Friday, February 19, 2021

A great leap forward in ARCH-itecture

Gateway Arch (1965-68, Eero Saarinen), St. Louis, Missouri, as seen from Mississippi River. Photo by Buphoff (CC BY-SA 3.0).

Streamlined in a space-age sheen of stainless steel, the Gateway Arch in St. Louis springs 630 feet high and wide across the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial Park in a seamlessly soaring hyperbolic arc, calling to mind the path of Superman leaping tall buildings in a single bound or a model rocket launching, leaping and landing in one fell swoop.

And you'll be going on your own space odyssey as you take a ride in a spaceship-like tram car, comfortably equipped with buttock-contoured bucket seats, upward through the innards of the concrete-reinforced steel arch...

Tram car photo (left): Robert Lawton (CC BY-SA 2.5). Deck photo: Daniel Schwen (CC BY-SA 4.0).
...and dock at its summit observation deck, where you'll feel like the Man of Steel as you gaze down at the breathtaking, far-reaching vistas of...
Photo by Kelly Martin (CC BY-SA 3.0).
St. Louis City and County to the west... 

Photo courtesy of STL Family Attractions Card.
and the Mississippi River and southern Illinois to the east—a 30-mile view on a clear day. 

Photo by Paul McDonald (CC BY-SA 4.0).
"Since you can't see the base of the arch, you think you are floating," an observer wrote of his childhood visit to the Gateway Arch in 1968, the year of its dedication, on the now-defunct AAA website

Photo courtesy of the U.S. Air Force.

Comprising a pair of identical equilateral triangular legs tapering from 54 to 17 feet per side as they rise and meet at the top, this mathematical masterpiece was designed in 1947 by Finnish-American architect Eero Saarinen and structural engineer Haanskarl Bandel as a memorial to the Westward Expansion of the United States, as initiated by President Thomas Jefferson's 1803 Louisiana Purchase from France, St. Louis's resulting establishment as America's first civil government seat west of the Mississippi, and Lewis & Clark's 1804 expedition to the mouth of the Columbia River on the Pacific Ocean.

Photo by Becherka, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Situated in a 91-acre park on the city's original riverfront settlement site on a central axis with the domed Old Courthouse—where Missouri slave Dred Scott's case to live as a free man in free states across the river was rejected in 1857—the arch is a direct "Gateway to the West," symbolizing our great leaps forward in national growth, social progress, technological development, and architectural evolution, classical to modern. 

The Gateway Arch is Missouri's tallest publicly accessible structure and the nation's tallest commemorative monument, surpassing Texas' 570-foot San Jacinto Monument by 60 feet and Washington D.C.'s 555-foot Washington Monument by 75 feet.

Thus the Gateway Arch has become St. Louis's signature iconic image, earning a central appearance on the reverse of Missouri's state quarter in 2003. 

Thank you for visiting. I welcome your comments!

Wednesday, February 17, 2021

Now you see it...

Scollay Square, Boston, c.1920. Photo courtesy of the Boston Public Library Print Department.
Scollay Square, Boston, 1920-1962. Always somethin' doin' in these business-bustlin' blocks. Here, soldiers and sailors got prissily pinpricked at a tattoo parlor, sexually soaked at a brothel, tippled and totaled at a tavern, film-fixated at the Olympia, hotdog-hungry at Joe & Nemo's, sensually satiated by Sally Keith at Crawford House, and court-martialed for having abandoned ship too long.

Cornhill, Scollay Square, 1962. Photo by Cervin Robinson, Historic American Buildings Survey.
Here, students and statesmen, councilors and commoners could buy bargain books at the Brattle Book Shop on Cornhill (right), chow down on Chinese cheap-eats at Lun Ting's, take tea at the sign of the Steaming Tea Kettle, purchase prescriptions for pulling all-nighters at Epstein's Drugstore, palaver on politics over Pickwick Ale, talk turkey at The Tasty, and stay out of harlots' way if they could help it.

The Old Howard, Scollay Square, early 20th century.
Elsewhere, newsboys shared the latest scoops at the "Canada Point." William Lloyd Garrison published his anti-slavery newsletter, The Liberator, here in 1831 (and was tarred and feathered for it). Thomas Edison conceived the automatic vote-counter in 1868. Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone here in 1875. The Marx Brothers, Abbott & Costello, and Phil Silvers made pre-movie/TV splashes at the Old Howard (left). Franklin D. Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy browsed through books at the Brattle while at Harvard...

But (no) thanks to 1960s urban renewal frenzy and the impulse to consolidate all government bureaucracies into one nucleus... you don't!

Government Center, Boston, 2016. Photo by NewtonCourt (CC BY-SA 4.0).

Government Center, Boston, 1969–Present. Always nothin' doin' on this vast, vapid red desert — unless the Big Apple Circus comes to town, the Boston Harborfest Chowderfest tempts the taste buds, the New England Patriots clinch the Super Bowl, oldies concerts bring in the baby-boomers, or Occupy Boston gets the itch to claim another tent turf.

Otherwise, City Hall Plaza is but a cumbersome cut-through to your latté at Faneuil Hall Marketplace, your business meeting at Exchange Place, your gelato in the North End, your Guinness at The Kinsale, your Freedom Trail footwork, or your wonder-wander before you know where you're going.

Government Center, Boston, 1973. Photo courtesy of the U.S. National Archives.
True, master planner I.M. Pei and City Hall architects Kallmann, McKinnell & Knowles tried to solve the latter problem by giving more vista visibility to Faneuil Hall (right), Old North Church (left) and the Custom House Tower (below, right) than Scollay Square had done. But the square itself was too chock-full of history to be worth the sacrifice, especially for...

Now you see it!

Photo by Daniel Schwen (CC BY-SA 4.0).
...the aggrandization of the New City Hall the plaza rolls out a red carpet to. Hence, as you're just-passin'-thru the plaza, you can't not notice its namesake giving you the eagle-eye and the eagle wingspread, affirming that you not only can't fight City Hall, but can't banish it from your sight.

Erected in the concrete-brutalist modernism of Le Corbusier's 1957 La Tourette Monastery in Lyon, France (right), City Hall adapted its model's upper-level cantilevering, precast plank columns, variegated fenestration and shadow-sheltered open entrance to express the vigilance of city government over the people it represents yet its democratic accessibility to that citizenry. Protecting yet providing, sheltering yet sharing, overseeing yet open.

Each set of fenestration architecturally expresses a separate division of city government. The large double window over the entrance signifies the Mayor's office, as well as the Mayor's watchful eye over the public. The row of five double windows to the left is the School Committee, and the incrementally cantilevered upper layers of windows are for the larger City Council.

Hall of Fame?

City Hall, Boston, 1981. Photo courtesy of the Historic American Buildings Survey
The splendid acoustics and open public accessibility of City Hall's main lobby made the organist and choirmaster of St. Paul's Cathedral Choir of Men and Boys, of which I was a proud member in the '70s, much obliged to accept Mayor White's invitation to give a Christmas carol concert there — a prime opportunity to pique our prestige in the public eye.

But with fame came fury. We were promised a piano, but waiting for us at centerstage was a cheap little electric organ—without the extension cord needed to turn the organ around so our director could conduct us while playing it. But the City Hall bureaucracy so outlandishly expressed in the architecture couldn't be bothered to do the simple favor of fetching us a cord.

So the organ was relegated to the role of a pitch pipe, and we were forced to sing our entire repertoire a cappella, which got pretty embarrassing when long passages that cried out for harmony had to be rendered in unison, rendering us amateurish. Which lent credence to that profound proverb from Boston's favorite son, Benjamin Franklin:

Benjamin Franklin in London, 1767.
Painting by David Martin, displayed in the White House.
A little neglect breeds mischief:
For want of a nail, the shoe was lost,
For want of a shoe, the horse was lost,
For want of a horse, the rider was lost,
For want of a rider, the battle was lost,
For want of a battle, the kingdom was lost,
And all for want of a horseshoe nail.

For want of The Lost Cord, many chords in our carols were lost, as well as one whole number we had to scrap because it just wasn't feasible without accompaniment. Yet the loss of the accompaniment itself was a mixed blessing, for that organ certainly didn't make the sound our choirmaster would have cared to hear while "seated one day at the organ," as Sir Arthur Sullivan put it in the song after which I named our keyboard's missing link.

Following our act was a young folk group who performed a medley from Godspell, but nobody was listening, having apparently turned deaf ears to us for our musical mishap. Fame was as fleeting in this Hall as it had been in the Old Howard—as was public accessibility, now sacrificed for post-9/11 security and COVID-19 safety.

How's that for "Now you see it, now you don't"?

Saturday, February 13, 2021

Richardson's railroad relic

Photo by Cervin Robinson, Historic American Buildings Survey, June 1959.
Recognize this? You might spot it if you look to your right about 500 feet after leaving Woodland Station on the MBTA's Green Line trolley heading to Riverside Station. Yet it might not look quite like this, because of the sad shape it's fallen into since this photo was taken in 1959 as part of the U.S. Government's Historic American Buildings Survey.

1886 photo courtesy of the Houghton Library at Harvard University.
Historic, indeed. This happens to be the original Woodland depot, designed by the great architect Henry Hobson Richardson as one of a string of stations on the Boston & Albany Railroad, which in 1958 became the Highland Branch of the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA), now the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA).
Photo by Cervin Robinson, Historic American Buildings Survey, June 1959.
Built by the Norcross Brothers in June-September 1886 (beginning two months after Richardson's death), the station typifies the architect's Richardsonian Romanesque style of rock-faced granite trimmed with Red Longmeadow sandstone, a mountainous medieval gable, and a horizontal, earthbound spread across the land. Richardson and his style were chosen to craft the station as a landmark in a largely unspoiled tract of bucolic boondocks in Newton, in the hope that its Romanesque regality would entice more people to settle in that back country and bring in new revenue for the railroad whenever they traveled on business or vacation.
Photo by Cervin Robinson, Historic American Buildings Survey, June 1959.
Yet this station eschews Richardson's trademark Roman arches, carved ornament and Arts-and-Crafts décor for a simpler, crisper structure and interior, as if inviting riders from diverse socioeconomic backgrounds to wait inside for their train in an atmosphere that would feel like home to all, without the pretension of his Trinity Church, public libraries and homes for the rich.
Today it caters to the rich, but in a plebeian way as a storage "caddyshack" for the Woodland Golf Club. While the club is kept clean, Richardson's railroad relic is relegated to grungy groundskeeper status, its original use and architect spat on (and likely unknown) by those who exploit it for an ace-in-the-hole...
Photo by Pi.1415926535 (CC BY-SA 3.0).
...particularly with a loading-dock door that has made a hole where one of the original double windows that provided views of incoming trains from either side once was. Once a gracious gateway to future wealth, H.H. Richardson's original Woodland Station is now an onlooker onto a staid wealth it cannot partake of, on the lookout for an angel who will restore it to its former glory.

Thank you for viewing. I welcome your comments!

Sunday, September 6, 2020

Lost in the library...

Main entrance hall, New York Public Library, Main Branch (1911, Carrère & Hastings). Photo: Alex Proimos. License: CC BY 2.0.

Stacks, New York Public Library. Archival photo.
The library is more than a storehouse of knowledge. It's a bastion of logic.

I don't just mean the logical reasoning its patrons hoped we would nurture through reams of reading and research in its hallowed halls and stately stacks. 

I'm referring to the logical layout users expect of it upon entering—a proper progression of rooms, sequential adherence to the Dewey Decimal System (if used), clear wayfinding signs and nodes, etc.—so they won't have to hound elusive mountain goats or be waylaid by red herrings to track down a desired book or paper, claim a cubicle or computer, or reach a restroom in time.

Portico, New York Public Library. Photo: GK tramrunner229. License: CC BY-SA 3.0.
After all, no one wants a library experience like a wild duck hunt through Super Stop & Shop, a quest for a lost kid at Six Flags, or a scramble for budget parking in New York. Yet some libraries venture beyond their book repository and study hall roles so surreally I'd love to get lost in them, if only to gawk at their glory, eye their ornament, fixate on their frescoes, or thirst for the thought resting on their sky-high shelves. 

Besides, midcentury modern libes are as antiseptic as ERs. So why not enjoy a circus of sights while combing the collections, as either a diversion from studies or an artistic experience of the library's intellectual depth?

Library, Trinity College Dublin (1732, Thomas Burgh). Photo: David Iliff. License: CC BY-SA 4.0
In the Long Room at the Library of Trinity College, Dublin, the towers of gold-lettered leatherbound tomes are the main attraction, piquing our awe at the expanse of scholarship within those vaulting volumes, expressed by the barrel-vaulted ceiling and the forever feel of the hall that invites us to wander and ponder the leathery linguistics, wondering what food for thought to feast on first and get lost in last.
Library, University Club of New York (1899, Charles Follen McKim).
The University Club of New York library follows the Long Room's symmetrical hall-procession conservatism, adding the extravaganza of gilded moldings, painted patterns and storybook frescoes on groin vaults, divinely inspired by the Vatican's Borgia Apartments. These elements proclaim the club-clique exclusivity regarding who dares parade its premises and peruse its precious books. This contrasts with the bare-bones barrel-vaulting and structural emphasis that makes Trinity feel more publicly accessible (the Club Library, BTW, is not) in a way that is awe-inspiring but not effusive of the Club Library's palatial pomp.

Library, Clementinum, Prague, Czech Republic (1722, Kilian Ignatz Dientzenhofer,
frescoes painted 1727 by Jan Hiebel). Photo: Bruno Delzant. License: CC BY 2.0
The Baroque Library, dedicated in 1722 for the Jesuit university at Klementium in Prague, pushes the pomp further skyward with spiral columns raising the eye to the barrel-vaulted ceiling of Jan Hiebl's frescoes of 
allegorical motifs of education and portraits of Jesuit saints and university patrons. Add the geographical and astronomical globes and clocks and the old books, and intellectual stimulation never stops.
Admont Abbey Library (1776, Joseph Hueber), Admont, Austria
Photo by Jorge Royan (License: CC BY-SA 3.0)
Austria's Admont Abbey Library honors the Enlightenment with 48 windows lighting the white-and-gold palette,
 Bartolomeo Altomonte's frescoes of the stages of human knowledge through Divine Revelation, Baroque curlicues vaulting for heavenly realms, and the 70,000 volumes the visuals may stimulate you to be lost in enlightenment in.
George Peabody Library (1878, Edmund George Lind), Baltimore, Maryland.
Photo by Matthew Petroff (CC BY-SA 3.0).
The George Peabody Library is often pictured on ads for travel to Baltimore, and I'm not surprised. Deemed a "cathedral of books" by its first provost Nathaniel H. Morison, this 1878 neo-Greco palace presents the architectural equivalent of gilded tomes: gold-scalloped columns of cast-iron-railed book-stacks soar from a marble floor to a 61-foot latticed skylight, inviting us to lose ourselves in the light of knowledge.
Salt Lake City Public Library (2003, Moshe Safdie & Associates and VCBO Architecture)
Photo by Nova77 (GNU Free Documentation License)
But is lavish ornament necessary to enjoy loss in the library? At least not since Moshe Safdie's Salt Lake City Public Library was dedicated in 2003, flaunting enough curves, catwalks, 
curtain walls, cathedral ceilings and interspatial odysseys to strike awe in Archie's gang:

BETTY: It''s awesome!
CHUCK: Wow! And double wow!
JUGHEAD: Throw in a triple wow for me! (Archie #570)
Eager to eat up as much space as food (if not learning), Jughead nailed it regarding not just the library's astronomical dimensions, but also its expression of the infinite information the libes now possess, kudos to what bounds beyond bookshelf growth: cyberspace and the Internet. 

Now that's something to get lost in.

Thank you for visiting. I welcome your comments!

Balancing the Biltmores

Photo by Tony "the Marine" Santiago, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
The Biltmore Hotel first piqued my interest while watching Abbott and Costello on TV when I was a kid. In one sketch, once they managed to shut both the hood and the trunk of their car (shutting one made the other open) and stuffed their raft in the back, Bud told Lou to drive them to "the Biltmore Hotel near Phoenix" for their vacation. Lou stopped at the Biltmore next door. A row ensued:

BUD: "I said the Biltmore Hotel in Phoenix!"

LOU: "Well, it's the Biltmore Hotel right next to Phoenix Coffee Shop."

BUD: "I meant the Biltmore Hotel in Phoenix, Arizona!"

At that point my father informed me that there was also a Biltmore Hotel in Los Angeles, the city in which Bud and Lou lived (or barely lived; they were perpetually unemployed actors at the mercy of Mr. Fields, their cantankerous landlord) on The Abbott and Costello Show

So now that COVID-19 has put the kibosh on our plans to satiate our summertime wanderlusts, I thought I'd let my mind wander a bit and compare the two hotels—totally different in style, but miraculously built in the same decade—to see which might have been the better vacation resort for the legendary comedy team.
First of all, neither of the Biltmores looks anything like the one Lou stopped at, which confusedly intermingles the classicism of the Los Angeles Biltmore and the Art Deco of the Arizona Biltmore. (Nor was Phoenix Coffee Shop a real place.)

The Los Angeles Biltmore

L.A.'s "Biltmore Angel"—designed as a symbol of the City of the Angels its patrons were visiting—brought Beaux Arts beauty and Renaissance regalia to the city when it opened to festive fanfare in 1923. Since then it has hosted history in the making, from the Academy Awards to the arrival of the Beatles to the Democratic National Convention that nominated John F. Kennedy for President in 1960. Restored and reopened as the Millennium Biltmore in 2009, it remains the host with the most.

Photos by P.G. Roy Photography, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Leonard Schultze and S. Fullerton Weaver, architects of New York’s Pierre and Waldorf-Astoria hotels, designed the Biltmore in a mélange of Beaux-Arts, Mediterranean and Spanish-Italian Renaissance styles, befitting both L.A.’s Castilian heritage and Roaring '20s fashions.
Murals, frescoes, imported crystal chandeliers, carved marble fountains and columns, massive drapery and other delights embellish the Los Angeles Biltmore's 70,000 square feet of meeting, lounging, dining and club space, often integrating images of the “Biltmore Angel” into its lavish ornamentation.
The Biltmore's original 1,500 guestrooms included a Presidential Suite, where the Beatles stayed during their 1964 U.S. tour, accessing it by landing a helicopter on the hotel roof to avoid the hordes of screaming fans below. Latter-day renovations reduced the room count to 683 but restored the common areas to their ’20s twinkle.

Italian artist Giovanni Smeraldi, who painted murals in the Vatican and
the White House, hand-painted angels, cupids, Greek and Roman gods,
and other mythological figures on the ceilings of the Galleria...
 ...and the Crystal Ballroom, where the Academy of Motion Picture Arts
Sciences was founded at a luncheon banquet in 1927. Smeraldi's
apprentice, Anthony Heinsbergen, restored the ceilings in the 1980s.
Reliefs of Roman deities Ceres and Neptune and Spanish conquistadors
Balboa and Columbus adorn the Palladian entrance.
The lobby retains the travertine walls, oak paneling and artificial
skylight ceiling from when it was the Music Room, where Kennedy
set up his presidential campaign headquarters.
The Rendezvous Court, the old lobby-turned-tearoom, features a
Moorish cast-plaster beamed ceiling accented in gold paint, Italian
chandeliers, and a Spanish-Baroque bronze doorway with an
astrological clock that still works.
Each ballroom is decorated in remembrance of its original function
or in keeping with the hotel's California heritage. The Emerald
Room, formerly the main dining room, has a food theme: hand-
painted animals and fish along cast-plaster ceiling beams.
The Tiffany Room, originally the Crystal Ballroom’s drop-off
corridor, features exploration-themed reliefs and sculptures of
Queen Isabella, Columbus and other Spanish explorers.
The Gold Room combines an old upper-level supper club and lower-
level palm room in an artful ambiance of hand-oiled wood paneling,
mirrored windows, and concealed liquor cabinets from Prohibition.
A nautical theme dominates the indoor pool and health club. Brass
railings and window/door trim, teakwood deck chairs, and hand-laid
Italian mosaic wall and pool tiles recall 1920s cruiseliners.
The South Galleria’s Roman columns, marble balustrades and vaulted
ceiling are complemented with Pompeii-styled floral friezes.
In the Biltmore Bowl downstairs, eight Academy Award ceremonies
took place between 1931 and 1942, making Best Picture legends of
Cimarron, It Happened One Night, Mutiny on the Bounty,
Great Ziegfeld, The Life of Emile Zola, You Can't Take it With
You, Rebecca,
and How Green Was My Valley.
Since Abbott and Costello's 1941 movie Buck Privates got two Oscar nominations (Best Original Song for "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy," sung by the Andrews Sisters, and Best Original Music Score for Charles Previn), they might have felt at home at the L.A. Biltmore...had it not been for Lou's tendency to get lost in big spaces, experience supernatural phenomena such as paintings or statues coming alive, and fail to convince Bud of the truth of these tales. Besides, this hotel's sheer size might have made his cries of "HEYYYYY, AAAAABBUHHHHHHHHTT!" go unheard by his buddy.

So let's get to Phoenix...

The Arizona Biltmore

Built in 1929, the Arizona Biltmore was designed by Albert Chase McArthur in the horizontal, earthy, Prairie-School, Mayan temple-based vernacular of his former teacher Frank Lloyd Wright, who was the design consultant. Though Wright was displeased with the final design, McArthur clearly took so much from the master it's easy to mistake it for a Wright original...

All photos by Tony "the Marine" Santiago, aka Marine 69-71 (License: CC BY-SA 4.0).
...especially regarding the use of desert sand-casted concrete blocks to create surface patterns inspired by palm-tree trunks and Native American woven fabrics. Wright preferred square Textile Blocks like those on his Derby, Ennis and Hollyhock houses, but MacArthur stood his ground, and his building blocks became known as the "Biltmore Blocks" for giving the Biltmore a unique geometric pattern recalling the movement of water ripples, fish gills, billowing sails...

...or smoke rising from the fireplaces. In the Mystery Room, the billowy blocks on the mantel suggest the movement of flames in the hearth and smoke up the flue, accented by the upward pointing of the "Indian arrowhead" andirons. I also love the way the cove-lighting gilds the cornice without the application of gold paint common in the LA Biltmore.

The cove-lit cornice also complements and contrasts the Mystery Room's stained-glass ceiling, for the effect of natural light in the day and artificial light in the evening, each adding splashes of color without the need for applied décor, except for the ceiling gilding that blends with both, smoothing the day-to-night transition.

The Biltmore blocks—which do bear a slight resemblance to the ornamentation around Abbott & Costello's "Biltmore"— also contribute to the sense of fluid movement throughout the hotel's lobby, as a counterpoint to the static feel of the more vertically oriented Los Angeles Biltmore. The Arizona Biltmore lobby's spatial continuity would certainly make it easier for Lou to flee from the dangers he couldn't convince Bud of the truth of...or for his "HEYYYYY, AAAAABBUHHHHHHHHTT!" alarm to be more loud and clear along the long, continuous space.

Bud would clearly hear Lou's bawl in the Biltmore's original ballroom, the
 Aztec Room. A geometric mandala radiates on the carpet while copper beams, slanting gilt ceiling panels and Biltmore-Block filigrees augment the sense of upward and inward motion toward the sun, honoring the artfully domineering temples of Mexico's Aztec Empire.

The Gold Room would be another resonant echo-chamber for Lou's holler of helplessness, with its unobstructed corridor-space and its ceiling slanting to just enough of an apex for acoustic enhancement while maintaining the hotel's low-slung horizontality, helped by low-rise stairs. Geometric sconce stacks and billowy Biltmore Blocks add an Aztec aura.

Here was a place for Bud and Lou to splash their raft and join the nabobs who dipped here: the Catalina Pool. Built in the 1930s by Chicago chewing-gum king William Wrigley Jr., it was reportedly Marilyn Monroe's favorite pool. Irving Berlin wrote many songs while sunning on the deck, including "White Christmas," which opens with a nod to the climate he was in:
The Catalina Pool fountain.
The sun is shining, the grass is green,
The orange and palm trees sway.
There's never been such a day
In Beverly Hills, L.A.
But it's December the twenty-fourth,
And I am longing to be up North.

Though it was the Biltmore's Beaux-Arts bro that was actually in L.A., Berlin nailed the ambiance of the Arizona Bilt to the hilt, with a twist of irony: since winter frigidity makes us miss summer humidity, why the opposite now?

Balancing the Biltmores
And speaking of opposites: It's clear which Biltmore Bud and Lou preferred. Which one would best cure your summertime blues?

Thank you for visiting. I welcome your comments!