The Addendum

Vancouver: the similitudes of the past, and those of the future

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I have not been to Vancouver, in any meaningful sense, in five years. By Vancouver I mean the real one, the one that in the states (and only in the states) we append with “B.C.” in order to distinguish it from a suburb of Portland, Oregon. On that first visit, I felt that I had been glimpsing the future, or at least one possible urban future. There was fast, frequent, metropolitan scale transit. There was high-rise transit-oriented development. There were multiple dense nodes throughout the metropolitan region, as well as an intensely developed downtown that mixed both historic and ultra-modern development.

This is not to say that the city had been perfect. Main and Hastings was still an infamous intersection not just of its two namesake streets, but of the heroin trade and urban decay. Gastown—Vancouver’s equivalent of Seattle’s Pioneer Square or Portland’s Old Town—was still a cotton candy and knick-nack ghetto. Despite the cosmopolitan pretensions of the city, you still had a hard time finding non-corporate coffee or a place to eat on the peninsula that wasn’t aimed at high priced businessmen’s lunches and even higher priced tourist and convention-goer fare. Five years on, however, and times have changed.

Woodward's, on the edge of Gastown, when it was new back in 2009.

Woodward’s, on the edge of Gastown, when it was new back in 2009.

WOODWARD’S WAS THERE BACK IN 2009—and I mean the present one, the big red-and-blue condo tower that looms high above to border on the edge of Gastown. Then, the tower had struck me as something out of Niihama from Ghost in the Shell, or an unconventional and futuristic take on the Flatiron Building.

Woodward’s used to mean Vancouver’s big department store, a B.C. based rival to the Hudson’s Bay Company that was roughly equivalent to Sears in the states. In the 1990s, the company went bust, selling out to Hudson’s Bay, and the large facility on the east end of downtown went vacant. Now, though, Woodward’s means the redevelopment that took over the site of the former department store, including a 400-foot high, 43-story tower.

The development trades on its urbanity, a mixture of grit and sophistication that taps into the narrative of authenticity.  Indeed the entire building becomes a kind of work of rhetoric, a foil for ideas about what urban living means. The atrium of the facility has, at one end, a large photo-mural mounted on glass, showing a graphic depiction of the 1971 Gastown riot. Policemen on horseback swing billy-clubs against pot-smoking hippies and street people in a crass display of culture warfare turning into the literal kind. Thus a key moment of counter-culture history has become—via the robes of art—a way of branding the Woodward as progressive, urbane, sensitive to the neighborhood and its history.

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The Woodward tower, reflected in the installation of Stan Douglas’ Abbott & Cordova, 7 August 1971.

The photograph, however, was a re-enactment; in a town colloquially known as “Hollywood North,” the real intersection of Abbott Street and Cordova Street, as it appeared in August 1971, was reproduced in the 2008 parking lot of an amusement park out along Highway 1. History was thus recreated, then photographed by artist Stan Douglas, then installed as part of the corporate branding of an upmarket condominium tower.

To quote the Woodward’s slogan, used throughout its media marketing: “Be Bold or Move to Suburbia.”

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MY HOTEL WAS LOCATED AT PENDER AND RICHARDS, the same as it had been five years before. Then, I had selected it because it was affordable, close to downtown, but not too close to Main & Hastings. I had found that it was perfect; fairly quiet, it was located near two used book stores and not far from the Waterfront Skytrain station, letting me get anywhere I needed to go with relative ease. Then, though, there was a slight air of Skid Row to the street; there were cheap diners and dives, marginal looking stores that sold smoking accouterment or travel services or check cashing. It was not far from the edge of Gastown, from where Woodward’s was, when Woodward’s—the tower—was new.

I don’t know why I expected that things would not have changed; after all, change is the natural state of urbanity. Woodward’s—or perhaps the city it represented—had changed much of it. Just around the corner from my hotel, across the street from hole-in-the-wall $2 pizza places and the questionable looking convenience stores, there was now a bar with cocktails, craft beer, handmade gyoza fried in authentic Japanese cast iron pans, and deep, pork-rich ramen soups.

A few blocks away, Save On Meats—a butcher-cum-cafe—had reopened along Hastings, offering classic diner fare. The food is excellent, and if you are worried that this is the bogey-man of gentrification, there is an easy solution. Wooden tokens are available for purchase, redeemable for a breakfast sandwich, no questions asked. If you feel guilty, you can buy one,and give it to someone on the street. Gentrification solved. It’s good food, a welcome addition to the block and the neighborhood, and fraught with all the conflicting questions with no answers that gentrification brings.

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Even Gastown itself is not safe. The cotton candy and caramel corn atmosphere is shifting, slowly. There are still homeless here, panhandling from the tourist trade, but many of the gift shops are now gone. Simply put, the tourist has a much harder time finding commemorative Canadian license plate frames or stickers or keychains or jade rings or crystal fragments or 14k gold chains or stuffed Royal Canadian Mounted Police plushies. If you want your Canada in the canned, maple-syrup flavored variety, you will be disappointed with much of Gastown, and may resolve yourself to buying your trinkets at YVR. In the place of these traditional vendors, there are now a half dozen coffee shops, perhaps twice as many bars, places selling “Carolina pulled pork” or “50 beers on tap” or “almost famous fish and chips.” There is even a hat store—not Lids, not some knockoff baseball hat store, but “Hastings Hattery,” a hipster haberdasher. There would not have been a haberdasher on Hastings Street in 2009.

As you walk down Water Street, you’re likely to find as many interior decorating stores as trinket shops, each offering furniture meant to evoke the designs of Charles and Ray Eames without infringing on Herman Miller’s intellectual property rights. Kitsch has been replaced with Kitchen stores, one of which placed upon its window glass a Julia Child quote that, read differently than it was spoken, sums up this sort of lifestyle: “If you’re afraid of butter, use cream.”

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“DISTANCE AVAILS US NOT” SAID WALT WHITMAN, “and place avails not.”

Vancouver in 2009 was exotic, seeming so far in the future that we, in the states, could never catch up. It was a benchmark, a role model, a fantasy to which cities like Seattle and Portland aspired, the cosmopolitan other on the other side of the least exotic and most exotic international border in existence.

Yet walking along the streets of Gastown, Vancouver feels eerily familiar. Sure the details differ. The exact forms of the buildings, their styles, their ages, they all differed. Yet it was hard not to feel, in Gastown, that I was walking through a familiar place, a street very much like, to cite one example, Valencia Street in San Francisco’s Mission District. We in the states—in those cities growing and thriving, in the San Franciscos and Seattles, the Portlands and the Oaklands—have more and more caught up Vancouver, sometimes even surpassing it in our absurdities.

We are now, like Whitman crossing the Brooklyn Ferry,  among “the current rushing so swiftly.” As the distance has receded, Vancouver is no longer the exotic, no longer so much the other. Vancouver is less an “ism,” and more a morally opaque and complex organism—more of a city, less of an idea—for all the good and bad that entails.

(Many thanks to UBC’s Elvin Wyly for showing me Save On Meats and telling me the story of the Woodward’s and its mural.)

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Somewhere West of Vale, Oregon

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[View larger image on Flickr.]

The idea of Oregon is a slippery one. Much of the population is concentrated in the western third of the state, primarily in the Portland metropolitan region and the fertile, lush Willamette Valley to its south. Visitors to the state have the false assumption that everything hill here is decorated with rain-drenched Douglas fir trees. Those visitors can be forgiven for their ignorance, because most Oregonians, too, do not know their state, and have rarely ventured east into the dry territory beyond the rain shadow of the Cascade Range, except perhaps to luxuriate in the resorts of Bend or to attend the annual Pendleton Roundup.

Yet Oregon is far more than this movie-set rainforest. Much of the state, speaking in geographic terms, is an arid plateau that is watered—barely—by tributaries of the Columbia River. Further east, still, even beyond the Blue Mountains that ring Pendleton and the high and holy Wallowas that were the Nez Perce’s homeland, the state is even more remote, known better by Idahoans from the Boise Basin of the Snake River than by anyone who was born in the Beaver State. Not far from the state line, the town of Vale sits, once a minor epicenter of a minor but thriving agricultural region that spread up along the Malhuer River and its tributaries. Today, like much of rural Oregon, Vale is a shadow of itself, still cared for but worn about the edges, a place where time doesn’t seem to pass despite the emptying of old strore-fronts, despite the ever-changing processing of new versions of the same old Ford trucks and John Deere tractors that pass through the town each year.

Like most of the rural communities of the state, it lived off of—literally—the railroad, the great road of commerce that funneled the products of the region through the town and in the process connected it to global markets and to a flow of jobs. Yet those same economic forces grew and changed even as Vale did not. Today, the old Union Pacific branch that once stretched to distant Burns (a third of the way across the state) has so little traffic that the mighty UP divested it. It is now operated—just—by a short line called the Oregon Eastern, which has all of one customer, a diatomaceous earth mine.

Whenever it goes, so too the frontier of 19th century exuberance will recede further, as a tide going out from across the land, leaving its wake the rubble of abandonment, decay, and communities whose purpose for existence is more for the sake of habit than any other nameable reason. Perhaps this is only natural—if anything economic can be called so—and perhaps it is, in some larger sense, just. Yet for the people of Vale, home cannot be numbered by the cold rationality of profit and loss, and balance sheets make bad community members.

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Cultural Landscapes Defined

The first issue of Landscape, J.B. Jackson's magazine of cultural landscape studies, printed in spring of 1951.

The first issue of Landscape, J.B. Jackson’s magazine of cultural landscape studies, printed in spring of 1951.

So just what are cultural landscape studies? As the study of them plays a significant role in my academic work, I get asked this question a lot, so I felt I should try and answer it here. Consider this, then, the most cursory of definitions, leaving much out, and concentrating much on my own personal experiences and studies.

The term “cultural landscape” is not new, in some circles of geography its study is considered a bit outdated. In simple terms, the idea is that by studying the landscape—literally, the shaped land—for how humans have altered it, one can infer knowledge of local life. Conversely, this also assumes that human cultures vary over geographic space and alter those spaces in distinct ways. The local landscape means not just land itself, or things altered in the land such as plantings, crops, water courses, and the like, but essentially all human alteration to the world’s organization, including built form. It is an interpretive art, and in some ways it is kin to the way that archaeologists interpret the ruins of long-gone cultures.

John Brinckerhoff Jackson (1909-1996) did not invent cultural landscape studies, but he was perhaps one of the most influential American forces shaping it in the second half of the last century. That era’s thinking about place has been a huge influence on my photography, my writing, and my own thinking. One of the reasons I applied at and eventually entered graduate school at UC Berkeley was the ability to work with Paul Groth, one of Jackson’s protogés, and the person who inherited teaching his landmark undergraduate class, American Cultural Landscapes. Last semester, I had the honor and privilige of working as a graduate student instructor for the B-half of the course, which covers from 1900 to present.

“Landscape” is a key word, and it was also the title used by Jackson for his publication on the cultural geography of America. Founded in 1951, Landscape was part magazine, part literary publication, part academic journal. In it, he republished European pieces about cultural geography along with writing about the American landscape. Jackson particularly loved the Southwest region—the magazine was based in New Mexico. Often he wrote the pieces himself, sometimes using his own name, and often using pseudonyms. We still don’t know how many of the latter he used, and this sort of thing—along with a lifelong aversion to footnotes or citations—made him a bit of an academic rebel. Yet his sense of observation was keen and interpretations brilliant. By the mid 1960s, this man—without an advanced degree—was lecturing at Berkeley and at Harvard, teaching his American Cultural Landscapes course.

For photographers of landscapes and industry, cultural geography in the vein of Jackson’s provides a strong philosophical basis for work. For example, the concept of a “sense of place” has become so used by photographers that it is now nearly a cliché. In a broader sense, the idea that landscape itself tells a story, even before photographed, is compelling. It gives purpose to the photography of place, as it gives to photographers not just the power of expression but also the role of revelation.

“Sense of place” was also the title of the first Jackson book I picked up, A Sense of Place, a Sense of Time (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1996). It was before I knew anything significant about cultural geography, when I was still only a writer and photographer who was also a lover of place. One day I saw it on a shelf and idly picked up a copy at the Burnside Powell’s Books in Portland, and skimmed through it. I can’t remember now if it was chance, or if it had been recommended to me by another photographer.

What I do remember was finding a book of essays by a man who dared to suggest that roads belonged in a landscape, that the way that humans change the world is as much a part of the world as is nature itself.

Above all, it was a work by someone who clearly loved place, and for me, place had always mattered. Growing up in the Pacific Northwest, in what Stewart Holbrook (who was not a cutural geographer and yet often wrote like one) called the nation’s Far Corner (New York: McMillan, 1952). I had always felt that somehow the soil of the fields, the stones of the mountains, and the water of the Columbia river were mixed in with my blood. I still do feel that way. So it is little surprise that I loved Jackson’s work. I put $4.95 down on the checkout counter, and the book went home with me. Little did I know that almost ten years later I would be the student of one of Jackson’s students, and helping teach his class. (The experience was special, and for which I am profoundly grateful.)

Some might question how an undergraduate education in communications meshes, in any way, with the cultural landscape studies, but the uncanny thing is just how much connection there actually is. Treating landscape as a subject of interpretation is to treat it like a text to be read. Meaning, message, medium; all are present in the landscape. Power dynamics, conflict? You can’t find a place that is not shaped by them. The study of cultural landscapes, then, is in many ways a communicative method that analyzes and interprets one of the greatest texts ever crafted: the Earth itself.

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A note on sources: much of the story of cultural geography and J.B. Jackson came from many conversations with Paul Groth, as well as several of Jackson’s works, most especially Landscape in Sight, (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2000).

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Mourning at Ocala

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On June 24, 2011, Amtrak’s California Zephyr sped through the Nevada Desert near the station point of Ocala, between the towns of Fernley and Lovelock. A truck driver on US 95, however, must have been oblivious to the silver train that was traveling towards the highway at 77 miles-per-hour. Crossing devices were all functioning, but they, too, were not seen by the driver, or were ignored. Within a few minutes, the train was in the crossing—and then the truck was too, right into the side of one of the big double-level Amtrak cars. The car derailed, the car burst into flames.

Six people died. The truck driver, naturally, but also a female conductor and four passengers. An investigative panel later determined that the driver was either fatigued from lack of sleep or checking his phone when he struck the train. Before he crashed into the train, before he died, he did see the train, and begin to brake. He should have been able to stop in time, but investigators claimed that inappropriate levels of maintenance prevented the truck from stopping in time.

Robert Sumwalt, a member of the National Transportation Safety Board, talked to the Associated Press in the subsequent months. “This accident could have been avoided if the driver would have applied brakes 1.4 seconds sooner,” Sumwalt told them, “or if John Davis Trucking would have maintained the brakes as they should have been maintained.”

I had never been to Ocala before. Nor Nevada. Almost exactly three years after, this changed, as I toured the northern end of the state along with a friend. My friend, a railroader, had once met Laurette Lee, the Amtrak conductor who had died there. As we drove near Ocala, he told me the story of the wreck. “I wonder if there’s a memorial,” he said as we neared the spot of the impact. “There had better be.”

When we got to the crossing, at first it looked like there was nothing. Then, as we passed over the tracks where six people had died, we saw to the left an open stretch of dirt, and a small mound of earth, and a set of worn white crosses. It was not impressive. You would think that someone at the railroad would have put up something better than this, something with more permanence if not more presence. Instead, just these seven crosses made of boards, jammed into the dirt where rescue crews and cleanup crews had probably worked, their feet decked with plastic flowers and small American flags. In front of them, a small plywood tombstone stood, the names of the dead upon it. The victims aboard the train were all grouped together towards the top, and the driver’s name placed, with some space above it, at the bottom.

My friend took a cell phone photograph and then messaged it to a fellow railroader who had known Lee better. We had gabbed a great deal on the journey, but here we were more reserved, our voices kept as temperate as the weather was not. Overhead the skies were boiling with clouds.

I took out a camera. I made a photograph. I put the camera back over my shoulder.

One of the bouquets of plastic flowers was knocked over. I walked back over to the memorial and I tugged at the bouquet—a thunder storm’s rain had glued it into the alkali dirt—and re-set it back in its wire holder. Then we walked back to the truck. On the way there, though I am no Catholic, I crossed myself.

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Review: Some Vernacular Railroad Photographs

Some Vernacular Railroad Photographs
By Jeff Brouws and Wendy Burton. W. W. Norton & Company, 500 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY 10110; wwnorton.com; 7.3 x 9.4 x 1.2 in; hardcover; 288 pages, 2 b/w photos; $39.95

The act of collecting was once a particularly strong trait in Anglo-American culture. Much of my childhood was spent in the 1980s, before the Internet era, when kids—and especially boys—were still expected to busy themselves with hobbies that generally involved some form of collecting. I never traded baseball cards—mine was a football household, poor benighted fans of the Seattle Seahawks—but there were other milieus: coins, stamps, agates. And then there were the adults. My grandfather, for example, seemed to be a magnet for early Pacific Northwest mountaineering memorabilia, though this was not his most unusual collection. That prize went to rocks. As in pure, genuine, plain rocks. If he travelled anywhere interesting—Mount Hood, the Olympic Mountains, Canada, the Oregon Coast—a humble rock would get tossed into the trunk. Jeff Brouws and Wendy Burton’s new book, Some Vernacular Railroad Photographs, is about the obsession of such collection, in this case of the amateur photographs of railroads.

The railroad has had a profound influence on American culture, and is a subject of much veneration in popular history. The chase of The General across the battlefields of the U.S Civil War, the joining of the transcontinental railroad with a gold spike at Promontory, Utah in 1869, and the tragic 1900 death of locomotive engineer Casey Jones in a collision in Mississippi are all well known pieces of American folklore. More than a half century after the last mainline steam railroad laid low its coal fires and converted to economical, unromantic diesel power, the steam locomotive remains so evocative that it is the chief avatar of railroads in the public consciousness. Railroads help define the nation’s identity as much as do those apocryphal stories about Ben Franklin catching lightning in a jar or George Washington chopping down cherry trees.

Plate 139. C. William Witbeck. Illinois Central Railroad 2-8-2 #1464 with freight train enters yard as seen from atop coaling tower North Jackson, Mississippi April 1938. (David Price Collection) Image courtesy W. W. Norton

It should then come as no surprise that the American railroad—like the U.S. Civil War, or Route 66, or the All American Game of baseball—has a cult following, with its own genre of writing, photography, and art. For many years, Brouws and Burton have been chronicling the photographic output of this American rail enthusiast subculture, primarily concentrating on prolific and accomplished photographers whose work rose beyond the norm in technical and artistic merit.

Yet even as this talented pair helped shepherd monographs of railroad photography’s “high art” achievements towards publication, Brouws found his interests were also being drawn towards photographs made for purposes other than artistic expression, and yet which sometimes bent towards visual lyricism in spite of themselves. These were, to misapply a bit of T. S. Elliot, “the useful presents,” workaday photos of railroad facilities made for assessing property and equipment value, or documentary images of accidents and wrecks, or sometimes random vacation snapshots. Hi mom, I’m at the Grand Canyon, and oh look, we saw a train by the motel! The bulk of the images that appealed to Brouws, however, were the images made by railway enthusiasts. These images typically placed the locomotive, with billowing steam and smoke, front and center, and were usually printed on small stock, often two-by three inches, about the size of a business card or—and the parallel should not be overlooked here—baseball cards.

Photographer unknown Southern Pacific Railroad Men on top of boxcar  learning hand signals Los Angeles, California, 1940s. (Jeff Koeller Collection)

Plate 131. Photographer unknown Southern Pacific Railroad Men on top of boxcar learning hand signals Los Angeles, California, 1940s. (Jeff Koeller Collection). Image courtesy W. W. Norton

In the introduction to the book, Brouws describes the budding of this new obsession, at a 2002 visit to a railroad memorabilia swap meet in Springfield, Massachusetts. There, he wandered the aisles with “a crowd of wide-eyed rail buffs jammed into the space,” not quite knowing why he was there. Then came the fateful moment, when he happened upon stacks and stacks of photographs. Brouws “became hooked,” and soon began to sort through them looking for images that appealed to him the most. The images were largely anonymous, with few bearing a signature or photographer name, though more than one held an accidental poetry of data: “notations, inscribed on their versos in an elegant script, delineated the arcane language of locomotive wheel arrangements” or “concise histories of moribund railroads….”

Best of all was a happy coincidence of counter-purpose taste and sheer volume. Most of the crowd at the show were model railroaders, and as such sought out images that showed the details of the subjects in the clearest lighting conditions. Brouws, however, was drawn towards the “artful” images in the mix, those with strong compositions, unusual moody atmospheres, or broader context. These images, while pleasing, made poor reference material, and so were in abundance among the stacks. Meanwhile the sheer quantity of such images made resulted in prices often shockingly low: five dollars, one dollar, many times even fifty cents! “In this age of online auctioning,” writes Brouws, “where every material object known to man… [is a] ‘collectable’—bringing with it the fact that nothing is cheap anymore…. it was a collector’s dream come true…..” So began ten years of image collecting.

Brouws and Burton’s book represents the fruit, though not the cessation, of this collection. The volume, with its unusual squat format, fits in the hand like a hardback novel, inviting a fireside consultation in a fat, overstuffed chair. It is filled with a diverse range of imagery from the attics of America, a scrapbook of the everyday railroad, with a subtle and pensive layout and sequencing that is owed to the visual talents of Burton, who designed the book. Images like William Rittase’s bird’s eye view of the Pennsylvania Railroad’s yards in Philadelphia (plate 147) are mesmerizing, with a sea of boxcars and a gritty sky that looks like the work of a monochromatic alter ego of J. M. W.Turner. Other images show a kind of spontaneity that imparts life: the image of Southern Pacific Railroad employees riding atop boxcars in Los Angeles (plate 131), photographer unknown, is almost certainly a quick snapshot taken by a railroad tower operator out his window, a random slice of happenstance that speaks to us across the untold years. All of the photographs have an uncooked, unstudied honesty. How many of them have been passed by in all those railroad swap meets, discarded for their subtle blurs, their clipped off portions of equipment, their flaws that make them so delightful?

Plate 147. William M. Rittase. Pennsylvania Railroad. Philadelphia freight terminal along Delaware River. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 1930–40s. (Jeff Brouws collection). Image courtesy W. W. Norton

While the bulk of the book may be a testament to the compulsion to collect such images, it also provides insight into the development of railroad photography, with a perspective that may never have been adequately addressed before. Brouws notes in his introduction that many of the enthusiast photos were distributed via clubs formed, in part, for that purpose, organizations such as the International Engine Picture Club, the National Railway Historical Society, and others. These were “analogous to contemporary social networking, with the United States Postal Service rather than the Internet acting as the delivery mechanism.” Today, railroad photography, as well as photography in general, is rapidly being redefined by Internet-based outlets and tools. Within the subculture, Railpictures.net has changed how the average railfan thinks of “publishing” and what to do with photographs once made, just as sites such as Flickr and 500px and mobile photo sharing tools like Instagram are completely changing how the general public uses photographs, as well as how we collectively define “good” photography. Some Vernacular Railroad Photographs offers a glimpse into another, earlier era of populism in photography, and shows the spectacular output as well as the sadly neglected present-day value of a truly massive body of photographic material. Pause and consider a moment: of the unnumbered bulk of amateur railroad photographs made over the first half of the 20th Century, the average image is easily found at a swap meet, with no record of its time, place, subject, or photographer, and offered for purchase at less than you can buy a cup of coffee. Or a candy bar. Or, really, less than you can buy anything anymore. Populism in photography exploded the amount of railroad material available to be seen, but it also resulted in poorly archived material and a general lack of social value. What parallels this may hold for our present, Instagram era of populist photography is a question worth pondering.

With no regional focus and no narrowing of subject matter, Some Vernacular Railroad Photographs is ultimately art history, not railroad history. Among railroad enthusiasts, whose tastes bend notoriously towards the esoteric and the specific, I fear too many will pass the volume by. This would be a sad loss. Even taken merely as a book of general Americana and railroadiana, this volume stands out head and shoulders above the vapid output of mass-market picture book makers and in-house bookstore presses. More than that, for those who care about making images of railroads, its introduction is probably one of the greatest contributions to the history of railroad photography published in the last decade, and the images that support it are delightful, surprising, charming. Those who make acquaintance with this book will ultimately come to appreciate that charm. Those who don’t? They will pass by, sadly blind to these agates among the beach stones.

Some Vernacular Railroad Photographs will be available in July 2013 from Powells Books, Amazon, and select local book sellers.

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Historic Preservation, Unusual Artifacts, and the Big Preservation Question

The last dual guage in Portland, at S.E. Mall Street and S.E. 17th Avenue, in 2012. Photo by Arlen Sheldrake

Historic preservation is difficult under even the most ideal conditions, but it is all the more difficult when the subject is—important or not—odd or obscure. Thus we have the case of the last dual gauge streetcar track in Portland. Its salvage and preservation is the most recent example of preservation at the fringes of urban history.

Let’s back up a bit.

Portland is one of those cities that boomed in the late 19th century, and had an urban form that was thus dictated in large part by the streetcar. This puts it in the ranks with mostly Western kin, like Minneapolis, Denver, and Dallas. Moreover, Portland had a streetcar network that used two different gauges of track, standard gauge, and narrow gauge.

From the Portland Streetcar System Concept Plan: an overlay of historic streetcar routes and Metro 2040 land use planning areas.

Gauge, for those who aren’t railroad geeks, is the distance between the two rails on the ground. Today, almost every example of rail transit operates on standard gauge, where the rails are placed in the improbably precise dimension of four-foot, eight-and-one-half inches apart. The origin of this measurement is a matter of debate, and not relevant here, except to say that this was a measurement that the vast majority of big, intercity railroads eventually settled on, so it is also what most transit lines now use.

Back in the nineteenth century, however, transit companies were largely free to use whatever gauge that was wished, and many put down lines laid to narrower gauges. The advantages were several. Narrow gauge lines used fewer materials, making them cheaper to construct. Equipment on a narrow gauge line was typically lighter and smaller, so that it could fit in tighter spaces and utilize lighter bridges and structures. Narrow gauge lines could also turn tighter radiuses, and so were more suited to tough twisty terrain or urban locations were turns were difficult.

A "MT" Mount Tabor line streetcar from Portland Traction curves from Morrison onto S.W. 11th in 1948. This line, like many Portland Traction routes, was 42" gauge. Photo courtesy Art Griesser.

In Portland, streetcar line promoters—there were once several overlapping systems in the city —sometimes used standard gauge, and sometimes used the narrower, 42″ gauge. The former were typically (but not always) trolleys, built to cover longer distances and connect to places on the urban fringe, while the latter were typically (but not always) true streetcar routes that connected only urban points. Portland civic leadership tended to prefer the narrower 42″ gauge, now sometimes called “Colonial Gauge” because of its popularity for general rail transportation in the former colonies of the British Empire.

…the majority of the council insisted on the narrower forty-two inch gauge considered more suitable for Portland’s narrow streets. The Second Street line of the Metropolitan Company was standard gauge, a fact the city council deeply regretted.
—John T. Labbe,
Fares, Please! Those Portland Trolley Years (Caldwell, Idaho: Caxton Printers, Ltd., 1980), pp 54.

In 1904, virtually all streetcar systems in the city were consolidated into one company that, after some corporate reshuffling, eventually emerged as the Portland Railway Light and Power Company. PRL&P ran streetcars, interurbans, electric street lights, electric power generation and distribution, and was the ancestor of today’s Portland General Electric. A later corporate reshuffling placed the transit lines into a subsidiary called the Portland Traction Company, and it is under this latter moniker that the city’s streetcar and interurbans are best remembered.

one rail transit system, but two gauges

Consolidation brought the opportunity to eliminate needless duplication of services, overhead costs, and the like, but also introduced a complication: one rail transit system, but two gauges. While there were several smaller maintenance facilities around the city, the PTC’s primary heavy repair shops were at Center Street, adjacent to the Southern Pacific Brooklyn Yard in southeast Portland.

This detail of a Southern Pacific Company diagram from the 1920s or 1930s shows the Portland Traction Company's Center Street Shops. North is to the right, and the long horizontal road above the facility is S.E. 17th Avenue. Diagram courtesy TriMet, click to view larger.

In order to service both standard and narrow gauge streetcars, there were several segments of track laid in dual gauge. This dual gauge track had one rail that all vehicles use, and then one set at a distance from the shared rail at the measurement for the narrower gauge, and one set as the distance for standard gauge:

Eventually, Portland Traction began to convert streetcar routes to bus lines. This story is beyond the scope of this post, but it involved matters of deferred maintenance, declining revenue, divisive and negligent public policy, fiduciary troubles, and thinly veiled attempts at bilking the public. The bottom line is Portland Traction, no longer a PGE subsidiary, operated its last streetcar line—the narrow gauge Council Crest line—in 1950. Most of the Center Street Shops soldiered on as a bus barn, eventually transferring to TriMet in 1969. The portion of the shops TriMet inherited have been replaced by newer structures, but Center Street remains the agency’s primary maintenance facility (albeit not for rail) and the bus bays in the current building are still known as “tracks” to those who work there, despite a span of sixty-three years since the last time a rail transit vehicle was serviced in the building.

The existence, much less the role, of narrow gauge streetcar lines in the city has largely faded from public consciousness.

The many former streetcar routes of Portland Traction have survived fairly well, at least when it comes to actual transit service. Although reduced to bus service, it is notable that thirteen Portland Traction streetcar lines largely survive as TriMet bus routes, and of these, nine are “Frequent Service” routes, the backbone of the TriMet bus system.

Thirteen PTC routes survive as bus lines today, with nine of them being TriMet "Frequent Service" lines. Click to view larger.

The actual track of the various streetcar lines has fared less well. As is typical of once critical infrastructure, the abandoned streetcar tracks became viewed as little more than a nuisance best removed or paved over. Most suffered the latter fate. By the dawn of the twenty-first century, few streetcar tracks remain visible in the city, and a short segment in S.E. Mall Street near 17th Avenue had the obscure honor of being the last known visible remnant of dual gauge in the city. The existence, much less the role, of narrow gauge streetcar lines in the city has largely faded from public consciousness.

Fast forward to the present, and TriMet is in the middle of building its latest MAX light rail extension, the Orange Line from Portland to Milwaukie. This line is going right down the length of S.E. 17th Avenue, necessitating the road be widened. As a result, the Mall Street dual gauge remnant was right in the path of construction. In the rendering of the 17th and Holgate station below, the dual gauge remnant would be in the middle of the new southbound 17th Avenue lanes, right behind that foreground tree, in the intersection. Result? Remnant doomed.

Rendering of 17th & Holgate MAX station. Courtesy TriMet.

A house can become an office, a storefront can become a studio…. Infrastructure, however, is usually a tougher situation.

Historic preservation is a tough thing, but sometimes it is tougher than others. With buildings, there is usually the possibility of reuse. A house can become an office, a storefront can become a studio, a department store can become a hotel, and so forth. Easy, no, but there are at least options. Infrastructure, however, is usually a tougher situation. Rights-of-way have found new life, sometimes, as recreational trails, such as with old interurban routes becoming trails like the Springwater Corridor or the Trolly Trail. Bridges are a tougher save, as seen with the recent (failed) effort to save the Sauvies Island Bridge. But in these cases, again, some new use can be made. What new use can old streetcar tracks in the street hold? Sure, for the historian, there is something fascinating about them. They are industrial ruins, a testament to how quickly modernity can create, destroy, and supplant itself with ever newer spatial orders. They are the industrial equivalent to a segment of a Roman road or, to bring it to a more local example, the Oregon Trail: of no practical value, but immense historic moment.

In the case of this dual gauge remnant, the idea that it would disappear was an anathema to many local transportation and history enthusiasts, myself included. Informally a small campaign was launched, mostly consisting of persistent and carefully crafted emails from some in that community to TriMet. Making the case for the remnant’s historic value to Portland transit history, I added my voice in a small way, lobbying that this remnant be preserved in some fashion at the transit platform to be built at 17th and Holgate. Perhaps, I suggested, it could even become part of the mandated 1% for art program, as the station art here. The pleas, however, were to no avail. Responses from TriMet were minimal or none, and those of us lobbying to save this piece of oddball transit history felt certain that we had failed.

the agency was willing to remove it and donate it, if a suitable home could be found

Then, earlier in 2013, came an email from one of the TriMet community affairs people associated with the Orange Line project: while TriMet had no plans to reuse the remnant, the agency was willing to remove it and donate it, if a suitable home could be found. Moreover, they were willing to remove it whole, complete with its surrounding street pavement, its ties, its gauge intact. All of these pieces were vastly important to the context of the remnant, and the agency was willing to salvage it in as close to intact as was possible. Some quick negotiations took place, and the Oregon Rail Heritage Foundation agreed to provide a home for the piece as a vital artifact of Portland’s rail transportation history.

Last monday was the big day. Forewarned by an email, the ORHF was notified that Stacey & Witbeck, construction contractor for TriMet, would be delivering the remnant to the Oregon Rail heritage Center near OMSI in the morning. In the mucky wet of a typical Oregon Spring morning, a semi-truck arrived carrying the mostly intact slab of old S.E. Mall Street, complete with the last visible section of dual gauge transit track in the Portland area.

Naturally this is not a solution that is practical for all misfit remnants of history. Utility manhole covers all over Portland still bear the corporate stamps of once vitally important companies that dramatically reshaped the city; their durability has been their best protection. Likewise, many fire hydrants at or beyond the century mark in age are still in service across the region, a number of them cast locally, evidence of the once important and now largely forgotten local iron and steel industry. What of street lamps? Industrial tracks and truck docks? Shipping cranes? Water pumping stations? Or, in what will no doubt become the biggest preservation controversy of the next year, what do we do with empty reservoirs on Mount Tabor?

Or, in what will no doubt become the biggest preservation controversy of the next year, what do we do with empty reservoirs on Mount Tabor?

Everything cannot saved, and everything should not be, but if we lost all evidence of these things, we lose a vital record of the past. I do not want to live in a metropolitan region where everything smacks of newly pour concrete and computer-aided-design… do you? The question of where to draw the line, of what needs preservation, and how best to preserve it is one that will never fully be answered, but it is a question that we all too often forget to ask at all, and when we do, we all too often concentrate on the easy and familiar but, frankly, often banal, like the private residence, and completely miss the esoteric and seemingly mundane yet profoundly more important, like this little segment of track that once sat in Mall Street. (It should be noted that the Portland-Milwaukie Light Rail Historic, Archaeological, and Cultural Resources Results Report (15.6mb PDF) did not mention this remnant at all, even in passing.) We need, desperately, to ask the Big Historic Preservation Questions better.

We need, desperately, to ask the Big Historic Preservation Questions better.

The saving of this piece of track was, frankly, a miracle. Advocacy on the part of the historic community was not as strong as it could have been, in part because it was difficult to explain the significance of the piece, and in part because it did not fall into the conventional territories of specific preservation-minded interest groups. Yet the miracle did happen, and for that we must thank many individuals and organizations, not the least of which being Jennifer Koozer and Nicholas Stewart and the entire Portland-Milwaukie Light Rail team at TriMet; Stacey and Witbeck who so carefully removed and delivered the piece, and the Oregon Rail Heritage Foundation for providing a home for this piece. Without them and many others, this would not have happened.

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Photo Call

For all of my transit geek photographer friends: I am working on a project related to modern streetcars. I need a few specific images and I am writing to see if any of you may have some:

• Signs or picketers protesting streetcar lines, e.g. anti-streetcar signs in Cincinnati would be great.
• Streetcars in Little Rock or Tampa, Florida, or any other line that uses those GOMACO built reproduction streetcars.
• The Memphis Trolley
• The New Orleans Streetcar
• Modern streetcar passengers, both boarding cars as well as riding them. Artistic and highly stylized images are welcome.

If you have any such images, please email me at alexander.craghead@gmail.com. I cannot promise massive payment but, if your images get published, I will send you a stupidly tiny check as a thank you, plus you will get a credit in a national publication.

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Brushwork and big plans

Recently, I was notified of an exciting opportunity to further my education: I was accepted into a graduate program at the University of California Berkeley. I am very excited by this, and looking forward to it tremendously. However, this new opportunity also means that I will be moving, as well as taking on some tremendous expenses.

As a result, I’ve had to make a hard decision: I am willing to let some paintings go. I really do not want to sell these, but I think it’s the right choice. All proceeds will go towards cost of living and/or books and tuition at UC Berkeley for the crucial first semester, starting in August 2013.

Morning Rush, Portland. Watercolor on paper, 16x25 inches, 2007.

Morning Rush, Portland. Watercolor on paper, 16x25 inches, 2007.

The first painting I am placing is Morning Rush, Portland. This is one of the largest watercolors I have yet completed, with the image area being 16 inches high by 25 inches wide. This image is part of a series I began focusing on subjects found along the route of former U.S. Highway 99W in Oregon. In this case, the scene is the top deck of the 1912 built Steel Bridge in Portland, with a MAX light rail train passing over it.

This painting is being offered at $2,100.


Liquidated, watercolor on paper, 16 x 25 inches, 2009.

Liquidated, watercolor on paper, 16 x 25 inches, 2009.

The second painting I am offering is Liquidated, another of the same 99W series of images. Like Morning Rush, Portland, this is a large image, measuring 16 inches by 25 inches.

This painting is listed at $2,100.


McKim Mead & White's unbuilt Portland station design

The third and final painting I am offering is this rendering of McKim, Mead & White’s unbuilt rail station for Portland, Oregon. This illustration was created specifically for an article I wrote for Portland Architecture on this never built masterpiece structure, and you may read more about its creation here. This is a watercolor and ink rendering and also rather large, measuring 12 inches high by 20 inches wide.

The price for this piece is $1,600.


To purchase any of these paintings, there are three options. You may contact me directly via email. You may also call and leave a message for me at 503.347.4059. If you don’t want to wait, and don’t mind electronic payments, see the pantings for sale page.

Lastly, if you have specific projects or commissions you want to consider, see my Creative Services page.

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Getting to know dead people

From the memoirs of J. C. Ainsworth, University of Oregon Special Collections

From the memoirs of J. C. Ainsworth, University of Oregon Special Collections

Being a writer with a strong interest in the region’s history, I find myself running across certain names with great repetition. It is hard, for example, not to read about the Ladds in Portland, or John McLoughlin in the pre-territory period of the 1830s and 1840s. Add to them other names that, over time, have become so pervasive that I remember them as a small boy remembers his presidents. The list often comprises of names now best known for application to streets in Portland and Salem. Collected, they sometimes resemble free verse:

Meek. Palmer. Lee. Blanchett. Corbett. Reed. Dyer. Scott. Kamm. Thompson. Deady. Wood. Swigert. Frank. Failing. Markle. Hawkins. Carey.

Rarely, however, do these names emerge from the paper as living, breathing people. Too often, even in the best of our history books, they seem but a collection of discrete facts and figures, to be stored in the brain alongside William the Conqueror’s victory at Hastings in 1066, or other high school historical minutae. Some figures become almost marginalized because of it, as if familiarity has bred contempt even here, and worse yet others have become cardboard cutouts of themselves.

Take as our first example Ben Holladay. A frontier wagoneer, the so-called “Stagecoach King,” and a political boss to make Rahm Emmanuel blush, the man spent the last two decades of his life in Portland, reshaping the landscape and sometimes scandalizing society. It is perhaps no surprise that he became exagerated with time. As a determined, ruthless man in business, he made many enemies, and these resulted in history being bent against him.

Ben Holladay. Oregon Historical Society OrHi 49501

Ben Holladay. Oregon Historical Society OrHi 49501

Consider for a moment the way that historian Joseph Gaston writes of him, more than twenty years after the man’s death:

…Holladay did buy judges, and legislatures and attorneys to betray their clients…. He was a man of splendid physique, fine address, and knew well how to manage the average human nature. He was energetic, un tiring, unconscionable, unscrupulous and wholly destitute of fixed principles of honesty, morality or common decency.” Jospeh Gaston, Centennial History of Oregon, Volume I, (Chicago: S.J. Clarke Publishing Company, 1911) 525-526.

Gaston’s description has come to be the accepted norm for Holladay’s place in Oregon and Portland history. Even the venerble, late E. Kimbark MacColl accepted Gaston’s assessment. When MacColl finds a mention in the diaries of Matthew Deady that Holladay has two whores in his house, colored by Gaston’s characterization, he takes the accusation literally.

Joseph Gaston. City of Beaverton Historic Photo Collection

Joseph Gaston. City of Beaverton Historic Photo Collection

Gaston’s unreliability is the first clue that things are not as they seem, for Gaston had been a bitter rival of Holladay in the 1860s, when the former was an ambitious young railroad builder and attorney, and the latter a shrewd old war horse who, naturally, won the game. Poor Gaston found himself sold out by his superiors, and never forgot it. And lest we think Gaston rewriting of history is far fetched, he himself admits it. Writing of another controversial affair that he himself had been intwined with, Gaston writes in 1911:

All the actors in the drama are dead but one. All the members of all the old companies are dead but this one. And while he was robbed of his rights and his property by a corrupted legislature, and corrupt judges, he still remains to enjoy in comfort a pleasant home that looks down on the city he has helped build, with all the necessary comforts in life; and what is better than all else, the respect of his friends and neighbors -and lives to write this history of those who wantonly robbed him, and gained nothing in the end by their wrong doing.” Jospeh Gaston, Centennial History of Oregon, Volume I, (Chicago: S.J. Clarke Publishing Company, 1911) 526.

It is hard not to imagine a smirk on the writer’s face as these words were penned. It is history written not, perhaps, by the victors, but by the survivors.

Spurned on by a fascination with the High Life legend of Holladay and increasing evidence that Gaston habitually skewed history, my friend and fellow writer/historian Dan Haneckow has been digging into Holladay’s story. Piecing together material from the meticulous Deady, the unreliable and critical Gaston, the admiring light-weight Ellis Lucia, and numerous outside primary sources of the era, a more complex figure is been emerging. Holladay loses none of his taste for the High Life or his thirst for wealth and power, and loses none of his merchant prince amoralism, yet he also become a far more complex character. Holladay not as lecher, but as libertine, not as lowlife in fine clothing, but as a radical in the vein of Portland tradition that is most well-known in the body of Charles Erskine Scott Wood. An early feminist, a moral modernist, a Bohemian, a relgiously tolerant man, a power broker, a subtle observer of human nature. More than any of these descriptors, he emerges as a human being, not a stereotype of a western movie bad guy. And in the end, much of what was written about him may be patently untrue; Dan Haneckow has, for example, roundly discredited the allegation of Holladay’s home full of prostitutes, an allegation that has, through the shallow research of later historians, erroneously propigated itself into popular truth.

Holladay is not alone in being miscast or passed over by later historians, and despite his fascinating mixture of character, nor is he my favorite. Instead I give that title to a man so critical to Portland history and yet so forgotten, the Cosimo di Medici of the Rose City, Captain John C. Ainsworth.

Captain John C. Ainsworth. Lewis & Dryden Publishing Co.

Captain John C. Ainsworth. Lewis & Dryden Publishing Co.

For the “school book history” of Portland, Ainsworth is known as an early steamboat captain, a man who was part of the Oregon Steam Navigation transportation monopoly, and founded the bank that later became U. S. Bank. Beyond that, he rarely gains any depth. His papers, however, survive in the archives of the University of Oregon, and communing with them has changed my assesment of him.

The most precious of his papers is a composition notebook containing his handwritten memoirs. Having started a family late in his life, and often ill, Ainsworth began the volume as an extended letter to his children, primarily his young son George, in hopes of providing fatherly guidance to the child in the event of his death. “I must not waste the time alloted to this work,” he writes on April 1st, 1877, they day of birth for his first grand child, “as I cannot tell how soon I will break down altogether.” (Ainsworth memoir, 35.)

Ainsworth also has a sense of how important his words will be to history (emphasis added by me):

In looking over a few of the last written pages, it occurs to me that the detailed business portion of the steamboat arrangements, will prove dry reading to most of you, but it will probably be the only correct history of steam boating on the Columbia River that will ever be written. The fact is, that the real inside history of the Oregon Steam Navigation Co., is only known to R. R. Thompson and myself, therefore conclude that the statements I will make will increase in interest, as years roll on, and the historian will be searching for material to write of the early history of Oregon.” (Ainsworth memoir, page 47.)

As one of those writers of history, you cannot imagine the sensation this had for me. Reading through the man’s memoirs, I suddenly found that he was addressing, specifically, me. Ainsworth reached out through the ages and connected, hard. Making it all the more precious, my own research suggested that only two historians of prominence had been through the volume before me, the first being a woman who wrote an article for the Oregon Historical Quarterly in the 1920s, and the second being MacColl when preparing his manuscript for the eminently readable and more accurate Merchants, Money and Power.

The story Ainsworth relates in his memoirs is in its own right a fascinating piece of history. We learn, not without outside substantiation, that it is Ainsworth who is the mediator that binds many important projects together. The many forces within the OSN are combative and split, and it is consistently Ainsworth who is putting out fires, voicing reason, and sometimes scheming to oust troublemakers for the benefit of the group. When the Northern Pacific Railroad goes under in the Panic of 1873, it is Ainsworth in Portland — not the many directors of the railroad in St. Paul, Minnesota — who is reluctantly called upon to manage the company during its period of crisis. Still later, when Henry Villard and Frederick Billings nearly errupt in financial warfare for the fate of this company, it is Ainsworth who is called upon by both parties to travel to New York and mediate the dispute, a task he suceeds at doing. Cautious, a keen observer, a shrewd financier, and almost always shying from the spotlight, he is every bit the cultural heir of Cosimo di Medici, who likewise advised his sons (in vain, it turned out) to never seek public power, and weild private power with great care.

Beyond the narrative, however, is even greater depth in the observations and opinions of the man. Take, for example, his conflicted assessment of Villard:

Mr. Villard is a shrewd financier and has made a great sucess of growing out of the purchase made of me; he is now in the zenith of his financial power, controls capital for new enterprise at will, makes a sucess of everything he undertakes. He is a good man, of noble impulses and generous disposition, he is a capitol leader, as long as sucess fills every sail, but I should greatly doubt his ability under adverse circumstances, he would not be a good General, if superior numbers were to force a retreat. I trust he may always be sucessful, but I doubt it.

(Villard himself is a fascinating character. Over his packed life, he was a failed German revolutionary, a founder of the Republican party and a strict abolitionist, a famed Civil War journalist, a major railroad financier and stock manipulator, and last but not least a major supporter of Thomas Edison co-founder of General Electric.)

Henry Villard in 1889. From Memoirs of Henry Villard

Henry Villard in 1889. From Memoirs of Henry Villard

Written in 1881, Ainsworth could not have predicted Villard’s future more aptly. Villard did indeed become forced to retreat, and faced with difficult circumstances lost much of his financial prominence and power within a few short years. But more than the prescience is the keen ability of Ainsworth to read character, and his knowing sense to place it down on paper as a kind of cautionary tale to his son, as if to say, “George, Villard is a great man, better than most, but don’t become too enamoured of him.”

Perhaps I am simply too enamoured myself, of history in general, but I think not. The more time I spend getting closer to who these people were, the more they seem to speak to me. If now find myself digesting various interpretations of history, and stating things like “well, that’s what Ainsworth would say.” His personality has, ghost-like, imbued the pages of his memoir, and now accompanies me. And now, as Dan continues to dig into Holladay’s story, he too begins to leap from the page as a fully formed human being, capable of judgement, thought, and emotion. And though Holladay remains a bit of a scoundrel, Dan notes that he is suffering a kind of Stockholm Syndrome where he is concerned. It is more than a mere liking, however, for I find that even his self-proclaimed Nemesis, Gaston, has begun to take on a sense of reality. The very documents that condemn him as a corrupt and ambitious man — transcripts of an 1880s court case before the Oregon State Supreme Court — also reveal him to be spirited, confrontational, intensely idealistic, and highly complex, a man who will willingly cheat the law but only for what he thinks is a noble cause. Gaston and Holladay probably hated each other, and yet I find myself knowing and liking them more and more.

This is, perhaps, what we miss most in history: the sense of humanity. Too often we reduce our stories to facts, dates, and figures. Yet my curiosity carries me deeper, to dig as close to the source as resources allow, and I find that I am rewarded by the strange sensation of making friends with dead people.

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Illustrating the masters: McKim, Mead & White’s 1882 Portland rail station

Rendering: Proposed Passenger Station and Offices for Northern Pacific at Portland, Oregon: McKim, Mead & White, 1882

The above is an architectural rendering I created in recent months, but it is more than that: it’s a connection between myself and a lost fragment of time.

The building in the rendering is an 1882 rail station design by McKim, Mead & White, one of the most storied architectural firms in United States history. This structure, proposed for Portland, Oregon, would have been the largest railroad station in the world if it had been built. Unfortunately, a financial downturn resulted in its cancellation, and it was largely lost to public memory. I managed to relocate one surviving rendering of this structure, mis-cataloged, in the holdings of the Oregon Historical Society. For a fuller history of this structure, see my article in Portland Architecture.

Facade details from original rendering: Proposed Passenger Station and Offices for Northern Pacific at Portland, Oregon: McKim, Mead & White, 1882

In preparing for this article, as well as for an upcoming encore of my February 2012 lecture on Pacific Northwest rail stations for the Architectural Heritage Center, I felt that I had to bring this station to life, and the best way that I could do that was to produce a watercolor and ink rendering.

Creating the rendering was an extensive process. First, came the source materials: the lone surviving rendering, and a single illustration (of dubious accuracy) from a period source, the 1880s booster magazine The West Shore.

Illustration from The West Shore: Proposed Passenger Station and Offices for Northern Pacific at Portland, Oregon: McKim, Mead & White, 1882

My next step was to create a basic model of the station using Google’s free SketchUp tool. While I could have created a perspective the hard way by hand, I wanted to be certain that the measurements were at least close to accurate. I also wanted to include some framing elements from real Portland, specifically the Honeyman Lofts block and the old U.S. Customs House. Most of the measurements were taken from comparing the two source illustrations with the known measurements of the street grid. After about a day’s worth of work, I had this basic model:

Sketchup View (aerial): Proposed Passenger Station and Offices for Northern Pacific at Portland, Oregon: McKim, Mead & White, 1882

This model, in turn, let me experiment with different perspectives, until I found the one I preferred:

Sketchup View: Proposed Passenger Station and Offices for Northern Pacific at Portland, Oregon: McKim, Mead & White, 1882

This was, of course, but the beginning. Following this came printing the SketchUp view and then using a ruler to scale up and transfer the main lines onto a large piece of watercolor paper, then more detailed drawing of details by hand using drafting pencils. The remaining sequence was not all that different from my approach to pictorial paintings: sky first, shadows next, mid tones third, and detail colors last.

DSCF1158

A final pass with two weights of technical pen reinforced primary lines and provided fine details, such as stone blocks, window trim, and lighting fixtures. The label was the last to go on, hand lettering with an improvised type face that played off of the Gilded Age style of lettering from the McKim, Mead & White’s elevation. The end result was the rendering that is shown at the top of this post.

More than all of the technical aspects, however, this endeavor felt special on an entirely different level. It’s granted me a new realization, that through creative processes I can invest in history — and history in me — deeper meaning. Absent of knowledge of other surviving materials, the rendering I have created may be the only one of this structure in existence anywhere in the world. In a very small yet personally very satisfying way, I’ve become a sort-of latter-day draftsman for the project, and rendering this McKim, Mead & White work has felt like — more than an exercise in illustration — a kind-of honor.

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