Subsequently the pizza parlor gave way to a Burger King. Sean Wilentz, Dayton-Stockton professor of history at Princeton University, spent months working on his dissertation in that space. "I'll never forget studying documents while hearing the loudspeaker saying, `Two Whoppers to go, a shake and fries!'" he said.
Then, when the collection was moved to the third floor of the Tweed Courthouse, "there was an inch of water on the floor," Wilentz said, "and I remember splashing around in my boots to get access to the Court of Common Pleas records."
Not to mention the fly infestation. "The mounted police kept their horses downstairs," Cobb said, "so clouds of horse flies came through the archives' windows, which had to be open because there was no air conditioning."
Through all the upheaval, many scholars say that the archives would not have survived without the devotion of Cobb, its current director, and his predecessor, Gracia Pena.
Gracia Pena, who arrived from Puerto Rico in 1960 with little but a high school diploma, spent 30 years in the archives. In his early years, the collection "was being managed, not expanded," he said. "Everyone thought that archives were to be put in the basement and forgotten about."
Gracia Pena - who found himself in charge of the archives as a clerk but actually won reclassification as a manual laborer to increase his salary - was pretty much alone in the archives for three years. He became frustrated that the archives weren't being expanded, cataloged or cared for. In the late 1960s, the better to understand the materials, he began attending college at night and earned a history degree from City University after five years. In 1978, he won the formal title of director of the archives.
Gracia Pena planned the 1983 move of the frequently used portions of the collection to a secure, climate-controlled space in the landmark Beaux Arts Surrogate's Court building at 31 Chambers St., its current home.
In 1990, he became commissioner of the Department of Records and Information Services, retiring in 1994.
It was Gracia Pena's dogged dedication in expanding the archives that has been especially praised.
On his watch, the archives grew from 16,500 cubic feet to 100,000 cubic feet by 1990, when he handed it over to Cobb, whom he had trained. Cobb has since expanded the collection an additional 50,000 cubic feet.
"They can't possibly be praised highly enough - secular civic saints, they are," said Wallace, co-author of the "Gotham" history.
Often the archives were augmented spontaneously when Gracia Pena used station wagons and borrowed trucks to collect records that had been unceremoniously dumped outside city agencies. This won him the nickname "the Lone Ranger," and Cobb has continued the tradition.
"My dream is that the city will build a professional facility to house the archives in one place, make it accessible, and permit public exhibitions of the materials," said Gracia Pena, 61, who is now a project archivist at the Center for Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter College in Manhattan.
Meanwhile, the archives are open for business. "There's enough there," said Jackson, "to keep people busy for another half-century or so."