Today’s post comes from John LeGloahec, an archives specialist with the Electronic Records Reference Services at the National Archives.
Recently the Electronic Records Division has made available, through the National Archives Catalog, the scanned images of Governors Island Maps and Plans and Architectural and Engineering Drawings, which comprises more than 11,000 Tagged Image Format Files (.TIFF), over 150 text files, other system files, and textual documentation.
The series contains digital images of paper maps and plans along with architectural and engineering drawings of the buildings and structures in the former United States Coast Guard installation at Governors Island, New York.
The drawings capture details of the buildings and structures on the island through the 1990s, when it was decommissioned. Found within the files are images, including building floor plans, plumbing, and other internal functions, including electrical wiring and ducts. Architectural drawings depict larger sections of the houses and other buildings, including elevations to porches, as well as aspects of civil engineering on the island. The series includes records related to Fort Jay and Fort Wadsworth and documentation of structures erected for Liberty Weekend in 1986.
Governors Island sits on approximately 172 acres in New York Harbor—originally known as Paggank (Nut Island) by the Lenape Indians, translated from the Dutch to Noten Eylandt and later anglicized into Nut Island. It was renamed as Governor’s Island in the 17th century because it was reserved for the exclusive use of the New York royal governors.
The apostrophe was dropped in 1784.
During the American Revolution, colonist forces used Governors Island in the defense of New York City, but they later withdrew and the British reclaimed the island. Following the end of the Revolutionary War, ownership of the island was transferred to the State of New York.
Before the War of 1812, fortifications were constructed on the island, including Fort Jay (first known as Fort Columbus), Castle Williams, and the South Battery—although the island saw no combat in the conflict. The New York Arsenal moved to the island in the 1830s.
During the Civil War, Governors Island was used as a garrison for Union troops and housed Confederate prisoners of war. Following the war, the island served as the East Coast military penitentiary, similar to Fort Leavenworth in Kansas and Alcatraz Island in California.
In 1870, an epidemic of yellow fever on the island resulted in a quarantine, and several structures that housed patients were demolished. An airstrip was constructed on Governors Island, and in 1909 Orville Wright flew from the island over Manhattan and back to Governors Island.
At the beginning of World War I—in what is considered the first act of war by U.S. armed services—members of the 22nd Infantry Regiment seized all German-owned ships and terminals and used them to ferry soldiers to Europe. During World War II, Governors Island served as the headquarters for the First Army, and initial planning efforts for D-Day were undertaken there.
In the 1960s, the Army base was decommissioned, and ownership of the island was transferred to the United States Coast Guard, making it the largest Coast Guard installation. Governors Island also served as the backdrop for the newly refurbished Statue of Liberty in 1986.
In 1995 the base was closed. That same year, many of the structures on the island were designated as a National Historic Landmark. In 2001 President Bill Clinton designated the Governors Island National Monument, to be administered by the National Park Service.
In 2003, the island was sold for $1 to the Governors Island Preservation and Education Corporation (GIPEC), which was succeeded by the Trust for Governors Island. A short time later, the first tourists began to arrive at the island, and regular ferry service began in 2009. Governors Island now sees thousands of visitors and tourists each year.
The scanned images now in the Catalog were created between 1879 and 1998 and digitized in 2004. The transferring agency, the U.S. Coast Guard (Record Group 26), created and maintained these scanned images to improve access to and provide for preservation of the original paper version of the maps, plans, architectural drawings, and engineering drawings.
When staff from the Electronic Records Division prepared the records for online access, the files were organized into subject categories, represented in 43 separate file units. The Coast Guard had organized the images by their original physical location, such as cabinet and roll number, drawer number, or room location. File unit entries include “Lists of Drawings,” General information, Numbered and Named Buildings, Structures (Utilities, Electrical, Sewer, Telephone, etc.), along with some Unidentifiable Drawings, and Scanning Job Reports.
In preparing the files for the Catalog, Electronic Records staff opened the majority of the files to determine a descriptive title for the files/items and create an arrangement for the file units and thereby the items contained within each file unit.
Unfortunately, many of the file titles were repetitive (such as “File001.tif”) and a multilevel hierarchy was implemented to allow for the duplicative file titles. In most cases, the new descriptive file titles were taken from the architectural drawings and allowed for a better arrangement for the items into the specific file units that were created.
Many of the files were originally indicated as having been in vague locations such as, “Backroom, On the Floor,” “Small Room,” or “Cabinet 12 – Roll#28,” to cite a few examples. This original location information was captured in a General Note for each item to provide users with that original contextual information. There were also a number of spelling and grammatical errors that were not changed (i.e., “small roon” instead of “small room”).
The files that were added to the Catalog are unrestricted, though there were some initial discussions about the issue of putting architectural drawings of government buildings into the Catalog. These buildings, however, were no longer property of the Federal Government.
In 2013, the National Archives took custody of the Index to the Scanned Images of Governors Island Maps and Plans and Architectural and Engineering Drawings. The Trust for Governors Island created and maintained the Index to provide order to the scanned images of the drawings that they had in their possession and prepared by the United States Coast Guard. The index contains the file names of the images, their drawing number, a description of the image, and the date of its last revision.
In April 2020, during the COVID-19 pandemic, NARA staff evaluated this index with a view to making it a more useful document and a possible crosswalk to the scanned images. Before adding the index to the National Archives Catalog, we added several General Notes, noting that the textual index no longer represents the arrangement of the physical items and that the index could be helpful in accessing a specific file unit and/or item from the scanned images. An additional General Note was added to the document containing additional information about a specific building or structure found on Governors Island.
The Preservation & Design Manual from the General Services Administration notes that “in a number of instances, buildings within the Governors Island Historic District do not contribute to its importance or, in some cases detract from its historic or architectural integrity.” Many of the buildings and structures on Governors Island, however, have significant historical impact.
Building #1, the Admiral’s House, was the site of a luncheon between President Ronald Reagan and Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev in 1988. Building #2, Governor’s House, is the oldest habitable structure on Governors Island, built in 1813 as the original guardhouse for the island.
Many of the buildings on the island were designed and built by the prominent New York City firm McKim, Mead, and White, including several of the Family Housing and Barracks buildings (#111, #112, #114, #315, #333, #550); the largest building on Governors Island, Building #400, Liggett Hall; and the Post Hospital, Building #515.
The scanned images and the index are invaluable resources for researchers, providing information about New York City history, the history of the United States Army and Coast Guard, collaboration between government and private entities, along with a deep examination of architecture throughout the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries.
There is also a wealth of additional materials available in the National Archives Catalog concerning Governors Island, including the photograph of the fog bell at the beginning of this article. Governors Island information is also found in records concerning the Historic American Buildings Survey/Historic American Engineering Record (HABS/HAER), from Record Group 515, National Park Service, as well as the Dr. Robert Kapsch Collection, 1980–2005.
A simple search of “Governors Island” in the National Archives Catalog returns nearly 5,000 results, including the scanned images.
So, do your research, and hopefully soon you can hop a ferry from Manhattan and have a great day trip adventure on Governors Island, including playing in The Hills, a new park, featuring New York City’s longest slide, at 57 feet!
The Governors Island Historic District—Preservation & Design Manual Part III—Building and Property Sheets, from the United States General Services Administration, January 28, 2003, was extremely helpful in finding additional information about buildings on Governors Island.