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.