Museum Collections: Wurts Glass Negatives

Categories: Articles

By Laura Hicken, Assistant Registrar

Ellerslie House Exterior
Ellerslie House Exterior

The National Building Museum’s prized photography collections offer a historic record of a number of buildings all over America.

For example, our Wurts Brothers Photography Collection consists of nearly 20,000 photographic prints, print negatives, polyester negatives, glass negatives, notes, receipts, brochures, advertisements, ledgers, and other miscellaneous ephemera. It is the Museum’s largest and most significant photographic archives.

By focusing on the commercial needs of New York’s growing building industry at the turn of the 20th century, brothers Norman and Lionel Wurts established their studio as one of the first in the city to specialize in architectural photography. These images helped shape popular perceptions about contemporary architecture.

The many different chemical processes which have been used to create photographic negatives, prints, and transparencies can make these collections particularly difficult to preserve and safely store. An added challenge can come in the form of medium: the images shown here are scans of some of the Wurts Collection’s nearly 4,000 glass negatives.

Ellerslie House Bridge Over Lake
Ellerslie House Bridge Over Lake

Fragile, rare, and heavy, glass negatives are stored vertically to prevent cracking and are kept in one of our colder storage areas. Collections staff wear gloves when handling them to prevent fingerprint smudges, but we always use synthetic gloves rather than cotton: we want to make sure we have a good grip on the negative.

These images are of the Ellerslie estate in Rhinebeck, NY. Ellerslie was the residence of Levie P. Morton, 22nd Vice President of the United States under President Benjamin Harrison, and later the 31st Governor of New York.

These are just a few examples of the architecture, landscape architecture, and history captured in the amazing Wurts Brothers Photography Collection. The Collection was donated to the National Building Museum by Geraldine and Richard Wurts in 1983.