Brooklyn Historical Society starts emergency fund after water leak damages archives

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A recent leak at the Brooklyn Historical Society damaged a number of 19th century property deeds.
Brooklyn Historical Society

The Brooklyn Historical Society is seeking urgent funds after a massive water leak damaged several 19th century artifacts and soaked through the museum’s floorboards and light fixtures, said the organization’s director. 

“Some damage was to 19th century documents, some property deeds — things that weren’t important parts of the collection, but still 19th century documents,” said Deborah Schwartz, the president of the Historical Society.

The educational center’s HVAC system, which helps preserve the artifacts by keeping them cool, sprouted a leak the morning of June 11, seeping through the floor and dripping onto several old property deeds stored in the Othmer Library on Pierrepont Street, Schwartz said.

Other items — such as props used in the museum’s exhibits and the documents’ archival boxes and files — were also soaked by the broken AC unit, which had been dangerously corroded over years of use.

The leak was caught quickly by the Society’s building manager, who monitors the collections daily while the center remains closed amid the COVID-19 outbreak. The papers were stored securely enough to prevent further damage, Schwartz said. 

Since mid-June, staffers have begun the process of replacing all the documents’ archival boxes, the damaged light fixtures, and the HVAC unit. They’ve also hired a paper conservator to remove the moisture from the affected documents, which will prevent the pages from curling, and are finding ways to remove the moisture from the storage space to prevent mold or mildew from growing, Schwartz said. 

“Whenever you have water near collections, you need to make sure that you don’t get an outbreak of mold or mildew,” she said. “So that’s been our main focus, to make sure nothing gets worse as a result of the dampness.”

Insurance will cover the repairs to the documents and the replacement of some archival boxes, but it won’t pay for infrastructural fixes — leaving the society with a $100,000 budget shortfall, Schwartz said. 

“We have designated funds set aside for emergencies, and are fortunate to have been able to take the first and immediate steps to protect the collections,” she wrote in a statement. “Unfortunately, the damage done far exceeds what is available in this fund, and the cost to effectively secure the collections into the future is quite significant.” 

To pay for the $100,000 restoration, the Society started an emergency fund in late June, which has already raised more than $63,000, mostly from small donors.

“The number of $10 and $20 gifts that we got was really was extraordinary,” Schwartz said. “I was really moved by it because it means people really understand the importance of these historical documents.”

At the current rate, Schwartz said she hopes that the Society will reach its goals soon.

“It’s heartening,” she said. “We still have a little ways to go, but people have been very generous.”

Those who would like to donate can do so here.  

The Brooklyn Historical Society’s headquarters are in Brooklyn Heights.Photo by Susan De Vries