Wednesday, February 15, 2012

The Sad Irony Of Joseph Gavit.

When Paul Mercer and Vickie Weiss set out in 2011 to write a 100th anniversary history of the March 29, 1911 fire which destroyed the New York State Library housed in the State Capitol building in Albany, they apparently failed to realize the true significance of the loss of the original, documentary manuscripts, whose stewardship the library was entrusted with. How else to explain the authors basing to a large extent their book on a personal narrative contained in an unpublished memoir, the contents of which have been kept a secret all these long years, until the last of any living, and possibly contradictory, memory had died away?

The book is dedicated in part to this man, Joseph Gavit, who, the authors tell us, was "a librarian who believed in the lessons of history and who told and retold the story of the capitol fire," although, there is no record of his lesson ever reaching any citizen outside their paid circle of "public servants." Of the dozen or so names listed on the acknowledgement's page for "The New York State Capitol and the Great Fire of 1911," all but one are colleagues or superiors in allied state government jobs, who assisted in the book's creation while on the taxpayer's dime, with the one outlier being the acquisition's editor at Arcadia publishing.

The authors say on page 8 that
The disaster of March 29 and its aftermath are fully documented in photographs, news reports, and the first hand accounts of eyewitnesses, including remarkably dramatic memoirs of library staff who felt the loss most keenly and whose personal recollections bring the pictures to life. Many captions are drawn from the memoirs of Joseph Gavit, whose library career spanned 50 years and whose photographic memory of the intricate arrangement of the library rooms is a vital link to the past.
Although the Manuscripts and Special Collections division of the State Library, of which they are fellows, has a holding, New York State Library Fire Collection, (SC10867) Mr. Gavit's memoir is not a part of it. That collection is composed of scrapbooks of newspaper clippings, and folders of letters of sympathy, and wherever the "first hand accounts of eyewitnesses," and the "remarkably dramatic memoirs of library staff" were kept, they weren't catalogued by the Dewey decimal system, or available to the curious public.

When Mercer and Weiss inform us on page 123 how "[i]n 1945, Joseph Gavit, dust[ed] off his fire memoirs for the new state librarian, Charles Gosnell,...." it gives us a hint at the potentially authentic purpose for his unvetted narrative.

On page 32:
In 1896, Joseph Gavit, the 19-year-old son of an Albany engraver, joined the state library staff as a junior clerk in the shelf section. Some 50 years later, having risen to the position of associate librarian, he retired from state service. For much of his career, he was superintendent of the stacks and was reputed to know personally where every book in the library was to be found. His intricate knowledge of the collections and workings of the library were put to the test in the aftermath of the fire. As the first library employee on the scene, his eyewitness accounts, written from memory in the succeeding months and years, are invaluable in understanding the events of March 29, 1911, and afterward.
But this authoritative "understanding" we are being asked to undertake is predicated on an abuse of power, where controlling interests can hide a manuscript---or burn one, for that matter---and where the public is spoon-fed an uncompelling pablum in lieu of historical fact.

This is obvious in the pages of the book credited to Mercer and Weiss, where on almost every one can be found deliberate manipulations and distortions of what is a still-provable truth: That the burning of the State Library was an incendiary act by State authorities, whereby in their destruction of the authentic and legitimate records, they were enabled, at the very least, to rewrite a history free of warts. This is an incontrovertible truth that we can take one page at a time, by refuting the story given to the long-deceased Joseph Gavit by the living, active agents who promote his lies.

Let's start on page 80:
Joseph Gavit, recounting early salvage efforts, describes one such journey leading to a lucky find: "The writer, with Mr. Champlain, had gone out onto the roof of the western approach to look at the building from that point. Every window was gone---except one, a disc of glass hardly 6 inches in diameter. That window was one of two alike in the little room where [the War of 1812 records] had been stored...Like a flash came the truth---this room was fireproof because [it was] unventilated! Securing a ladder, we [ventured out] over the still smoldering gallery, to this room, where we found the door burned down but the contents little injured."
Gavit is referring to what is variously known as a Roundel, or bull's eye, or oculus, or oeil-de-boeuf, or circular light window. We know exactly what he is referencing and where it is located: it is a closet, closed off of the upper portion of a corridor end, sealed off by an oaken door, on the fourth floor mezzanine, north of the Main Reading Room; just to the left of the circular clock surround whose face has been burned away in the fire.

On page 31 of Mercer and Weiss's book is a photograph with this caption:
Harry Roy Sweny was well-known as a talented amateur golfer and the proprietor of an Albany sporting goods store. The first alarm was turned in at 2:42 a.m. on March 29. Sweny left his South Swan Street house, around the corner from the capitol, at about 3:30, just in time to capture on film the full fury of the flames and the doomed structure silhouetted against the night sky.
Here is the same photograph, in a slightly better register, published in "Sparks From the New York State Capitol Fire," a souvenir booklet, which Mercer and Weiss describe as "one of the chief sources for research on the fire." In it, the entirety of the third, fourth and fifth floors, and the rooftop, of the central section of the western facade is fully engulfed and illuminated with flames.

And on page 31 is another Sweny image, an oblique view of the west-northwest facade, showing the flames extending to the northwest corner tower section

But in the same image in a larger file size it is unmistakable that the oculus window to which Gavit refers is illuminated by the same flames which occupy the windows below, and to the left and right of it.

And the real kicker for me is Gavit describing the window as being "hardly 6 inches in diameter." When you realize the scale of the Capitol building, that each of the three main floors was twenty-five feet in height, then the "oeil-de-boeuf" window we see has to be between two and three feet in diameter. (Try lining seven of them up vertically in your spatial imagination.) In other words, for the descriptor, Gavit "pulled it out his ass."

Every one of this book's 128 tawdry pages (and that includes the Arcadia Publishing advertisement on page 128) is as demonstrably false as the example given here. If I can stomach it, I'll try to post one such a page a day to show you. These are not arguments coming in from left field, but the internal illogic, and inherent inconsistency, of an indefensible and reprehensible insistence on living in a lie.

Oh, P.S. Sweny married into the mercenary wing of the Albany Regency.

April 24, 1896, New York Times, A DAY'S WEDDINGS. Sweny-Parker.

ALBANY, April 23.--Miss Louisa Parker, oldest daughter of Gen. Amasa J. Parker, and Harry Roy Sweny, only son of the late Capt. Alfred Sweny, were married in St. Peter's Church this afternoon by the Rev. Dr. Battershall. The bride was given away by her brother Amasa J. Parker, Jr. Dr. C. C. Schuyler of Plattsburg acted as best man. There were no bridesmaids. Lewis R. Parker, Dr. Frederick Cox, R.V. , D.W. Walsh, and Harry Whiting Garfield were the ushers.

In this view of the main reading room of the state library, the circle seen in the center of the arch over the doorway is the frame of a burned out clock. The doorway opening in the extreme right of the picture leads to the law library. The manuscript records of the War of 1812 were found intact in a closet located to the left of the clock frame.

According to Joseph Gavit, in the fire's intense heat, "Scotch granite columns {were] literally eaten away by the flames. The cast iron wheels of book trucks were melted... and of the 50 odd tripods of the revolving chairs in room 59, I failed to find a trace. In the lower left hand corner is the bust of [pioneering educator] Emma Willard. She couldn't stand it!"

Yes Joseph, but if you look in the lower right hand corner of the picture you'll see a section of the wrought-iron railing lying on top of the pile of dear. Did that come from the obliterated upper mezzanine tiers, or on top of the granite columns "literally eaten away by the flames?" Remember, we also see an overturned wooden table (it's seen upright in other, presumably earlier post-fire images. It must have gotten thrown in a fit of pique,) along with the light weight wooden Thonet side chairs. The third-floor windows that look into this scene were seen fully illuminated by flames in Sweny's shots.

And we can't see your circle in the center very well in your image. It shows better in Sparky's shot, which is described as A WOODEN FRAME OF A CLOCK WITH THE WORKS BURNT OUT.

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