November 27, 2013
The first Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade (then known as the Macy’s Christmas Parade) was held in 1924 and culminated in front of Macy’s department store in New York City, where the elaborate holiday window displays were unveiled. Thousands gathered to see the displays, which were designed by Anthony Frederick Sarg, a noted puppeteer and theatrical designer. Sarg was also the artistic director / mastermind of the parade and, during the fourth annual Macy’s Christmas Parade in 1927, he introduced the enormous inflatable cartoons and caricatures that would become almost synonymous with the annual holiday tradition.
Creativity was in Sarg’s genes. Born in Germany, his father was an artist, his grandfather a wood-carver, and his grandmother was a painter who gave the young Sarg a collection of mechanical toys that may have inspired the imagination of the burgeoning designer. But it wasn’t until he saw a performance by famed puppeteer Thomas Holden, who essentially invented the marionette, that Sarg found his calling. He began experimenting with puppet designs and stagings around 1917, eventually earning renown for his particularly sophisticated puppet shows that included performances of Faust and Don Quixote. After World War I, Sarg moved to New York City and quickly gained a reputation as a practical joker, the life of the party and a tireless worker. In his various ventures, the designer, inventor and illustrator worked on cartoons, children’s books, mechanical toys, advertising and of course, window displays and balloons.
These first parade balloons were filled with oxygen not helium, and were propped up by teams of puppeteers – usually just Macy’s employees drafted into parade service. These balloons, such as 1920s biggest cartoon star Felix the Cat (above), were cruder and smaller than today’s Godzilla-like monsters but still charmed and captivated the throngs of onlookers who came to ring in the holiday season.
Other early balloons included a 20-foot-long elephant, a 60-foot-long tiger and an enormous hummingbird. In 1928, the parade culminated with a release of the now-helium-filled balloons into the skies above the city. The stunt was a crowd-pleaser and the following year, the balloons were designed with release valves to make their ascent easier and Macy’s offered rewards for their capture and return. The tradition that continued until 1932, when a daredevil pilot thought it would be fun to capture the balloons with her biplane and nearly crashed when the rubberized canvas wrapped itself around the plane’s wing.
The rubberized silk balloons were produced by the Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company in Akron, Ohio, and their archives at the University of Akron include some amazing pictures of these early behemoths.
November 21, 2013
This week marks the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. On November 22, 1963, a pall was cast over the country that some people say we’ve never emerged from. It is thought to represent a loss of innocence, or at the very least, a loss of naiveté that forever changed the country in a profound way. But on a more local level, it also also changed Dallas’s Dealey Plaza – not physically, but symbolically and emotionally. It changed the meaning of the urban park.
Dealey Plaza wasn’t always a symbol of loss or a sight of conspiracy. It was built in the late 1930s as a symbol of optimism, an Art Deco, automotive gateway into Dallas that was part of a larger, only partially realized Civic Center Plan designed by city engineers. Though parts of Dealey Plaza (named after an early publisher of the Dallas Morning News) are still quite beautiful, especially after a recent renovation by architects Good Fulton & Farrell, the area is forever marred by Kennedy’s assassination and visited by thousands of curious tourists each year hoping to get some insight into this particularly dark point in American history. Perhaps no other place in America has been as thoroughly documented, as exhaustively measured, mapped, modeled, photographed, and even acoustically tested.
A long time ago, on my own first trip to Dallas I was shocked to see a small ‘X’ painted in the road, marking the precise spot where Kennedy was sitting at the moment he was shot. At the time I thought it was an official monument but I’ve since learned that it is maintained by one of the conspiracy theorists who holds court near the assassination site. From the grassy knoll, you can see the X, the permanently open window on the sixth floor of the former Texas School Book Depository building from where Lee Harvey Oswald fired the shot that killed the President. Along the perimeter of the plaza were vendors selling books, magazines and DVDs describing myriad conspiracy theories, some of which were elaborated on in posters and flyers. It seemed to me that Dealey Plaza had become a built manifestation of one of those obsessively assembled conspiracy maps that TV detectives inevitably find in the apartments of psychopaths. The only thing missing was string connecting everything together.
Every visitor to the plaza is drawn to the former Book Depository, a building that came close to becoming another casualty of Dealey Plaza. Originally erected in 1901 as a warehouse for the Chicago-based Rock island Plow Company, the seven-story brick building was built on the foundations of a previous structure that burned earlier that year. Its architect is unknown, but the masonry-constructed Romanesque building appropriately bears some resemblance to very early Chicago skyscrapers, exemplified by H.H. Richardson’s Marshall Field’s Wholesale Store and the work of Adler and Sullivan (which, though visually similar, was pioneering in its use of steel-frame construction). Rock Island owned the building until 1937, after which time it was sold and changed hands, housing a variety of tenants. By 1963 a tenant was in place in that would forever be associated with the building: the Texas School Book Depository.
The Texas School Book Depository operated in the building for 7 years after the assassination, and after they moved out the building gradually fell into disrepair. For years after the assassination, there were those people who believed that the building should be razed, but the city wouldn’t grant demolition permits even as local politicians were doing everything they could to discourage further associations between the city and the assassination. Their efforts were, of course, in vain. The site was heavily visited throughout the 70s and there was intense curiosity about the building and the assassin’s perch.
In 1977 the building at 411 Elm Street was bought by Dallas County, renovated, and reopened in 1981 as the Dallas County Administration Building. But the sixth floor remained unoccupied. According to the National Register of Historic Places (pdf), which recognized the Dealey Plaza district in 1978, “it’s strong negative historical associates made it unsuitable for use as County offices.” Plus, there was already talk of opening some sort of museum to answer the questions of the many visitors while also preventing “the proliferation of private ventures” looking to capitalize on the area’s historic significance.
That wouldn’t happen until 1989 when The Sixth Floor Museum finally opened, restored and adapted under the general supervision of architects Eugene George and James Hendricks. A collaboration between Dallas County and the non-profit Dallas County Historical Foundation, the Sixth Floor Museum “chronicles the assassination and legacy of President John F. Kennedy; interprets the Dealey Plaza National Historic Landmark District and the John F. Kennedy Memorial Plaza; and presents contemporary culture within the context of presidential history.”
It is a way to partially transform the building from a place imbued with malice, regret and morbid curiosity, to a place of education, understanding… and morbid curiosity. The museum has been designed to maintain the integrity of the building and the feeling of the warehouse space, as well as the views out onto Dealey Plaza. Though no original evidence is on display, two areas–the sniper’s perch in the far southeast corner and the spot where the rifle was found–have been authentically restored to almost exactly the way they looked on November 22, 1963 using original photos and duplicate book boxes. These two areas are protected by glass walls, preserved as a piece of American history.
The assassination of President Kennedy charged the area with new meaning. Once nothing more than an ambitious piece of urban planning, Dealey Plaza and the former Book Depository building now make up the most famous crime scene in America. 50 years later it remains a symbol of a national tragedy and the failure of one of the world s greatest powers to to protect its leader. To close, this excerpt from the National Register of Historic Places seemed quite apt.
“Dictators and emperors have leveled cities and sown their ground with salt for acts of regicide. But a democracy may [face] a harder test. It may encourage the preservation of sites of pain and horror, as well as triumph and grandeur. Dealey Plaza’s sad fate is to have the former far outweigh the latter.”
November 13, 2013
Eastern State Penitentiary opened its gates in 1829. It was devised by The Philadelphia Society for Alleviating the Miseries of Public Prisons, an organization of powerful Philadelphia residents that counted Benjamin Franklin among its members and whose ambition was to “build a true penitentiary, a prison designed to create genuine regret and penitence in the criminal’s heart.” With its hub-and-spoke design of long blocks containing individual prison cells, ESP could be considered the first modern prison. There are many, many stories told about the prisoners that have been incarcerated here over its nearly 150 years of operation–some inspiring, some horrible, some about Al Capone–but none of them have captivated the public more than the 1945 “Willie Sutton” tunnel escape.
The most famous escape in the history of Eastern State Penitentiary was the work of 12 men – they were like the Dirty Dozen, but less well adjusted. The most infamous among them was Willie Sutton aka “Slick Willie” aka Willie “The Actor” aka “The Gentleman Bandit” aka “The Babe Ruth of bank robbers,” who was sentenced to Eastern State Penitentiary in 1934 for the brazen machine gun robbery of the Corn Exchange Bank in Philadelphia. Those nicknames alone tell you everything you need to know about Willie Sutton. He was, by all accounts (especially his own), exactly what you want a old-timey bank robber to be: charming, devious, a master of disguise, and of course, an accomplished escape artist, who in 11 years at ESP, made at least five escape attempts. Sutton’s outspoken nature and braggadocio landed him a few stories in Life magazine and even a book deal. In his 1953 autobiography Where the Money Was, Sutton takes full credit as the mastermind behind the tunnel operation.
Though the personable Sutton may have been critical in managing the mercurial tempers of his fellow escapees, the truth is that the escape was planned and largely executed by Clarence “Kliney” Klinedinst, a plasterer, stone mason, burglar, and forger who looked a little like a young Frank Sinatra and had a reputation as a first-rate prison scavenger. “If you gave Kliney two weeks, he could get you Ava Gardner,” said Sutton. And If you give Kliney a year, he could get you out of prison.
Working in two-man teams of 30 minute shifts, the tunnel crew, using spoons and flattened cans as shovels and picks, slowly dug a 31-inch opening through the wall of cell 68, then dug twelve feet straight down into the ground, and another 100 feet out beyond the walls of the prison. They removed dirt by concealing it in their pockets and scattering it in the yard a la The Great Escape. Also like The Great Escape, the ESP tunnel was shored up with scaffolding, illuminated, and even ventilated. At about the halfway point, it linked up with the prison’s brick sewer system and the crew created an operable connection between the two pipelines to deposit their waste while ensuring that noxious fumes were kept out of the tunnel. It was an impressive work of subversive, subterranean engineering, the likes of which can only emerge from desperation. As a testament to either clever design or the ineptitude of the guards, the tunnel escaped inspection several times thanks to a false panel Kliney treated to match the plaster walls of the cell and concealed by a metal waste basket.
After months of painfully slow labor, the tunnel was ready. On the morning (yes, the morning) of April 3, 1945, the dirtier dozen made their escape, sneaking off to cell 68 on their way to breakfast.
Like most designers, Kliney and co. found that the work far outweighed the reward. After all that designing, carving, digging, and building, Kliney made it a whole three hours before getting caught. But that was better than Sutton, who was free for only about three minutes. By the end of the day, half the escapees were returned to prison while the rest were caught within a couple months. Sutton recalls the escape attempt in Where the Money Was:
“One by one the men lowered themselves to the tunnel, and on hands and knees crept the hundred and twenty feet to its end. The remaining two feet of earth were scraped away and men rumbled from the hole to scurry in all directions. I leaped from the hole, began to run, and came face to face with two policemen. They stood for a moment, paralyzed with amazement. I was soaking wet and my face was covered with mud.
“Put up your hands or I’ll shoot.” One of them recovered more quickly than the other.
“Go ahead, shoot,” I snarled at them, and at that moment I honestly hoped he would. Then I wheeled and began to run. He emptied his gun at me, but I wasn’t hit….None of the bullets hit me, but they did make me swerve, and in swerving I tripped, fell, and they had me.”
The first few escapees to be captured, Sutton among them, were put in the Klondikes – illegal, completely dark, solitary confinement cells secretly built by guards in the mechanical space below one of the cell blocks. These spaces are miserable, tiny holes that aren’t big enough to stand up or wide enough to lie down. Sutton was eventually transferred to the “escape proof” Holmesburg Prison, from which he promptly escaped and managed to avoid the law for six years. Police eventually caught up with him in Brooklyn after a witness saw him on the subway and recognized his mug from the wanted poster.
As for the tunnel, after it was analyzed and mapped, guards filled it with ash and covered it with cement. Though it may have been erased from the prison, its legend likely inspired inmates until Eastern State Penitentiary was closed in 1971. And despite the failure of the escapees, the tunnel has continued to intrigue the public.
The location of the tunnel was lost until 2005, when the Eastern State Penitentiary, now a non-profit dedicated to preserving the landmarked prison, completed an archaeological survey to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the escape. To find the tunnel, the prison escape preservationists created a search grid over the prison grounds near the entrance, the location of which was known from old photos. Using ground penetrating radar, the team was able to create vertical sections though the site in increments corresponding to the suspected width of the tunnel. After a couple failed attempts, the archaeologists detected a section of the tunnel that hadn’t collapsed and hadn’t been filled-in by the guards. The following year, a robotic rover was sent through the tunnels, documenting its scaffolding and lighting systems. While no major discoveries were made, curiosity was sated and the public’s imagination was newly ignited by stories of the prison and its inmates.
There’s something undeniably romantic about prison escapes – perhaps due to the prevalence of films where the escapee is the hero and/or the pure ingenuity involved in a prison escape. The best escape films –A Man Escaped, La Grande Illusion, Escape from Alcatraz, The Great Escape, to name just a few–show us every step of the elaborate plan as the rag tag team of diggers, scavengers, and ersatz engineers steal, forge, design, and dig their way to freedom. Without fail, the David vs. Goliath narrative has us rooting for the underdog every step of the way, even when the David is a bank robber.
November 8, 2013
October 28 marked the 50th anniversary of the beginning of the end for New York’s old Pennsylvania Station. It took three years and countless hours of manpower to tear down what was the fourth-largest building in the world. In remembrance of the station, last Wednesday the Center for Architecture held the event, Lights, Camera, Demolition: Penn Station Recalled on Stage & In Pictures. The highlight was a reading of a The Eternal Space, a new play about the unlikely relationship between two men – a construction worker photographing the station as he tears it down and an aging professor determined to save it. Photographs documenting the entire life of Penn Station–some famous, some never seen–are critical to the play, serving as a background for the actors, silently telling the story of a changing city and offering their own compelling provocations alongside a compelling debate about progress, preservation, and of course, Pennsylvania Station.
Following a reading of the play, a panel was convened to discuss the station, its legacy, and the photographs that continue to inspire. Panelists included playwright Justin Rivers, myself, noted biographer of Penn Station Lorraine Dhiel, and renown photographer Norman McGrath, whose vast archive of personal photos includes hundreds of never-before-seen images documenting the demolition of Penn Station, photos that feature prominently in the play (and in this post).
Pennsylvania Station was designed by McKim, Mead, and White in 1902. McKim, a Beaux-Arts educated architect and co-founder of the American Academy in Rome, was the lead designer on the project which was a grand display of his idiosyncratic Beaux-Arts Classicism. He draws inspiration from the great train stations of Europe, the Baths of Caracalla, John Soane’s Bank of England, and surely myriad other sources, all artfully combined into a monumental pink granite structure. It was a testament to the our technological prowess, craftsmanship, and artistry. It was a monument to our culture; a station scaled to the ambitions of a country at the peak of its power – a modern Rome. And indeed, at times it seemed that all tracks lead to New York – or, to be more specific, Penn Station. It was to be a gateway to the city.
But times change. And cities change. By 1963, New York was a very different place and Penn Station was no longer the gateway into the city. New highways and air travel gave travelers more, sometimes better, options. And while automotive infrastructure was being built by governments, privately owned railways were going bankrupt and bleeding passengers. In a time of high speed and efficiency, Pennsylvania Station was a decadent, inspiring and expensive masterpiece. As it fell into decay and disrepair, the owners of the railroad believed they had no choice but to sell the rights to build on their valuable property, making it possible for a new, modern, and incredibly ugly Madison Square Garden to rise where Penn Station stood, while the while the waiting rooms, ticketing areas, and train concourses were pushed underground. The opposition to the demolition was led by a small but local group, but at the time the city was powerless to stop it. And it seems that few New Yorkers held the station in high regard because although the Penn Station that exists in the popular imaginary looks like this:
The station was quite a bit worse for wear in 1963:
McGrath’s color photos of Penn Station’s demolition capture the vast spaces in all its Piranesian glory and communicate a sense of its scale in an almost morbid way. The demolition may have been an ignoble end to a truly beautiful building but it was undeniably sublime.
By the time of its demolition, Penn was full of unsightly newspaper kiosks, advertisements, and an jarring, modernist ticket counter that drastically changed the circulation through the building’s waiting room. But that is not the Penn Station we remember. There’s a line in The Eternal Space about a soldier who died in World War II: “how perfect he seems in death.” The same could be said about the station. Penn Station lives on through widely distributed photographs depicting the station at the peak of its monumental grandeur, such as those seen at the top of this post. The Penn Station we miss–even those of us who weren’t even a gleam in our father’s eye at the the time of its demolition–is one that hadn’t existed for a long time. And yet, these photos create a longing.
Wednesday night it occurred to me that contemporary architectural renderings serve a similar purpose. A good rendering of a beautiful design evokes a sort of reverse nostalgia; not a longing for something that’s gone, but a longing for something to exist. They can be incredibly convincing and they can reach a massive audience incredibly quickly. Renderings have become powerful tools for architects, planners, and developers. Are they informative? No doubt. Are they manipulative? Maybe a little.
But that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
After all, the nostalgia-provoking photos of old Penn were/are manipulative in their own way. Images of a pristine Penn Station were used by advocacy groups to sway public sentiment and garner support for new policy, eventually leading to new legislation and the formation of the Landmarks Preservation Commission – the first organization in the city empowered to protect New York’s architectural heritage.
But that’s all in the past. There’s a lot of talk these days about the future of Penn Station thanks to the recent decision by New York City Planning Commission to renew Madison Square Garden’s permit for only 10 years and a design competition recently organized by the Municipal Art Society of New York (MAS), who invited four prominent local architects to submit a vision of Penn Station’s future. These projects are described in length on the MAS site but I just wanted to focus on one project –one image, really– that I think really starts to get at this idea of inverse nostalgia:
This rendering from Shop feels so well thought-out. It seems to have been carefully designed to imitate the iconic photos of New York’s two great train stations. To speculate a bit, I think architectural renderings in general will become more influential as they evolve to either become 1) more realistic, and/or 2) more artistic – that is to say, able to be considered a work of art, or at the very least to be able to evoke an emotional response. I think the above rendering is more a case of the latter. The soft lighting, the sunbeams, the massive space and sense of scale. It’s beautiful. And it evokes some halcyon past. This photo of Grand Central came immediately to mind:
Images have power. Even before this recent discussion about moving Madison Square Garden, Penn Station has had a hold on New Yorkers’ imagination thank largely to its photographs. As for its future – what should a modern Penn Station be like? Should there even be a new Penn Station? Those are questions people will be asking a lot over the next 10 years. Architects will talk about sustainability and new technologies and radical formal possibilities, and civic space –all important considerations to be sure– but at the end of the day, if there is going to be a new Penn Station it should be beautiful. It needs to satiate that longing and mitigate that sense of loss felt every time we see a picture of what was or an image of what could be.
November 1, 2013
There’s been so much scaffolding recently in Washington D.C. that it looks like the capital is recovering from an incredibly ruthless alien invasion, a knock-down drag-out superhero brawl, or some other action film-level disaster. In a city as widely visited as Washington D.C., a city where it seems that even structures of the smallest import are national landmarks, it’s not exactly desirable to have the monuments, memorials and buildings concealed behind wood and metal cages. In cities such as New York or Chicago, where change is the norm, scaffolding is a part the city fabric, but in a city where history is the major draw, where there are certain structures that visitors feel they have the inalienable right to see, scaffolding poses something of a problem. As a result, D.C. architects have gotten creative.
At the end of September, scaffolding was removed from the western facade of the Supreme Court Building after a complete restoration. But during the year that the building was covered, visitors were still able to enjoy Cass Gilbert’s design thanks to a scrim printed with a full-size image of the marble facade. It’s a common practice in Europe that’s starting to be seen more frequently in the U.S., as also illustrated by the recent scrims on Independence Hall in Philadelphia and on the Plaza Hotel in New York City. The Supreme Court scrim was so well done that from a distance I didn’t even notice it at first. While the image lacks the depth and complexity of the original, for tourists hoping to snap a picture, fake can be just as good – and just as functional. It’s fascinating to me that what is essentially a big billboard can act as a proxy for a building (or, as in Hong Kong, an entire city skyline). After all, dating back to at least Ancient Greece, building facades have acted as signs denoting the function or purpose of the structure.
A different approach was taken with the scaffolding now surrounding the Washington monument, which has been closed to visitors since the structure was damaged by a 5.8 magnitude earthquake in 2011. The $15 million repair should finish up next spring, and until then the iconic monument will be enclosed in an impressive feat of architecture and engineering that beautifully illuminates the obelisk every night. This isn’t the first time the Washington Monument has been covered with illuminated scaffolding. In fact, the current scaffolding is nearly identical to the system designed by architect Michael Graves & Associates that was used for two years during the monument’s 1998-2000 restoration. MGA’s scaffolding mimics not only the shape of the monument, but is enclosed in a translucent mesh patterned with an exaggerated image of its stone and mortar joints.
Last but certainly not least, is the Capitol dome. The symbol of the city and of American democracy. While a lot of people would probably love to see the inner workings of the Capitol cleaned up, the dome, last restored in 1960, is overdue for a little paint, spackle, and some serious repairs to its rusted cast iron structure. That process begins later this month and will continue for about two years while the dome’s 1,000 cracks and imperfections are repaired. The scaffolding that will surround the dome from its base up to the Statue of Freedom isn’t quite as “designed” as the previous examples, but it seems like the Architect of the Capitol is making it as minimal and unobtrusive as possible and, like the Washington Monument, it will be also illuminated at night while workers are making repairs.
The architecture of Washington D.C. tells the story of America. Scaffolding is an inevitable part of maintaining our history and ensuring that story is told for centuries to come. It can be unsightly and inconvenient, but in the right hands, with the right motivation, the scaffolding-covered monumental architecture of D.C. continues to communicate the ideals that inspired the nation’s founders.