Photo database tells the story of NYC

In this Dec. 22, 1936, Works Progress Administration photo, a man looks at the Hudson River from the New York tower of the George Washington Bridge.

NEW YORK — The two men were found dead at the bottom of an elevator shaft in a 12-story Manhattan building, as if dumped there, one sprawled on top of the other.

The rare crime scene photo from Nov. 24, 1915, is one of 870,000 images of New York City and its municipal operations available to the public on the Internet for the first time.

The city Department of Records officially announced the debut of the photo database Tuesday. Culled from the Municipal Archives collection of more than 2.2 million images going back to the mid-1800s, the photos feature all manner of city oversight, from stately ports and bridges to grisly gangland killings.

The project was four years in the making, part of the department’s mission to make city records accessible to everyone, said department assistant commissioner Kenneth Cobb.

“We all knew that we had fantastic photograph collections that no one would even guess that we had,” Cobb said.

Taken mostly by anonymous municipal workers, some of the images have appeared in publications, but most were accessible only by visiting the archive offices in lower Manhattan over the last few years.

Researchers, history buffs, filmmakers, genealogists and preservationists in particular will find the digitized collection helpful. But anyone can search the images, share them through social media or purchase them as prints.

The gallery includes images from the largest collection of criminal justice evidence in the English-speaking world, a repository that holds glass-plate NYPD photos. It also features more than 800,000 color photos taken with 35mm cameras of every city building in the mid-1980s to update municipal records, and includes more than 1,300 rarely seen images taken by photographers of the Depression-era Works Progress Administration.

Because of technological and financial constraints, the digitized gallery does not include the city’s prized collection of 720,000 photographs of every city building from 1939 to 1941. But the database is still growing, and the department plans to add more images.

One popular cache includes photos shot mostly by NYPD detectives, nearly each one a crime mystery just begging to be solved. The black-and-white, top-down image of the two men in the elevator shaft is a representative example.

The New York Tribune reported Nov. 25, 1915, under the headline “Finding of two bodies tells tale of theft,” that the bodies of a black elevator operator and a white engineer of a Manhattan building were found “battered, as though from a long fall.”

The news report said the men tried to rob a company on the fifth floor of expensive silks, but died in the attempt. The elevator was found with $500 worth of silk inside, stuck between the 10th and 11th floors.