T he tour of Rob Greenberg’s private, maverick, singular, endlessly intriguing personal museum of New Haven history begins big and distant and gets progressively more detailed and more lovingly local. Greenberg spent much of his career in New York, so he wants to show the table he’s constructed from pieces of the Coney Island Bath House, and the stone lion grotesqueries which once adorned the Vanderbilt Hotel and Bellevue Hospital. He has a bit of railing from the Brooklyn Bridge.
But the artist and diehard New Haven historian quickly moves on from his impressive “American Collection” to objects from nearer by: a large urn which once belonged to Center Church. An arrangement of pieces which all belonged to the recently closed Savitt Jewelers. Molasses jars from local vendors. Feathered hats from Schartenberg’s department store. Stock certificates from New Haven-based oil, coal and cattle companies. Souvenirs from New Haven’s tercentenary celebration in 1938. Locally published almanacs. Stereopticon slides of New Haven landmarks. A pamphlet containing a speech Eli Whitney gave in 1792 about the death of a Yale classmate.
If someone is closing a longtime local business, or tearing down a building, Greenberg’s on the scene, looking for objects that could help memorialize that institution. Sometimes, if a building development has created a big hole in the ground, he just wants to snoop around in search of artifacts. That sort of thing happened just across the street from Acme Furniture one year, and Greenberg’s knowledge of the area led him to believe that the lot had been landfill. Sometimes the trash of a previous culture reveals more than its alleged treasures. “When they dug down,” he explains with confidence, “I knew they were hitting the 1840s. Another ten feet and they would’ve hit the 1600s. These construction guys were cool with me being there, but normally they’re not.” Greenberg shows off boxes of relics from the dig: small medicine bottles, broken dishware (some of which he’s painstakingly pieced back together), “inkwells, mouth harps, pipes for smoking, bones from what they ate…”
Greenberg was in the news this month because he’d had the foresight to document the uprooting of a tree on New Haven Green. An artist friend, Silas Finch, had alerted Greenberg immediately when the historic Lincoln Oak tree on New Haven Green was dislodged by a hurricane. Greenberg documented the removal of the tree by workmen. “I was always into the Lincoln Oak because of the plaque at its base,” he says. Rescreening the footage which he took on his iPhone, he pauses it and points out, “right here—that’s when I’m thinking, ‘This is a time capsule.’” The video shows a large gray object getting yanked out of the ground along with the tree. “It’s a barrel! Why else would they put a barrel in the ground?”
“I went to New Haven Museum. I went to the library. For months I researched it.” His hunch was right. X-rays of the unopened time capsule became a highlight of the 375th anniversary celebration last Saturday on New Haven Green; a few days later it was opened to reveal a trove of Civil War memorabilia and other items. Greenberg, who says the city has promised him a piece of the Lincoln Oak for his collection, is currently designing a book of images based on the tree and its history.
Greenberg prizes his amazing array of New Haven keepsakes, but he’s also always thinking about the best way to share them. “I want to create an exhibit, or a group of exhibits, about different facets of history in New Haven,” he declares. “And I want them to travel.” The idea involves what he calls “rolling exhibits, based on P.T. Barnum’s travelling circus and museum… without the circus part.”
“I’m not here to sell it. I’m trying to present it to the public. What you’re seeing in this room here is my art, my passion for collecting, and my goal of presentation. Rhode Island School of Design taught me how to design. I spent 26 years in New York, studying the museums and how they did things. You create a formula of visual ideas.”
For Greenberg, those forms have taken some unusual twists. He’s sculpted a tribute to the Lincoln Oak which involves a slab of tree trunk and tiny facsimiles of New Haven newspapers with headlines marking key episodes in the city’s history.
He’s done historical overviews of several cities—Newport, Rhode Island; Sun Valley, Idaho; and New Haven, with New York, Boston and Los Angeles yet to come—by using a frequent character in his own artwork, a cartoon crocodile he first created in the 1970s, as a recurring motif. “I do the research, find the history, then I marry it to my crocodiles. People dig it because it’s a green androgynous creature.”
His museum-like collection is lovingly preserved and carefully documented, but is best appreciated with Greenberg as its guide. He enlivens the artifacts with anecdotes, dusts them off with humorous commentary. He’ll show you a ticket from an Elvis Presley concert at New Haven Coliseum, then tell you that he knows a man who got to shake Elvis’s hand at that concert. Pointing to a photo of a New Haven Public Works Department truck from the 1970s, Greenberg mentions that he designed the department’s distinctive logo himself as the winner in a student design competition. He seems to have a personal story for nearly every item.
He describes his work as “formulating exhibits about New Haven from tangible objects,” but his own manner and excitement add greatly to their power. The concentration of all these priceless mementos in one room, combined with the passion that Greenberg has for New Haven, can be exhilarating.
Greenberg will exhibit a small portion of his collection during tonight’s edition of the monthly “On9” special events showcasing Ninth Square businesses. Since this month’s theme is “Brew On9,” he’ll be displaying items that relate to famous old breweries in the area, as well as some things pertaining to another leisure-time vice, cigar-smoking.
Family businesses which have been around for generations, local history groups such as the Daughters of the American Revolution (who gave Greenberg an award when he tracked down a commemorative plaque he noticed had been stolen from a building on Church Street) and New Haven patriots of all persuasions have been honored to have interacted with Rob Greenberg, noble New Haven native and intense New Haven collector. His collection has even absorbed hundreds of item gathered by other great New Haven collectors, such as the late Richard Hegel.
“A lot of of people are doing this,” Greenberg theorizes about the number of distinct collections of New Haven memorabilia there are around town. “I use the example of Richard Dreyfuss in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. In the movie, he’s building the Devil’s Tower out of a pile of dirt in his living room. Then he sees all these other people building the same thing, only in their own way.
“We’re all building these things!” You just have to look at things a little differently to see it.
Written and photographed by Christopher Arnott.