A weekly round-up of my favorite preservation related stories from around the web and in the news. Click on the title of each story to jump through to the original article/blog post.
Then Historic Places Saved This Year – Huffington Post
“Every year, The National Trust for Historic Preservation highlights 10 places saved in the past year, as well 10 places that were unable to be saved from demolition or similar fates. Here are 10 historic places that you’ll still be able to visit in the years ahead thanks to preservationists.”
A Brooklyn Church Uncovers a Long-Hidden Celestial Scene – New York Times
“At Grace Church in Brooklyn Heights, long-hidden stars have been uncovered in the ceiling of the building, a 165-year-old Episcopal church at Hicks Street and Grace Court, under a $5 million renovation that includes a new copper roof, new insulation, new lighting, new wiring and a much-needed cleaning of many of the 3,200 organ pipes. What had looked until a few months ago like a dull ceiling of plain wood planks turned out to be a dazzling celestial extravaganza of eight-pointed stars in gold, yellow and red — so lacy they might be taken for snowflakes — set in an expansive vault of royal blue.”
“Preservationists in search of good news this month can turn to Memphis, where the city council voted unanimously to shell out $15 million in local, state and federal funds for the Crosstown Redevelopment Project. The vacant Sears Crosstown building, constructed and expanded in phases between 1927 and 1965, will be transformed into a $175 million mixed-use project. Sears stopped retail operations there in 1983 and the building has been abandoned since the company closed its distribution center in 1993. Blight has marred the neighborhood, now one of the poorest in Memphis, ever since.”
X is for X-Ray – Preservation in Pink
“X-rays are not just for people in hospitals or luggage in airport security; x-ray technology provides non-destructive testing techniques to aid in building forensics as well as art and object conservation. Non-destructive testing allows for greater exploration without unnecessarily harming historic fabric. X-rays can detect voids in building materials as well as leaks, cracks, and other signs of deterioration. Part of this is to understand the structure and ensure the safety of the researchers/contractors.”
A Conversation with Bob Vila – Preservation Nation
Ever wonder how Bob Vila came to love old houses? About his work with Ernest Hemmingway’s house in Cuba, Finca Vigia? Or what people do to their old houses that makes him cringe? Click through for a lovely interview with America’s favorite handy man.
Six Stories – 99% Invisible
“Elevators are old. History is full of things that lift other things. In ancient Greece, and China, and Hungary, there were systems of weights and pulleys and platforms designed to bring nobility–or their meals–to new heights. And somewhere below were draft animals, or even people, tasked with turning wheels to bring these early elevators up and down. These elevators were dangerous. Ropes would snap, and then anything getting raised or lowered would plummet to the ground. Fall one story and you break your leg–fall two stories you break your neck. And this fear of falling kept building heights low. People only wanted to ascend as high as they could walk. The tallest buildings at the time were churches and lighthouses–buildings made up primarily of empty space.
And then came Elisha Otis…”
A weekly round-up of my favorite preservation related stories from around the web and in the news. Click on the title of each story to jump through to the original article/blog post.
Scaffolding is All Over, Here’s Why The Monuments Still Look Majestic – Smithsonian Magazine
There’s been so much scaffolding recently in Washington D.C. that it looks like the capital is recovering from an incredibly ruthless alien invasion, a knock-down drag-out superhero brawl, or some other action film-level disaster. In a city as widely visited as Washington D.C., a city where it seems that even structures of the smallest import are national landmarks, it’s not exactly desirable to have the monuments, memorials and buildings concealed behind wood and metal cages. As a result, D.C. architects have gotten creative. They are using enormous scrims printed with the image of the building/monument (a practice long used in Europe). And they are using beautifully designed illuminated scaffolding, like that on the Washington Monument.
Fort Lyon Treatment Facility in Colorado– Here and Now
Fort Lyon, a former Army fort and sanitarium that opened after the Civil War feels like an Ivy League college campus – some people call it the Princeton of the Plains. It was a minimum security prison until two years ago when the state shut it down because of the budget shortfall. Now it has a new life as an experimental drug treatment facility. When the prison closed, it was a huge blow to the region’s economy. State leaders eventually directed more than $10 million to reopen the facility for its new use. Preservation can happen in the most unexpected of ways.
Turn of the century Paris was choc-a-block with macabre night clubs where one could ponder mortality and be heckled by Satan while sipping on cocktails named after pestilence and disease. Not my cup of tea, I’d probably rather have my libations free of plague and Satan, but these photos are pretty amazing!
Why Do Old Places Matter? – National Trust of Historic Preservation
“This series of essays will explore the reasons that old places are good for people. It begins with what I consider the main reason—that old places are important for people to define who they are through memory, continuity, and identity—that “sense of orientation” referred to in With Heritage So Rich.These fundamental reasons inform all of the other reasons that follow: commemoration, beauty, civic identity, and the reasons that are more pragmatic—preservation as a tool for community revitalization, the stabilization of property values, economic development, and sustainability.”
Yesterday I reviewed Sam Roberts’ Grand Central: How a Station Transformed America and it was so filled with fun facts about the station and its preservation that I couldn’t resist sharing a few of my favorites!
- Winston Churchill’s maternal grandfather, Leonard Jerome, was Cornelius Vanderbilt’s stockbroker.
- The English language didn’t include the word ramp until Grand Central was built. The station was the first to be virtually stair-less. The ramps in the station were perfectly calculated to speed travelers (from the elderly to toddlers and their baggage) along. The use of the word ramp, probably comes from rampart.
- It is home to the largest Tiffany stained glass clock in the world.
- The number IV on the clock is a door that overlooks Park Avenue when opened.
- The constellations painted on the ceiling of the grand concourse are backward. Station officials cover the blunder by claiming the celestial mural represents God’s view.
- There is a five-inch-diameter hole dating to 1957 in the ceiling of the Main Concourse just above the constellation Pisces. It was cut to accommodate a cable installed to keep a five-ton Redstone missile displayed during the Cold War from tipping over. It was preserved during the restoration.
- In the northwest corner of the Main Concourse ceiling there is a symmetrical dark patch. Until the 1990s, the entire ceiling was darkened from decades of tobacco and nicotine residue. During the renovation, the patch was left as a “before and after.” The ceiling was in such good condition after the cleaning, only a few gallons of paint were needed to get it in tip-top shape.
- It is home to the largest sculptural grouping in the world.
- You can say, “It’s like Grand Central Station in here” anywhere in the world and everyone will know you mean that its chaotic and frenetic scene.
- In an act of irony (or hypocrisy?) an East Staircase that had been nixed from the original station plan was constructed, even though the decade long court battle won by preservationists in the 70s centered around the addition of an office tower atop the station – even though one had initially been planned for the station (supports for the tower were incorporated in the building during construction, but were ultimately not needed when the plan was abandoned).
- To clean dirt from the walls of the terminal, they were painted with plastic. The plastic was then carefully peeled away, taking the the dirt and grime with it.
- There is a secret platform known by station employees as Track 61 that is used by VIPs and presidents (including FDR and George W. Bush).
- Acorns and oak leaves are Vanderbilt family emblems. They decorate some of the terminal’s light fixtures and friezes.
- The civil rights movement was nurtured at Grand Central, through A. Philip Randolph and the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters.
- The original quarry in Tennessee was located and reopened specifically to provide matching stone to replace damaged stone and for the new East Staircase during restoration. Each piece of new stone is labeled with its installation date and the fact that it was not a part of the original Terminal building.
Winston Churchill once said, “We shape our buildings, and afterwards our buildings shape us.” Where and how we build something tells a story of time and place, but how the building is used and its effect on people and development tells another story. Such is the case with New York City’s iconic Grand Central Station, which is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year. In the book Grand Central: How a Terminal Transformed America, popular historian Sam Roberts recounts the amalgam of events and powerful people that shaped the station and how the station has effected New York City, the United States and the millions of travelers who have crisscrossed the vast terminal over the last century. Making this station come alive through the story of the people who built it, use(d) it, and saved it from the wrecking ball is what Roberts excels at in this celebratory volume.
Grand Central Station solved a problem. A depot existed on the site decades before the Grand Central we now know. Built by Cornelius Vanderbilt, the ruthless industrialist and railroad tycoon, it was envisioned as a single station for all three of his railroads in a central location. He chose not the city’s center but the bucolic outskirts predicting that the city’s growth and the station’s capacity for development would make it central in time. It had a messy open train yard that made the streets surrounding the station incredibly dangerous and its train tunnels were equally as hazardous. They were filled with smoke, cinders and heat, created by the steam-powered locomotives, conditions which precipitated a catastrophic crash in 1902. The accident galvanized the public. When politicians and lawmakers began clamoring for change, the station was redesigned.
The redesign was revolutionary. An innovative two-level station for incoming and outgoing trains made it the largest train station by number of tracks and platforms in the world. The trains were all electric which eliminated hazardous tunnel conditions. It was also the first train station to be all electric, which was advertised by leaving hundreds of light bulbs uncovered throughout the structure. Outside the station, viaducts safely sped motorists around the terminal, which would have otherwise obstructed traffic. And the dangerous open train yard was decked over, creating some of the most valuable real estate in the world, Park Avenue. Decking over the train yard and leasing the property above also created one of modern real estate’s most important principals – air rights. William J. Wilgus the engineer who was responsible for the station’s design and construction coined the term “taking wealth from the air” and used the idea to help finance the station. Though Wilgus has been largely forgotten by history, Roberts argues that it was his innovative ideas that made Grand Central so spectacular, profitable, and influential.
Grand Central Station contributed to a geographical and cultural shift in New York City and the US, according to Roberts. When the station opened, the New York Times complained it was too far uptown to be central, but eventually development around the station created mid-town Manhattan (just as Vanderbilt predicted). It fostered the nation’s westward expansion and growth via the railroad. It also changed the American family; reliable trains allowed families to move to leafy suburbs, while bread-winners traveled to and from the city to work each day. In fact, the word commuter didn’t exist before Grand Central Station. An employee noticed a lot of people were taking the train twice a day, five days a week and decided that instead of charging these folks full fare, the station would commute it – the same way a prisoner’s sentence can be commuted – as a part of a marketing scheme!
Grand Central was the subject of an unprecedented Supreme Court decision and multimillion dollar restoration effort. Predictably, my favorite chapter of the book centered around the station’s preservation! Roberts did not disappoint. He laid out the facts surrounding its preservation and renovation in delightfully positive terms. By the 1960s, Grand Central was in decline. Faced with mounting financial woes, Penn Central proposed a large office tower to be built over the designated historic landmark. (Ironically, it was Wilgus’ brilliance that almost doomed the station. He’d planned for the world’s tallest building atop the terminal and though the plans were abandoned, the structural supports were built.) The proposal drew an enormous amount of opposition, most notably from Jacquelyn Kennedy Onassis. The preservation battle eventually found its way to the Supreme Court, which upheld a city’s legal right to preserve a privately-owned historic landmark for the first time EVER. The legal precedent set in the case is essential to preservation today! The preservation triumph was followed up by a mid-1990s restoration effort that cost $800 million and took 12 years to complete.
Grand Central: How a Terminal Transformed America is POPULAR history, not an academic work. If you are looking for a definitive text or critical analysis of the station’s history, this is not the book for you. On the other hand, if you are a railroad aficionado, a history buff, a lover of old buildings, or just a lover of Grand Central Station then this is the ticket. It is informative, but also light and fun. And it’s chock full of interesting facts and trivia (so much so that it sometimes feels like a list of amazing but somewhat disjointed tidbits and anecdotes). Throughout the book, Roberts’ tone is conversational – little wonder given that he is a veteran journalist. He has worked as the New York Times‘ urban affairs correspondent, as deputy editor of the Times‘ Week in Review section, urban affairs columnist, et cetera. Thanks to his tone, journalist style, and skillful story-telling Grand Central is entertaining, easy to read and accomplishes Roberts’ goal to share the story of the station and its success on its 100th anniversary.
Though not exhaustive, Roberts’ history is inspiring and brings the station to life in a new way. His narrative is laced with anecdotes about the people who shaped the station from inception to preservation and the people whose lives were subsequently shaped by the palatial Beaux Arts beauty. These stories bring heart to the 35,000 square feet of marble, shops, waiting rooms, restaurants, etc. that make up the station. This book also celebrates pioneering efforts in engineering, architecture, urban planning and preservation, which created and reshaped Grand Central Station. It pays due credit to a building that re-shaped NYC, the United States and made such an indelible imprint in US pop culture. Again, this is not a definitive work, but if you are looking for a celebration of this remarkable piece of architecture and history, this is it. Churchill, ever eloquent, could not have been more right.
Grand Central Publishing/$30
Check back at Bricks + Mortar later in the week for some Fun Facts about Grand Central! Who knows, maybe it will help you win pub trivia!
A special thanks to Kevin Henry for letting me borrow his copy of Grand Central (and for letting me hold it hostage for so long)!
The Blue Grass Trust’s deTours is a group of young professionals (and the young at heart). The program provides behind-the-scenes tours of historic buildings, places, and sites in central Kentucky. BGT deTours are free and open to the public. They occur on the first Wednesday of every month.
Called “one of this country’s greatest treasures,” by Richard Moe, the Pope Villa in Lexington, Kentucky was one of the most avant-garde buildings in the country when it was built in the early 1800s. Designed by America’s “first professional architect” for a US Senator, the house was a cutting edge master piece. As the home passed into subsequent hands, however, its genius was misunderstood or unrecognized and was soon altered to fit a more traditional mold. Buried under layers of additions, the house was eventually divided into student housing before suffering its final degradation, arson, in the 1980s. Today the house is owned by the Blue Grass Trust and is being slowly and painstakingly restored.
To kick of Preservation Month, the BGT invited deTours to visit the house. It was a rare behind-the-scenes look at a historic building mid-restoration/reconstruction. Behind the reconstructed facade, architectural elements original to the interior lay propped against walls with exposed lathing and cracked plaster, waiting to be installed. Upstairs, a structure of temporary pathways crisscrosses the vast rooms to provide safe passage for visitors who are curious about the second floor reception rooms for which the house is famous or the fire that nearly destroyed the building. Charred beams, plaster, lathing and other evidence of the fire remain exposed. Bits of the original wallpaper chosen by Eliza Pope still hang on the walls in some places. It is at once eery and exciting. Eery because of the house’s state of suspended decay (one expects to catch sight of a ghost at every turn), exciting because so much of the house’s inner workings and historical elements are currently exposed to study.
Born and educated in England, Benjamin Henry Latrobe emigrated to the United States in 1795 or 1796. Trained by neoclassical architect SP Cockerell and engineer John Smeaton, Latrobe quickly found commissions to design houses and public buildings in the US. Having established himself as the foremost architect, engineer and designer in the country, President Thomas Jefferson appointed him surveyor of public buildings in 1803. As surveyor he was responsible for continuing design and construction of the White House and the US Capital building.
Over his illustrious career, Latrobe helped create a distinctly American style of architecture “elegantly austere exteriors which contained interiors rich in variety” and set a standard of professionalism that resonates today. He designed and collaborated on some of the country’s most important structures including the Bank of Pennsylvania (the first major Greek Revival building in the country), the Baltimore Basilica, the University of Pennsylvania, and Christ Church in Washington, DC. etc.
The Pope Villa is one of only three remaining residential buildings designed by Latrobe.
While in Washington, Latrobe met John Pope, an attorney and US senator from Lexington, Kentucky. “One-Arm” Pope (I’m not joking here, he literally had one arm due to a childhood farming accident), needed a summer home in Lexington to entertain guests and to use as a political base. He asked Latrobe to contribute a design – a move that would ensure that the summer home was the talk of Lexington. And it was, as much for its aesthetic and the reputation of Latrobe, as for the dignitaries that were entertained there.
Unfortunately, the entertaining was not done by Senator Pope. Shortly after building the house, Pope lost his senate seat due to his opposition to the War of 1812, an extremely unpopular position in Kentucky. His half English wife, Eliza, and house built by an Englishman did nothing to salvage his reputation.
The Popes resided at Pope Villa (also known as Pope Place) only a few short years. In 1816, Pope and his wife moved to Frankfort he was (quite controversially) appointed Secretary of State. The house was subsequently leased to a succession of well-positioned men who used it as a seasonal residence and for entertaining. In 1819, for example, Major William S. Dallam hosted a lavish reception for former President James Madison, General Andrew Jackson, former Kentucky Governor Isaac Shelby, and a who’s who list of other prominent Kentuckians.
Later, Pope formed a political alliance with President Andrew Jackson, who appointed him Governor of the Arkansas Territory. As governor, he again collaborated with Latrobe. The two worked closely on a proposal for vast internal improvements of Western America, including highways, bridges and canals.
Pope went on to hold a number of other well-regarded political offices, but his Senate term remained the high point of his career.
Though Pope only lived in the house that bears his name for four years, he owned it for more than a quarter of a century. He did not sell the property until 1836.
The Pope Villa is notable for the elegance of its design. It is believed to be the result of a close collaboration between Latrobe and Pope’s wife, Eliza. The design married his need for the pragmatic use of space and her sophistication. The result was an innovative plan that incorporated elements of neo-classical architecture and the picturesque and provided a wholly unique spacial concept for American residential architecture.
The cubed-shaped brick villa broke from tradition. It’s minimal facade is dominated by a one-story white portico composed of two Greek columns flanked by arches. The grand domed circular rotunda with skylight was unheard of for a residential structure. And the spacial plan defied the fashion of the day. To enter the house, guests passed through a doorway flanked by Ionic columns and large sidelights into a square hall, where they were welcomed into Mr. Popes office on the left, Eliza’s parlor on the right, or ushered upstairs where Latrobe placed the main reception rooms. This was a departure from the long center hallway most guessed would have expected.
Latrobe hated the center hall plan because it caused the co-mingling of guests, members of the household and servants. He also despised the use of a rear-ell to house all the service functions. His plan cleverly concealed the servants and their goings-about while incorporating the laundry, kitchen and bake house within the main structure. Servants were able to discreetly move between floors by using a separate staircase and hidden corridors.
Aesthetically, Latrobe drew inspiration from 16th century Italian architect Andrea Palladio, which probably appealed to Eliza, who grew up in London where she would have been exposed to other Palladio-inspired structures. Unlike Palladio’s villas, however, Latrobe designed a series of rectilinear and curvilinear rooms for the interior of the Pope Villa. These rooms were another break with tradition. They were surprising not only for their shape, but also because they were dramatically splashed with light and shadow – Latrobe’s use of the term “scenery” to describe the effect reflects his loyalty 18th century Picturesque landscape design principles.
The Popes began construction of the villa around 1812, before Latrobe finished the designs. Using local builder Asa Wilgus, they speculated and made changes as they went along, including enlarging the windows on the second floor and nixing the third floor attic story. After the Popes were forced to sell the house, successive owners made additional changes to both interior and exterior, including a dramatic makeover by Thomas Lewinski, who was also responsible for Henry Clay’s Ashland estate. At some point, a rear ell was added (I imagine Latrobe rolled over in his grave). And later Victorian additions were made. Eventually, the house was converted into ten apartments for local university students, obscuring Latrobe’s original plan almost entirely.
A 1987 arson turned out to be a boon for the Pope Villa. Though the fire destroyed the roof and damaged sections of the second floor, the blaze caused ownership of the building to fall to The Blue Grass Trust for Historic Preservation. The BGT saved it from demolition and from obscurity. Its extensive research uncovered a wealth of knowledge about the house as an historic resource and made it famous in American architectural history/historic preservation circles. It is now regarded as one of the most important buildings of Federal America.
Since the BGT acquired the Pope Villa, it has been a lab for restoration efforts, conservation techniques and research. Countless architectural historians, preservationists and craftsmen have studied the house and its restoration/conservation process or have made hands on contributions to research, restoration and conservation.
For more information about the process of restoring the villa, visit the links below: