A local collector of tangible history

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No caption. Photo by Brian Chang.

Four-hundred-year-old bricks, 3-foot-long fabric shears, 30 colored matchbooks, a wooden tennis racket, a duck decoy, a row of 10 old Singer sewing machines, a $10 Elvis Presley concert ticket and two colonial Dutch windows from the 17th century can all be found in the same overpacked studio on Crown Street.

Robert S. Greenberg has been amassing his collection of New Haven artifacts in the ACME building for the past 30 years, and now he plans to make the display available to the public by opening a traveling exhibit in 2012, to mark the centennial of his family’s furniture business, ACME Office Furniture Company.

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Greenberg grew up in New Haven, which his family has watched transform from a thriving industrial town to a depressed city in the 1960s as residents and merchants took the new highways to the suburbs. When all the objects are put together, they begin to tell a story about the history of New Haven, which he said is representative of American history, with appearances from figures such as George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy.

“I feel compelled to educate the people [of New Haven] about the city’s illustrious history,” Greenberg said.

In the room next to his studio, Greenberg houses the treasures he has inherited from his grandparents, as well as pieces he found or purchased himself. He has weapons and photographs from the Civil War, copper coins of the colonies printed in New Haven, a jacket from the Connecticut Governor’s Foot Guard sporting several World War I metals and a copy of Lincoln’s 1860 State Street speech on labor rights, in addition to about 80 old coins found on the New Haven Green.

“It’s the best museum in New Haven,” said Dan Kazer, a worker at the construction site next door to Greenberg’s studio.

From dumpsters Greenberg has recovered mortar fragments of Harkness Tower and bricks from old Yale buildings. Atop two wooden tables from 1900, which bear the carved initials of students, Greenberg displays a 75-cent 1970s souvenir from the Yale Bowl, an oration by Eli Whitney over the death of a classmate, a pamphlet from the 1927 Harvard-Yale game, a 1937 edition of the News describing the Yale student who leapt from the Hindenburg aircraft only to go back in on a rescue mission, as well as several Yale banners. He also has a Frisbie’s pie tin, which Yale men would throw around, allegedly giving the flying disk its commercialized name “Frisbee.”

Although he said he was sad to see the demolition of old Yale buildings such as the Boathouse, Greenberg explained that he does not wish to stop progress but rather to retrieve history. But to show that some things do not change, Greenberg has superimposed a Google Earth image of the Nine Squares street grid at the center of New Haven over an original plan of the city.

Another part of his collection is devoted to showcasing the commercial face of New Haven: Greenberg has objects from iconic local businesses A.C. Gilbert, Lender’s Bagels, New Haven Clocks and Winchester Guns. He has also collected around 20 yardsticks advertising various companies and empty bottles, including the beer bottles Pepsi Cola acquired at discounted prices during Prohibition and used to get a leg-up on its competitor Coca Cola.

“Kennedy Slain,” declares an issue of the New Haven Register from Greenberg’s collection of Connecticut newspapers. “Joe Louis Knocks Out Baer,” announces another. Greenberg’s newspapers document historic events like the sinking of the Titanic, the first landing on the moon and the two World Wars, including the ironic headline stating “British ship sunk but FDR promises to keep out of war.”

Greenberg said he would like to emulate P.T. Barnum’s traveling museum by transporting his collection to local schools to use for educational purposes.

School of Architecture professor Alan Organschi, who plans to help Greenberg with the design of exhibit cases, said the two are thinking about different methods of moving the large collection. Organschi said he will help Greenberg to search for grants to help to pay for a movable display system. Depending on the size of the final space, Greenberg can use cases such as suitcase boxes, large trunks that open to become display stands and storage containers people can walk into.

Greenberg said he also hopes to recreate old streets of New Haven by combining photographs with architectural fragments. Perhaps his most difficult endeavor is to combine several stereo images with developing optical computer technology to make a big three-dimensional image in a light box. Currently, by peering through a pair of kooky, wooden goggles connected to a handle and supporting stand for slide — a contraption from the early 20th century — one can view the images in 3-D with real-life quality.

The images place the viewer on the Yale Bowl of the 1920s, near a tree planted on the corner of Church and Chapel streets on the day Benjamin Franklin died. The people in the photographs had to keep perfectly still in order not to blur the images, Greenberg said, calling the device, “the ‘Avatar’ of the day.”

Greenberg’s grandfather, Joseph Greenberg, a Russian immigrant, started ACME Moving and Storage in 1912. His maternal grandfather, Simon Evans, was an artist, antique and tire dealer, who collected objects from New Haven with his grandson. His two grandfathers were his main inspiration in this enterprise.

The oldest item in Greenberg’s collection is a 3,000-year-old arrowhead from New Haven.

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