Newly Digitized: The Eugene L. Armbruster Collection of Long Island Photographic Views

By Philip Sutton, Librarian III, Instruction and Outreach
May 15, 2024
Stephen A. Schwarzman Building
Rockaway: [unidentified man (Eugene Armbruster?) on Rockaway Beach, undated.]

Rockaway: [unidentified man (Eugene Armbruster?) on Rockaway Beach, undated.]

Photo: New York Heritage Digital Collections, courtesy of The New-York Historical Society.

The Eugene L. Armbruster Collection of Long Island Photographic Views comprises over 5,800 photographs taken between 1890 and 1934. Most of the photographs were taken of Nassau and Suffolk Counties in the 1920s, with some photographs of Brooklyn and Queens. The collection is being digitized by The New York Public Library and is available to view online in the Library’s Digital Collections portal.

Local historian, author, illustrator, and photographer Eugene Ludwig (later Louis) Armbruster was born in the parish of Pforzheim, Baden-Baden, Germany, August 31, 1865 to Wilhelm Armbruster and Emilie Schöffel. He immigrated to the United States in 1882, and went to work for the H. Henkel Cigar Box Manufacturing Company on Monroe Street in New York City before setting up in the same business with his brother. 

Armbruster married Julia Meury (1869–1918) on October 26, 1898, and they had two children, Julia and Eugene. The Armbrusters lived in Brooklyn with Eugene’s mother Emilie, from 1910 at 263 Eldert Street, where Eugene would live until his death in 1943.

According to Long Island historian Vincent F. Seyfried, sometime around the turn of the century Eugene Armbruster, influenced by his Uncle, “Dr. Wittman” became interested in local history.

From 1912, Armbruster contributed to the Brooklyn Eagle column Old Timer, and published a number of books and pamphlets on the history of Long Island, the most well known of which was Brooklyn’s Eastern District, an alphabetical list of all the streets of Williamsburg, Bushwick, and New Lots, giving the names and addresses with comments of individuals and businesses, from the early 19th century to about 1920. Seyfried describes the book as “often rambling, and badly wants editing, but its source material makes it invaluable.” 

Town Clerk's Office. Brick. Oyster Bay Black and white photograph includes people on lawn outside town hall. Men and women wearing Edwardian summer clothes. Photograph taken by Eugene Armbruster

Town Clerk's Office. Brick. Oyster Bay. Eugene Armbruster.

Photo: Eugene Armbruster. NYPL Digital Collections, Image ID: 58808607

Armbruster started taking photographs of various parts of Long Island from about 1912, using box cameras loaded with 116 and postcard-sized film. After retiring from the box business in 1920, Armbruster and “his friend Mr. Henkend” (who liked to sketch old Dutch houses) took long “rambles” over the city and suburbs of Brooklyn, and into Long Island, with a copy of the 1873 Beers Atlas of Long Island to guide their way, the former taking photos as they went. 

Between 1912 and 1930, Armbruster took several thousand photographs of Long Island, including Newtown, Williamsburg, Flushing, Jamaica, downtown Brooklyn, Flatlands, Gravesend, New Lots, and Coney Island, and Montauk and Eastern Long Island.

The Eugene L. Armbruster Collection of Long Island Photographic Views comprises over 5,800 of those photographs taken between 1890 and 1934, most in the 1920s in Nassau, and Suffolk County, but also in Brooklyn and Queens. The collection was placed in 18 photo albums by staff in the Milstein Division. The collection is being digitized by The New York Public Library, and is available to view online in the Library’s Digital Collections portal

The photographs, while clearly the work of an amateur photographer, are a unique record of Long Island before the housing boom of the 1920s, when many old houses and streets were demolished and redeveloped.

Carleton Opera House. Showing Bay Shore Cycle Co., R.K. Corneille & Co., William H. Moffitt Realty Co., Opera House Stationery and News, and Bay Shore Journal. Bay Shore, Islip

Carleton Opera House. Showing Bay Shore Cycle Co., R.K. Corneille & Co., William H. Moffitt Realty Co., Opera House Stationery and News. Bay Shore, Islip

Photo: Eugene Armbruster. NYPL Digital Collections, Image ID: 5880843

Armbruster’s photograph of the Carleton (often misspelled Carlton) Opera House, 82 West Main Street, Bay Shore, Islip, was taken about 1903. The posters outside the opera house advertise “a Dramatization of the universally read and much talked of poem Maud Miller by Quaker poet and abolitionist John Greenleaf Whittieropening October 3 that year. The play was advertised in the Long Island newspaper, the South Side Signal. The poem "Maud MuIller", a pastoral tale of a love denied by class divide, was very popular at the time, and often quoted—and occasionally parodied—in newspapers and magazines of the day. 

Notes on the verso of the photograph show that the Carleton Opera House was also home to (left to right in the image) the Bay Shore Cycle Co., R.K. Corneille & Co., William H. Moffitt Realty Co., and the Opera House Stationery and News, and the image (top right) shows a Library with a “Free Reading Room.”  Newspaper reports mention function rooms where graduation ceremonies, club and association meetings, and the local Harvest Festival Ball took place, in addition to a courtroom and the Bay Shore Athletic Club’s gymnasium. At the back of the lot were the offices of a local newspaper, the Bay Shore Journal. The theater was a hub for cultural life in the town.

Bayshore, Plate 21, Atlas of ... Suffolk County, Long Island, New York ... : based upon actual measurements by our own corps of engineers, maps on file at county offices, also maps from actual surveys furnished by individual owners / under the supervision of Merritt B. Hyde, 1915-1917 (NYPL Digital Collections, Image ID#1633904).

Bayshore, Plate 21, Atlas of ... Suffolk County, Long Island, New York ... : based upon actual measurements by our own corps of engineers, maps on file at county offices, also maps from actual surveys furnished by individual owners / under the supervision of Merritt B. Hyde, 1915-1917

NYPL Digital Collections, Image ID: 1633904

According to The Suffolk County News, the Carleton Opera House opened for business on or about May 30, 1900. Built by Justice Carlton E. Brewster, the theater would commence with “a program of vaudeville, the artists coming from [the theatrical agents] Keiths, Proctors, and Hyde and Behmans.” p.10

Perhaps the most famous person to appear at the Opera House was renowned soprano Johanna Gadski, who had also sung at the New York Metropolitan House between the years 1898 to 1904 and again from 1907 to 1917. Gadski was so taken by Bay Shore that she made it her home in 1915.

The Carleton Opera House would also exhibit films and later operated exclusively as a cinema, renamed The Carleton Theater, and later still The Carleton. This change coincided with the opening of the Bay Shore branch of the pioneering film company Vitagraph Studios on Fourth Avenue in about 1915. Members of the motion picture community came to live in the area, including the actress and film producer Anita Stewart, and actor, writer, and director Ralph InceRoscoe ArbuckleJohn BunnyMarie DresslerBert Lytell, and Florence Turner were some of the movie stars who came to Bay Shore to appear in films made at Vitagraph Studios. Incidentally, it was at this time that Johanna Gadski developed a reputation as a socialite hostess to the new moving picture community.

Florence E. Turner of the Vitagraph Players, c. 1910 - 1915 shoulder length portrait of Florence Turner actress, wearing white dress and white fur hat, from Edwardian era. cropped with pencil marks and altered for newspaper print.

Florence E. Turner of the Vitagraph Players, c. 1910-1915

NYPL Digital Collections, Image ID: ps_the_cd37_567

“Elaborate plans” for refurbishment of the theater were announced by new owner “Mike” Glynne, as reported in the Suffolk County News, January 15, 1926. The Opera House was to be mostly demolished with only “the skeleton” of the building remaining, and seating was raised from 800 to 2000, and the stage fitted out to “enable its new owner to present any form of entertainment desired by the theater goers of Long Island. Special four way lighting systems as found in Broadway theaters will be installed. Special projection machines will be installed.The entire theater will be re-decorated and the furnishing will be new and up-to-date throughout.” p.11

Those grand plans did not come to fruition. Contemporary mentions of the Carleton Opera House in newspapers ceased in about 1927, and the building was destroyed by a fire in 1957. This is the approximate location today. 

So it goes that the photographs taken by Armbruster, including those of the Carleton Opera House and other Long Island scenes, are an essential link to the past. The collection is an invaluable record of the history of Long Island, to be read, examined, and compared to other historical sources, like guidebooks, newspapers, and street maps. 

Grand Central Hotel. Former Hewlett's Hotel. Near NE corner of Front and Main Streets. Built 1840. Hempstead, Hempstead black and white photograph taken 1922 includes the hotel and various people in the street outside.

Grand Central Hotel. Former Hewlett's Hotel. Near NE corner of Front and Main Streets. Built 1840. Hempstead, Hempstead, 1922

Photo: Eugne Armbruster. NYPL Digital Collections Image ID: 58817181

Access

In addition to viewing the photographs through NYPL Digital Collections, you can look at any of the 18 volumes of The Eugene L. Armbruster Collection of Long Island Photographic Views in the Milstein Division reading room, Room 121 here at The New York Public Library Stephen A. Schwarzman Building. 

Please note, while the collection is being digitized a number of the volumes may not be available: check the NYPL Research Catalog for availability, or email history@nypl.org

Sources used in this blog post: