Burnt artifacts salvaged from the State Capitol fire of March 29, 1911 in Albany. (Courtesy NYS Library)
Dan Odell with three Audubon bird prints at his Delmar home Wednesday June 8, 2011. Damaged in the 1911 Capitol fire and discarded by the state,the prints were salvaged by Odell's grandfather, state zoologist Sherman C. Bishop. They were in Bishop's summer cottage and Odell is now giving them back to the state on the Capitol fire's centennial. (John Carl D'Annibale / Times Union)
Discarded Audubon prints returning to state - State Museum will get lithographs damaged in 1911 fire at Capitol. by Paul Grondahl, Staff writer
Published 12:01 a.m., Sunday, June 19, 2011
ALBANY -- The stunning avian colors in John James Audubon's life-size color lithographs have been clouded by smoke from the 1911 Capitol fire and a century of benign neglect, but the valuable bird prints once assumed to be destroyed have risen, phoenix-like.From: New York State Library 94th Annual Report 1911, Transmitted to the Legislature March 27, 1912.
Now, the grandson of the state zoologist who salvaged them from a large discard pile of fire-damaged materials long ago is planning to return them to the State Museum collection.
"I thought it was the right thing to do," said Dan Odell, 59, a retired state Office of Mental Health administrator.
Odell's grandfather, Sherman C. Bishop, rescued three of the marginally salvageable Audubon engravings from a sodden, charred pile of 90 plates that were destroyed in the March 29, 1911, fire and were about to be thrown out. They were among more than 10,000 State Museum items lost in the catastrophic fire that left a night watchman dead and consumed nearly the entire collection of the State Library, including 500,000 books and 300,000 manuscripts.
Bishop began work as state zoologist in 1916 and five years later offered the three prints he rescued to his friend Langdon Gibson, an explorer and naturalist who lived in Schenectady. Gibson had the smoke- and water-damaged edges trimmed off, framed them and gave them back to Bishop as a gift. The three Audubon images are the yellow-throated warbler, blue yellow-backed warbler and rice bird. They were engraved, printed and hand-colored by R. Havell in the 1820s and 1830s and were contained in what is known as a Havell edition. It was the only Audubon volume in the State Museum collection.
Bishop hung the three bird prints in his summer cottage in the Finger Lakes. That's where they remained for the next six decades, until Odell's mother gave him the prints in the 1980s.
"They'd been sitting in my closet ever since and I wasn't doing anything with them, so I decided to give them back," Odell said.
He was spurred to action after reading a Times Union story last month about descendants of A.J.F. van Laer, the State Library's archivist who rushed into the burning Capitol in 1911 to save Colonial Dutch records he was translating. His descendants donated books and items to the State Library from van Laer's estate.
"It's nice to have a representation of Audubon's work back in our collection," said Patricia Kernan, a biological illustrator with the State Museum. "It's a very important piece of history for us."
She said the prints will require conservation work and they will be stored properly for the first time -- with archival paper and temperature and humidity controls.
Because the prints have been trimmed down and they are damaged, their value is limited, perhaps worth about $2,000 apiece. An online dealer of Havell edition Audubon plates in good condition is offering them for sale from $5,000 apiece to more than $100,000 based on the type and size of the bird.
Union College has an extra-large and rare set of Audubon prints, known as a "double elephant folio" edition. Those 435 bound and hand-colored etchings are valued in excess of $1 million. They were restored and returned to the Schaffer Library in 2006. One hundred of the Audubons were recovered after being stolen from the college in 1971.
Bishop left his job as state zoologist in 1928 and took a faculty position in the zoology department at the University of Rochester. He continued to work there until his death in 1951. His research specialty was spiders and salamanders and his "Handbook of American Salamanders" remains a standard college text.
Odell rediscovered the Audubon prints when he and his wife, a certified public accountant, began downsizing and packing. They have sold their large Colonial home in Delmar home and are moving this summer into a loft apartment in Cohoes.
In his retirement, Odell has become a licensed outdoor guide and has led parties on fishing and hiking trips into the Adirondack back country. He has traversed some of the locales where his grandfather conducted field work and collected specimens. In his backpack, Odell carries his grandfather's L.L. Bean hunting knife and enamel camping plates.
"I feel a connection to the past," said Odell, whose great-uncle was the former New York Gov. Benjamin B. Odell, who held the office from 1901-1905.
"I'm glad I could return some of the State Museum's history to its collection," he said.
Reach Grondahl at 454-5623 or email@example.com.
Following page 34:
The folio edition of Audobon's Birds of America as saved from the ruins.
Also found at:Annual report, Issue 94, 1912, (Google eBook)