Feats of vision, engineering, and persistence

The cat is out of the bag, and I am more at liberty to speak about developments with EMRCA, and the broader plans of Thomas Krens for what I call the “trainsformation” of downtown North Adams.  Recently EMRCA senior project director Ben Sosne made a public presentation to the city’s Redevelopment Authority, and I am fresh off an informative conversation with my old friend Tom, so there is news to report.

The biggest change of plan from the original concept, which connects all the others, is in the location and footprint of the “Extreme Model Railroad and Contemporary Architecture” museum.  Rather than expand and retrofit the current Heritage Park building (as seen above, in header and top-links that are now obsolete), it was ultimately found to be more functional and economical to site a new, larger, purpose-built facility just the other side of the Route 8 overpass.

The existing Heritage Park buildings are to be adapted into a “Museum of Time” and a showplace distillery, as well as retail and dining spaces, which I describe briefly in my “Year-end updatejust below.  The new EMRCA will rise on what is essentially a vacant parcel (shuttered Sons of Italy building), with its own direct access to Route 8 and room for ample parking.  This location will tie in directly with the already-underway Hoosic River Revival project for adjacent green space (don’t miss this well-made 7-minute video on the river project).

I’ll be back soon with more detailed and illustrated information on the expanded and altered plans, all predicated on private investment and not public spending.  Here I offer only a foretaste, along with some history derived from a new book called Builders of the Hoosac Tunnel, and a preview glimpse of Gulliver’s Gate, the impressive model train layout that will open officially next month in Times Square.

A less public meeting is scheduled in New York on May 2, at which Thomas Krens will present his grander re-imagining of North Adams, on a panel with former Massachusetts governor William Weld, who is generating support and financing for the project; Dr. Gray Ellrodt, Chief of Medicine at Berkshire Health Systems, who has done a meticulous study of public health benefits that could derive from the development; Stephen Sheppard, a Williams College economics professor who has modeled the economic benefits, and North Adams mayor Richard Alcombright, who has offered consistent support to an innovative vision for his city.

From recent conversations with Tom, here’s what I can relate of the thinking behind his still-evolving vision to combine entrepreneurial energy with social responsibility.  While at EMRCA offices in Heritage Park the new model train museum takes tangible shape in a large-scale highly-detailed model, and both the railroad and architecture components of the museum are subject to careful curatorial consideration, and both full-scale demonstration models and technical proving tracks are under construction, the most dazzling display of all depicts Tom’s transformative vision for North Adams.

With a plausible best case scenario of a million visitors per year for the model train/architecture museum attraction, Tom began to think about what would be required in terms of city infrastructure and support (and economic opportunity!), and was led by the logic of his conception to reconsider the entire ill-judged “urban renewal” project of the 1950s, which tore down one side of North Adams’ Main Street, and left an undistinguished and now mostly vacant strip mall, around a sea of unused parking spaces.

So now he has ambitious plans to tear down most of those underused buildings and replace them with a variety of world-class amenities, including two more museums (prospectively, one for American art, and a permanent Art of the Motorcycle museum to build upon Tom’s most successful exhibition in his two decades as director of the Guggenheim Museum worldwide).

Besides a “Central Park” (where paved parking is now) and revitalized Mohawk Theater (possibly suggested by San Francisco’s SoundBox), the proposed flagship of the whole development is a luxury architecture-themed hotel, with spa and wellness center.  Several noted architects are actively engaged in discussions about various aspects of the overall project, including Richard Gluckman, Jean Nouvel, and Frank Gehry.

Again, this is just a preview glimpse of the exciting developments that might be in store for North Adams.  As detailed renderings become available to the public, I’ll be back with updates.

In one of our prior chats, Tom was so enthusiastic about a new book that he was reading, about the history of North Adams, that I purchased a copy for myself, and read the massive tome from cover to cover.

Author Cliff Schexnayder is an engineer, and that is both virtue and liability of Builders of the Hoosac Tunnel.  His aim is certainly to lionize the engineers whose skill and persistence accomplished the feat of tunneling six miles through Hoosac Mountain, to create a direct rail connection between Boston and Albany.  In the post-Civil War era, that became the engine of North Adams economic development, and is still in use today, in fact running right alongside the EMRCA site.  The Hoosac Tunnel can reasonably be described as the greatest feat of engineering in America before the Brooklyn Bridge.

Schexnayder takes a panoptic view that results in a weighty volume that is almost an engineering exercise to read.  He begins way before the beginning, with the history of the Mohawk Trail as a Native American trading route.  And in the process celebrates the entire development of civil engineering in the United States, from the Revolution through the Civil War and beyond, in telling the stories of the five engineers cited on the book jacket: Baldwin, Crocker, Haupt, Doane, and Shanley.

It certainly took the expertise and energy of these five to complete the difficult, decades-long project, and it’s great to have their stories told (though perhaps we do not require a full genealogy for each).  The book gives a powerful new dimension to the phrase “light at the end of the tunnel.” There’s no question that the engineering feat is a marvel, and integral to the identity of North Adams.  As a saga of physical and economic obstacles encountered and tunneled through, it serves as a tremendous inspiration to Tom’s own massive project, and the energy and persistence it will require.

But there is evidence that it can be done, and could be a tremendous draw.  I will save my fully illustrated “X-RR excursion” to Gulliver’s Gate till after it is officially open, but being in the vicinity of Times Square, I took advantage of the opportunity to preview the work in progress.  It is simultaneously proof of concept for EMRCA, and no competition at all.

Of the comparables I’ve already written about on this blog, Gulliver’s Gate is clearly modeled on the Miniatur Wunderland in Hamburg, Germany, and is likely to vie with that attraction for the title of world’s best model train display, at least until EMRCA opens.  GG’s modelmaking is certainly up to the level of the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago, but lacks the narrative that “The Great Train Story” conveys.  The finish and coherence of the architectural models certainly exceeds that of Northlandz in Flemington, NJ, but there is much less emphasis on the trains themselves, and the spectacular array of bridges and trestles that Northlandz features in its larger, multilevel display.

I won’t make any definitive judgment till I see the finished product, but Gulliver’s Gate is an instructive comparison even in its unfinished state.  Clearly, it is intended as a tourist attraction in every sense of the word, from its location to its themes and overall aesthetic.  Spanning the whole world, the display congregates the top tourist attractions of each area – Asia, Europe, the Middle East, South America, Russia, and New York City itself.  And the modelmaking was contracted out to artisans in the various areas, and then brought together for the not-quite-complete installation, in what I understand used to be the newsroom of the old New York Times building.

The display and supporting spaces are well thought-through, and the attraction is very heavily staffed.  There is definitely something to appeal to all ages and all interests, with enough detail and interaction to warrant an extended visit.  Pending its completion and official opening, I won’t get into specifics, but there is certainly a lot to see and do, and I predict success for the enterprise.

Nonetheless, a different level of scale, detail, and artistry should make EMRCA something else altogether.  Start with one word, or rather one letter – O, as in O-gauge, which will make EMRCA stand alone from the get-go.  The scale of O-gauge is 1:48, while the much more common HO-gauge is 1:87.  Twice as big may not sound like all that much, but believe me, in three dimensions the difference is huge, the difference between toy trains and immaculately-crafted works of kinetic art.

Gulliver’s Gate does a pretty good job of distributing its displays through several rooms and around supporting pillars, under an office-height ceiling.  But it will pale in comparison to EMRCA’s huge, open, cathedral-like space, yielding an unparalleled immersive experience.  Comparative models of One World Trade Center make a good example: in GG just the base of the building is represented as wrapped around a pillar, while in EMRCA it will soar nearly to the top of the forty-foot ceiling.

Though there is virtue in the variety of styles that GG presents, I believe it will be Tom’s overall vision that will make EMRCA a unique experience, a gesamkunstwerk as it were, a total art work, in a way that a piecemeal, touristic approach can’t match.

So by all means, go visit Gulliver’s Gate if that sort of thing appeals to you, but just you wait, just you wait, for your pilgrimage to the worldwide Mecca of Extreme Railroading (though admittedly, GG has quite a fascinating representation of the Hajj).

North Adams, get ready for your moment as a global destination.