Scrap Book, James Renwick Jr., Architect, New York
by Jerry Leibowitz
My wife Jen had a grandfather named Henry who designed furniture during the depression and for sometime thereafter. He left us several scrapbooks of his designs and other scrapbooks compiled from his journeys abroad. In one box there were some other old books that really did not look like much. One old Scrap Book that was clearly not his caught my eye and I decided to investigate.
I found the name of the apparent compiler of this Scrap Book in beautiful cursive on the first page, “James Reswick, Architect”. I googled it. I didn’t come up with much. Something about computers, something about furniture, but really nothing that would indicate that I was googling someone memorable. I did see some reference to a church design but it was just one reference so it struck me as an outlier. I put the book away and went on to other things.
Over time, I studied the scrapbooks with his furniture designs, hoping perhaps I would find some of his furniture in some antique store. I would also glance through the Reswick Scrap Book from time to time and wonder why it was there. What I did not realize for quite a while is that I had misread the name and I was spelling it wrong. In my defense I was told that Henry had a great eye and knew about architecture, having studied it as a youth in Germany. If he wanted me to focus on the owner of the scrap book I think he would have let me know. Of course Henry did not know me, having died about 1955 and me having been born in 1957. Several of Henry’s own scrapbooks were filled with European churches which he had seen and photographed. I figured Henry purchased the Scrap Book from some kindly old architect he met on one of his trips to New York City because that architect loved the same big old European buildings that Henry did. Since the stuff was glued into the scrap book, I didn’t think the book had much value. To my limited knowledge, even if the scraps were important, the act of gluing them into a book reduced them to a curiosity. So while the scraps were interesting I always put it away to dissect at a future date. Well this was that future date, since I was underemployed and looking for fun projects. Since the James Reswick google was a dud, I decided to google some of the scraps inside.
So there I am leafing through the volume, as the binding is falling apart. Maybe I wasn’t too careful since all I thought I had was a curiosity. There was a print of a building…I googled the names on the print…they were 19th century printers. Eh? Then an unsigned photo of a European town with a cathedral in the center…did I notice that there appeared to be an 1851 date that might have significance? I don’t think so. Then another print…another, or maybe that is a drawing. Then, more prints with names that google did not seem to attach much significance. A beautiful little unsigned hand done work that I recognized as Venice (I had just been there as if I couldn’t tell it was Venice from the Gondola). More prints or drawings of castles or churches; many with place names but no other identifying information. On at least one which looked handmade you could see that an engraver name had been cut off which momentarily convinced me that there was nothing original in the book despite the fact that some things clearly looked hand drawn. Then one looked like a print with a perfect pencil drawing inside it. That was weird. I had no idea what that was. At this point my wife, Henry’s granddaughter, was in the room and happens to see what I am doing just as I am looking at this incredible print of a church that I think may be St. Patrick’s Cathedral. She begs me to cut it out to frame it. OK if the book has no value we will cut out the magnificent stuff and frame it and display it in our house as a tribute to Henry. Why have it sit around for eternity waiting for someone else to have time to play with it.
After Jen leaves, I finish looking at the book. At the end there are more photos of famous buildings, more prints and more of what looked like original drawings. The church in the early photograph made another appearance in a drawing. It made no sense to me. Why mix these prints with what looked like original drawings and early photographs. I decided to start over.
I did a little research on photography and decided that 1851 was really early for a landscape photograph of a European town.. I figured I could identify the town by the cathedral, and sure enough, with the help of google there it was…Strasbourg Cathedral. And when you google Strasbourg Cathedral 1851 you hit pay dirt. Missiones Heliographique. Henri LeSecq. I was thinking that maybe this is a one of a kind photo that the world may not even know of. Voila. A reason to go on.
At this point I was convinced that the book was special and decided to redo my search on the first owner, James Reswick, to look up the church reference that I had ignored. The first thing on google is a message to dummies like me. Do you mean James Renwick, architect? Say what? I looked at my inscription again. James Renwick, Jr. architect, New York. I clicked on the name. Pardon my French…but Holy Shit!