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When people in West Chelsea think about railroads these days they usually think about the High Line, that famous “park in the sky” built atop the New York Central Railroad’s old freight viaduct. But last summer an artifact of another railroad came to West 22nd Street, and it’s worth stepping off the High Line to see it in person.

Silas-Plaque

Historic bridge plaque from the London, Brighton & South Coast Railway

This plaque, which now graces the exterior wall of sculptor Silas Seandel’s studio at 551 W. 22nd Street, traveled across the ocean from England, where it once adorned the side of a railway bridge. According to the National Railway Museum in York, the London, Brighton & South Coast Railway (LB & SCR) existed from 1845 – 1922, operating services from London to the south coast of England. The Museum was unable to confirm which bridge Silas’ plaque came from, but since the main bridges of the LB & SCR spanned the River Thames in London, they speculate his may have come from one of those bridges. Railways in England only used plaques like these on important bridges, so they are rare. Particularly in America.

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Seventy-five years ago tomorrow, the world’s attention was focused on events overseas. The Nazis had just bombed an English port, and the Axis powers were gaining momentum. On the front page of the New York Times Sunday edition for March 29, 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt called on the American people to stand firm in support of its Allies who were blocking “dictators in their march toward domination of the world.” Readers today won’t recognize the political climate; looking back on the recent presidential election, FDR praised his opponent, saying “The leader of the Republican Party himself — Mr. Wendell Willkie — in word and action, is showing what patriotic Americans mean by rising above partisanship and rallying to the common cause.” [For rare video of the West Side Cowboy riding up Tenth Avenue, click here.]

Meanwhile, back at home women were buying Easter hats – just $19.95 at B. Altman. The first Peabody Awards – dubbed “Pulitzer Prizes of air” – had just been announced; the Book-of-the-Month Club featured Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls; and a two-room studio at the Chelsea Hotel could be had for $19 a week. Budd Schulberg’s novel What Makes Sammy Run? was reviewed in the Book Review, and an article in the Magazine explored the question: “Are Movies Good or Bad” for children?

And then there was this photograph, which ran under the headline “Last ‘Cowboy’ Rides Over Tenth Ave. Route; Tracks Now Elevated, Horses Get New Job.”

George Hayde, the last West Side Cowboy, on March 29, 1941. Copyright Times Wide World/The New York Times/Redux. Used with permission

George Hayde, the last West Side Cowboy. March 29, 1941. Copyright Times Wide World/The New York Times/Redux. Used with permission

The picture captures George Hayde, age twenty-one, who became New York City’s last urban cowboy with this final ride up Tenth Avenue. He and “his faithful bay, Cyclone” were leading a line of fourteen rail cars loaded with oranges. They were performing, for the last time in history, a unique job created by an 185os city ordinance that permitted freight trains to share the busy streets with pedestrians, dog-carts, bicycles, cars and trucks, on condition they observe a speed limit of six miles per hour and that “a proper person… precede the trains on horseback to give necessary warning in a suitable manner on their approach.”
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Lehigh Valley No. 79: The Aerial Shot

Hoboken Terminal from the 8th Floor of the Whitney Museum

Hoboken Terminal from the 8th Floor of the Whitney Museum

Yesterday I posted two ideas for shooting the Lehigh Valley No. 79 as it sails north on the Hudson River later this week to a Coast Guard-mandated drydock inspection in Waterford, NY. [Follow @museumbarge on Twitter for schedule details.]

Here’s another suggestion for those who like the aerial perspective: the 8th floor terrace of the new Whitney Museum. If you point your camera west you’ll get a shot of this historic barge, a rare monument to the Lighterage Era and currently a floating museum based Red Hook, as it passes the grand old Hoboken Terminal.

Hoboken Terminal at night. Photo by Scott Mlyn.

Hoboken Terminal at night. Photo by Scott Mlyn.

Designed by architect Kenneth Murchison, the Beaux Arts Terminal greeted passengers in a grand style by allowing the sun to stream through stained-glass windows made by Louis Tiffany. It opened as a rail and ferry terminal in 1907, just seven years before the Lehigh Valley No. 79 was built in Perth Amboy.  At night, the big red letters on the eastern facade of the Hoboken Terminal light up to read ERIE LACKAWANNA, and the recently restored clock tower marks time for vessels passing by.

There are a million other reasons to visit the Whitney (see my piece here about the history of the site the new building occupies), but on my mind today is Louis Lozowick, an Art Deco-era painter who emigrated from Russia the year before the Hoboken Terminal opened. I first discovered his work in the WPA Guide to New York City, published in 1939 with the intent to “indicate the human character of the city, to point out the evidence of achievements and shortcomings, urban glamor as well as urban sordidness.” The editors selected Lozowick’s  wonderful drawing of a railroad barge being pulled by a tugboat to illustrate Lower Manhattan in the 1930s.

Lower Manhattan, 1936. Lithograph by Louis Lozowick. US National Archives.

Lower Manhattan, 1936. Lithograph by Louis Lozowick. US National Archives.

After seeing that evocation of the lighterage system I embarked on a hunt for more of Lozowick’s work, found a giant archive on the Smithsonian’s website, and got lost for hours. He was devoted to bridges, buildings, river traffic — particularly tugboats — and the industrial iconography of cities: gantries, factories, smokestacks, water tanks: many of the elements folks love about the historic landscape of the High Line.  Most of Lozowick’s work was in black & white, which contributes a kind of moodiness and authenticity to his scenes.

It’s easy to fall in love with Louis Lozowick, and as I clicked through the pages of the archive I was amazed at the range of subjects he painted. His wife told the New York Times that “He always did what he wanted to do, he didn’t care about prevalent styles, nor about the market. He was doing abstractions when others were doing realist work, and when others were doing abstract things, he was doing realist pieces.”

What took my breath away at the Whitney Museum was Lozowick’s drawing of a lynching, which is part of a powerful collection of prints made to support a 1930s anti-lynching bill in Congress. It’s completely unlike the rest of his work, in part because it evokes a force of such raw humanity. There are a few other Lozowick’s in the Whitney’s inaugural show, “America is Hard to See,” including some of his abstractions; you can see all of the museum’s holdings here, including “Lynching” (1936).

And: if you’re there to watch the Lehigh Valley No. 79 sail by later this week, be sure to check out Victoria Hutson Huntley’s 1934 depiction of “Lower New York,” which includes an elevated railroad and a couple of tugboats; it’ll put you in just the right mood. The Whitney kindly allowed me to reproduce Huntley’s lithograph here. [As always, click an image to enlarge it.]

Victoria Hutson Huntley, Lower New York, 1934. Lithograph. Whitney museum of American Art, NY

Victoria Hutson Huntley, “Lower New York, 1934.” Lithograph. Whitney Museum of American Art, currently on view in the inaugural exhibition “America is Hard to See” (May 1 – Sept. 27, 2015). Used with permission.

Okay, I confess this post digressed from its original purpose: to identify the best aerial spot in Manhattan to photograph the Lehigh Valley No. 79 as it begins its northerly voyage in a few days. But this is what happens when you start thinking about railroads, tugboats, the Hudson River and Manhattan’s edge. Everything around us is connected to the past, and the Whitney is both glorious museum and grand, public parapet that puts so much of our cultural and industrial history on display. It’s what the WPA writers considered “urban glamor.”

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Yesterday’s post about the upcoming Hudson River voyage of the Lehigh Valley No. 79 focused on the three former terminal warehouses in view of the High Line: the Baltimore & Ohio’s; the Starrett Lehigh building; and the Terminal and Central Stores complex. But there are several monuments on the river itself that will make fantastic perches for shooting the floating museum as it heads north.

Pier 66 with Frying Pan, John J. Harvey, and railroad tracks

Pier 66 with Frying Pan, John J. Harvey, and railroad tracks

First: Pier 66, at 24th Street. Originally built for the Delaware, Lackawanna and Western Railroad — later known as the Erie Lackawanna — this float bridge is now home to two historic boats: the John J. Harvey and the Frying Pan. As part of the preservation effort of this Lighterage Era structure the railroad tracks that once connected the barge to the Starrett Lehigh warehouse across today’s West Side Highway are still there, and you can ride a bike across them. You can also grab a beer and burger at the Bar & Grill while you wait for the Lehigh Valley No. 79 to pass by.

69th Street Transfer Bridge with Clearwater Sloop in the background

69th Street Transfer Bridge with Clearwater Sloop in the background

Or: head a bit farther uptown and you’ll find the gorgeous, brooding remains of the 69th Street Transfer Bridge, once used by the New York Central Railroad to transfer railroad cars that had floated across the river from Weehawken, NJ.

For the ideal shot, position yourself on the river’s edge and point your camera so you can capture both the Lehigh Valley No. 79 and the infrastructure of the float bridge as the barge passes by. This way you can get a bit of living history in motion. The day I shot the photo above I was lucky to capture Pete Seeger’s Clearwater Sloop as it tacked across the river just a bit north of the transfer bridge.

Follow @museumbarge on Twitter for updates about the barge’s schedule.

For more information about the lighterage system read this excellent short history that includes reminiscences from the men who captained and worked on the tug barges.

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History Sailing By the High Line

Starrett-Lehigh (center) flanked by two other railroad warehouses: Central Stores (at right) and B&O (at left)

Starrett-Lehigh (center) flanked by two other former railroad warehouses: Terminal and Central Stores (right) and B&O (left)

One of the great monuments in view of the High Line is the Starrett-Lehigh Building, a behemoth that straddles the superblock between 26th and 27th Streets on Eleventh Avenue. Look at it for more than a minute anytime, day or night, and you’ll most likely see a light flashing in one of the eight miles of windows that circles this enormous building. That’s because it’s filled with design, magazine, new media and advertising firms, and many of its offices double as photo studios.

But in 1931 this 2.2 million square foot building served a very different purpose: it was a terminal warehouse for the Lehigh Valley Railroad, built with funds from the Starrett Investment Corporation. It played a vital role in the Lighterage Era, a time before bridges and tunnels enabled food and commercial goods to be swiftly transferred across the Hudson River. The workhorses of that era were the railroad barges, giant floating platforms that could carry as many as a dozen boxcars from terminals in New Jersey to warehouses in Manhattan. Known as “lighters” or car floats, they were a fixture of the Hudson River landscape for decades. In the 1930s, National Geographic reported that as many as 5,000 barges crossed the Hudson every day. Phillip Lopate, in his excellent book Waterfront, observed that “In their heyday, the barges were almost as synonymous with New York’s iconography as its skyscrapers.”

Railroad car floats in New York Harbor. Photo: New York State Archives

Railroad car floats in New York Harbor. Photo: New York State Archives

But not every barge carried actual boxcars; a significant number of vessels in the lighterage system were constructed of wood and ferried “less than carload lots” of perishable goods like coffee, flour, rice, sugar, and spices in their protected spaces. Goods were brought on board by longshoremen at a railroad terminal or were transferred on the water from a ship. These tug-powered barges were the only link between ships and railways, allowing cargo that had traveled across oceans to be offloaded and transferred to a railroad terminal like the one built for the Lehigh Valley Railroad on the Far West Side of Manhattan. Once inside, the goods could be stored, re-packed and re-shipped to their final destination.

In the days before trucks hit the newly built Interstate Highway System and airplanes took to the skies, the lighterage system was a vital part of America’s commercial transportation network. It was how stuff got from one place to another.

Later this month millions of us, from the Hudson River’s southern gateway all the way north past Albany, will have the chance to witness a rare and exciting event as the 101-year old Lehigh Valley No. 79, the only surviving all-wooden unit from the Lighterage Era, makes a 35-hour voyage up the river to a dry dock in Waterford, New York. Visitors on the High Line will have the opportunity to watch a very particular bit of history in action as the barge passes three former railroad warehouses located between 26th – 28th Streets: the Baltimore & Ohio (now the site of Bedrock Mini Storage at 241 11th Avenue); the Starrett-Lehigh and the Terminal & Central Stores complex (home to shops, art galleries, and a furniture company). [Note: click on the first image in this post to enlarge it and see all three.]

The Waterfront Museum. Photo by David Sharps

The Waterfront Museum. Photo by David Sharps

Today the barge is the Waterfront Museum, founded in 1986 and dedicated to promoting an understanding of New York’s maritime history and the ecological importance of the Hudson River estuary. It’s also the home of David Sharps, a former cruise ship entertainer who rescued the barge from the place where it lay grounded in New Jersey, cleared 300 tons of mud that had settled in the hold, and restored it to seaworthy condition. He raised his two daughters on the barge and still lives there at Pier 44 in Red Hook, Brooklyn.

Sometime in the next week the Lehigh Valley No. 79 will depart Red Hook and begin its voyage north. There are countless spots on both sides of the Hudson River, from Brooklyn to Waterford, where you can watch this marvelous historic barge pass by. The actual date will be announced soon, but for now there’s a 7-day window, beginning June 23rd. Follow @museumbarge on Twitter or the official Facebook page for details about timing and location. Folks traveling on the barge will Tweet constant updates so you can position yourself on a bridge, at a park, on a mountaintop, or anywhere along the river to take your photo and share it with the world.

The Lehigh Valley N0. 79 has made only three trips up the Hudson River. This summer’s passage was mandated by the U.S. Coast Guard, which ordered the vessel to be dry-docked and inspected after Hurricane Sandy. Any necessary repairs will be made in Waterford and then the barge will return to its home in Brooklyn. It’s an expensive project, and the Museum is gratefully accepting donations; go here if you’d like to contribute. I just donated $79 in honor of the official number the barge was assigned by the Lehigh Valley Railroad when it rolled off the Perth Amboy Dry Dock in 1914 and assumed its role in the vibrant marriage of river and rail that constituted the Lighterage Era.

For more information about the Waterfront Museum and Lehigh Valley No. 79, visit the official website here, or download the National Register of Historic Registration form [PDF] which includes architectural details about the barge and history of the Lighterage Era.

 

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New Home for the Whitney. Choto courtesy Whitney Museum of American Art

New Home for the Whitney. Photo courtesy Whitney Museum of American Art

When architect Renzo Piano speaks about the Whitney Museum of American Art he uses his entire body to illustrate the artistic intent of his new building. During the museum’s official dedication ceremony he gestured first to the east, and a view that cuts across Manhattan Island. “This building talks to the city,” he said, then turned left and pointed to the Hudson River. “It also talks to rest of the country: all the way west, to Los Angeles, if you look carefully,” and then to the world beyond. This new building, with its massive windows and expansive 360 degree views, seems designed to enable a sort of outward-looking contemplation and engagement that most museums, with their emphasis on what’s inside, right in front of you, don’t encourage.  “I’m pretty sure that beauty will save the world,” Piano said, and this new home for one of the country’s foremost collections of American art makes the point at every turn that all the beauty inside is made more powerful by its connection to a greater, wider landscape.

This is the fifth article in my series “High Line Architecture.” Like the previous other pieces, it’s not an architectural or aesthetic review but instead a look the history of the place a building occupies, and a contemplation of how the landscape around the High Line has changed over time. (See below for links to the previous articles; as always, click an image to enlarge it.)

Renzo Piano: "I'm pretty sure that beauty will save the world."

Renzo Piano: “I’m pretty sure that beauty will save the world.”

There’s something felicitous about the fact that this quintessentially American institution, one that celebrates creative inventiveness and innovation, sits on land that’s man-made.  When the first Europeans arrived at these shores in 1609, they would have sailed or paddled over the spot where the Whitney now stands.  Gradually, beginning in the early 19th century, this watery area was filled in so an early generation of developers and real-estate schemers could start building stuff on it. Like much of the far West Side — virtually everything west of Tenth Avenue, including the High Line — the Whitney sits not on Manhattan schist but on landfill. (Interestingly, as the map below shows, the High Line roughly follows the landfill line all the way to the Rail Yards. This makes a walk from one end of the park to the other a great way to contemplate not only how we transformed what was on our island but also how we transformed the geography of the island itself.)

The original 1609 shoreline (dotted line), a Lenape Indian Trail, and the High Line.

The original 1609 shoreline and the High Line. Map by Marty Schnure.

The huge complex of buildings across the street from the Whitney, the West Coast Apartments, is another example of  ingenuity: modern commercial refrigeration was pioneered here. In the late 1890s, the Manhattan Refrigerating Company developed one of the earliest and most technologically advanced cold-storage facilities, based on a complex system of underground pipes that fed cooled water from the Hudson River into a huge, multi-storey warehouse that eventually would connect with the High Line, itself an innovation that opened in 1934.

This little patch of land(fill) also has a long and distinguished foodie history. As early as 1879 there were outdoor farmers’ markets here; the neighborhood was filled with merchants who came from all over New York state, from Long Island to the Hudson Valley, to sell poultry, meat, seafood, eggs, butter, vegetables, beer. You can still trip over the Belgian block (also known as cobblestones) that were here long ago, or take refuge from a downpour under the metal canopies that sheltered grocers in rainy weather.

The photo below is from the first decade of the 20th century and shows the area where the Whitney now stands. This year two restaurants — Santina (under the High Line) and Untitled (in the Whitney) — opened on this very spot, each in a virtual glass box with windows onto the street and a commitment to serving food made from local farmers and growers. Generations removed from the men who came here with horse and donkey carts, they include a welcome 21st century cohort: urban farmers who grow produce on rooftops in Brooklyn and Queens.

But the rich food history stretches back even further:  long before there was a railroad or a farmers’ market here, the area was a prime hunting and fishing grounds for the Lenape people. Using data from the Welikia Project, the 1609 shoreline map also shows the location of a Lenape Indian trail that runs over land now occupied by the handful of remaining meatpacking plants that still operate underneath the High Line and gave the neighborhood its name.

Farmers' Market at Gansevoort Street, circa 1910s. Courtesy NY Public Library

Farmers’ Market at Gansevoort Street, circa 1910s. Courtesy NY Public Library

The Whitney site was also important in the military history of the United States: in 1808, in anticipation of a war against Britain, a fort was hastily built here on pilings erected in the Hudson River. Known as Fort Gansevoort, it was named after the revolutionary war hero Peter Gansevoort.  Some five decades later, Gansevoort’s grandson, Herman Melville, would spend almost twenty years just across the street at the Gansevoort Dock, where he worked as a Customs Inspector.

Fort Gansevoort, Coursey New York Public Library

Fort Gansevoort, Coursey New York Public Library

All this history: food, trains, technology, soldiering. A bit of river at the edge of a forest becomes a fort, a farmers market, a multi-storey refrigerated warehouse with a railroad passing through it, a world-class park and now an art museum that urges us to look outward, through its many windows, onto the wide and complex world we inhabit. Inside, the museum deploys art and artists to push the boundaries ever farther and inspire and challenge those acts of contemplation and engagement.

The whole project feels experimental, even radical. On the fifth floor, the architects provided a sitting area that runs the length of the museum and faces west, encouraging visitors to sit and contemplate the Hudson River. All day long the boats go by: water taxis, ferries, oil tankers, cargo ships, police vessels, luxury yachts, cruise ships, kayaks and barges carrying gasoline and home heating oil, like the one in my photo below. On the West Side Highway cars, trucks and motorcycles rumble along. Between the river and the highway cyclists, bladers and skateboarders glide by on the bike path. All the while, visitors in the new Whitney Museum are sitting and watching. Behind and above them, racing across the wall and visible to all those mariners, drivers, cyclists and pedestrians outside, are the “Running People” of Jonathan Borofsky, an artist known for works that capture figures in movement: people walking, running, flying. This museum, resting on its man-made foundation in a place saturated with invention and history, has taken us into a new era of art appreciation, one where we are always engaging and never quite sitting still.

Piano conveyed everything the new Whitney stands for when he said, in his closing remarks: “Thank you for coming. The building is yours.”

Borofsky_Whitney

“Running People at 2,616,216” (1978 – 79) by Jonathan Borofsky. The Whitney Museum of American Art, 5th floor, the inaugural exhibition “America is Hard to See.”

 

Renzo-Piano

 

To learn more about the Gansevoort Market area of the West Village, read Tony Robins’ excellent walking tour which is filled with history and illustrations. Download a PDF or read it online here.

Architecture on the High Line
: click the image below to read previous posts in the series

Tim Saternow Furniture Exchange Warehouse, 525 West 22nd Street, 1940 (Spears Building), 2010 Watercolor on paper, 60x40”

The Spears Building

 

 

 

 

 

Morgan-Aerial_October-2012_1280x800

The Morgan Mail Facility

Cass Gilbert-designed warehouse, now Avenues School

RC Williams Warehouse / Avenues School

The Westyard Distribution Center

Westyard Distribution Center

 

 

 

 

 

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