On Preservation, Progress, and Penn Station.

The Waiting Room at old Pennsylvania Station, designed by Charles McKim and William Richardson
The Waiting Room at old Pennsylvania Station, designed by Charles McKim and William Richardson

Tonight at the Center for Architecture in New York City, I’ll be on a panel discussing the once and future Pennsylvania Station. The event follows the 50th anniversary of the demolition of Penn Station and was prompted by a forthcoming two-man play about the subject, The Eternal Space, written by Justin Rivers. I was lucky enough to see a preview of play a while back and it is absolutely terrific. It’s the story of two men: one employed to demolish the station and one determined to save it.

On October 28th, 1963 the demolition of the old Pennsylvania Station began. The wrecking crews worked outside in the morning drizzle to dismantle a fifty-three-year-old architectural marvel. Inside, a construction worker turned photographer was running away from his past while an aging English teacher couldn’t let his go. Their coincidental meeting on that day began a three-year conversation over the value of old and new, as one man fought to keep the station standing while the other was taking it down. This is the premise for The Eternal Space, a two-man play that charts an unlikely friendship during the social and cultural upheavals of the mid-1960s.

What’s particularly impressive is how the play manages to address both sides of the issue. Preservation is critical to connecting us to our own history but what if it impedes progress? How do we define progress? How do we determine the value of a work of art? The play asks many questions but doesn’t offer any easy answers. It does however, leave you with a lot to consider.

A crucial aspect of The Eternal Space, and of tonight’s event, is photography. Photographs documenting the entire life of Penn Station –some famous, some never seen– serve as a background for the actors, silently telling their own story and offering their own compelling provocations. They seem particularly relevant today, as we consider a new Penn Station at a time when images and renderings have become  powerful tools for architects, planners, and developers. The Eternal Space has amassed a catalog of over 500 never-published/exhibited photos from New York based-photographers. Contributors to the collection include:

• Norman McGrath, a renowned, professional architectural photographer whose work has appeared in every notable architectural publication.
• Peter Moore, a professional photographer known for his documentation of the Fluxus movement in New York City. His Penn Station photographs are a small portion of his commercially successful body of work.
• Alexander Hatos, a career employee of the Pennsylvania railroad whose photographic catalog offers the unique perspective of employee access.
• Ron Ziel, an internationally acclaimed railroad historian and Long Island native. His collection documents the station’s entire lifespan and includes images from his perspective as a LIRR commuter in the 1960s.
• Aaron Rose, an accomplished photographer whose images, the New York Times declares, “seem to caress the world”. He was virtually unknown to the photography world until 1997, when four images were exhibited at the Whitney Biennial.

After a reading of selections from The Eternal Space,  a panel discussion will consider what we saw and heard, and look to the past and future of Pennsylvania Station. Panelists include photographer Norman McGrath, Lorraine Dheil, author of The Late, Great Pennsylvania Station, playwright Justin Rivers, and myself. It should be a fun night and hopefully a productive discussion.

I think seats are still available, so register here.

Design Decoded: Scaffolding is All Over D.C. Here’s Why the Monuments Still Look Majestic


capitol dome restoration

Rendering of the scaffolding that will surround the dome during its restoration.

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. In cities such as New York or Chicago, where change is the norm, scaffolding is a part the city fabric, but in a city where history is the major draw, where there are certain structures that visitors feel they have the inalienable right to see, scaffolding poses something of a problem. As a result, D.C. architects have gotten creative.

The printed scrim in concealing the scaffolding in front of the Supreme Court Building. The white Vermont Imperial Danby marble building has been completed repaired and cleaned with a process that uses technology similar to dermatological lasers. Please excuse my low-res photo.

At the end of September, scaffolding was removed from the western facade of the Supreme Court Building after a complete restoration. But during the year that the building was covered, visitors were still able to enjoy Cass Gilbert’s design thanks to a scrim printed with a full-size image of the marble facade. It’s a common practice in Europe that’s starting to be seen more frequently in the U.S., as also illustrated by the recent scrims on Independence Hall in Philadelphia and on the Plaza Hotel in New York City. The Supreme Court scrim was so well done that from a distance I didn’t even notice it at first. While the image lacks the depth and complexity of the original, for tourists hoping to snap a picture, fake can be just as good – and just as functional.  It’s fascinating to me that what is essentially a big billboard can act as a proxy for a building (or, as in Hong Kong, an entire city skyline).  After all, dating back to at least Ancient Greece, building facades have acted as signs denoting the function or purpose of the structure.

Scaffolding designed by Michael Graves & Associates circa 2000. Interested in the specifications for the dramatic structure currently enshrouding the Monument? Check this excellent graphic from the Washington Post.

A different approach was taken with the scaffolding now surrounding the Washington monument, which has been closed to visitors since the structure was damaged by a 5.8 magnitude earthquake in 2011. The $15 million repair should finish up next spring, and until then the iconic monument will be enclosed in an impressive feat of architecture and engineering that beautifully illuminates the obelisk every night. This isn’t the first time the Washington Monument has been covered with illuminated scaffolding. In fact, the current scaffolding is nearly identical to the system designed by architect Michael Graves & Associates that was used for two years during the monument’s 1998-2000 restoration. MGA’s scaffolding mimics not only the shape of the monument, but is enclosed in a translucent mesh patterned with an exaggerated image of its stone and mortar joints.

Rendering of the scaffolding that will surround the dome during its restoration.

Last but certainly not least, is the Capitol dome. The symbol of the city and of American democracy. While a lot of people would probably love to see the inner workings of the Capitol cleaned up, the dome, last restored in 1960, is overdue for a little paint, spackle, and some serious repairs to its rusted cast iron structure. That process begins later this month and will continue for about two years while the dome’s 1,000 cracks and imperfections are repaired. The scaffolding that will surround the dome from its base up to the Statue of Freedom isn’t quite as “designed” as the previous examples, but it seems like the Architect of the Capitol is making it as minimal and unobtrusive as possible and, like the Washington Monument, it will be also illuminated at night while workers are making repairs. this might not be the Capitol cleaning

The architecture of Washington D.C. tells the story of America. Scaffolding is an inevitable part of maintaining our history and ensuring that story is told for centuries to come. It can be unsightly and inconvenient, but in the right hands, with the right motivation, the scaffolding-covered monumental architecture of D.C. continues to communicate the ideals that inspired the nation’s founders.

This article originally appeared on Design Decoded.

Design Decoded: The Inventive Mind of Walter Hunt, Yankee Mechanical Genius

safety pin patent

Walter Hunt’s 1849 patent for bent wire “dress pins”. As Hunt writes in his patent, “The distinguishing features of this invention consists of the construction of a pin made of one piece of wire or metal combining a spring, and clasp or catch, in which catch, the point of said pin is forced and by its own spring securely retained. They may be made of common pin wire, or of the precious metals.”

Walter Hunt (1785-1859), a 19th century engineer and machinist, was only a bit player in the history of the sewing machine but he was a prolific “Yankee mechanical genius” who had a penchant for invention and innovation. Unfortunately for him, he was also a Yankee business dunce. Well, that’s not entirely fair. He was reportedly a benevolent man who believed in helping others over making a profit. But his business acumen was lacking and he rarely had the capability to do more than sell the rights to his designs for much less than they were worth. Hunt’s hundreds of inventions include a saw, a steamer, ink stands, a nail-making machine, a rifle, a revolver, bullets, bicycles, a shirt collar, a boot heel, and a ceiling-walking circus device. Some of these items are still in use today and though Hunt’s name is not well known, his creations are.

walter hunt fountain pen

Walter Hunt’s patent for “new and useful improvement” to the fountain pen. Hunt writes in his patent: “The objects aimed at by me in the construction of said pen, is the combination of all in one of inkstand, pen, shaft, and pen holder, so arranged as to be convenient for the pocket, and adapted to the common steel pen, to be changed at pleasure, to be supplied from the combined fountain or from the common inkstand.”

Hunt designed the safety pin (top image) in three hours to settle a $15 debt to one of the many draftsman he tasked with drawing up his patents. Similar pins had existed for ages but nothing so efficient, made from just a single piece of wire. The draftsman, J.R. Chapin, later paid Hunt $400 for all the rights to every variation of twisted wire than Hunt could think up.

Walter Hunt’s “Volition Repeater” rifle.

Hunt also played an early but critical role in the successful development of the American Arms industry. His 1849 design for a “Volitional Repeater” rifle made clever use of several other recent discoveries in repeating mechanisms, breech loading and bullets. While it was a brilliant display of innovation, it was also prone to failure. In characteristic fashion, Hunt sold his design to entrepreneur George Arrowsmith. Soon after, the design went into production by the Robins and Lawrence Arms Company, where three men worked on improvements to the firing mechanism: Benjamin Tyler Henry, Horace Smith and Daniel B. Wesson. Thanks to Hunt’s faulty design, the partnership of Smith & Wesson was born. In 1855, an arms conglomerate directed by Oliver F. Winchester bought out Smith & Wesson’s company among other purchases, eventually forming the New Haven Arms Company, which produced one of the most fearsome weapons of the Civil War: the Henry repeating rifle. None of it would have happened without Walter Hunt’s volitional repeater.

Walter Hut, Patent No. 24,517 (June 21, 1859) for “a new and useful Method of Constructing and Attaching the Heels of Boots and Shoes.” This wasn’t Hunt’s only foray into footwear. He also designed suction-cup shoes allowing circus performers to walk up walls and across ceilings!

Hunt is sometimes called the man who gave away a fortune — an appellation that could apply for a number of reasons. The images included in this post are only a very few of Hunt’s many designs. There’s little doubt that he was not a particularly gifted businessman who was constantly in debt, spending all his money on patents and other costs related to his almost compulsive inventiveness. Nonetheless, he seems to have truly been a man who enjoyed the process of creation over reward and riches, though he ultimately did okay for himself thanks to his various designs for bullets and casings. Hunt could’ve been another Edison, but he didn’t have the discipline. Instead, he spent his life in the shadow of men like Oliver Winchester and Elias Howe. And sadly, that is how he spends his death as well. I haven’t been out to pay a visit to Hunt’s grave yet, but according to the comprehensive sewing history website Sewalot, Hunt’s grave, which is not entirely immodest, can be found in the shadow of the much larger burial monument of Elias Howe.

via Design Decoded http://blogs.smithsonianmag.com/design/2013/10/walter-hunt-yankee-mechanical-genius/

Design Decoded: The Many, Many Designs of the Sewing Machine

thomas saint sewing machine

Thomas Saint’s 1790 drawing for a leather sewing machine

In the early years of the 19th century, the invention of the sewing machine was all but inevitable. Factories were filling with seamstresses and tailors, and savvy inventors and entrepreneurs around the world saw the stitching on the trousers. There were an incredible number of machine designs, patents, and — some things never change — patent lawsuits.

Here’s a brief overview describing some of the greatest hits (and misses) to illustrate the heady mix of industrialism, politics and revolutionary rhetoric that surrounded the development of the sewing machine.

The design of the first sewing machine actually dates back to the late 18th century, when an English cabinetmaker by the name of Thomas Saint drew up plans for a machine that could stitch leather. He patented the design as “An Entire New Method of Making and Completing Shoes, Boots, Spatterdashes, Clogs, and Other Articles, by Means of Tools and Machines also Invented by Me for that Purpose, and of Certain Compositions of the Nature of Japan or Varnish, which will be very advantageous in many useful Appliances.”

The rather prolix title partly explains why the patented was eventually lost – it was filed under apparel. It’s not known if Saint actually built any of his designs before he died, but a functioning replica was built 84 years later by William Newton Wilson. Though it’s not exactly practical, the hand-cranked machine worked after a few slight modifications.

first sewing machine

left: Madersperger’s 1814 design, illustration from a circa 1816 pamphlet by the inventor. right: a later Madersperger prototype, possibly his last

In the first half of the 19th century there was an explosion of sewing machine patents – and patent infringement cases. In 1814, Viennese tailor Josef Madersperger was granted a patent on a design for a sewing machine he had been developing for nearly a decade. Madersperger built several machines. The first was apparently designed to sew only straight lines while later machines may have been specially made to create embroidery, capable of stitching small circles and ovals. The designs were well received by the Viennese public but the inventor wasn’t happy with the reliability of his machines and he never made one commercially available. Madersperger would spend the rest of his life trying to perfect his design, a pursuit that would exhaust his last penny and send him to the poorhouse – literally; he died in a poorhouse.

An image of Thimmonier’s sewing machine, from an 1880 issue of Sewing Machine News

In France, the first mechanical sewing machine was patented in 1830 by tailor Barthélemy Thimonnier, whose machine used a hooked or barbed needle to produce a chain stitch. Unlike his predecessors, Thimonnier actually put his machine into production and was awarded a contract to produce uniforms for the French army. Unfortunately, also like his predecessors, he met with disaster. A mob of torch-waving tailors worried about losing their livelihood stormed his factory, destroying all 80 of his machines. Thimonnier narrowly escaped, picked himself up by his mechanically-assembled bootstraps, and designed an even better machine. The unruly tailors struck again, destroying every machine save one, with which Thimonnier was able to escape. He attempted to start over in England but his efforts were for naught. In 185,7 Barthélemy Thimonnier also died in a poorhouse.

So things didn’t turn out well for three of the more prominent early enablers of prêt-à-porter apparel in Europe. But what was going on across the pond? What was going on in that upstart nation of go-getters, problem solvers, and destiny manifesters? Well that’s where things get really interesting.

Walter Hunt sewing machine

Drawings from Walter Hunt’s sewing machine patent, dated June 27, 1854.

Walter Hunt was a prolific inventor and was described by Smithsonian curator Grace Rogers Cooper in her 1968 paper, The Invention of the Sewing Machine, as a “Yankee mechanical genius.” He designed a nail-making machine, a plow, a bullet, a bicycle and the safety pin, which was designed in three hours to settle a $15 debt. A clever man who was attuned to the tenor of the times, Hunt understood the value of a machine that could sew and set out to built one in 1832. He designed a simple machine that used two needles, one with an eye in its point, to produce a straight “lock stitch” seam and encouraged his daughter to open a business producing corsets. But Hunt had second thoughts. He was dismayed by the prospect that his invention might put seamstresses and tailors out of work, so he abandoned his machine in 1838 having never filed for a patent. But that same year, a poor tailor’s apprentice in Boston named Elias Howe began working a very similar idea.

howe Sewing machine

Elias Howe’s 1846 patent model

After failing to build a machine that reproduced his wife’s hand motions, Howe scrapped the design and started again; this time, he inadvertently invented a hand-cranked machine almost identical to Hunt’s. He earned a patent for his design in 1846 and staged a man-vs-machine challenge, beating five seamstresses with work that was faster and in every way superior.  Yet the machine was still seen as somewhat scandalous, and Howe failed to attract any buyers or investors. Undeterred, he continued to improve his machine.

A series of unfortunate business decisions, treacherous partners, and a trip oversees left Howe destitute in London. What’s more, his wife’s health was failing and he had no means to get back to her in America. He was very close to suffering the same fate that befell Thimonnier, becoming just another dead inventor in the poorhouse. After pawning his machines and patent papers to pay for steerage back to the States in 1849, the distraught Howe returned to his wife just in time to stand by her bedside as she died. Adding insult to injury, he learned that the sewing machine had proliferated in his absence – some designs were almost copies of his original invention while others were based on ideas he patented in 1846. Howe had received no royalties for any of the machines- royalties that likely could have saved his wife’s life. Destitute and alone, he pursued his infringers fiercely, with the single-minded dedication of a bitter man with nothing left to lose. Many paid him his due immediately but others fought Howe in court. He won every single case.

first singer sewing machine

Singer’s machine was featured in the November 1, 1851 issue of Scientific American

Soon after the conclusion of his last court case, Howe was approached with a unique offer. An machinist by the name of Isaac Singer had invented his own sewing machine that was different in almost every way than Howe’s; every way except one – its eye-pointed needle. That little needle cost Singer thousands of dollars in royalties, all paid to Howe, but inspired the country’s first patent pool. Singer gathered together seven manufactures –all of whom had likely lost to Howe in court– to share their patents. They needed Howe’s patents as well and agreed to all his terms: every single manufacturer in the United States would pay Howe $25 for every machine sold. Eventually, the royalty was reduced to $5 but it was still enough to ensure that by the time Elias Howe died in 1867, he was a very, very rich man, having earned millions from patent rights and royalties. Singer didn’t do too bad for himself either. He had a penchant for promotion and, according to American Science and Invention earned the dubious recognition of becoming the first man to spend more than $1 million dollars a year on advertising. It worked though. The world hardly remembers Elias Howe, Walter Hunt, Barthélemy Thimonnier, Josef Madersperger, and Thomas Saint, but Singer is practically synonymous with sewing machine.

via Design Decoded http://blogs.smithsonianmag.com/design/2013/10/the-many-many-designs-of-the-sewing-machine/

Design Decoded: How the Telegraph Went From Semaphore to Communication Game Changer


first telegraph key

The telegraph key used to send the famous message “What Hath God Wroght” over the prototype telegraph line between Baltimore and Washington D.C. in 1844 (image: Smithsonian American Art Museum)

Today, we collapse space and time without even thinking about it. With a touch of our fingers, we can instantly extend ourselves into the ether and around the world from the backseat of a station wagon. We have become a culture of conjurers and time lords. Ok, that might be overstating things a bit, but you get the idea. ehhh

The wondrous information and communication technologies that define our age have their origins in some of the most basic of scientific principles and were first manifest in the 18th century electric telegraph. But that too had a precedent. Originally, the word “telegraph” –literally “to write at a distance”– referred to a relay communication system developed in 18th-century France by the Brothers Chappe. The Chappe semaphore telegraph consisted of a series of towers topped with three rotating arms or panels that could be moved into nearly 200 standard positions, each assigned a unique value or meaning. Messages could be relayed across vast distances by transmitting from one tower or hill (hence, “Telegraph Hill”) to another up to 15 miles away; operators used telescopes to observe and decode the message before doing the hard work of cranking their own semaphore panels into place to relay the message further down the line.

Drawing showing a sempahore relay system.

It was the fastest way to send messengers and in the early 19th century a young but battle-weary (what battle?) American government offered $30,000 (roughly $440,000 today) to anyone who could build a semaphore telegraph system spanning 1,000 miles. It seemed an impossible task. The challenge was largely ignored and promptly forgotten – but never rescinded. Years later, in 1837, Samuel Morse would hear of the offer and approach Congress with an invention that must have seemed like magic or some sort of hoax.

Though best known today for the coded system of dots and dashes that (perhaps unjustly) bears his name, Samuel Finley Breese Morse (1791-1872) started out as a promising painter. By 1815, the young Morse was making a solid living as a portraitist. As is wont to happen for young artists (not to mention young countries), Morse’s fortunes rose and fell dramatically for the next few years as he traveled back and forth between America and Europe, eventually painting The Louvre, which he hoped would be a masterpiece of the caliber never seen by American audiences. In 1832, Morse boarded The Sully and set sail for his return to America, but during the month-long voyage, his life would change course dramatically.

Sketches made by Morse aboard The Sully represent an early and somewhat naieve effort at using electric current to move a stylus (image: American Science and Invention)

Aboard the Sully, Morse had a conversation with a fellow passenger about recent experiments in electromagnetism. Although he was completely ignorant of the scientific principles behind the discovery, he became fascinated by the possibility of sending coded messages over a wire. Morse made a few impossible sketches describing a system of an electromagnet and basic stylus to transcribe a primitive code and left the ship determined to realize his invention, reportedly telling the captain as he departed, “If you ever hear of the ‘telegraph’ as one of the wonders of the world, remember that it was invented on the Sully.”

Over the next five years, Morse would slowly develop his idea while continuing to paint, teach at New York Univeristy, and flirt with poverty. Unsurprising given Morse’s complete naiveté reading electricity, there was a lot of trial and error in the early development of the telegraph and, although popular histories tend to perpetuate the myth of the individual genius who single-handedly changes the world, there were many other people were critical in the development of the telegraph.

Leonard Gale, a chemistry instructor at NYU, taught a struggling Morse how to make a basic electromagnet and helped him assemble a primitive apparatus that could send a signal of 1,000 feet. Joseph Henry, a pioneer in electromagnetics, developed the electric relays that made it possible for telegraph signals to travel great distances (and later became the first Secretary of the Smithsonian.) Some the greatest contributions came from Alfred Vail, Morse’s assistant and the son of one of his benefactors, who was largely responsible for developing the coded system of dots and dashes that would ultimately bear Morse’s’ name.

Drawing of the Electromagnetic Telegraph and the “Alpha” version of Morse Code, by Alfred Vail. (image: Smithsonian Archives)

By 1837 Morse had completed a prototype of the device he first sketched aboard the Sully. Built from one of his easels, it was far too large and incredibly rudimentary, but it worked.

Morse’s prototype telegraph. Messages were transmitted by spelling out words with a series of metal slugs –each representing a letter– placed on a board and pushed beneath a wooden lever (at bottom of image); the combination of slugs and gaps broke and completed the circuit, sending the signal across a wire to be completed by an equally complex apparatus that consisted of an electromagnet, pencil, and rolling strip of paper. The receiver drew out the series of hills and valleys produced by the transmitter.

The prototype was really just a proof-of-concept used to get Morse the $30,000 offered by the government long ago. Congress begrudgingly funded the project and in 1844 the famous first telegraph message traveled almost instantaneously across the 40 miles between Baltimore and Washington D.C.: “What Hath God Wrought.” America had entered the information Age. The telegraph exploded. Within the next 10 years, 23,000 miles of telegraph wire crossed the country and the made a significant impact on westward development. New business emerged and new jobs were created to install and maintain the system of wires.

An image of the first telegraph message sent from Baltimore to D.C. in 1844 (image: wikimedia commons)

Though Morse’s name ended up on all the patents, it was the inventive and unaccredited Vail who came up with the familiar telegraph key and was responsible for miniaturizing the machine to make it practical. Over the course of their collaboration, Morse and Vail developed several other designs for a telegraph and spent a lot of time in court, defending their patents from infringement.

Two Vail-designed variations of the telegraph receiver that actually printed the dots and dashes using a stylus.

Other inventors and designers always found ways around Morse’s patents, creating improved, or at the very least, idiosyncratic, versions of the telegraph.

Left: Alexander Bain’s Chemical Telegraph used treated paper to receive electric signal transmissions and was much faster than any of Morse’s mechanical designs. Right: The printing telegraph, invented by David Edward Hughes used simple piano keys to type out messages for transmission.

Various machines were developed and abandoned, operating companies were formed and disbanded, and lines were built and broken, but the telegraph lived on, slowly connecting the country and significantly aiding westward expansion. By the 1860s, most of these patents had been bought by the upstart Western Union Telegraph Company, who combined the best aspects of every telegraph design and gave order to the now transcontinental telegraph network. For the first time, space and time collapsed in 19th century America and suddenly great distances didn’t seem so great.

via Design Decoded http://blogs.smithsonianmag.com/design/2013/10/how-the-telegraph-went-from-semaphore-to-communication-game-changer/