousand fully searchable pages of material in the e-Library database. Content includes cemetery transcriptions, religious records, civil records, family records, vital records as well as the Society's own publication, The New York Genealogical and Biographical Record. Material is continually added to the e-Library.
The Society's former collection consisted of more than 80,000 books, some 40,000 manuscripts, and over 25,000 microforms and computer media. The library's major focus was New York State genealogy and local history. For New York's colonial period, the library's resources were unparalleled. Other well represented areas included the New England and Middle Atlantic States. There was also an extensive collection of reference books for beginning genealogists of every background.
The Manuscript Collection, in particular, was a treasure-trove of unpublished material on early New York families. Items consisted of original deeds, wills, etc. as far back as the 16th-century, unpublished genealogies and genealogists' research notes, transcriptions of New York church and cemetery records, genealogical charts, maps, personal diaries, vital records from family bibles, papers of prominent genealogists and historians as well as other relevant genealogical material.
The library was permanently closed to the public on 1 June 2008 to be readied for its move to the New York Public Library. All material was donated to the New York Public Library.
The Technology Center housed the Library's collections of microforms and CD-ROMs, and had several computers with internet access. The microform collection included a broad variety of 25,000 microfilms and microfiche, primarily for New York State. These included, federal and state census records, New York and New Jersey city directories, land records, probate records, other court records, church and cemetery records and New York City vital record indexes.
In addition, by special arrangement with the Genealogical Society of Utah, patrons of the NYG&B Library were able to borrow films from the Family History Library in Salt Lake City for use at the Technology Center. This service ended March 1, 2008, when the Library's June 1 closing was announced in the winter.
The Technology Center also had a collection of CD-ROMs, including census indexes, abstracts of wills, periodical indexes, marriage indexes, military records, land and property records, passenger list indexes, gazetteers, and the CD version of LDS Family Search.
Shortly after the dedication of the Society's 58th Street building in 1929, plans were made for the artistic enhancement of the building with the use of suitable portraits. Clarence Winthrop Bowen, president of the Society (1907–1931), after whom the third floor gallery is named, and Samuel P. Avery, Jr., art connoisseur, Trustee and Benefactor, raised gifts for a small endowment for this purpose. In 1931 Mr. Bowen announced the successful completion of a campaign to establish a Portrait Endowment Fund in the amount of $32,000, the income of which was to be used for the acquisition of paintings and portraits for the Society's collection. Some sixty-two persons were original contributors to the Fund.
Some of the portraits were gifts, while a number were commissioned by the Society or purchased. Fifteen of the works were painted by Frank O. Salisbury (1874–1962), one of the great English portrait painters of the Twentieth century. Photographs of a number of the paintings have been reproduced in The New York Genealogical and Biographical Record, and citations are given in the catalog as appropriate. The Avery Art and Publication Fund enabled the Society to acquire portraits and publish high quality illustrations in the Record for over fifty years.
In 1992 eight portraits given by the Delafield Family Association were added to the collection, bringing representation of a family important in the financial and social leadership of the country.
Some of the sitters were prominent in the history of the country; others in the history of the Society. The Society is proud of all whose portraits have been acquired.
Great effort was made to locate biographical information on some rather obscure artists represented in the collection, but regrettably in several cases there was not sufficient information to identify the artist. Biographical information on the subjects is available in many sources in the Society's Library.
With the move to smaller quarters the Society will be unable to exhibit the entire collection. As a result, those portraits they are unable to exhibit will either be maintained in storage or given, on loan, to other groups or societies who are able to provide a forum for some of these excellent portraits.
The New York Genealogical and Biographical Record: Since 1870, the Society has published The New York Genealogical and Biographical Record, which is ranked as one of the leading scholarly genealogical journals. In the more than 125 annual volumes of the Record will be found a vast collection of material relating to New York families of the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. With four issues per year, the Record continues to publish compiled genealogies, transcripts of New York primary sources, and newly discovered origins of immigrants to New York. Back issues are available in print form and CD-ROM through the NYG&B Store.
The New York Researcher: Since 1990, the New York Genealogical and Biographical Society has published this newsletter. It is published on a quarterly basis and brings NYG&BS members news about Society activities and genealogical events of New York interest, as well as feature articles on New York genealogical sources and research techniques and New York-related queries. In 2004, the newsletter was renamed The New York Researcher.
The NYG&B has sponsored the publication of a number of books, including New York church, probate, and naturalization records. Some of these are part of the series known as the Collections of the Society. Recent publications include Voices of the Irish Immigrant: Information Wanted Ads in The Truth Teller, New York City 1825-1844, Minutes of Coroners Proceedings, City and County of New York, John Burnet, Coroner, 1748-1758, Kings County, New York, Administration Proceedings 1817-1856, as well as several others. A complete list of volumes is available through the Society's office. A truncated list of books published can be found on the NYGBS website.