All About Glass

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The Flood of 1972

All About Glass

A sign in the Museum’s Admissions Lobby features a red line and the words “High Water Level, June 23, 1972.” This simple label fascinates visitors, but only hints at the devastating story behind it. The marker doesn’t convey that the flood caught the region largely unaware in the early hours of that June day; or that it scattered display cases and glass objects across galleries, and devastated the Museum’s renowned library; or that 17 people were rescued by helicopter from the roof of the Corning Glass Center. All this from a shallow, placid river a block from the Museum. At the time, former Museum director Thomas S. Buechner described the flood as the “greatest single catastrophe borne by an American museum.”

Aerial view of The Corning Museum of Glass surrounded by flood waters from 1972 hurricane Agnes.John Fox, then-director of the Corning Glass Center, later recalled that two out-of-town Museum visitors and about a dozen neighbors gathered at his home across the street from the Glass Center and Museum the night of June 22. Though Tropical Storm Agnes had stalled over the area for three days, dumping record levels of rain, and the river had nearly reached the top of the dikes, the National Weather Service (misled by computer technology) had assured residents that the Chemung River would crest below flood stage. Around midnight, Fox and his guests took shelter on the third floor of the Glass Center. Peering anxiously out the windows around 5 am, Fox recalls that he saw a wall of water coming their way, followed shortly after by another. “The water circled the Museum, carrying our cars away. The Hall of Science and Industry was flooded. We could hear glass crashing everywhere.” He ran into the Museum, hoping to save anything he could. He fixed upon a late 19th century dragon-stem goblet [51.3.115], but could not open the case. As the water continued to rise, Fox returned to his guests. Grabbing a ladder, they climbed onto the roof and erected a shelter from pieces of lumber and carpet torn from the room below, awaiting a roof-top helicopter rescue.

Flood-damaged covered goblet prior to restoration (51.3.115).Thousands of people, awakened before dawn, had hurriedly left their homes, many finding refuge in local evacuation centers. “Where there used to be a river, now there’s a valley filled with water,” said former Museum staff member Joe Maio. As the water receded, cars, houses, and debris that had been carried away in the flood waters had settled blocks – and even miles – away. A thick layer of mud was left behind, covering every surface imaginable. Tragically, 18 people died in this area alone. Four thousand homes were destroyed or damaged, leaving a quarter of the area’s population temporarily homeless. Aid came from within and beyond Corning, from New York City Sanitation workers to local youth volunteers and Mennonite farmers and craftsmen. Furthermore, Amory Houghton Jr., Chairman and CEO of Corning Glass Works, issued assurance by radio on June 27 that the company would stay in Corning and play an active role in the recovery efforts.

Shelves in Study Galley rearranged by receding flood waters. Collection of The Rakow Research Library.The Museum also received generous support locally and from afar. A professional glass restorer was summoned from Germany, and a retired master restorer from New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art was called out of retirement to aid recovery efforts. One of our Museum’s own staff members, Ray Errett, became the Museum’s first glass conservator. The situation they faced was daunting. A case of rare Persian glass objects, borrowed for a temporary exhibition, had shattered. Another case was found 60 feet away, its contents in pieces. Objects that had once been repaired with water-soluble adhesives had come apart and fragments of all kinds were embedded in the mud underfoot. A mud line on display cases and walls marked the height of the water in the Museum: five feet, four inches.

Carolyn Horton and her staff of book conservators outside of her Manhattan studio.In the Library, 600 rare books fell from their shelves into the water below. These, along with thousands of other books, were immediately frozen to prevent mold growth, a technique conservator Carolyn Horton learned during her work in the aftermath of the 1966 flood in Florence, Italy. Hundreds of rare books were restored by Horton and her expert staff. Other items in the Library’s collection were not as fortunate: most of the periodical, slide, and photo collections were a complete loss.

Despite the devastating damage and massive clean-up required, Buechner declared that the Museum would reopen on August 1, 1972, a mere six weeks after the flood. The deadline galvanized staff and volunteers and, on that day, the Museum welcomed 3,000 visitors. Though the work behind the scenes was far from over, the community and Museum had rallied together under a common cause. And from this devastation came improvements in disaster response protocols for museums around the world.

Tracy Savard, Cataloging Specialist, Artwork and Documents, Rakow Research Library

Published on April 23, 2012