The Case of the Missing Historical Treasure
By Thomas Hauser ’67, ’70L
I visited Butler Library for the first time as a College freshman in September 1963. Like thousands of Columbians, I was awed by the towering columns and facade that bore the inscription: “Homer – Plato – Aristotle – Demosthenes – Cicero – Virgil.” The wealth of knowledge in the building inspired me. But one particular treasure caught my eye.
The College Library had a portrait of every President of the United States, matted and framed with the President’s signature, affixed by brackets to the top of the bookshelves. During my years at Columbia, I walked down one side of the room and back up the other countless times, gazing at George Washington and company. Their signatures fascinated me.
Through the years, I returned to the library from time to time. Photographs of newly inaugurated Presidents with signature cards had been added to the collection. Then my visits became less frequent. Thanks to the Internet, information once gleaned from the Butler stacks could instantly be found online.
In summer 2007, my niece and nephew wanted to see Columbia, so I took them on their first college tour. They searched for (and found) the owl in the drapery of Alma Mater. I told them about college life in the 1960s. As a final touch, I led them to the renovated Milstein Family College Library to see the Presidential portraits.
The portraits weren’t there. And the young woman on duty at the desk had no idea what I was talking about when I asked what had happened to them.
Such is life. But the memory of the portraits (and particularly, the signatures) stayed with me. So in late November, I called Anice Mills, undergraduate services coordinator in the History and Humanities Library, to find out where they were.
“I’ve been here since 1996, and I’ve never heard of the collection,” Mills told me.
I asked if she could find out what had happened to the portraits (after all, librarians are adept at research). Mills said she’d try. Three weeks later, I received a telephone call from Ree DeDonato, a director in the History and Humanities Library.
DeDonato has been at Columbia since 1994, when she was the undergraduate librarian. “I remember the portraits,” she said. “They were taken down in 1996, when the Butler Library renovation began. Most of the frames were old and flimsy and started falling apart when they were detached from the top of the bookshelves. It would have cost too much to reframe everything, so we put the collection in storage.”
That didn’t make sense. How much could reframing cost? The signatures alone are worth tens of thousands of dollars.
“The signatures aren’t real,” DeDonato told me. “They’re reproductions.”
I felt like a 6-year-old who has just learned that Santa Claus doesn’t exist.
But the child in me is still alive. I wanted to see the Presidential portraits one last time. So early this year, I met with DeDonato in her office on the third floor of Butler Library.
The portrait of John Tyler, matted with his signature in a 15-by-20-inch wood frame just as I remembered it, was on DeDonato’s desk. I’ve learned a few things since I’ve graduated from college, and a quick look told me that the signature was a facsimile. It was in printer’s ink, bold and black without a trace of oxidation despite the fact that Tyler hasn’t signed anything since his death in 1862.
“I’ve asked everyone who might know,” DeDonato recounted. “There’s no documentation on how the portraits came to the library. That suggests they weren’t purchased or donated in a way that called for an acknowledgement. Most likely, they were mass produced by the federal government and sent to libraries around the country, possibly as a [New Deal] WPA project. Then, as new Presidents were inaugurated, Columbia expanded the collection on its own. My grade school had similar black-and-white Presidential portraits in the auditorium,” she added in support of her thesis.
DeDonato reached for the portrait of Tyler on her desk. “Let’s see what we can find out,” she said.
The brown paper backing crumbled as DeDonato stripped it from the frame. Next, she took a pair of pliers and removed the nails that held the corrugated cardboard backing in place. The Tyler portrait and signature (the latter on a small, rectangular piece of paper) were taped to the back of the mat, which had been mounted on poster board.
The portrait and signature hadn’t been archivally preserved in any way. The poster board and cardboard backing were separated by pages from a newspaper dated November 20, 1939, a good indication that the original framing had been done around that time.
Next, DeDonato performed similar surgery on the portrait of Jimmy Carter that she’d brought to her office from the storage room. The back of the signature card bore the printed legend, “Facsimile signature of Jimmy Carter, 39th President of the United States.”
So much for Columbia’s historical treasure.
Reconstructing history: The best guess is that the portraits of Washington through Franklin Roosevelt were sent to Columbia as a group and framed at the same time. Thereafter, as each new President took office, Columbia added a Presidential signature and portrait.
Is it possible that some of the post-Roosevelt signatures are real? After all, prior to assuming the Presidency of the United States, Dwight Eisenhower was president of Columbia.
“Probably not,” DeDonato told me. “The Carter signature card says on the back that it’s a facsimile. I doubt that any of the signatures are authentic. That’s the sort of thing someone would have looked at before the portraits were put in storage.”
And what will happen to the portraits?
“We have no plans to redisplay them,” DeDonato said. “Someday, when we need the storage space, we’ll probably take the portraits and signatures out of the frames, keep them with the mats, and discard everything else. The collection has no monetary value, but it’s interesting of its time.”