Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Economic delerium and architectural fever-dreams

"In the center of Fedora, that gray stone metropolis, stands a metal building with a crystal globe in every room. Looking into each globe, you see a blue city, the model of a different Fedora. These are the forms the city could have if, for some reason or another, it had not become what we see today. In every age someone, looking at Fedora as it was, imagined a way of making it the ideal city.."

Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities

For some reason (perhaps for solidarity among dying industries - they still print an Automotive section as well), the New York Times is still publishing an entire "Real Estate" section on the weekends. But Sunday's edition included an article that was highly worth reading: a feature on the unbuilt architecture of the Roaring Twenties.

The speculative binge of the late twenties seemed, for a time, like a great boon to architects and tall buildings. "In Manhattan in 1928, plans were filed for 14 buildings of 30 stories or higher, but by the next year the number was 52," writes author Christopher Gray.

Then reality set in when the stock market crashed at the end of 1929: "of these 52, just 19 would be built [in the midst of the Great Depression]. This ambitious cohort included designs that were indeed completed, like the Waldorf-Astoria and the Empire State Building."

At left, a 1929 proposal for a 100-story office building for Metropolitan Life next to Madison Square Park. Had it been built, it would today be the tallest building anywhere on the East Coast.

Most of our city skylines owe their existence to artificial economic booms of the past century. But the unbuilt visions can be even more impressive: like the fever-dreams of a delerious patient, we look back and wonder what they were thinking.

There are more examples from Houston, Texas in the early 1980s, when a boom in oil prices was generating spectacular real estate speculations for the city where most oil companies are still based.

The Bank of the Southwest proposed the 82-story skyscaper at right in 1982. When OPEC let loose its oil supplies in the mid-1980s, the oil price collapsed, along with Houston's economy and this proposal. A few months later the Savings and Loan crisis put the nail in the coffin for builders.

Of course, a lot of what happened in 1929 New York and 1980s Houston is happening again today, everywhere. In the delerium of an economic boom, architects and developers rushed to outdo each other with tall buildings and famous architects. Some of those architectural hallucinations are still being built, just as the Empire State Building was finished in 1931 (New York's current-tallest skyscraper didn't turn a profit until 1950).

Others buildings will enter the world of reality as deformed, misshapen siblings to their boom-era blueprints. Witness the Las Vegas condo hotel that, in February, responded to the foreclosure crisis by amputating the top 21 stories from the building mid-construction. The developer of that project, appropriately enough, is MGM Mirage.

But most of these dream-buildings will be unbuilt and forgotten. "The Missing Skyline," a recent post on Curbed, is a good survey of the New York City that New York City might have become if the infection of financial insanity had been allowed to continue a bit longer...

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Time warps

Portland Daily Photo blogger (and fellow Bonny Eagle High School alumnus) Corey Templeton has been doing some really neat photographs of historic postcards framed by the same locations in contemporary Portland:

Above: looking up Congress Street towards Congress Square.

Congress and Oak Streets. The old Columbia Phonograph is now a yoga store where you can drop lots of Benjamins on your path to enlightenment.

There's a whole group of people worldwide doing these framed photos on Flickr. In some, the historic pictures bear very little resemblance to the modern scenes that surround them (poor Lansing, Michigan). In others (especially those from Europe) there's little difference between the old photos and their modern-day frame. To my mind, the best ones, like these from Corey, combine recognizable buildings in both views, but contrast the two scenes with markedly different people, costumes, storefronts, and vehicles. Check out the awesome Strand Theater marquees in the top photo - they're long gone now, unfortunately.

Find more at www.flickr.com/groups/lookingintothepast/

Thursday, April 16, 2009

The Maine Mall...

...is bankrupt.

More accurately, the Mall's owners, General Growth Properties, whose business consists entirely of owning and operating hundreds of shopping malls nationwide, is bankrupt, thanks to crushing debt from over-inflated real estate speculations and plummeting enthusiasm for Made-In-China pap.

That's the thing about a recession. Why go to the Gap or Hot Topic to feel insecure about yourself, when you can merely contemplate your employment situation, for free?

So what's this mean for South Portland's wasteland of junk-food franchises and big box stores? The Mall itself will likely be sold at a bargain-basement price to satisfy General Growth's jilted creditors. But the outlook for the neighborhood doesn't look good. The old Circuit City, which has been abandoned for only a few weeks, already looks like a transplant from Chernobyl. Here's a good overview of the direction in which our malls are headed...

Monday, April 13, 2009

Return to Inwood Hill Park

Last weekend, a friend of mine recruited me to come down to NYC to lead a nature walk for some sixth-graders from Washington Heights. So I brought them to my old park-rangering haunt, Inwood Hill Park, for my first visit back there in almost three years (n.b.: my experience as an Urban Park Ranger at Inwood is more or less how this blog was born).

We walked up the hill through the old-growth woods in the Clove, climbed through the Indian caves, and we saw:
  • the red-tailed hawk
  • several cardinals
  • a downy woodpecker
  • lots of house sparrows and squirrels
It's hard to tell what the kids thought of it. They were very well behaved, but then, they were also attending a Saturday-morning educational program on their own free will. They definitely liked the caves, though, and they seemed to think that the cardinals were neat. I wish we could have seen the hawk attack a pigeon or something: then the kids definitely would have loved nature, forever.

Anyhow, the park is much as I remember it, although it feels much smaller without any leaves on the trees. There was one very exciting change, though. A crescent-shaped piece of the playing field next to the "salt marsh" (pictured above) has been fenced off, with signs announcing the following:
RESTORATION IN PROGRESS: This area is being passively restored to native salt marsh. Sensitive vegetation, including Salt Marsh Cordgrass (spartina alternafolia), is in the process of regenerating.
This is pretty exciting. Before it was filled in with gravel and debris from the subway excavations, this entire field had been an expansive, ecologically-rich salt marsh. Large oyster-shell middens in the park's woods attest that the marsh helped support, among other things, one of the Hudson estuary's more productive oyster beds in the adjacent Spuyten Duyvil Creek. In the decades since, the adjacent mudflat (which park personnel optimistically refer to as the "tidal marsh") hosted the last remnants of the old marsh around its fringes, but even these sad shreds were sorely abused with picnic garbage, combined-sewer overflows, and park workers who hacked the marsh plants down with machetes for unclear "safety" purposes.

It's funny how often "safety" gives pencilneck bureaucrats the fiat to act like dicks.

In recent years, the edges of the filled-in playing field have been sinking, as the decades-old landfill settles and as tides from the adjacent mudflats gradually rise higher. When I worked there in 2006, there were two big London Plane trees on this location. During the course of the summer, their leaves dried up and fell, as the trees' roots parched themselves on increasingly briny groundwater. Instead of adding new landfill and planting new trees, the Parks Department has decided to let it sink: a decision that will be a lot cheaper and do a lot more good to the Spuyten Duyvil's water quality.

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

More Glaciers of Portland

Belatedly fulfilling my promise of more glacier photos...

The Fore River Glacier.
Just like other glaciers in the wild, the Fore River Glacier possesses an alluvial fan pattern that spreads out as it approaches the water.

The Bayside Glacier.
It's only a fraction of a size of last year's glacier, thanks to a planned office building and parking garage that was due to begin construction this spring. The construction project has been canceled due to the financial crisis. As long that the same crisis doesn't also cancel the city's Public Works Department, we can look forward to a Bayside Glacier returned to its former glory next winter.

The Sable Oaks Glacier.
A view from the summit of the city's main snow dump. More Sable Oaks Glacier photos here.

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

March 6, 1890

The Portland Museum of Art had an opening this evening for its Biennial, and although there were many excellent things there, my favorite was this drawing, by an artist named Julianna Swaney, called "Central Park March 6 1890":

The man depicted is Eugene Schieffelin, who, as legend has it, made it his project to introduce all of the birds mentioned in Shakespeare to the new world in the late 19th century. He tried, and failed, to populate nightingales here "Believe me, love, it was the nightingale," Romeo and Juliet); he succeeded in introducing the House Sparrow ("Not a whit, we defy augury: there's a special providence in the fall of a sparrow," Hamlet) and the European Starling, which was mentioned only once in all of Shakespeare's complete works:
Nay, I will; that's flat:
He said he would not ransom Mortimer;
Forbad my tongue to speak of Mortimer;
But I will find him when he lies asleep,
And in his ear I'll holla 'Mortimer!'
I'll have a starling shall be taught to speak
Nothing but 'Mortimer,' and give it him
To keep his anger still in motion.
-Hotspur, in King Henry IV, part I.
And so, on March 6, 1890, Eugene Schiefflelin set free two flocks of starlings, the bird that Shakespeare considered to be an agent of torment, into Central Park. And the rest is history: the descendants of Schieffelin's starlings have multiplied themselves to a population of 200 million birds, living throughout temperate North America.

The starling has become a banner example of an unwanted invasive species. Yet Schieffelin was a member of the New York Zoological Society, and the American Acclimatization Society, a quasi-scientific organization that expressly sought to introduce non-native species into new ecosystems, in accordance with some scientific theories of the time. Without a doubt, he would have considered himself a conservationist.

In hindsight, we're prone to think of Schieffelin as an idiot. But on March 6, 1890, he was doing something he believed to be virtuous. As the birds flew out from the cage, he would have felt a sense of hope: the beginning of a new future. For all of the hassles it has caused in the years since, it must have been a beautiful moment.

Thursday, April 02, 2009

Packard's Corner, Boston, and the World's Oldest Car Park

During a bike ride through the Allston and Brighton neighborhoods of Boston last weekend, I passed by the building pictured above at a bend in Commonwealth Avenue called "Packard's Corner."

I snapped the photo because the building, which today houses apartments above first-floor shops, looked a lot like a repurposed parking garage, and the name of the building (like the name of the neighborhood) is the same as a defunct American car company, Packard Motors.

After some research, I found out that this building isn't merely a historic garage, but a historic car factory. In fact, this was the first car manufacturing plant designed by Albert Kahn, who later in his career would become famous as "the architect of Detroit."

According to the Brighton Allston Historical Society,
The name Packard's Corner refers to Packard's Sales Stable and Riding School which was located in the vicinity of Commonwealth Avenue's intersection with Brighton Avenue from 1885-1920. The Packard name was perpetuated by the important early 20th century Boston businessman and political figure Alvan T. Fuller who built the Packard Motor Car Company building at 1079-1089 Commonwealth Avenue in several stages between 1909 and 1930. This area has significant historical associations with Boston's early 20th century automobile industry. It was part of a larger "auto mile" of office buildings, show rooms and automobile related businesses which stretched from Kenmore Square to Packard's Corner along Commonwealth Avenue.

So Packard's Corner turns out to be an influential nexus in the history of Boston transportation. When the neighborhood was first known and named for its stables, the neighborhood was a hinterland. The stables occupied rural and urban spheres simultaneously.

And, in part because that's where the stables were, the neighborhood developed well-used road and street links with the rest of the city. In 1909, electric trolley service along Commonwealth Avenue helped to establish the neighborhood's dominant industry: the manufacture of automobiles and auto parts. The streetcar (which runs to this day as the B branch of the green line) enabled the transport of car factory workers and customers to Packard's Corner, which occupied a strategic middle ground between the city itself and its growing customer base in well-to-do suburbs like Brookline, just to the west. That Packard Motors happened to share a name with Packard Stables turns out to have been a coincidence (albeit one that helped potential car customers navigate their way to the showroom).

Packard Motors shut down along with Studebaker in the late 1950s, and through the late 20th century, the influence of motor vehicles on the landscape of Packard's Corner declined significantly. At some point in the late 1980s or 1990s, the Packard building was gutted and transformed into apartments, pictured above. It looks odd, with the apartment windows set back from the original windows, but the facade itself is probably preserved as a historic landmark. After all, according to the Brighton Allston Historical Society, "Kahn, in his design of the Packard building, 'deviated from traditional design to use a reinforced concrete frame and steel sash, introducing a new form of industrial architecture which combined beauty with utility.'"

In 1909, when it was built, this building was something entirely new: a reinforced concrete structure designed so that its interior spaces were substantial and open enough to handle motor vehicle traffic. In looks like a parking garage because it was designed like one: in fact, it's the first example of this type of architecture in the entire world.