Putting It on the Map

A distinctive red-brick factory on Fifth Avenue in Pelham’s Chester Park stands out from its surroundings. From the rooftop, dozens of sculpted mapmakers overlook the suburban streets. It is the Sanborn Map Company building, home to one of the world’s most famous map companies. 

Constructed in 1906, the venerable grandeur of the building is more suggestive of an institution of higher learning, like nearby Sarah Lawrence College, than it is the workplace of surveyors and graphic designers.

Entrepreneur D.A. Sanborn, easily recognized by his signature part and moustache, founded the company in New York City in 1867 to highlight fire hazards for building insurers. As America rebuilt after the Civil War and new immigrants expanded the frontiers westward, cartography became a hot tech industry. Then-New York Secretary of State John Bigelow was signatory to the Sanborn incorporation filing 11 years later.

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A Sanborn map is as much a work of art as it is a technical drawing. Hand-inked, linen-backed pages feature wax stencils and custom illustrations. Plots detail street names, local addresses, weather patterns, and economic stats. Appendices describe the quality of local fire departments and access to water for emergencies.

Sanborn’s attention to detail made it the country’s foremost mapmaker, and D.A. Sanborn began acquiring smaller firms and hiring hundreds of new hands. By the turn of the century, Sanborn was one of the country’s largest purchasers of bond paper. In need of space, the company turned to Pelham. The new elevated train line made for a quick ride to and from New York City while providing an attractive industrial space and local community.

Although maps were never signed, Sanborn’s standardization and design reached well beyond the East Coast. The firm’s manual included pages of uniform legends for cross-referencing. Real estate developers and insurance agents often gave the last word on building risk and loan liability to the maps. More than 12,000 regions across North America were drawn, cataloged, and updated regularly. 

War brought new challenges and business opportunities. Sanborn’s large storage facility and proximity to Manhattan made it an ideal hub for planning  and strategizing World War II. The FBI deployed private personnel to Pelham to protect confidential maps. Decades later, a young Warren Buffett invested one of his earliest stakes in Sanborn. It
has been speculated that the company once constituted one-third of Buffett’s assets.

Today, hand-drawn maps are no longer used for new business but rather to depict the past. The Library of Congress holds the largest collection of Sanborn atlases, and researchers and academics use the plots for population studies, city planning, public health, and historical preservation. Subsequent neighborhood editions have become a virtual illustrated flipbook of American urban development.

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Meanwhile, the Sanborn Map Company has upgraded its first-floor operation to embrace the digital age. Amid exposed brick, lofted ceilings, and hardwood floors, the five-acre campus is an Inspector Gadget dream shop. Sanborn owns a fleet of planes for aerial photography. Mobile LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) and 3D visualization meet the needs of large government projects. But the latest tool is the Sanborn Platform for Indoor Mapping (SPIN) robot, which can map a building by itself in real-time using laser scanning and photogrammetry. Satellite offices support projects from Colorado Springs to Qatar.

While the Sanborn Map Company Building is not yet a designated historic landmark, Pelham Mayor Michael J. Volpe spoke at its 110th anniversary in April. The Sanborn Map Company was also celebrating 150 years in business, along with the many geographers, architects, and cartographers who have been with the company for nearly half a century.

In the words of British cartographer Nicholas Crane, president of the Royal Geographical Society, “Maps codify the miracle of existence.” It is a sentiment that D.A. Sanborn might have shared. To commemorate the company’s milestone as the country’s longest-running mapmaking building, Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino recently anointed April 20 as “Sanborn Map Building Day.” True to form, it is a history well codified.  


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