Just because you’re in charge of the city’s bridges and tunnels doesn’t mean you have to keep your irreplaceable historical documents in the city’s bridges and tunnels. But that didn’t occur to the District Department of Transportation (DDOT) until recently.
Paul Kelsey Williams, a consultant hired last year to look through archival materials stored in such locations as the John Philip Sousa Bridge, the 3rd Street Tunnel, and a couple of trailers languishing in D.C. Village, found that the conditions at those places “do not meet even the most basic requirements for proper storage and preservation of its valuable and rare contents,” according to a confidential March 23, 2005, report obtained by the Washington City Paper.
“The city doesn’t seem to take this stuff very seriously,” says Bill Brown, president of the Association of the Oldest Inhabitants of D.C., who also cites the D.C. Public Library and the D.C. Public Schools (DCPS) for lax archival standards.
In the Sousa Bridge, which carries Pennsylvania Avenue SE over the Anacostia River, Williams found vintage photographs, rolled maps and plans, and artifacts such as lampposts and bridge-railing molds. His report indicates these materials were improperly subject to “extreme temperature fluctuations, humidity, moisture, rodent infestation, theft, mold, and disorganization.” In the 3rd Street Tunnel, Williams found a quarter-inch of water covering more than a third of the floor—“maps and plans recently wet were separated and raised above floor level as a stop-gap measure.”
Williams’ report called for the “immediate” relocation of the items in the Sousa Bridge, the 3rd Street Tunnel, and the trailers to a climate-controlled central location. The photographs in these spots “are both critical for preservation and critical to understanding the historical development of the built environment of Washington,” Williams says in his report.
DDOT spokesperson Karyn LeBlanc says the department retrieved the materials from under the Sousa Bridge four months after Williams’ report and placed them in two former TV studios in Columbia Heights. It also sent a number of photographs to Texas to be stabilized, cleaned, and digitized.
“We have secured probably 99 percent of everything at this point,” says Bill Carr, DDOT’s director of research and technology development. “We’re looking at different ways of giving people access to this material. We’d like this to be a usable collection.”
Carr doesn’t know the status of the 3rd Street Tunnel items, but his agency’s efforts to pull documents out of standing water and other funky conditions still make it a leader in the world of D.C. historic preservation.
Brown—a member of D.C. History Watch, a group formed to oversee the preservation of historic city records—lauded DDOT’s measures to preserve its records at a February D.C. Council hearing, after lamenting the “plight” of historical records in several areas, including the Washingtoniana collection of the D.C Public Library and the DCPS archives. “A lot of agencies would do well to follow DDOT’s lead on this,” Brown said.
Ryan Semmes, who oversees the Washingtoniana collection, says the archive, housed in the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library, doesn’t have the necessary safeguards against the District’s insufferable summers. “We don’t have a separate climate control unit from the rest of the library,” he says. “The goal is to keep materials at 65 degrees and 50 or 60 percent humidity. In the summer here it gets up to 90 degrees, and I would guess 60 to 80 percent humidity.”
The problems with the historical records of the D.C. Public Schools, housed in the Sumner Museum, a former school in Dupont Circle, have less to do with bad conditions and more to do with having too many materials and not enough labor to sort through them all.
Nancye Suggs, director and curator of the Sumner Museum, is solely responsible for taking care of the archives housed there. “It’s overwhelming because I have a lot of stuff, but I don’t have anybody to help me, and we get inquiries all the time for research,” she says.
Suggs agrees that the city isn’t serious about its historical documents, pointing to the fact that she’s all alone at Sumner after the elimination of three staff positions. (There is also an unfilled archivist position; it has been vacant since February.)
“The city needs to address preservation,” she says, “because someday people are gonna be P.O.ed that they didn’t.”CP