The Iconography of Manhattan Island
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The Iconography of Manhattan Island is a six volume study of the history of New York City by Isaac Newton Phelps-Stokes, published between 1915 and 1928 by R. H. Dodd in New York. The work comprehensively records and documents key events of the city's chronology from the sixteenth to the early twentieth century. Among other things, it shows the evolution of the Manhattan skyline to the early years of the twentieth century.
The Iconography of Manhattan Island is a scholarly tour de force: the diligent work of I.N. Phelps Stokes's worldwide research teams scouring public and private collections of maps, guides and obscure source material to complete his encyclopedic monument to New York City. Describing in sometimes excruciating detail the growth of a fortified Dutch settlement into the world's greatest city, the expensive set ultimately included six volumes sold to subscribers and libraries in a limited edition of 360 sets printed on Holland-made paper and 42 on Japanese Vellum.
The books exude a poetic reverie for the goings-on and small details of city life that is practically Joycean. Unequalled in its sagacity and architectural detail, Stokes's Iconography provides the careful reader with an inner monologue that can almost be heard when reading. Indeed, he prefaces the third volume of the Iconography with a delicate exposition about the quiet turn where clues may confer a truth after facts have led into darkness. As a last resort one may be successfully led by a thread of mythological sources as opposed to the then current trend to draw rational conclusions based only on scant evidence concluding in results drawn from ones own cunning.
The Iconography's many writers lead the reader through picaresque stories about the humble as well as praising famous men. Containing long forgotten details: accounts from ledgers, accounting books and scraps of paper that the author concedes came from source material literally strewn about in unorganized piles from the floors of far flung academies and international halls of records. Much of this primary source material has been lost to time or destroyed in war. An interesting side note to the rare first edition is a one page apology Stokes makes to subscribers of the rare set of works indicating where paper stock was - by necessity of shortage - changed from the original supplier's high grade Holland paper to similar high grade stock due to the exigency of the Great War!
As a tribute to a city the Iconography stands alone: it is required source material for anyone undertaking a serious study of the city's byways, including the genesis of street names and interesting rambles along the way. The fine print does not encourage reading for long periods but entertains the reader in snippets.
I. N. Phelps Stokes himself is an interesting character. Scion of one of the most progressive, wealthy turn-of-the century New York families Stokes came from a world of privilege. Leaving Harvard with a desire to reform housing for the poor, Stokes's first contribution included model working class housing built not far from the infamous "five points": a breeding ground of over-crowded housing, poverty and disease. His insights into better housing for New York's poor enabled better living conditions through improved sanitation brought by modern building methods, shared by reformers like Jacob Riis, Stanton Coit, Charles B. Stover and Carl Schurz. Stokes's involvement led to his writing of the New York Tenement Housing Law of 1901. Stokes's three other lasting monuments include St. Pauls Chapel at Columbia University and 960 Park Avenue - an Italian Renaissance palazzo-style apartment building occupying the entire street front on the west side of Park Avenue between 82nd and 83rd Streets. 184 Eldridge Street, also by the firm of Stokes and John Mead Howells, has housed the University Settlement since 1898 and is now an historic monument placed on both the National and State Registers of Historic Places, according to their website. Unfortunately, Stokes's bad real estate investments had bankrupted him long after his monumental publishing effort left him in dire straits. Stokes spent his later years working as prints curator at the New York Public Library specializing in city views.
- I.N. Phelps Stokes : His Print Collection and the Iconography of Manhattan Island, 1498-1909 - Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library, Columbia University, New York.
- Love, Fiercely, a dual biography of I.N. Phelp Stokes and Edith Minturn Stokes by author Jean Zimmerman