NEW YORK— William D. McCracken eyed his target on the far side of a security checkpoint outside New York Police Department headquarters. Metal detectors ringed the fortress-like building, and the police officer on guard was wary.
Mr. McCracken’s intentions weren’t nefarious. All he wanted was to snap a photograph of the cornerstone, dated 1973, at One Police Plaza in lower Manhattan. The cop barred him from the restricted area, then borrowed Mr. McCracken’s camera and took the photo himself.
For the past six years, the 39-year-old real-estate lawyer has been combing both sides of every street in Manhattan in a quest to document the dated, inscribed rocks that serve as birth certificates for buildings. By foot and on bike, often accompanied by his Labradoodle named Martin, Mr. McCracken has amassed an online archive of the island’s 1,100-plus surviving cornerstones. (See some on an interactive map.)
“I’m 90% sure I have 90% of them,” he says. “And I’m 100% sure I don’t have 100% of them.” His wife Amy usually sleeps in when he rises at 6 a.m. to find new cornerstones. “He’s mission-driven,” she says. “It can be a grind.”
Mr. McCracken’s search has gotten tougher as the venerable cornerstone is abandoned by developers. The load-bearing stones have largely gone the way of the flying buttress since the postwar advent of reinforced concrete and steel-frame construction. The walls of such buildings are often hung from above.
The 20-ton granite block laid as the cornerstone for the Freedom Tower was removed in 2006 when the skyscraper was reconfigured for security reasons and won’t be part of the soon-to-open tower now called One World Trade Center.
Historically, a building in New York City rose in relation to its cornerstone, with facade walls aligned in reference to the rock. The block typically bore a date and often a message. “Jesus Christ Himself Being the Chief Cornerstone” was big in the 1880s and 1890s.
Ceremonies and parades accompanied cornerstone-layings, often led by Freemasons who sprinkled a rock with corn and anointed it with wine and oil to represent plenty, refreshment and joy. Dignitaries made speeches and wielded trowels.
“It’s a noble tradition that enriches the experience of city life, but it’s gotten almost completely forgotten,” says Robert A.M. Stern, dean of the Yale School of Architecture and lead designer of 15 Central Park West, a condominium building which has a cornerstone, and several other New York luxury condos which don’t.
The cornerstone reigned when buildings were heavily loaded at the ground. One of Manhattan’s oldest survivors, dated 1797, anchored the original Bank of New York Building at 48 Wall Street.
That stone, salvaged from a long-ago demolition, now sits in the 1927 building on the site. Mr. McCracken, a cornerstone purist, doesn’t deem it New York’s oldest. He bestows that honor on the oldest stone still housed in its original building, which he believes is St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Harlem, dated 1872.
The world’s oldest cornerstones hail from the European medieval period, including eight laid between 1277 and 1632 in British abbeys, chapels, colleges and gardens, though it is not clear how many of those stones survive, says S. Brent Morris, author of the book “Cornerstones of Freedom: A Masonic Tradition.”
Manhattan’s cornerstones track the city’s economic cycles. Mr. McCracken has found 165 surviving pieces from the prosperous 1920s, 89 from the 1930s as the Great Depression raged and 53 from the 1940s, when men and materiel shipped off to World War II. His Flickr page, “Cornerstones of NY,” displays 137 cornerstones from the 1950s and 176 in the 1960s, during the long postwar building boom.
The cornerstone decline began in the 1970s, when New York City nearly went bankrupt and public and private construction dried up. He has found 57 pieces from that decade and just 35 since 2000.
One of the most recently laid stones in Manhattan: an office building at 250 W. 55th St., dated 2013 and developed by Boston PropertiesInc.
“The cornerstone was always a way to tell the world, ‘Yes, we built this, and we’re proud of it,’ ” says Mr. McCracken, an Oklahoma native who had never seen New York before he arrived with three suitcases in 1997. “It was a public expression of civic pride in the enterprise of building that doesn’t seem to be present anymore.”
Cornerstone festivities are now largely supplanted by “topping-out” ceremonies. “It’s become a full-blown P.R. event to generate interest in a building,” says Kenneth Lewis, a Skidmore, Owings & Merrill LLP partner who was project manager of Time Warner Center.
That building has no cornerstone. When the first part of its superstructure topped out at 350 feet in 2002, then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg , jazz virtuoso Wynton Marsalis and 1,500 spectators gathered to watch.
Many institutions once graced by cornerstones now forsake them. Columbia University installed 23 on its Morningside Heights campus from 1895 to 1969. But cornerstones are nowhere to be found in two buildings rising on the college’s Manhattanville campus.
“We’re not militantly opposed to cornerstones,” says Philip Pitruzzello, a Columbia vice president. “But our design plan calls for high degrees of transparency and glass coming down to meet the street with a light touch. A cornerstone isn’t the most important thing in that vocabulary.”
They still speak to Mr. McCracken, and he can’t resist the hunt. He visited Rockefeller Center dozens of times before maintenance workers moved two massive planters so he could get a clear shot at the cornerstones for the British Empire Building (1932) and La Maison Française (1933).
When his wife was 8½ months pregnant, a family friend offered a dry run of the drive to the hospital. Mr. McCracken, who has no car, saw his chance to bag a long-sought stone: the United Nations Secretariat, dedicated by President Harry Truman in 1949. It was only a bit out of the way.
“We took a little detour,” Mr. McCracken says. His wife adds: “I will always associate that cornerstone with the birth of my daughter.”