The Louis Salter Collection
Carnegie Hall's Rose Museum and Archives Director Gino Francesconi tells the story about finding The Louis Salter Collection—a 54-page autograph book that dates from 1916 to 1937—and its restoration.
At the ceremony for the laying of the cornerstone for Carnegie Hall in 1890, one line from Andrew Carnegie's speech proved wonderfully prophetic: "It is probable that this Hall will intertwine itself with the history of our country." They were bold words for a theater that was built nearly three miles uptown, away from the then heart of the city at 14th Street, yet Carnegie would live to see those words go beyond even his expectations.
One item in our archives that demonstrates this “intertwining” in a remarkable and extraordinary way is a 54-page autograph book that dates from 1916 to 1937. In it are names of some of the most important people of that time—not only in music, but in politics, exploration, journalism, dance, medicine, and literature.
"It is probable that this Hall will intertwine itself with the history of our country."
Among the 266 signatures are Arturo Toscanini, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Kirsten Flagstad, Pablo Casals, Roald Amundsen, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Ernestine Schumann-Heink, William Jennings Bryan, and Sergei Prokofiev. Many signatures are strong, bold, and clear. Others such—as Howard Carter's, who discovered the tomb of Tutankhamun—took a week to decipher. Some were unknown to us at the time, such as Dr. Allan Roy Dafoe, the Canadian doctor who delivered the Dionne quintuplets in 1934. He became quite a celebrity in his day and lectured frequently about the Dionne quintuplets, the first to survive infancy.
The autographs were collected by Louis Salter, who worked at Carnegie Hall for 32 years, first as an assistant electrician and later advancing to superintendent. He then became general representative of the New York Philharmonic in 1925 and assistant manager of the Lewisohn Stadium summer concerts. He died of a heart attack in 1939 at the age of 66.
Finding the book wasn't easy, since most of Carnegie Hall’s documented history had disappeared over the decades. During Andrew Carnegie’s ownership, there were several changes of management; after Robert E. Simon purchased the Hall from Mrs. Carnegie in 1925, a new employee frustratingly remarked in a newspaper article that it only took a few days to throw out years of “old records.” There were no lists of former employees let alone contacts, but the memory of “the book” lived on. I had first heard about it as the backstage artist assistant in the 1970s and '80s, and when we established the Carnegie Hall Archives in 1986, it was one of the top items we were determined to find.
A more than 10-year search led us to family members located all over the country. We purchased it from them in 2001.
Like most autograph books of the time, the paper was highly acidic. The family guardians had kept a careful watch over it through the years, yet the pages had become brittle and many of the edges were chipped. As much as we loved showing it off, it was also very frustrating and frightening. We detached a few of the pages to put on temporary display in our Rose Museum; no matter how careful we were, we felt each time we touched a page could be its last before it crumbled to pieces.
It was among the first obvious choices to send to the Northeast Document Conservation Center to be conserved and digitized as part of our ongoing three-year project. The pages were cleaned, the acidity neutralized, tears mended, pages encapsulated, and it was all rehoused. What a joy to be able to show it off again with pride! And with the confidence that we can do so safely.
The juxtaposition of autographs on some pages is truly breathtaking: On one page, conductor Artur Bodanzky, violinist Jacques Thibaud, writer Maurice Maeterlinck (who won the 1911 Nobel Prize in Literature), and physicist Sir Oliver Lodge appear along with President Herbert Hoover and former New York Governor and Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes. On another page, pianist-composer Sergei Rachmaninoff and baritone Lawrence Tibbett with the Marmein Dancers (Phyllis, Irene, and Miriam), with composer-conductor John Philip Sousa, and jack-of-all-trades reporter-actor-photographer Burr McIntosh.
There were also 44 portrait photographs of musicians that were part of the acquisition. Each was inscribed to Louis Salter. He displayed them in his Carnegie Hall office. Years of radiator heat, cigar and cigarette smoke, sunlight, and bad matting caused these wonderful souvenirs to be in various states of disintegration. Most had been taped to highly acidic matting; the photos were discolored, torn, and brittle. At the Northeast Document Conservation Center, the photos were separated from the matting, surface soil was removed, and Japanese paper was used to mend tears before they were carefully flattened and given new sleeves for storage.
This collection is available for research at the Carnegie Hall Archives and in the near future will be a wonderful part of our digital archives.