Abraham Lincoln’s Special Inaugural Train at the Hudson River Railroad Depot, 1861. From Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, courtesy Library of Congress
Tomorrow the Tenth Avenue Spur opens, marking the completion of the High Line after twenty years of labor and love. There will be much to say about this new space once the public is welcome, but first, perhaps, let’s linger on the past, and the original purpose of this steel bridge that crosses Tenth Avenue into what is today one of the largest mail sorting facilities in the country. The history goes all the way back to the 1860s, when a train station owned and operated by the Hudson River Railroad stood on this ground. Its very first passenger was Abraham Lincoln, who passed through on February 19, 1861, en route to his inauguration in Washington, D.C. That hopeful, optimistic moment was captured in the illustration above, which appeared in Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper. It shows the depot in the background and President-elect Lincoln being escorted to his carriage by the superintendent of the Metropolitan Police. What’s so haunting about this story — and this spot along the High Line — is that four years later, on April 25, 1865, Lincoln’s funeral train passed through the depot on its westward journey to Springfield, Ill.
Now towering above this hallowed ground is the Morgan General Mail Facility, completed in 1933 with funds and labor from the New Deal’s WPA program. It was designed to carry the parcels and letters of some 8,000 mail trains that crossed the country each year on an intricate network of rail lines, before they arrived at this destination on 30th Street and Tenth Avenue. This aerial photograph from 2012 shows the passageway, now blocked up, in the north corner of the massive structure, which was once used by the mail trains to enter the building:
My photo also captures another unique element of this facility: its enormous green roof — one of the largest in the United States. For photos taken on the roof (including a jolly family of Canada geese who passed through during the period I was photographing) see my longer piece about the Morgan, part of the High Line Architecture series on this blog. The High Line is, of course, one long, linear, green roof — and it’ll be just a bit longer as of tomorrow, when the new section opens. The Morgan’s roof is not accessible to the public, but you’ll find lots of photos here, including a special little plant — the Tragopogon dubious, aka yellow salsify, that hitchhiked its way on a puff of wind from the High Line up to the Morgan, cross-pollinating its sister roof and creating a horticultural connection between these two important landmarks of American history and culture.
On Saturday a “Parade of Paintings” formed on both sides of the Hudson River, on the eastern bank at Olana (home of Frederic Edwin Church) and on the western side at the Thomas Cole House. The marchers met in the middle, just above the busy shipping channel on the Rip Van Winkle Bridge.
Marchers with Church’s “Clouds Over Olana,” painted 1872, and the house in the distance
The occasion was the opening of the Skywalk, a new pedestrian walkway that connects the artists’ homes and creates a unique cultural bridge, continuing an artistic conversation that began in the early 1840s when Church became Cole’s only pupil. Many years later, after he had become one of the most famous painters in the world and long after his teacher’s death in 1848, Church acquired the mountaintop land just outside the town of Hudson, hired the architect Calvert Vaux, and built the house that would look out – and also down – on Cole’s property across the river. The Rip Van Winkle Bridge is a stunningly beautiful perch that puts this quintessentially American landscape on view: mountains, river, valley, railroad.
Marchers from the Thomas Cole house crossing the bridge
Yes, the Skywalk is 100 miles north of the High Line, but its mandate is much the same: to use its bridge-like infrastructure to create a linear cultural experience, linking the past to the present through art, design, and landscape, all courtesy of a relatively new American tradition of adaptive reuse that we can all be proud of.
It’s a big week for bridges: the Skywalk opens June 1, and the High Line’s Tenth Avenue Spur, the final section of the park, opens this Tuesday, June 4, after many years of planning and preparation.
Today the Metropolitan Museum of Art opens “Monumental Journey,” a show featuring the work of the most famous photographer you never heard of, Frenchman Girault de Prangey. In the 1840s Girault traveled throughout the Eastern Mediterranean with over 100 pounds of photographic equipment, plates and chemicals; he returned with more than 1,000 daguerrotypes, the brand new visual medium he would help define at the very moment of its birth. His images, which the Met has curated in a gorgeously designed exhibit — the galleries have been darkened and the works lit from behind to minimize glare from the glass plates — are the earliest surviving photographs of Greece, Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Turkey, and Jerusalem. Many are historically important because they capture lost details and architectural elements: graffiti on Pompey’s Column in Alexandria, long since erased; the top tier of a minaret at Khayrbak Mosque in Cairo that disappeared shortly after his visit; a Frankish Tower in the Acropolis, demolished in 1875.
Girault was the first photographer to document the built environment, and like so many Romantic artists he was attracted to ruins: the Parthenon; Temples of Artemis, Castor and Pollux, Vesta, Vespassian, Nike; Hadrian’s Villa; the Roman Forum. He captured close-up details, like the capital of a column from an Egyptian temple, and also created larger landscapes like the stunning Roman Forum, Viewed from the Palatine Hill (1842):
This photograph is a work of art that shows Girault’s two great loves: architecture — note the dual domes in the middle ground and a little ruin in the lower right — and botany: observe the magnificent cypress tree that cuts a diagonal through the entire composition and connects those two worlds, natural and built.
Stephen C. Pinson, the curator in the Met’s photography department, noted in the press conference that Girault saw intuitively something we all take for granted nowadays: how to see the world photographically. It’s hard to conceive how stunningly new this vision was in the 1840s: people saw, in his images, the first camel, the first person at the Wailing Wall, the first photograph of a Bedouin woman. Pinson observed that Girault’s contemporaries were experiencing innovations that compare with today’s experiments with virtual and augmented reality. He quite literally changed the way people saw the world — their own (see the the plant study below, from his garden in Paris) as well as strange, exotic lands that were previously unimagined.
One of my favorites in the show is Plant Study, Paris, 1841, a close-up in which Girault exhibits his obsession for plants: their textures, shapes, and the way they insinuate themselves into the built world, in this case against a stone wall. You can’t actually see the green on that veined leaf but it’s so realistically, and so vibrantly, presented in this daguerrotype that you can hold the color in your mind as you gaze at it.
Today the High Line, like every public space, is filled with “photographers” who reach into their pockets to pull out a little computer — it weighs less than a single bottle of mercury, whose vapors Girault used to develop his images — and shoot the striking array of architecture that lines both sides of the park: new and old, industrial and hi-tech, commercial and residential. Often we frame our shots with horticulture to show not only the juxtaposition of the built world with the natural one, but also the narrative of this place: how it emerged, from the railroad era via landscape architecture and horticulture, into a great public park.
The story of the High Line is as much a tale of photography — it was Joel Sternfeld’s powerful images that jump-started the restoration effort — as it is of adaptive reuse. It’s worth a trip to the Met to see where, and with whom, it all began. Below are a few random shots I pulled from my database that in some way owe a debt to Girault de Prangey. There are zillions more in the ten years of posts on this blog and my book, On the High Line. [As always, click an image to enlarge it.]
This week in Paris the Opéra National is celebrating its 350th anniversary. Trumpets will play the opening bars of Berlioz’s “Marche de Troyens,” there will be a parade of young ballerinas, gala parties, and of course music, including productions of an opera that had its flashy opening in 1836 (Meyerbeer’s “Les Huguenots”) and a recently completed one that will be having its premiere performance this week (Michael Jarrell’s “Bérénice”).
In New York we are being treated to our own very different but equally exciting opera moment: the deeply affecting “Mile-Long Opera” being performed this week on the High Line by some 1,000 singers from across the city. Their text was a collaboration too, assembled from interviews with New Yorkers about what 7pm means to them. As you walk through the park you pass the performers, a choral group as diverse the city itself. They are old and young; black, brown, white; every gender; professional and amateur. Some stand on little boxes, others sit. All their faces are lit, some by mobile devices, some by very cool baseball hats with LEDs under the visor.
A performer in the Mile-Long Opera
One of the most striking things about this opera is how quiet it is. No trumpets here; no instruments at all, in fact, just the voices of our neighbors, here to tell a simple story. As you walk you hear phrases: I put on my makeup; funny how money changes everything; funny how money changes nothing; everything reminds me of my mother; sometimes he comes home drunk. As you proceed through the park, some phrases repeat themselves in a new singer’s voice. I was powerfully struck by how many of the performers made direct eye contact with me as I passed, forcing me to slow down and listen.
That, for me, was the real power of this event, and it’s something we should all probably do more of. We don’t need trumpets; we have plenty of those. What we need is our neighbors, friends, colleagues, and utter strangers, sharing their stories, looking us in the eye, singing to us as we walk by on a beautiful October evening.
[update: you can now experience the Mile-Long Opera online in the “350 degree video” here. For more information about the creative team behind it, go here.]
Here’s a picture that captures what’s happening in New York City right now, courtesy of the Building Department’s recently launched, data-fueled online mapping tool. It gives new meaning to phrase “built environment.”
NYC Dept. of Buildings Active Major Construction map
I’d like to thank the DOB for giving my words a much-needed rest.
You can check out the map and get details about the active projects going on in your neighborhood. But it might be better to watch Netflix instead.
During the era of the Industrial Revolution, the way-West Side of Manhattan was exploding with enterprise: ironworks, grain elevators, lard refineries, stockyards, abattoires, printing presses, candle factories and manufacturers of everything from cigars to pianos. The trains of Cornelius Vanderbilt’s New York Central Railroad rumbled up Tenth, Eleventh and Twelfth Avenues, carrying many of these goods north along the Hudson River towards Albany, where they eventually connected with the newly-laid tracks of the Transcontinental Railroad and would make their way to towns and cities across the country.
The machines of the Industrial Revolution ran on steam, and in our neighborhood there were acres of lumberyards with steam-powered sawmills. One of the most common sites, as described by a New York Times reporter who made an excursion through the ‘hood in 1883, was “endless piles of lumber.” He observed that “the Leaning Tower of Pisa has been copied as nearly as possible in the architecture of these piles.”
In my book about the High Line I described this area as “New York’s Lumberyard,” and there was a factory just half a block from the park on West 22nd Street. I’ve written about ghost signs before on this blog, and the one for “kiln-dried lumber” on the side of a condo known as the Eagle Building has long been one of my favorites. When I moved here a decade ago there was a short, nondescript, brick building occupied by the Balenciaga fashion company. A neighbor on the block used to stand on the loading dock and hurl a tennis ball up the cobblestoned street — then basically (blissfully, I should say) free of vehicular traffic — for his dog to fetch.
That low-slung building was recently torn down and the lot is now an active construction site. I’ve been photographing the old ghost sign over the past few months as the floors of the new building rise to cover it. Which, floor by floor, they now have done:
The ubiquity of construction along the High Line and all its attendant noise, fumes, shadows, blocked views and dark spaces have been disconcerting for some years now. New projects large and small have transformed this once quiet, meditative place into an alley of incessantly loud, commercial energy. Real estate, New York City’s oldest business, is flourishing everywhere you look. The little surprises that made the High Line such a delightful place have slowly faded into the background of shiny, zesty new architecture.
But every so often you get lucky, and it happened to me this evening. It was a crazy windy day in New York. There were little waves on the Hudson River — a surfer’s paradise for small, watery creatures. On the High Line, which is always windier than street level, it was like being in a rainless squall. I was walking toward Gansevoort Street and just as I emerged from the 14th Street Passage there was a wonderful cacophony coming from the construction site at 40 Tenth Avenue. It was a little orchestra of clanging tones generated haphazardly by the the metal ends of those straps that hang from ceilings in construction sites nowadays. They were flailing around, hitting each other and making little bell-like sounds, sometimes in unison, sometimes in crazy rhythms that you might hear in a jazz club. This video captures just a moment or two:
There’s a story about Dave Brubeck that Stuart Isacoff tells in his book A Natural History of the Piano. Brubeck was famous for his improvisations in unorthodox meters, and according to Isacoff, his childhood experiences growing up on a 45,000 acre ranch were the source of his weird time signatures. When “your father sends you to fix a fence or start an engine, you are alone,” Brubeck recalled. “The sound of those little gas engines—Chu Chu Chu! Gitcha! Gitcha! Bu Ah Uh!—you never knew what they were going to do next. And when the horse would bring me somewhere, there was no one to talk to. So I became aware of the gait of the horse.” Isacoff says “He simply tuned in to all the rhythmic play going on around him.”
Somewhere in New York City, now that the sun has set and the night is young, a musician is channeling the weird beauty of a construction site along the High Line.
One hundred and ten years ago 500 children “no bigger than the flags they carried” marched against a danger to themselves and helped make life safer for other kids.
The march was held on Saturday, October 24, 1908 in response to the gruesome death of a 7-year old named Seth Low Hanscamp. According to the Times, he was playing “Follow My Leader” with a group of friends, climbing on and over the cars of a freight train that had stopped in the middle of 35th Street and 11th Avenue, in violation of city law. Neither the conductor nor the brakemen were in their proper places when the train started up again and Seth fell beneath the wheels and was crushed. Nevertheless, the city coroner exonerated the train crew and blamed the accident on the child. According to one report, 198 young people were killed by trains on Tenth and Eleventh Avenues — collectively known as “Death Avenue” — over a ten year period beginning in 1888. During the darker afternoons in November, December, and January, there were on average three deaths of school children per month. According to the New York Times, many of them were crossing the train tracks in order to carry dinner to their fathers at work.
That night in 1908 the kids marched mostly in silence and carried placards demanding that all freight trains be prohibited from their city streets.
The effort to completely remove street-level trains from Manhattan would take another four decades, and it began in earnest with Robert Moses’ 1920s plan for the West Side Improvement. That master scheme included construction of the High Line, the elevated freight viaduct that was designed, in part, to get those long, dangerous trains off the street. It operated from 1934 to 1980, and is today a world-class park.
Young Seth was named for a New York City Mayor, Seth Low, who held office between 1901-1903. His promising life was cut short in a tragic accident, but his friends rallied in the streets to bring major change, resisted by legions of grownups, that would end up saving the lives of scores of other children after him.
High Line Innovators: Nathan Bartholomew & Kaspar Wittlinger
Today is opening day of Spring Cutback on the High Line, the ninth since the park opened in 2009. Visitors marvel at the annual ritual: teams of volunteers from all over city working in shifts through the month of March to cut back the stalks, sticks and branches that dazzled us in a multitude of colors as the seasonal wheel turned through spring, summer, fall and winter. The Cutback is an existential part of the High Line, the result of its design philosophy. Most gardens are clipped and pruned at the onset of Fall when cold weather arrives, but here on the High Line they are left alone to complete the full cycle of their lives. Piet Oudolf, the horticultural artist who created these gardens, believes that plants are interesting and beautiful throughout all the stages of their life, from the soft, bright colors of springtime youth to the dark, spiky textures of a wintry old age. “Dying in an interesting way is just as important as living,” he once said. That’s why every new walk on the High Line is different from the last one. The gardens manifest a constantly changing, vibrantly living — and then, when the time comes, dying — landscape. [continue reading…]
Hey, the past is past, so gather ’round boys. Let’s all raise a glass to last of the West Side Cowboys….
George Hayde, New York’s last urban cowboy, finally has his own song, and it’s rockin’ great. Put that drink down before you click the link because it’s gonna topple with the first chord.
Dave Goddess, who lives on Tenth Avenue, was inspired to write the song after he learned about the 1850s ordinance requiring a man on horseback to precede and follow every train as it made its way up and down the city streets. One day a few friends who were visiting from Denmark insisted he join them on a tour of the High Line. When “the guide told the story I was floored. It’s both surreal and poetic. I tried to imagine the seedy Meatpacking District of 80 years ago with its tenements, prostitutes, and hundreds of slaughterhouses. I invented a backstory about George Hayde and wrote the tune about his last ride. When I was finished I realized that my song was just as much about obsolescence. What does a workingman do when his job goes away because times are changing? It’s a scenario we’re still dealing with today.”
The Dave Goddess Group — Mark Buschi on bass, Tom Brobst on keys and sax, Chris Cummings on drums and Gary Gipson on guitar — just released its new EP. There’s a good interview here about how they work together and Dave’s philosophy of music-making. I didn’t know this band but I’m a new and ardent fan.
And for those looking for more about the West Side Cowboy, this is the link to my tiny documentary made from rare 1930s footage of an actual train — and cowboy — steaming up Tenth Avenue. This link goes to the full story of George Hayde’s final ride. And this one is my own story of first learning about New York’s cowboy from my brother-in-law’s grandfather, Steven Hirsch, who chased trains as a boy and never forgot about it.
During the era of the Industrial Revolution, the way-West Side of Manhattan was exploding with enterprise: ironworks, grain elevators, lard refineries, stockyards, abattoires, printing presses, candle factories and manufacturers of everything from cigars to pianos. The trains of Cornelius Vanderbilt’s […]
The ubiquity of construction along the High Line and all its attendant noise, fumes, shadows, blocked views and dark spaces have been disconcerting for some years now. New projects large and small have transformed this once quiet, meditative place into […]
One hundred and ten years ago 500 children “no bigger than the flags they carried” marched against a danger to themselves and helped make life safer for other kids. The march was held on Saturday, October 24, 1908 in response […]
Today is opening day of Spring Cutback on the High Line, the ninth since the park opened in 2009. Visitors marvel at the annual ritual: teams of volunteers from all over city working in shifts through the month of March […]
Hey, the past is past, so gather ’round boys. Let’s all raise a glass to last of the West Side Cowboys…. George Hayde, New York’s last urban cowboy, finally has his own song, and it’s rockin’ great. Put that drink […]
I know from this blog’s analytics that a great many people come here looking for dogs on the High Line, and I’m always happy to oblige. Dogs, of course, are not allowed on the High Line, but the one pictured […]