ROOSEVELT ISLAND — A piece of New York City history has returned home at last — four years after its discovery.
A 6,000-pound solid bronze lamp base — matching the iconic Beaux Arts lamppost at the entrance of the Ed Koch-Queensboro Bridge on East 59th Street — was removed from East 60th Street on the Manhattan side of the bridge almost 40 years ago. And its whereabouts remained a mystery until a historian stumbled across it hidden beneath a tarp in a DOT storage yard in 2011.
“We saved an antique that is relevant to the history of Roosevelt Island, the Queensboro Bridge and the trolley transportation people used to get to the island from 1916 to 1957,” said Judith Berdy, president of The Roosevelt Island Historical Society. “It’s beautiful.”
The society took on the task three years ago to reinstall the lamp’s base at the Roosevelt Island Historical Society Visitor Center, which was once the Queensboro Bridge Trolley Station.
The group, which held years of fundraising to bring their dream into reality, celebrated the feat on Tuesday afternoon with a host of city officials.
Berdy said William H. Jackson Company created the lampposts, which were elaborately decorated with five levels — each with a different motif — and was labeled with the names of the city's boroughs (except Staten Island) on each side.
“Unfortunately the globes were lost and we only found the base over the years,” Berdy said. “The column and the top vanished. Who knows what happened to them. Even if it’s not the whole thing, it is a found relic. The Queensboro Bridge was a masterpiece.”
The two lampposts were installed on the Manhattan side of the bridge when it opened in 1909 but were removed in 1974 to make way for the construction of the Roosevelt Island tram. While the East 59th Street lamppost was reinstalled two years later and restored in 2000, the East 60th lamppost was not.
Historian and photographer Mitch Waxman discovered the lamppost base stored in the Department of Transportation street lights yard at 45-03 37th Ave. in Sunnyside in January 2011. The relic had “disappeared into the municipal system,” he said.
“It makes you wonder what else is out there sitting in a municipal warehouse,” he said on Tuesday. “Certainly the people of Roosevelt Island are getting another piece of Queensboro history they can tangibly connect with. It’s an extraordinary piece of metalworking to get close to.”
Waxman, who runs a blog called the Newtown Pentacle, came across the base when he went out for a snowy stroll in his neighborhood. A colony of feral cats in the supply yard caught his eye, but the wind had blown a tarp off the base, attracting his gaze.
“You don’t get moments like that,” he said. “Very seldom does it turn out to be a missing piece of a bridge.”
Once the historical society caught wind of his discovery, it made a pledge to bring the base out of retirement and place it near the bridge once again.
According to Berdy, the DOT advised the historical society to approach Community Board 8 to make sure the base wasn’t wanted by another party. With the board’s blessing, the society drafted a contract with the DOT and the Roosevelt Island Operating Corporation, which owns the base, to maintain and manage it.
Last October, after raising approximately $14,000, the historical society moved it to Roosevelt Island on a flatbed pickup truck, Berdy said. The goal had been to fully restore it at a foundry with $60,000 but the historical society has not reached that goal yet.
There had been some Upper East Siders who wanted the base to stay on the Manhattan side of the bridge, but the historical society found that it wouldn’t have been a safe place to keep it because of traffic — both pedestrian and vehicular.
However, the society does intend to create a plaque detailing the history of the lamppost once it raises more money.
“I have every confidence the historical society will be amazing stewards of the thing,” Waxman said. “Part of the Cornell University campus swinging up on Roosevelt Island will introduce a whole new generation of people not from New York City to something that is a touchstone to the history of New York City — from the last great age of building, which was the beginning of the 20th century.”