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.
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.
According to the Museum, the cross on the plaque represents London, the two dolphins Brighton, the three half lions/half ships are what are known as the “Cinque” Ports: Sandwich, Romney, Dover, Hythe and Hastings, plus originally the two Ancient Towns of Rye & Winchelsea. The star and crescent represents Portsmouth.
Silas purchased the plaque from a “picker” he met on the street one day in 1972. The fellow was unloading a van containing antique artifacts that had been shipped overseas from Britain, and the colorful plaque caught Silas’ eye. He installed it on the exterior wall of the brownstone he owned at the time, on 22nd Street between 7th & 8th Avenues, but in 1979 moved his family (and his studio) to the Wild West of the 500 block. When he learned that his former building was about to be demolished earlier this year, he was able to persuade the contractor to let him have the plaque, despite the fact that many railfans and antique dealers were also interested. (Silas is a very charming and persuasive guy.) This is what it looked like a few weeks before the building was torn down:
After transporting it three blocks west (and using a technique developed by the ancient Egyptians to roll the heavy plaque out of his van…), Silas had to completely restore the now colorless medallion. Here’s a closeup:
He had to special-order paint that was historically accurate, then painstakingly repaint the entire thing. Here he is with son Marco about halfway through the process:
Installing the plaque was a complex process that took months of planning and a team of strong, creative, problem-solvers. They ended up using an ancient block & tackle system to hoist the 400-plus pound, cast-iron medallion to its new spot on the exterior wall of Silas’ studio. You can watch a 3-minute time-lapse video I posted on YouTube here; below are a few photographs.
Silas cradles the beautifully restored plaque before it’s lifted to its new spot:
Then the team hoists the plaque, using an old-fashioned block & tackle system:
The setup on the roof:
Silas and colleague Ray pass a tool between two ladders. These guys are like acrobats:
Incredibly, all the pre-drilled holes are in the right place….
Which makes this one happy artist:
Hey High Line: there’s a new railroad in town!