Sunday, October 11, 2009

Abandoned and Reclaimed Things: Railroad Architecture

Michigan Central Terminal Main Entrance (photo copyright 2009 by Keith Burgess)

(Click on images for larger view)

Much has been written lately about the fate of Detroit’s Michigan Central Terminal, which was recently slated for demolition. Photographers drawn to the Beaux Arts style building in order to document its ruin have managed to capture traces of its lost grandeur. Why do we allow our history to crumble? What has influenced us to think of our buildings as disposable? Instead of restoring and re-purposing our architectural gems, we bulldoze and replace them with structures that can never compete with the beauty, craftsmanship, building material quality or architectural detail of the originals. We are losing our heritage and along with it our sense of place.

Interestingly, there has been some recent backlash about photographers misrepresenting Detroit and producing a biased perspective called “ruin porn.” The complaint is that photographers are framing shots in such a way that they omit well-maintained occupied buildings just beyond what is included in the frame. Thomas Morton makes the point that the buildings being shown over and over in the media are structures that have been vacant and in decline for decades, such as the Michigan Central Terminal (vacant since the 1980s) and the Packard Motor Car Plant which closed in the 1950s.

What is included within the frame depends on the story being told. Photographers tell their stories by using the viewfinder to frame and capture images; writers place a similar frame around their stories by choosing what to tell and what to leave out. Editors then sometimes reframe those stories and photographs by making deeper cuts. I would argue that the point of those Detroit urban decay photographs is that the ruined structures stand as omens, as prophecies of what may await other once-magnificent corporations unless they adapt with the times. We don’t like to be shown our mistakes and missed opportunities. There was a certain window of time when those buildings were still salvageable, but instead they were allowed to slowly slide into ruin over the decades.

Detroit’s Michigan Central Terminal is beyond saving. However, there are other historic buildings that could be saved, such as Buffalo’s Central Terminal. Since I first saw this building a few years ago, I have not been able to forget it. It was love at first sight. Standing on the front plaza drive and looking skyward to the clock tower, I was smitten by the Art Deco styling and details. It wasn’t hard to imagine the upper floors of the tower turned into condominiums, office space below, and shops and businesses located in the main terminal.

The Central Terminal Restoration Corporation (CTRC), a 501(c) (3) nonprofit organization is working to restore and preserve the terminal. The first goal of the CTRC is to stabilize and seal the building from the elements. Many of the Buffalo Central Terminal’s interior details, such as light fixtures, ornamental detailing, and railings, were removed and sold by previous owners. Art Deco lamp fixtures ended up in a Hong Kong restaurant where they still remain, but the clock was bought and returned to the terminal after it turned up for sale in Chicago on eBay. The Buffalo Central Terminal property is owned by several entities. The CTRC “owns the main concourse building and baggage building. The now detached train concourse is currently owned by Amtrak. The mail building is currently owned by the City of Buffalo.” It’s estimated that it would take approximately 56 million dollars to complete the restoration.

Buffalo Central Terminal (copyright 2009 by Kevin Scanlon)

Whether it’s feasible to save a particular building and whether it’s possible to save the building are two different questions. Pittsburgh has managed to save two of its railroad terminals by renovating them for new purposes. The Pennsylvania Railroad’s Union Station, later renamed Penn Station, in downtown Pittsburgh was transformed into The Pennsylvanian, a 13-story mixed-use building housing apartments and office/retail space. The apartments are located above what was once the main terminal, the concourse is now leased out for special events, and the rotunda has been deemed an historic landmark and is part of the National Register of Historic Places. The Amtrak station is still at that location, but is now housed underneath the old main terminal.

Pittsburgh’s Station Square is a complex of several buildings once belonging to the Pennsylvania & Lake Erie (P&LE) Railroad, including the freight house and the Landmarks Building which housed the Pittsburgh Terminal Train Station. The complex now includes a hotel, offices, shops, restaurants and night clubs, and the terminal is now home to the elegant Grand Concourse Restaurant.

Roanoke, Virginia is another city which has successfull
y renovated its historic railroad buildings for contemporary use. The Hotel Roanoke, originally built as a railroad hotel for Norfolk and Western Railroad travelers, has been renovated and expanded to include a conference center. Across the street is The O. Winston Link Museum, located in the former Norfolk and Western Passenger Station. Within easy walking distance is the City Market District, with restaurants, clubs, galleries, shops, and an open-air market.

Whether Buffalo will be able to rewrite the story of the Buffalo Central Terminal to include a happy ending is yet to be seen. If I could put my own story frame around that terminal, it might include a convention cent
er with hotels and restaurants. Or, the frame might hold condos above shops, offices, and restaurants. The efforts of the CTRC make that a hopeful possibility.

Buffalo Central Terminal Marquee Detail (photo copyright 2009 by Kevin Scanlon)

Photo credits:

“Michigan Central Terminal Main Entrance” copyright © 2009 Keith Burgess, used by permission

“Buffalo Central Terminal” copyright © 2009 by Kevin Scanlon, used by permission

“Buffalo Central Marquee Detail” copyright © 2009 by Kevin Scanlon, used by permission

Keith Burgess is a self-taught photographer who has twice won The Center for Railroad Photography and Art’s Creative Photography Gold Award (2007, 2009), and whose work has been exhibited at the California State Railroad Museum in Sacramento, CA. Burgess strives to reveal the underlying emotion of what he describes as otherwise “everyday mundane objects.” The images in his series “Portrait of the American Landscape” and “Architecture of Decline” convey solitude, sadness, loss, and longing.

Kevin Scanlon was born in Pittsburgh and has spent the past thirty-five years documenting heavy industry and railroads across the country. His photographs have been exhibited at art museums and galleries, and have appeared in various railroad-themed books and magazines, and on the covers of literary magazines and trade journals. He is currently working on a series of industrial landscapes in the Pittsburgh area.

1 comment:

cynthia newberry martin said...

I'm enjoying your posts on abandoned things--the pictures of the empty pool below are eerie. I was actually out taking pictures of an abandoned building today.

I do think we're losing our sense of place--abandoning buildings we could and should save to build nondescript new structures. Such a shame.

Also liked your thoughts on framing pictures and stories. Nice post, Dory.