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The life of an extraordinary photo collector

Posted by Teresa Hanafin  October 29, 2008 05:05 PM

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From Herbert Mitchell photo collection
A photo from the Herbert Mitchell Collection
shows Central Park's Sheep Meadow, about 1930. (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Late Columbia University librarian amassed a stunning set of historic images

By David W. Dunlap
New York Times News Service

Herbert Mitchell was a Columbia University librarian who filled his high-ceilinged Morningside Heights apartment with rare stereographs, seductive daguerreotypes, Majolica ceramics, Parian statuary, and cabinets full of 19th-century architectural books.

In 2007, the Metropolitan Museum of Art was able to add to its photography collection the 3,866 stereographic views of New York City from the 19th and early 20th centuries that Mr. Mitchell donated that year. Most show Central Park not long after its construction. Some of them were published in the winter 2008 issue of the museum bulletin, "Creating Central Park," by Morrison H. Heckscher.

Heckscher, the Lawrence A. Fleischman chairman of the American Wing at the Met, knew, as other curators and researchers did, that if their quest for historical images or artifacts crossed Mr. Mitchell's many areas of interest, he would make his holdings (or hoardings) available for books and exhibitions.

Jeff L. Rosenheim - curator in the department of photographs at the Met, who first met Mr. Mitchell 20 years ago prowling flea markets in the West 20s - said: "The eclectic nature of this collector and his essential values were astounding to me. It is a treasure trove of material awaiting public scholars."

Mr. Mitchell, whose unique collection became a treasure trove for scholars seeking the physical dimensions of a lost culture, died Saturday in Manhattan. He was 83. The cause was complications of Parkinson's disease, said his attorney, George L. Carson.

At the Avery Architectural and Fine Arts Library at Columbia, where he worked from 1960 to 1991, and in his own apartment, Mr. Mitchell assembled something extraordinary, if slightly beyond description.

"His was the most eclectic collection of the valuable, the semivaluable, and the somewhat not valuable," Carson said. Much of it will be given to the Met, he added.

Herbert Mitchell
Herbert Mitchell at Columbia University in 1972 (New York Times Photo)

Rives Herbert Mitchell was born in Bangor. He would later say, in his economical way, "It's a good place to come from."

Mr. Mitchell received a bachelor's degree from the University of Maine in 1946 and a bachelor of science degree from the Columbia University School of Library Service in 1949. After working at the Art Institute of Chicago and Cornell University, he returned to Columbia in 1960.

He is credited by Columbia with the spectacular growth of Avery's classics collection, including presentation drawings of the church of San Giovanni in Laterano by Giovanni Battista Piranesi and a copy of a 1775 book, "A Collection of Designs in Architecture," one of the first books on architecture published in North America.

But he was equally avid in acquiring ordinary trade catalogs showing architectural hardware, flooring materials, paints, wallpapers, plumbing fixtures, and the like, now an invaluable resource for anyone restoring or researching historical interiors.

"One of his real interests was ephemera, that part of history that disappears," said Kitty Chibnik, the associate director of Avery.

Mr. Mitchell leaves a sister, Dorothy of Seattle.

He once referred to his collections as his children, Carson said. He had no others.

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