Specialists in the Architectural History of New York City
Founded in 1975 by Christopher Gray, the Office for Metropolitan History provides research on New York City buildings, and embraces a synthetic approach to historical data, bringing together disparate sources in individual collections. Typical projects involve document recovery and reports with a wide variety of purposes, for engineers, architects, lawyers and anyone interested in the evolution of New York's built environment.
The Office for Metropolitan History locates historic photographs, original architectural, structural and mechanical drawings, and data on use and occupancy.
Detail, 1924 floor plan of Park Avenue apartment house, showing piping, chases, partitions and other details.
Detail, 1899 photograph of lost iron and glass marquee on east side townhouse, to permit restoration.
Detail, 1941 photograph of commercial building documenting disputed signage.
The Office for Metropolitan History maintains a collection of 40,000 4x5 film negatives, 18,000 photographs, and 8,000 architectural drawings, many of which date back to the late 19th century. In the normal course of business, we have independently humidified, conserved, repaired and protected about 9,000 vintage blueprints, renderings and other architectural drawings.
In September 2001, the Office for Metropolitan History was the firm called by the New York City Department of Design and Construction to locate architectural records for the nine buildings damaged in the World Trade Center collapse that were considered in danger of falling or where people were thought to be trapped. We located original drawings for seven buildings within 36 hours.
The Office for Metropolitan History prepares a variety of reports on New York City buildings for a wide variety of purposes, from simple narratives to pinpoint determinations of occupancy, usage, alterations and other specific issues.
Christopher Gray wrote extensively on the architecture, history, and preservation policies of New York City. His award-winning columns - from 1987 to 2014 the weekly "Streetscapes" in The New York Times and from 1980 to 1992 the monthly "Neighborhood" in Avenue magazine - form the most comprehensive look at New York City buildings yet published. He also wrote "All the Best Places," a column on American Streets, for House & Garden from 1982 to 1985.
New York, Empire City (with David Stravitz; Harry N. Abrams, 2004)
Streetscapes (Harry N. Abrams, 2003 - Research by Suzanne Braley)
The Chrysler Building: Creating a New York Icon Day by Day (with David Stravitz; Princeton Architectural Press, 2002 - Research by Suzanne Braley)
Sutton Place, Uncommon Community by the River (Sutton Area Community, 1997)
Fifth Avenue, from Start to Finish, 1911, in Historic Block-by-Block Photographs (Dover, 1994 - Research by Suzanne Braley)
Changing New York (Dover Publications, 1992 - Research by Raymond Fike)
Blueprints (with John Boswell; Simon & Schuster, 1981)
His writing and research have earned awards from Classical America, the American Institute of Architects, the New York Genealogical and Biographical Society, the Preservation League of New York State, the New York Landmarks Conservancy and the New York Society Library.
With gratitude to and respect for all those who are interested in the history of New York City, we have digitized all the new building (NB) applications filed in Manhattan for each year, from 1900 to 1986, and turned it into a database searchable by a number of variables, like address, architect, owner and type of building.
Portion of New Building application for the Dakota, 1880
BASIC SEARCH TIPS:
If you just want to determine the date and architect of your building, and you live, for instance, on West 86th Street in a building you think was built around 1930, search for "86th" in the address field and work backwards from 1933 or so. Bear in mind that the present 130 West 86th may have been filed as 124-132 West 86th, or even simply 128 West 86th.
Some permits are not rendered in address form, but in "metes and bounds"--that is, "86th, 175'e of Amsterdam" indicates the building lot beginning 175' east of the corner of West 86th Street and Amsterdam Avenue. To interpret this, go to a library with a collection of landmaps of New York City (which give such measurements). It may be crude, but it's not that much trouble to eyeball, or even measure, the distances yourself.
ADVANCED SEARCH TIPS: Use additional search parameters to--
Find all the building applications filed by a particular owner or architect (including projects which were not built)
Or find all the applications where the owner gave a particular address (which can help when one owner operates under multiple names),
Or find all the buildings of a particular type built in a particular period.
Another route to finding the NB application for a particular building is to go to the web page of the New York City Department of Buildings which lists in many cases, the particular NB number for a specific address. Go to the Department's web site, key in the address, and then look under "Actions"; in most cases you will find an NB associated with your building (for instance, NB "336-11" is the 336th new building application filed in 1911). NB's were first issued in 1866; if yours is 1900 or later you should be able to get the details of that application here, simply by searching for the relevant year and application number. (Congratulations to Commissioner Patricia Lancaster and her tech staff for this astonishing upgrade to the Department's website.)
The search engine recognizes word roots, wildcards (*) and leading and following blank spaces. Thus "farge" will return "LaFarge" and La Farge," but "_Farge" will return only "La Farge." A search for "LaF*arge" will return "LaFarge," "LaForge, etc.
Not all building permits are carried out, and some are changed in scope after filing.
Many buildings are alterations of older structures--alterations are a completely different set of applications.
Some applications are filed against one cross street and not another--You may have to search both. There are many flaws, omissions and typos in this list - most from the original source. We cannot recommend highly enougn the painstaking work of data entry by Mudra Typesetters
If you don't find some specific works by a particular architect, do a sort for the office address - which will pick up spelling variants. Numbered streets are rendered as "5th", numbered avenues are spelled out, like "Fifth."
2d and 3d were inconsistently used in the original sources; in the case of cross streets we have added 2nd and 3rd to the record, [in brackets]. 20th-century address and numbering changes - most importantly Sixth Avenue to Avenue of the Americas - need correction not available here.
These NBs cover only 1900-1986, but NB's were also issued from 1868-1899. The website of the Department of Buildings usually uses the form "NB 24/79"--but that could be 1879 or 1979.
Project Team: Christopher Gray, Manager and Suzanne Braley, Researcher