Q&A re: N.A.

After a period out of the loop and under the weather, I’m back on the case of EMRCA.  Last week I visited their office in Heritage Park, met the new project manager Ben Sosne and other office staff, took more photos of the enhanced scale model of the project, and talked with Tom Krens about the state of play.  Out of that came the summary below.

Also, last month I visited “The Great Train Story” in Chicago’s Museum of Science & Industry, and will post my comparative commentary on that model train attraction within a few days.  For now, there’s this:

Questions & Answers of Cultural and Economic Development in North Adams

What’s happening?  Northern Berkshire County is cementing an identity as a world-class destination for cultural tourism and educational opportunity.  The acclaimed recent expansion of the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, and the completely-different but equally-impressive expansion underway at MassMoCA in North Adams, signal a tipping point for the region toward recognition of culture as a driver of economic growth.  Many other projects are afoot that contribute to the palpable energy of change, but here we focus on developments at Heritage State Park and adjacent Main Street of North Adams.  With too much to see in one day, the area will begin to attract more and more overnight visitors.


Who is behind this?  So many people — from the North Adams Partnership to the Mayor and other city administrators, to former Massachusetts governors Dukakis and Weld, to various backers and board members, public and private – this initiative qualifies as a popular movement.  But the motivating force comes from Tom Krens, former director of Williams College Museum of Art and then of the Guggenheim Foundation and its museums worldwide.  In homecoming, Tom has brought four decades of experience in museum development around the globe to a focus on the northwest corner of our Commonwealth.


What is Heritage State ParkOne of a series of urban parks created during the Dukakis administration, it comprises restored buildings from an old freight rail yard, through which trains still run.  Those train tracks and the Hoosic River divide the park from nearby downtown North Adams, and that challenge of access has combined with the lack of a compelling attraction to limit use of the park, leading to a checkered tenancy.  Nonetheless, the state has recently invested in upgrading the infrastructure, and now a centerpiece attraction has been proposed that is certain to bring in hundreds of thousands of visitors per year.


What is EMRCA?  The Extreme Model Railroad and Contemporary Architecture Museum is the brainchild of Tom Krens, and the prospective anchor tenant of a revitalized Heritage Park.  He intends to bring his long experience in creating definitive and popular art exhibitions to the permanent (though ever-changing) installation of an O-gauge train layout, fabricated to impressive scale and quality of finish, in a marriage of art and technology, planned to amaze the world.  From the day it opens, it’s bound to receive acclaim as among the very best.  Compared to the installation usually deemed best in the world (in Hamburg, Germany, with visitors in excess of a million a year), EMRCA has some striking advantages, including purpose-built architecture and the know-how to raise a popular theme park to the multifaceted level of a museum.


Why marry high culture to mass appeal?  “The Art of the Motorcycle” was the most famous and best-attended exhibition that Krens mounted at the Guggenheim, and he repeatedly demonstrated the value of mediating between high culture and low, celebrating popular design and elevating everyday objects to the level of art, while bringing established art to unexpected places.  Add museum-level curating, visitor service, and educational support, and you have an experience with appeal to a wide variety of audiences — and remarkably complementary to the Clark and MassMoCA, creating art-based attractions for all ages and interests.  Some may like old art, some may like new, but everyone likes the magic of miniature world-building.  With an awe-inspiring display so rich in art, history, and technology, plus sheer kinetic energy, there is certain to be something for everybody.


Why model trains? Nearly universal public appeal is the easy answer, but there’s more.  Beyond the pull of nostalgia, it’s fair to say that the railroad built this country.  As a transformative technological innovation, rail transportation was the Internet of the pre-Civil War era, after which railroads were instrumental in tying the country together again.  Rail usage reached its peak a hundred years ago, but is now in a period of surprising economic revival, though yet to extend to passenger travel.  Add in the perennial fascination of that old train whistle, and those parallel tracks disappearing into the distance, which can transport you from here to where you want to go.  Once a technological and historical marvel, trains as models now represent the same, with digital controls and precision detail offering miracles of reality recreated.


How big is big?  Very big – at almost 15,000 square feet (in a building twice that large), the EMRCA installation will be more than four times the size of the set-up at Chicago’s Museum of Science & Industry, which attracts the most visitors in the U.S.  The display will be presented in one spectacular room, the length of two football fields, free of columns, rising to a cathedral-like height over 40 feet, running up to 100 trains on three miles of track.  With everything in 1:48 scale, the new One World Trade Center will dwarf and immerse the visitor, looking up at its 37 foot height, while the Empire State Building will soar more than 30 feet.  O-gauge trains are twice as large as HO in linear dimension, but that makes them eight times as large in 3-D, allowing for vastly superior precision modeling of detail. Innovations in CAD software, GPS mapping, and 3-D printing will bring the same specificity to buildings and landscapes.


Why North AdamsKrens developed the concept and prototype for EMRCA in order to locate it in a new Chinese museum, but shifting political and economic winds derailed that plan.  When he — as progenitor of MassMoCA and proposer of a new Global Contemporary Art Museum on Route 2 — was reintroduced to the Heritage Park situation, a mere five miles from his home of 45 years, the fit was perfect.  What could be a better location than a rehabilitated old rail yard adjacent to Hoosac Tunnel, the great 19th engineering feat that made North Adams a city?  And now as the poorest city in Massachusetts, who needs a transformative economic development more?  May China’s loss be North Adams’ gain.


What makes EMRCA a unique attraction?  Scale and finish, as already noted, but also verisimilitude and artistry.  The integration of contemporary architecture, through 1:48 models collected from a dozen or more celebrated architects from around the globe, adds a dimension unmatched anywhere.  But most of all, the promise of unique excellence rests on the track record of Tom Krens, whose signature style of architecture and exhibition combines grandeur and grace, spectacle and significance.  One such note is the plan to have doors that slide open, for a view of actual full-size trains whenever they pass on active track immediately parallel to the building.  Another is the acquisition of three genuine dining cars, to create a fine restaurant adjacent to the museum, in addition to a café and shop.


What’s the overall plan for Heritage ParkAlways prone to take a global view, Krens saw immediately that EMRCA could succeed only if Heritage Park as a whole were integrated into an attraction of diverse appeal that could draw and hold visitors.  Besides the dining car restaurant, café, museum shops, and workshops, plus the existing Freight Yard Pub, Krens plans to adapt other buildings into a showplace distillery and a spectacular collection of antique clockwork, marvels of engineering beauty quite complementary to trains.  Also essential to the park’s success is more evident connection to the MassMoCA campus and to a revitalized Main Street, anchored by revival of the Mohawk Theater.


What is a public/private partnership?  Cooperation between government and business has been shown to generate economic development of benefit to all, sharing resources and responsibilities for greater leverage and efficiency.  Given a concept of universal appeal and amazing fit with existing assets, various levels of government have offered enthusiastic support, starting with North Adams city officials and Berkshire legislators. The Massachusetts Secretary of Economic Development has offered seed money, augmented by private investors and benefactors, to develop a detailed feasibility plan. State agencies such as MassWorks and MassDevelopment have shown interest.  Pulling together for the common good is the essence of a public/private partnership.


Where is the “Massachusetts Cultural Corridor”?  Originally imagined as the line of Route 2 between the Clark in Williamstown and MassMoCA in North Adams, the concept is filling out and gaining traction among diverse interests, and may grow to include Adams.  In any event, the “MCC” is envisioned to leverage existing cultural assets into a marketable identity as a tourist destination, creating more attractions and more amenities for overnight or extended visitation.  Krens is planning a Global Contemporary Art Museum along Route 2, with downtown North Adams anchored by the triangle of post-expansion MassMoCA, a bustling Heritage Park, and a vibrant Main Street enhanced by the revived Mohawk Theater and a new art hotel.


What else is going on?  These plans are echoed and supported by other initiatives already underway.  Williams College will be building a new Inn (and also a stand-alone college bookstore) at the foot of Spring Street, and has a new art museum in the planning stage.  The Windsor Mill on Route 2 is being rehabilitated into an engaging multi-use facility, and the Redwood Inn is scheduled for transformation from fleabite motel to distinctive riverside resort.  This is truly a case of a rising tide lifting all boats, through a regional rebirth heralded by two great museum expansions, to be sustained and confirmed by further developments.


Where does the Heritage Park plan now stand?  With the acceptance of the Phase 1 Conceptual Development Study earlier this year, funds have been raised from public and private sources to complete the Phase 2 Detailed Feasibility Study, which is underway.  EMRCA now has full-time office staff working in Building 1 at Heritage Park, where a 16-foot scale model of the new building and train layout gives tangible reality to Krens’ vision.  Offsite, an expanding group of artisans works on a prototype lay-out that will soon move to a workshop within the park.  A wide net is being extended over model train experts and enthusiasts worldwide, to develop an advisory board for EMRCA and expand upon the smaller circle of early supporters and managing board members.


When might EMRCA open?  With the leverage of widespread public support, with planned-in efficiencies in construction and operations, and with a wealth of imagination and enthusiasm, we can hope to be hearing the sound of rolling locomotives and the buzz of excited voices, young and old, by 2018.