In a major boon for researchers, New York City history aficionados and old building lovers, the New York City Department of Records & Information Services has released a treasure trove of visual material online. The digitization of 720,000 images from the circa 1940 tax photo collection means a photograph of every building in the city at the time is now available to peruse online.
Beginning in 1939, teams of photographers fanned out across the five boroughs to document every single structure. The project, a collaboration between the Works Progress Administration and the New York City Department of Taxation, was seen as a tool in determining property value assessments, but its long-term value proved much more important.
The black and white photographs, all taken between 1939 and 1941, are essential in documenting the changes to a building over time. For many buildings, they are the only known historic photo to exist. The images also provide a glimpse of city life, from cars and billboards to fashion. They even occasionally provide views of the unnamed photographers themselves, caught in the frame after placing the tripod with the identifying block and lot number in the shot.
While they have been used for years by researchers, for many they have been frustrating to access. Seeing them in person required going to the Municipal Archives prepared with the block and lot number of a building then using that number to decipher which roll of microfilm the photo might be on, loading up the microfilm and slowly hunting for the photo. For those who couldn’t make it in person, you could place an order sight unseen, but not every photo was a winner. Some were too dark to see the building or too grainy to clearly observe building details.
Rather than work from the microfilm, the recent project digitized the images from the original negatives, so many shots that were too muddy on the microfilm will now be rendered more sharply. You will still need to know your block and lot number, but the online portal provides a link to the NYCityMap for easy lookup and has the photos conveniently separated by borough.
There are also lots of other great images the archive previously put online, including the 1980 tax photos. To get to the all the images, visit the Municipal Archives online portal here. If you want a high-resolution version of your circa 1940 tax photo or a print, you can also purchase make the purchase online.
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