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History in Decay: How the city and the county are neglecting our heritage

Sunday, August 12, 2001

By Marylynne Pitz, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

A large chunk of Allegheny County's history is rotting away in an old Serta mattress factory on the North Side.

More than a million pounds of records, packed in 50,000 numbered boxes, are stacked on aisle after aisle of shelves, where they sizzle in the humid summer heat.

Rolled and tagged maps that show the plans and profiles of county roads are stored in the Department of Public Works in the County Office Building. Some of the maps are on canvas and they include a profile of Freeport Road from 1898. (John Beale, Post-Gazette)

Sweat pours down the brow of Sam Wilson as he leads a tour on a miserably hot day recently.

"We basically do not know what's in these boxes, and we don't care," said the county's deputy director of administrative services as he walked the building's fourth floor.

The county's lack of interest in its records is apparent from the fragile state of documents and maps.

Take, for example, the 1902 divorce file for Kate Soffel, the jail warden's wife who helped two prisoners escape from the Allegheny County Jail in 1902. It is held together by a rubber band, and a photograph of her is folded inside.

Stapled to the file is a blue-and- white pinstriped shirt cuff that belonged to Ed Biddle, the prisoner whose love poem to Soffel helped secure her assistance in his jail break. A letter in the file, in elaborate script, is torn in three pieces.

Audrey Iacone gasps when she hears a description of that file.

"Philadelphia has got a city archive. I don't know why Pittsburgh and Allegheny County can't get their act together," said Iacone, a librarian at the Beechview branch of the Carnegie Library and president of the Western Pennsylvania Genealogical Society.

Michael E. Lamb, the Allegheny County prothonotary, said the Second Class County Code was amended in 1991 so filing fees collected by his staff and three other court-related offices could be spent on storage and management of records.

Wilson said the county collects about $300,000 a year in fees from the prothonotary, the recorder of deeds, the register of wills and the clerk of courts. This year's budget for the North Side records center is about $225,000, more than half of which pays for renting space there.

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"Most of the rest goes for the salary of employees," Wilson said.

John L. Schultz, acting recorder of deeds, said he never sends anything of value to the North Side records office and would like to microfilm many older records, but that it's a struggle to get funding.

Dennis East, the head archivist at the University of Pittsburgh, said the situation is not unusual.

"There are darn few archives in the country that have the ideal environment in terms of humidity and temperature for housing material. The color of the problem's green. It's just money," East said.

For years, many of the county's records somehow survived in the Allegheny County Courthouse attic, where they were subjected to a leaky roof, insects and pigeon droppings.

After the records were moved to the Manchester warehouse in 1992, boxes kept in the basement were damaged by a flood and sewage in the late 1990s. Those records had to be freeze-dried to stop the water damage, and they are now back on the shelves.

Crumbling paper and maps

One local archivist who worked hard in the early 1990s to organize and catalog the county's records is sorry that they are stored the way they are.

"Paper is a living, breathing thing," said Ken White, director of archives for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh.

The life span of paper depends on its content and the environment in which it is kept. Cheap paper may crumble after 30 years, while paper made of 100 percent rag can last for centuries if it is stored in a climate-controlled room where the temperature is 70 degrees, White said.

But fluctuations in temperature reduce its life span.

Once paper deteriorates so badly that it becomes brittle, it cannot be saved.

Mike Murphy, a clerk in the prothonotary's office, opens a docket book in the basement of the City-County Building where docket books dating to 1914 are stacked in rows. (John Beale, Post-Gazette)

Some of that deteriorating paper documents nearly every aspect of county history.

With the exception of the First Ward Downtown, a Works Progress Administration crew surveyed every street and building in Allegheny County in 1936. Blueprints show when the buildings were built and the materials used.

Five boxes contain the files of the late Jim White, a county employee who documented the openings of many bridges.

Among White's files is a pamphlet that commemorates the 171st anniversary of George Washington's crossing of the icy Allegheny River on Dec. 29, 1753. Washington crossed the river near the site of the present 40th Street Bridge.

White's files, which still have a strong, musty odor, were damaged at the North Side warehouse during the 1996 flood, according to William S. Connery, records manager for the county's Public Works Department.

Elsewhere, docket books show the grave sites of the region's numerous war veterans, marriage licenses and the naturalization of immigrants.

Court records abound, and judges order those files regularly because they prefer to examine paper rather than suffer the eye-straining experience of reading microfilm.

"Any major criminal case is kept forever -- literally," Wilson said.

While he was in office during the late 1990s, former County Commissioner Robert Cranmer obtained a copy of part of a Revolutionary War map that shows land grants made to soldiers in Western Pennsylvania.

"They showed me one map that was the original map done right after the Revolutionary War in the 1780s. They paid Revolutionary War soldiers in land. Where my house is was a land grant from Virginia," said Cranmer, of Brentwood.

The original is stored in a large atlas bolted to a table on the mezzanine of the recorder of deeds in the County Office Building. It and other original maps in the book have badly frayed edges from constant handling by the public.

In the North Side warehouse, more maps that show the old county workhouse and drawings of the Highland Park Bridge are deteriorating in a room where a large spider web on the ceiling lends a Stephen King touch.

Vellum, or animal-skin, maps that should be stored flat in drawers are rolled up, standing on their edges and exposed to the hot sunlight that filters through dirty windows.

A low priority

Still, the warehouse is a better storage site than the Allegheny County Courthouse, where county records that dated to 1788 were rescued by White and others in 1992.

Rent is cheap at the warehouse -- about $2 per square foot. But the lack of climate control means the region's social and architectural history is withering, under assault daily by four major enemies -- temperature, humidity, light and dirt.

"It's just a warehouse full of records that no one knows what to do with," said Pitt's East. "Unfortunately, that seems to be the case in a lot of our metropolitan areas. Nobody cares about records until they can't find them or there's a problem."

White and Thomas G. Kelley, deputy director of the county Department of Public Works, and Patrick Cassidy, now budget director for the Allegheny County Housing Authority, created an electronic database that county employees use to respond to the 100 requests made daily for old records.

The Warrantee Atlas of Allegheny County is bolted to a table on the mezzanine in the Recorder of Deeds office in the County Office Building. The atlas dates to 1914 and includes intricate, hand-drawn maps based on surveys done in 1909, 1910 and 1912. (John Beale, Post-Gazette)

"Record-keeping is a low priority until something blows up in your face. And then everyone runs around and says, 'Why didn't we do something about this?' " White said.

The value of such records, White said, is that they "tell us where we are now and how we got here."

They are invaluable to county and city employees, journalists, historians, genealogists and public policy makers, according to Richard J. Cox, a University of Pittsburgh archivist and professor.

The county has at least tried to index its voluminous records.

The city of Pittsburgh, on the other hand, has a computerized index that covers City Council minute books for 1996 and successive years, but it is not available to the public.

The clerk's office has an index to minute books that document legislation introduced by City Council in 1996 and successive years.

"We know what we have, but no, there is no index," said Linda Johnson-Wasler, the chief city clerk.

Allegheny County hired employees and consultants in the 1990s to establish a systematic program of record-keeping. Record coordinators were appointed in each county department and schedules were set for keeping and destroying records.

"The county made a sincere effort to deal with the records," said Cox, who once managed the municipal records of Baltimore.

County officials, Cox said, "even made overtures to the city to join forces. The city never got interested."

It would make sense, Cox said, for the city and county to create a central repository for local government records and share the costs.

But that idea did not appeal to city officials because the county, which includes four offices devoted to various courts, generates far more records.

Inside the city's vault

Each city department is responsible for keeping its own records.

In the case of City Council, its records at least repose in a relatively cool vault behind council chambers. The sheer number of local laws creates a space crunch.

"We're getting very crowded inside that vault," said Johnson-Wasler, who heads an 11-member staff that retrieves records for council members and the public.

Johnson-Wasler concedes that some of the city's oldest records are delicate.

"The pages are very tender," she said while leafing carefully through an 1833 docket book of City Council minutes.

"How do you go back and image these documents? It's very costly," she said, explaining that the city has at least 30 similar books.

The city's list of records includes at least 468 bound volumes, many of which document the minutes of meetings held in Esplen, Birmingham and Allegheny city, long before those communities became part of the city.

In the vault, 11 rows of drawers are stacked so high that a ladder is needed to retrieve documents from the top rows. Each drawer contains 270 folded documents. The city keeps 5 million to 10 million pieces of paper.

"Any paper introduced by City Council is never destroyed," Johnson-Wasler said.

That includes petitions, legislation, proclamations and travel requests, annual authority reports and audits.

Pittsburgh is one of the few U.S. cities that creates a verbatim transcript of every one of its weekly council meetings.

In the early 1980s, the city bought a microfilm machine, but the technology never caught on. The folded-over pieces of paper that contain city legislation are each 8 1/2 inches by 22 inches, an awkward size to fit into the machine. The form was never changed to adapt to the technology, so the machine was given to the city controller, she said.

In 1996, Pittsburgh asked the Carnegie Library whether it could process and handle city archives, said Barry Chad, a senior librarian in the Pennsylvania Room at the Oakland branch.

"They wanted somebody to take it off their hands and maintain it for them. We'd have been glad to do it, but you needed a full-time person to look after it and staff people to prepare it for microfilming or digitization," Chad said.

The task would have been a four-year project, Chad said, and was never carried out.

"It was a matter of who would incur the cost and how could we share that cost," Johnson-Wasler said.

The city and county both get some help from the University of Pittsburgh's Archives Service Center, which is storing about 2,500 linear feet of city and county records, but that falls far short of preserving all important documents.

East, who has been an archivist since 1968, is a realist about governments' abilities to maintain their records.

"When you've got to fight fires, pay police and clean streets, the resources are often finite."

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