Save the Institute’s Treasures: Stevens Committee Restores and Preserves University’s Rare Historical Collections

10/17/2013

Today, in the world of new inventions, it seems that there are no new great ideas outside of Silicon Valley that are leading to innovative products and ground-breaking inventions. But this is precisely the story of Stevens Institute of Technology’s legacy since its founding in 1870.

When it comes to historical distinction, few universities can claim as many varied and technologically significant inventions as Stevens. The Stevens founding family—nicknamed the “first family of inventors”—were a dynamic force in the Industrial Age, responsible for some of the nation’s most influential transportation innovations.

In order to safeguard the university’s distinctive history, Stevens is proud to introduce the Historic Preservation Committee, chaired by the first lady of the university, Hoveida Farvardin. The committee aims to restore and preserve the many extraordinary historical artifacts the university has collected throughout its 143 year history, and raise the awareness of the historic legacy of the university and its founders, so future generations can fully appreciate the university’s storied past.

The impetus for the Historical Preservation Committee came during the first few visits by Farvardin to the S.C. Williams Library at Stevens. She was guided on her library tours and oriented to the rich history of Stevens by Adam Winger, former director of special collections, Richard Widdicombe, the long-time Stevens friend and former library director, and Ourida Oubraham, library director. 

Introduced to an awe inspiring collection of historical treasures and inventions, which instilled a great sense of pride and dedication to the university’s legacy, the visits and conversations confirmed to Farvardin the need to better preserve the history of Stevens. She was inspired to form the Historical Preservation Committee to ensure the restoration, preservation and showcasing of all of the precious historical items of an institution she likes to refer to as “the hidden gem on the Hudson.”

Among Stevens’ most valuable and prized artifacts are: Leonardo da Vinci Books, Fredrick Winslow Taylor Possessions and Stevens Family Patents.

Through the efforts of the founding members of the Historical Preservation Committee—Farvardin, Winger, Widdicombe, Oubraham; Michelle Roscitt, wife of Richard Roscitt ‘73, an alumnus and current trustee; and Zef Ferreira ’00, director of operations and development services—the first initiative of the committee, called Save the Institute’s Treasures (SIT), is well underway.

Generous donations from Mary Jane and Frank Semcer ’65, Michelle and Richard Roscitt ’73, Lisa Mascolo ’82, Joseph Schneider ’46, Stevens Professor Emeritus Donald Merino ’60, Richard Magee ’63, M.S. ’64, and Sc.D. ’68, and a group of Stevens students led by Class of 2013 alumnus Owen Jappen—as well as the enthusiastic support of the Stevens family and the Stevens administration, trustees, students, alumni and friends—have driven a number of notable accomplishments since the launch of the Save the Institute’s Treasures initiative.

“Stevens has a wonderful heritage—rich in innovation, technology and engineering,” said Frank Semcer. “Our library is full of collections from the Stevens family and memorable gifts from our alumni and friends, and we believe it should be proudly displayed. The recognition of this collection, the impact of the Stevens name and the opportunity for historical research with these artifacts supports the wonderful gem of a university sitting in Hoboken.”

The first major effort began in 2012 to create a digital inventory of the university’s historic items. A group of Stevens students worked tirelessly to complete phase one of this project, and today, all historic items of the university that are outside the library have been tagged properly to allow for better inventory and monitoring.

In fall 2012, a gift from the Semcers allowed a master bookbinder to complete the restoration of a rare 1509 first edition copy of De Divina Proportione, a famous book of geometry, art and architecture by the Renaissance scholar Luca Pacioli which was illustrated by famed artist and inventor Leonardo da Vinci. The book was donated to the university by John William Lieb, a member of the Stevens Class of 1880 and the inventor of hydroelectric power plants.

“I spent an afternoon at the library and was overwhelmed by the treasures that were housed there—none of which were properly displayed due to lack of funding and interest,” said Mary Jane Semcer. “When I saw the Da Vinci Room, I was awestruck, and the restoration of soon De Divina became a reality.” 

Stevens also maintains numerous other first edition da Vinci books originally owned by Lieb in the S.C. Williams Library. The Historic Preservation Committee recently received a donation gift from the Roscitt family to enable completion of a project to clean, restore and properly store two valuable da Vinci books: the Codex Leiscester, one of da Vinci’s most well-known scientific journals; and the Codex Atlanticus, a multi-volume set of da Vinci drawings and writings. The committee will soon unveil and present these newly restored, valuable artifacts at a special viewing event hosted by the Farvardins and the Historical Preservation Committee. 

Engineering certificates, publication drafts, journals, business correspondence, family photographs and personal belongings of Frederick Winslow Taylor, who graduated from Stevens in 1883, make up another of the university’s most cherished historical collections, which draws international researchers to view these rare items. Taylor, who is known as the “father of scientific management,” pioneered the application of engineering principles to shop management, and forever changed how people think about business management.

A gift from Stevens students enabled the university to frame a set of Taylor patents in spring 2013. The Historic Preservation Committee also recently repaired a set Taylor’s 19th century glass lantern slides that depicts the implementation of scientific management in American factories.

“The slides show images of factory life in America during the time when Taylor’s management methods were first introduced,” said Leah Loscutoff, Stevens’ archivist and special collections librarian and a member of the Historical Preservation Committee. “They are incredible visual evidence of the impact of Taylor’s management theories.”

Another crucial preservation project that was recently completed was the digitization and proper storage of the original construction plans of the USS Monitor, which were drafted by 19th century Stevens Professor Charles MacCord, the chief draftsman for famed ship designer John Ericsson. The USS Monitor is a Civil War icon which played a significant role in shaping U.S. naval history. She was the first ironclad warship commissioned by the U.S. Navy during the Civil War and is most famous for participating in the first-ever battle fought between two ironclads.

In addition, the Historic Preservation Committee has completed invaluable conversation treatments of original patents created by Stevens family members, ensuring they can be stored flat in their own drawers to prevent the fragile pieces from warping or disintegrating. Hand-drawn on linen, these patents are primarily related to steam engine technology and railroad innovation.

Another key historical figure from Stevens’ history is Alexander Crombie Humphreys, the university’s second president who is also known significantly, as the “father of engineering economics.” Merino, the Alexander Crombie Humphreys Professor of Economics of Engineering Emeritus, is sponsoring work to organize existing material in the Humphreys archives, as well as to expand the collection. Merino has donated texts from 1905 and 1912 used by Humphreys to teach engineering economics to Stevens’ undergraduates. Work is also underway to make these impressive materials available on the web, and to produce a short video history of Humphreys’ accomplishments.

“Stevens has a truly inspiring tradition in engineering and entrepreneurship which needs to be shared with the Stevens community,” said Merino. “For students to achieve at Stevens they need role models and examples. Heroes like Edwin A. Stevens or Humphreys could serve as these role models.”

Finally, Farvardin has dedicated the entryway of Hoxie House – the traditional home of Stevens’ presidents since 1929 – to exhibiting the history of Castle Stevens, the ancestral home of the Stevens family. Built in 1854, Castle Stevens was one of the most noted homes in mid-19th century America, and is the site where numerous momentous inventions were conceived – from the commercial steamboat to the T-rail to the ironclad warship. An architecturally stunning venue popular for hosting extravagant social events, Castle Stevens was later used as a dormitory, cafeteria and office space until its demolition in 1959.

With the help of the Historic Preservation Committee, Hoxie House now documents and safeguards the rich history of Castle Stevens, displaying the castle door, wallpaper from the castle and photographs of what the castle looked like in its heyday. In a parallel effort, alumni John Dalton ’60 is producing a video documentary about Castle Stevens.

“Every visitor to Hoxie House can now learn about Stevens’ place in 19th and 20th century America,” said Farvardin.

With such a large and unique collection— it even includes a Japanese suit of armor worn more than 500 years ago and Viking swords found in Castle Stevens—the Historic Preservation Committee has plenty of work ahead of them. There are countless rare books, Stevens’ family belongings, artwork, furniture and other items worthy of preservation.

There are also opportunities to collaborate externally—with the City of Hoboken, the Hoboken Historical Museum, Hoboken Public Library and other organizations—to educate the public about the university’s incredible historic legacy.

“The Stevens family and Stevens alumni have made many tremendous contributions to innovation throughout history and it is our duty to preserve and safeguard that history for future generations,” said Farvardin. “We have taken significant steps forward but have much further to go.”

“I admire Hoveida’s vision and selfless commitment to this huge project and hope that others will soon take up this exceptional cause,” added Mary Jane Semcer.