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City's National Archives gets new home

Dorothy Dougherty, of Huntington, is the Public Programs

Dorothy Dougherty, of Huntington, is the Public Programs director at the National Archives in Manhattan and stands in the new exhibit, The World's Port, at the Custom House in lower Manhattan where her office is in the process of moving to. (Oct. 2, 2012) Credit: Nancy Borowick

The National Archives at New York City has always been off the beaten path, hidden in an obscure, cramped lower Manhattan office with no sign to publicize its reams of historical documents.

Starting later this month, its records -- which bring history to a personal level -- will be available in a large public space in the Alexander Hamilton U.S. Custom House built in the early 1900s on Bowling Green.

"This is going to put us in the spotlight," said Dorothy Dougherty, the public programs director, whose passion for history started when she was an interpreter at the Old Bethpage Village Restoration.

To inaugurate the new home of the archives, an exhibit is planned: "The World's Port," which will display 17th century to 20th century documents, photographs and drawings highlighting New York Harbor's shipping industry in the U.S. Custom House rotunda. The exhibit will be free.

"This is a perfect place for the exhibit, where custom records show the kind of items that were being shipped into the harbor and its value," Dougherty said.

Other archives include employment records of U.S. Custom House employees, many of whom were Civil War veterans; slave receipts; and documents that record the "crime of piracy on the high seas," she said.

In 1860, one pirate who stole goods was sentenced and hanged. "He was the last person to be publicly executed on Bedloe's Island, which is where the Statue of Liberty stands today," Dougherty said.

Bedloe's Island was an earlier name that had become Fort Wood after the War of 1812. It is now Liberty Island.

Other documents include German-born physicist Albert Einstein's "declaration of intention" to become a U.S. citizen. The application includes his photo and biographical details.

A 1914 photograph shows Franklin D. Roosevelt, who later became New York governor and president, overlooking the construction of the USS Arizona, which was being built at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. The Arizona was destroyed in the attack on Pearl Harbor that drew the United States into World War II.

Up until now, the New York archives have been mostly used by amateur and professional genealogists who combed through military, land use, bankruptcy and immigration records to sort out the personal history of relatives, Dougherty said.

Census records from the 1930s and '40s, which were recently released by the federal government, will offer more details.

The census is "a snapshot of where families lived, including their addresses and apartment numbers," she said. There also are marital records, and employment activity, "such the number of hours a person worked and how much they earned."

"It's a hands-on research experience into ancestry that is completely free," Dougherty said. "History is always changing and every day there is always something new to learn."The Alexander Hamilton U.S. Custom House location, which is in the same building as the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of the American Indian, also will offer space for a new research and education rooms that will be open late this month on the third and fourth floors. There also will be genealogy researchers and docents to guide visitors.

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