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