ALBANY -- The stunning avian colors in John James Audubon's life-size color lithographs have been clouded by smoke from the 1911 Capitol fire and a century of benign neglect, but the valuable bird prints once assumed to be destroyed have risen, phoenix-like.
Now, the grandson of the state zoologist who salvaged them from a large discard pile of fire-damaged materials long ago is planning to return them to the State Museum collection.
"I thought it was the right thing to do," said Dan Odell, 59, a retired state Office of Mental Health administrator.
Odell's grandfather, Sherman C. Bishop, rescued three of the marginally salvageable Audubon engravings from a sodden, charred pile of 90 plates that were destroyed in the March 29, 1911, fire and were about to be thrown out. They were among more than 10,000 State Museum items lost in the catastrophic fire that left a night watchman dead and consumed nearly the entire collection of the State Library, including 500,000 books and 300,000 manuscripts.
Bishop began work as state zoologist in 1916 and five years later offered the three prints he rescued to his friend Langdon Gibson, an explorer and naturalist who lived in Schenectady. Gibson had the smoke- and water-damaged edges trimmed off, framed them and gave them back to Bishop as a gift.
The three Audubon images are the yellow-throated warbler, blue yellow-backed warbler and rice bird. They were engraved, printed and hand-colored by R. Havell in the 1820s and 1830s and were contained in what is known as a Havell edition. It was the only Audubon volume in the State Museum collection.
Bishop hung the three bird prints in his summer cottage in the Finger Lakes. That's where they remained for the next six decades, until Odell's mother gave him the prints in the 1980s.
"They'd been sitting in my closet ever since and I wasn't doing anything with them, so I decided to give them back," Odell said.
He was spurred to action after reading a Times Union story last month about descendants of A.J.F. van Laer, the State Library's archivist who rushed into the burning Capitol in 1911 to save Colonial Dutch records he was translating. His descendants donated books and items to the State Library from van Laer's estate.