They’ve been working on the railroad

All the live long day.

And now they want to tell you about it.

The folks at EMRCA are moving into a more public phase of their endeavor.  While they’ve been inviting people to visit their offices and workshops at Heritage Park for many months, now their outreach will extend to a periodic newsletter, outlining the many fronts on which the work is advancing.

X-RR will link to the newsletters as they become available, and – full disclosure – I will be working with the editorial board of the publication.  So I’ll have inside sources while maintaining an independent voice.  I don’t pretend to neutrality, however.  I am an enthusiastic, if not uncritical, supporter of the whole North Adams project.

Who’s been working on the railroad?

Well, Tom Krens, of course, but I’ve written plenty about him, and will be writing lots more, predicated on more than a half-century of acquaintance.  Here I want to mention several people whom I am coming to know, and whom I hope to profile at greater length in a subsequent post, along with others I have yet to meet:

Ben Sosne is Operations Manager, responsible for political and legal administration.  Andrée Heller is Project Manager, responsible for programming, communication, and advancement.  James Jarzyniecki is Chief Designer & Architect, responsible for the fabrication and construction for the model train installation.  Raynor Sebring is Research Analyst, responsible for historical and educational content development, with particular attention to railroad history.  William Docarmo is the installation engineer who has been instrumental to the project from Tom’s earliest inspiration.

Who will be working on the railroad? 

This is the biggest news flash.  Renowned architect Frank Gehry has signed a design development agreement with EMRCA and will be making a site visit to North Adams on 9/1/17.  Besides designing a signature building for the model train & architecture museum, Mr. Gehry will consult on two related projects, the Mohawk Theater and the Hoosac River Revival.

Meanwhile, former Massachusetts Governor William Weld has been retained, as principal of Mintz Levin Strategies, the consulting subsidiary of a major Boston law firm, to lead capital fund-raising and investment, as well as advising on corporate and governmental legal matters.

On August 14th at Los Angeles County Museum of Art, an appreciative full house attended a panel discussion titled “A Tale of Three Cities,” which surveyed the impact of art and culture as a driver of urban development, based on the experience of thirty years in North Adams, Bilbao, and Los Angeles.  Besides Mr. Gehry and Governor Weld, the panelists were Thomas Krens, Director Emeritus of the Guggenheim and prime mover of EMRCA, and Michael Govan, currently Director of LACMA.  (The whole discussion can be viewed here.)

By no coincidence, all four were involved in the early development of the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art in North Adams, which has just reached its full potential with a recent expansion that doubled its gallery space.  Joseph Thompson was also among those founding fathers, and has been MassMoCA’s director from its opening to its current efflorescence.  (See him and the new building in this PBS Newshour segment.)

Gehry and Krens, of course, were both primary contributors to the success of the Guggenheim Bilbao, widely considered the “most important piece of architecture built since 1980.”  For their press conference in North Adams on September 1st, they will be joined by three former governors of Massachusetts; in addition to William Weld, Michael Dukakis and Deval Patrick are slated to attend.  Dukakis initiated urban heritage parks including North Adams’ during his tenure, and was the first governor to greenlight MassMoCA, while  Patrick’s support made its recent expansion possible.

Tom is a master of the art of making connections – personal, conceptual, intellectual, cultural, practical – and a ringmaster (or taskmaster, as some might say) in enlisting individual talents in a collective endeavor.

What work is being done on the railroad?  

On so many fronts – where to begin?  Most basically, EMRCA has taken options to privately purchase from the City of North Adams both the existing Heritage Park and the adjacent parcel, where the abandoned Sons of Italy building is now and the Gehry-designed, purpose-built train/architecture museum will be.

With the enthusiastic support of Mayor Richard Alcombright and the city administration, EMRCA has submitted an application for a $5.4 million MassWorks Infrastructure Grant for site remediation and bridge reconstruction.  Included in the application are two reports generated by an earlier planning grant from the Commonwealth:

First, an economic impact analysis by the Center for Creative Community Development, led by Williams economics professor Stephen Sheppard, which projects more than half a million visitors, and the potential for a multiplier effect that would yield up to two thousand additional jobs in the region.

Secondly, a Master Plan for Heritage Park redevelopment, prepared by Gluckman Tang Architects, which details the transformation of the existing buildings into a showplace Mount Greylock Distillery and a Museum of Time, as well as other dining, retail, and support facilities.

Meanwhile, Dr. Gray Ellrodt, Chief of Medicine at Berkshire Medical Center and member of the EMRCA planning committee, has examined community health care outcomes of related economic development and shown what they can do to alleviate “diseases of despair.”

In terms of documentation to draw believers in its core project, EMRCA has moved from its original Conceptual Development Study – a massive volume designed to deluge doubters with facts and bludgeon them into submission – to a slimmed-down prospectus that offers a concise mission statement spread over a portfolio of illustrations, designed to attract and entice investors and supporters.  Most impressive is the double-gatefold layout of the track plan of the model train display, which covers an unbroken, high-vaulting expanse longer than two football fields.

How is the railroad moving beyond words and pictures to tangible practicality?

A thirty-foot 3-D physical model of the entire display has been created in 1:24 scale.  An unauthorized first look is offered under the heading “The Model 2.0” above.

The second floor of the EMRCA workshop at Heritage Park has been transformed into a test track platform, so the technical details of all sorts of crossings and couplings can be confirmed, using 2-Rail instead of the more common 3-Rail O-gauge, for greater detail and verisimilitude.

At the same time, the curatorial aspects of the museum’s railroad and architecture components are being refined, with the determination of 164 modern architectural masterpieces whose finely-detailed models will be interspersed among more than a thousand generic buildings, and 107 historic steam and diesel locomotives that will run simultaneously.

When will this train reach its destination?

Frankly, that’s a question that only time and money can answer, but all preparations are underway to fast-track the project.  The multiplicity and simultaneity of actions in process prefigure the immersive immensity of the final product.

 

Model train news

EMRCA Inc. has taken out an option with North Adams Redevelopment Authority for the private purchase of Heritage Park.  The option (one year for a nonrefundable $20,000, extendable for another year at $30,000) reportedly calls for a final purchase price of $1.2 million, and includes the adjacent Sons of Italy parcel, where the new model train museum will be sited.

With the property secured, the raising of private capital will be facilitated, and insofar as another newly-opened model train attraction in New York City is comparable, it shows that raising a reported $40 million is possible.  North Adams is not Times Square, admittedly, but it has merits and virtues to attract visitors, and will soon have a good deal more.  And in scale, detail, artistry, and program, EMRCA will be a different creation altogether.

I gave Gulliver’s Gate a preview write-up last month, but by now it has opened officially to many media reports.  Stories, pictures, and video can be found at these sites:  CNET,  CBSFortune, Architects Newspaper.  I repeat that this miniature extravaganza is simultaneously proof of concept for EMRCA, and no competition at all, demonstrating the viability of the project and also its inherently unique merits.

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.

 

 

Maximizing the miniature

I may be bungling the biography here, but from what I know of Tom, I seem to have found a key to understanding why he does what he does.  In my view, it goes back to the summer of 1974 when he was headed to an archaeological dig in Turkey and traveled there by means of his first BMW motorcycle, direct from the factory in Munich.

That trip became an architectural pilgrimage that culminated in Sinan’s Selimiye Mosque, where Tom seems to have been inspired to the belief that humanly-built space could generate awe, intimate the infinite, imitate the cosmos.  I think the expression of that architectural possibility has been part of his quest all along, but finds its ultimate expression in EMRCA.

With this project, he seeks to create a whole world in miniature, an enveloping universe to enchant the mind and the senses, a simulacrum of the built and natural environment on a scale that both dwarfs and immerses the viewer.  This is modelmaking at maximum impact, the melding of theme-park sensorium with museum-quality thoughtfulness.

This attraction would unquestionably be unique in the world, and if North Adams is lucky enough to become the location of this miniature world, the world at large will certainly come.  It would literally become a place of secular pilgrimage.

Year-end update

My old friend Tom is a hard man to keep up with, definitely a moving target, but I did recently check in with the latest developments at EMRCA headquarters at Heritage Park in North Adams.  While our conversation was off-the-record, I think it’s fair to hint that major developments are underway.

In particular, I saw detailed plans and illustrations for two components of the overall attraction that Tom is developing for Heritage Park, a showplace distillery and a “Museum of Time.”

I myself wouldn’t be a patron of the distillery, but from some other successful locations that Tom showed me, I can understand the pull of such a destination.  And I can see the shared design aesthetic, and the historic craft connection, with the Museum of Time.

To describe the latter as a collection of 19th-century industrial clocks does not begin to describe its appeal.  These are beautiful objects, masterpieces of engineering and design, essentially large-scale, gleaming metallic sculptures, which are fully functional.  And their history is intimately interwoven with the development of railroads, and thus a perfectly coordinated attraction with the model train museum.

One aspect of EMRCA (that name and acronym has got to be changed, in my opinion, but my suspicion is that Tom is just saving the exact appellation as a bargaining chip somewhere down the road) that struck me most graphically on this visit was the dimension and appeal of the architecture component, which is extensive, educational, and museum-worthy.

And while global, the collection of detailed architectural models is not just contemporary (despite the name).  Besides Frank Lloyd Wright buildings and other historic landmarks, I noticed a potential section devoted to City Beautiful architecture and design from Buffalo circa 1900.

Anyway, mum’s the word, officially speaking, but I have to say that while I approached the latest expansion of Tom’s plans with some skepticism, I was soon won over by the force of his conception.  And reminded of how he has always worked, not in the abstract but in response to concrete situations and opportunities.

Like the circumstances in which he finds himself, Tom is always changing, responding adventitiously to the situation on the ground.  At the intersection of economics, politics, and culture, there are openings to development, but also roadblocks and derailings.

Though everything came together for him most notably in Bilbao, there are fascinating stories behind the obstacles he ultimately faced in Rio, or Taiwan, or Abu Dhabi, or China.  All I can say is that North Adams is very lucky to have become the focus of his imagination, and of the grandeur and grace he brings to each of his endeavors.

Whether the Tunnel City is ready for its trainsformation, well, we’ll just have to wait and see.  The initial plans for Heritage Park were announced just a year ago; the next year will tell the tale, one way or another.

Trainsformation

X-RR has some new information about further developments with EMRCA and Thomas Krens’ plans for the transformation of North Adams into the flagship of the “Massachusetts Cultural Corridor.”

EMRCA has expanded its offices into another building at Heritage Park, offering a space that is both workshop and showroom, displaying many of the modalities of modelmaking.  And now they are offering public viewing hours, on most Thursdays and Fridays from 4:00 – 6:00 p.m.

What you can see in process includes a 3-D model in 1:24 scale of the actual Extreme Model Railroad display.  This is in effect the canvas on which the big picture will be painted.  With terrain mapped by Google Earth images and populated with scale models of many famous buildings from around the world, recreated by digital files through a 3-D printer, this 30-foot tabletop adds a new aspect of tangibility to the whole project.

As Tom emphasizes, EMRCA has now become an exercise in cutting-edge technology, as much as an artistic, business, or cultural development.

On another massive tabletop, one of the final display’s centerpieces is about to take shape, an immense and immensely-detailed O-scale model of Grand Central Station.  In an illuminated showcase, you can also see some of the marvelous detailing of O-scale locomotives and railroad cars, which will make EMRCA such a kinetic attraction.

And then the pièce de résistance, another huge tabletop model, this one of all of downtown North Adams, which shows the site and scale of a completed EMRCA and totality of Heritage Park within its urban context, along with Tom’s vision for a revitalized downtown in proportion with EMRCA’s plausibly-projected half-million annual visitors.

A centerpiece is a luxury hotel with an architectural theme, and ground-floor exhibition space open to the public.  The model layout also includes two more museums, of Motorcycles and of American Art, around a central park, as well as large-scale public art installations.

I’m always kidding Tom that he wants to be the Baron Haussmann of North Adams, as transformative as the latter was to Paris in the mid-19th century.  This model is the proof of concept, and worth seeing for its own imaginative and artistic appeal.  Whether it’s a realizable vision is certainly an open question, but with public support and private investment, it could transform humble North Adams into a world-class destination.

It’s certainly attracting world-class interest, as you can see in this photograph of Pritzker Prize-winning, internationally-renowned architect Jean Nouvel looking at the model, as Mayor Richard Alcombright gestures over this re-imagined downtown for his city.  Nouvel stands before a model of the glass-sheathed hotel that Tom and his craftsmen based on one of Nouvel’s existing buildings.

photo-1

Meanwhile, here’s another view of the prototype of EMRCA’s scale model of the Empire State Building, which has moved from its temporary exhibition at MassMoCA to the cavernous space of the mothballed Mohawk Theater, another building earmarked for development in Tom’s plans, but in its current vacancy, one of the few spaces that can comfortably accommodate EMRCA’s ultimate architectural models in development.

photo-2

 

Tangibility

Thomas Krens’ model train museum, proposed for Heritage Park in North Adams, is acquiring touches of tangibility.  Here I’ll report on some of the ways the project is taking on a tangible aspect and presence, accumulating tangible assets and promising tangible benefits, providing tangible evidence of what may grow into a world-class attraction.

One manifestation of the project’s substantial appeal came out of Tom’s presentation at a “Northern Berkshire Economic Summit” in July.  Massachusetts Secretary of Housing and Economic Development Jay Ash was in attendance, offering vocal as well as material support to the vision expressed.  The meeting was covered by iBerkshires  and  The Berkshire Eagle.

Then the the August issue of Berkshire Magazine hit the streets with a cover photo of Tom with two ex-governors, Michael Dukakis and William Weld, who have gotten on board with the model trail project in a big way, based on relationships that go back to the founding of MassMoCA.  You can read the whole story here.

Then a display went up at MassMoCA that suggests the scale and precision envisioned for EMRCA.  In between MoCA’s largest gallery and the Sol Lewitt exhibition is an atrium with catwalks connecting the buildings.  At three stories high, it’s one of the few spaces that could accommodate a 31-foot-high mock-up of the Empire State Building.  Here’s how the Extreme Model – or Gigantic Miniature, as I prefer to call it – will appear in EMRCA’s O-gauge 1:48 scale.

MM MODEL ABOVE

See more photographs and commentary about this installation by clicking “Continue Reading” at the bottom of this page.

Simultaneously, progress is underway on the prototype for the design and construction of the model train set-up of EMRCA.  Here’s a taste of what the roundhouse will look like as one of the centerpieces of the exhibit, under construction as the place where 24 locomotives will converge.  More photos and captions about the prototype after the break.

TK ROUNDHOUSE 1

Continue reading “Tangibility”

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.

 

 

Welcome to X-RR!

This site aims to follow exciting developments in North Adam, Massachusetts, which promise to turn a decaying factory town into a vibrant cultural hub in the northwest corner of the Commonwealth.  Big plans are afoot, springing from the museum-minded imagination of former Guggenheim director Thomas Krens.

The author of this blog is Steve Satullo, a lifelong friend of Tom’s, who will be tagging along, following his North Adams ventures as they unfold, not just the proposed model train museum in Heritage Park, but a contemporary art showcase near the airport, and the revival of the Mohawk Theater on Main Street.  Also underway is a transformative expansion of MassMoCA, under Joe Thompson’s longtime leadership, but fulfilling the promise of Tom’s originating concept.

Mayor Alcombright and other city officials, along with the North Adams Partnership and a wide array of stakeholders, have embraced efforts to realize the comprehesive vision for cultural and economic development outlined in the Concept Development Study of February 2016.  (Click on link to see entire 384-page full-color document, but please allow time for large pdf.file to load.  I’ll soon post here “The X-RR Guide to the CDS”  highlighting some salient aspects of the study.)

I hope this blog will offer not just a personal perspective on unfolding events, but a forum for community discussion about this vision for the future of North Adams, so please feel free to use the Comments function of the site, or to contact me directly at:  ssatullo@clarkart.edu