If you've been to BPL's Central Library, you may have noticed that there is a large eagle sculpture presiding over the inside of the front entrance, and if you've taken one of our building tours, you know that the sculpture came from the headquarters of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle newspaper. The records of the Eagle have been at BPL since 1957 and are still a large part of the Brooklyn Collection's holdings, so the eagle looms large here in more ways than one.
There's been some debate about the eagle sculpture amongst our staff before. The questions center around a comparison of these two photos:
As you can see, there are some striking differences between these two images of what is supposedly the same sculpture. Those difference are discussed and analyzed in this previous blog post on the subject.
The sculpture came to BPL from the Brooklyn Historical Society in 1997. I always assumed it had been at the Society since the 1955 demolition of the Eagle building, so I was puzzled when I spotted what seemed to be our eagle in a photo of the Brooklyn Museum's Warburg Sculpture Garden, opened in 1966.
When I saw this photo I knew I was going to have to dig deeper to try and solve this mystery once and for all.
I started by studying photos of the Eagle building in downtown Brooklyn, demolished in 1955 to make way for the development of Cadman Plaza. The eagle we have was one of four on the Eagle building. Here's where I offer a mea culpa and admit that I have been known to describe the four eagle sculptures on the building as "one on each of its four corners." That was not the case!
The eagle we have was the largest of the four, and was perched above the building's main entrance at the corner of Washington and Johnson streets. There were two additional eagles over the building's side entrance on Washington Street. And finally, an eagle finial topped the building's high, ornate tower. The other three eagles are obviously different in size and pose, so I immediately gave up on the idea that the eagle we have could maybe have been a different one of the four.
I turned my attention back to the image of the eagle in the sculpture garden at the Brooklyn Museum. Was that really our eagle? I needed a closer image to be sure. I searched the Brooklyn Museum website and found a page dedicated to the Warburg sculpture garden, and there amongst the photos was exactly what I was looking for:
That sure looks like our eagle--albeit a little worse for wear. The poor guy's feet are completely missing, and the once-open mouth with its dramatically lolling tongue--a focus of the eagle authenticity debate--is firmly closed. This squares with our previous research, which uncovered a 1997 NY Daily News article that stated some repairs had been needed on the eagle's beak and feet before it came to the library. But were those repairs undertaken at the Historical Society or the Museum? And what exactly was done? To answer those questions, I wanted to determine how the eagle made its way to the Museum, and when it moved from there to the Historical Society.
I decided to see if I could find anything via the Historical Society. An image in our collections shows the Eagle outside the Historical Society building:
This image is dated "197-?" in our records, but the same exact image appears on the Historical Society's own website dated c.1950. Since both of those photos had uncertain dates, I continued searching the Historical Society collections and found another photo more definitively dated to 1961.
As you can see, the eagle is out front in this photo as well, which got me wondering: could the eagle have been at BHS before going to the Warburg garden? This seemed to be supported by another BHS image, definitively dated 1966-67, that shows the building without the eagle out front:
I thought I had exhausted the resources available to me at BPL, but then I had a stroke of inspiration and remembered we hold a number of Historical Society newsletters in our Ephemera Collection. And there, in the November/December 1987 issue, I struck gold.
As part of planning for a new permanent exhibition on Brooklyn history in the Society's first-floor space, the Society retrieved the eagle from the Brooklyn Museum, where it had "been on loan for the last twenty years." Before exhibiting the sculpture, they sent it "to Manhattan for badly needed conservation and repair" since "ninety-five years in the open air have taken their toll."
Two years later, in the October-December 1989 issue, the newly restored eagle was pictured on its perch in the just-opened exhibition galleries:
Compare that image to the eagle at the library today:
And especially, note the reconstructed beak:
To my mind, there's no doubt that these images are of the same sculpture.
So now we know the basic timeline: after the demolition of the Eagle building in 1955, the eagle sculpture went to BHS, where it spent about 10-12 years. Around 1966 or 1967, it traveled to the Brooklyn Museum, where it remained until 1987. Restoration work was undertaken that year, and in 1989, the sculpture was installed at the Historical Society once again. And of course, in 1997 it came to us.
I'd still like some more information about how and when the eagle was originally transferred to the Historical Society, its time at the Brooklyn Museum, and the details of the restoration work that was done. I've written to both of those institutions to try and track down more information (and will update this blog post if I find more!). But I think it's safe to say that this new documentation lends support to the authenticity of our eagle. He's been through a lot, but he's still the same bird!
UPDATE: Thanks to our colleagues at BHS, we now have a copy of the conservator's final report on the 1980s restoration of the eagle. The report confirms that the eagle had been stored in the Brooklyn Museum's sculpture garden prior to the restoration and had suffered extensive damage. It notes the material of the sculpture as cast copper with lead coating--so not the cast zinc that we'd always thought it was made of. It also details the various meaures undertaken to restore the eagle, and the materials used. For example, upon receiving the eagle, the conservator notes, "the lower beak is missing. An old chicken wire, cement and paint restoration was lost in transit." In order to repair it and the missing feet of the eagle, "The talons and lower beak were modeled in clay...the lower beak was then fabricated with cube wire mesh and...polyester material....the talons were cast in fiberglass." Additionally, "the restored areas were painted to chromatically reintegrate with the surrounding material. Autobody spray paints were used." The report also includes extensive description of the various braces and rods that support the eagle's wing structure, some of which are original to the structure. After reading all the details of the sculpture's structure and deterioration, it's even more amazing that it's survived this long and it still with us, presiding over Brooklyn for over a century.