History on the move: 316 years of archives heading to Northern Liberties

Philadelphia cherishes its history and, like a proud parent, keeps every scrap.

But this trove of yellowing scrolls and ledgers documenting everything from the 1791 carriage tax to the 2017 soda tax, could cover three acres of land. And now it’s time to pack it all up and move.

Philadelphia’s City Archives sit for the moment in the basement and first floor of the former Bulletin building in West Philadelphia. Along with the even larger City Records Center, the collection is relocating to Northern Liberties, where it will share space with a Yards Brewing Co. brewery and a new Target store at Fifth and Spring Garden Streets.

Camera icon Michael Bryant/ Staff Photographer
One of the pages of the 1752 General Loan Office Mortgage Book shows Benjamin Franklin’s signature at the bottom right.

The first moving trucks will show up in November, and they will keep coming for nine months after that.

A city founded 316 years ago has a lot of baggage.

The archives’ oldest item is the original City Charter, signed in 1701 by William Penn. The charter is two pieces of parchment, sewn together with a wax seal at its base. It sits in a glass box in an aisle of towering shelves filled with cardboard boxes.

A yellowed slip of paper records Octavius V. Catto’s death by gunshot in 1871. Catto was killed by a white mob as he escorted black voters to the ballot box on Election Day.

Benjamin Franklin was generous with his signature. As a justice of the peace, he signed off on loans in a 1752 mortgage book.

The historical record documents former Mayor Michael A. Nutter’s social media accounts. His tweets were not saved.

“One of the things that gave us all the most concern was the sheer volume of stuff,” Records Commissioner James Leonard said on a recent tour.

“It’s one of the biggest, if not the biggest,” collections in the nation, said archival and preservation consultant Jill Rawnsley. “We’ve been lucky in Philadelphia because we didn’t have a fire, and we’re lucky that people kept things.”

The smell in the football-field-size space is overwhelming — sweet and tangy and dusty.

“Paper,” Leonard and Rawnsley explain.

Camera icon Michael Bryant/Staff Photographer
Photograph of the building of the tower of City Hall around 1900. 

A separate and larger collection known as the Records Storage Center is also moving to the Northern Liberties space. It includes 138,000 cubic feet of documents, mostly records that city departments must keep for a set period. The material at the archives and the records storage center together would nearly fill two Olympic-size swimming pools

The city paid $218,127 a year to rent the current building at 31st and Market Streets from Drexel University. It will pay $712,614 a year for the new space, which officials say is smaller but more efficient, with better climate control. The lease lasts 15 years and six months. No word yet on how much the move will cost.

“It will be a world-class example of a historical records facility, with the special equipment needed to preserve all of the massive documents since the city’s inception,” said Dominique Casimir, Philadelphia’s deputy commissioner for public property.

Order is important when packing up mountains of memories. The staff keeps a detailed shelf, box, and book list. There is a chain of custody to track what is on which moving truck when. Everything has a predetermined new home on the 13-foot, high-density shelves in the new space.

“If it gets out of order, it could be lost for a while,” Rawnsley said.

In preparation for the move, disintegrating leather-bound ledgers have been vacuum sealed, 18th-century maps and surveys are swaddled in protective paper, and glass photo negatives have been cushioned with bubble wrap.

Camera icon Michael Bryant/Staff Photographer
Jill Rawnsley, archival and preservation consultant. and James Leonard, commissioner of records, right, examine the original charter for the City of Philadelphia, signed in 1701 by William Penn. It is boxed and ready to be moved to the new archive location.

The City Archives was officially founded in 1951. Before the move to the Bulletin building in 1998, documents were stored in the Terminal Commerce Building at Broad and Callowhill Streets and in the basement of City Hall.

The new location will have a meeting room and a more modern public research area. The current research room, with low fluorescent lighting, stained carpets, and outdated chairs and tables, is surrounded by shelves holding volumes of death records.

“Our visitor numbers have dropped significantly,” Leonard said. “We’re hoping to change that in our new location, it’s in a really good central location near public transit.”

About 2,000 people came in last year. Visits to the archive are down 43 percent since 2010. Leonard says moving next to a brewery can’t hurt.  

Most of the people who visit are family historians, researchers, genealogists, professors, and students. They request property deeds and titles; birth, marriage, death, and naturalization information; prison and court records; maps; and building permits.

“I’ve had people cry seeing Catto’s death record, or Marian Anderson’s birth record,” Rawnsley said. “That’s why we’re here, to help people see those things. They get so excited, it’s just wonderful to have that kind of connection.”

Camera icon Michael Bryant/Staff Photographer
One of the oldest items in the archive, the book of minutes of the Common Council of Philadelphia in 1704. 

The latest item is an executive order signed by Mayor Kenney establishing a pre-K advisory board in January. Rawnsley lifts the crisp white paper gingerly. Beside it, she has pulled out one of the oldest records, a 1704 ledger of minutes of the Common Council of Philadelphia, yellowed with fading quill calligraphy.

“I try to handle this the same way I handle that, because this is a permanent record, even though it doesn’t look it yet,” Rawnsley said.

Rawnsley, who has been with the city since 2007, previously headed up Philadelphia’s Conservation Center for Art and Historic Artifacts. She doesn’t have a favorite item, but rather a favorite moment.

“You know, what I always say, which I know is kind of goofy — my favorite thing is the thing that someone’s looking at now,” Rawnsley said. “It’s the thing they wanted, and that’s my favorite thing, because that person’s found what they want, so that’s the most important document we have at that moment.”