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.



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.


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.


Continue reading “Tangibility”

Mohawk & MoCA

X-RR is about the proposed model train museum, yes, but it’s also about the whole “cultural corridor” concept, the idea of developing attractions in North Adams to balance off the wealth of established institutions in Williamstown — with Williams College, Clark Art Institute, Williams Theater Festival, and others — to brand the North Berkshire Route 2 corridor as an exciting overnight destination for cultural tourists, and ultimately a value-seeking home for a variety of hip young creative types, reversing population loss and economic decline.

MassMoCA has definitely changed the profile of North Adams over the past twenty years, but has not proved to be a panacea for the city’s economic woes.  It does provide, however, both foundation and direction for future development. Meanwhile, the Mohawk Theater, so central to Main Street, has been the focus for successive development efforts over the past several decades, without ever finding a viable path to revival.

I have been lucky to be present at tours of both these facilities in the past week, and I’m here to tell you that big things are afoot in the Tunnel City.

Experience with cultural and economic development around the world has led Tom Krens to know what it takes to achieve a truly transformative enhancement of the urban environment, so he realizes that for the model train museum to truly succeed in North Adams, the whole city will need to take on a new sense of itself.  So in a public spirit, he has become a leading figure in plans for the Mohawk Theater, and convened a meeting last week to see what could be achieved with multiple inputs from the cultural community.

Besides Mayor Richard Alcombright and other city officials, now in control of the property, at the meeting were representatives of programming institutions such as MCLA, WTF, Berkshire International Film Festival, Massachusetts International Festival of the Arts, and if you can include my role as film programmer, tangentially the Clark.

Tom, acting as prompt but not principal to the project, asked the compelling question about long-stalled efforts to develop the Mohawk, “If not now, when?”  After decades of proposals that petered out, when will another moment arrive with so many prospective efforts coming together to change the economic climate and cultural cachet of North Adams?

So he challenged the group to organize, and come up with programs of events that in sum could sustain a year-round performance and screening space in the heart of downtown.  A tour of the facility left everyone present with a sense of the possibilities.  There is an undated website from the last major campaign for the Mohawk’s revival that gives a sense of the status quo, and of the potential, given a concerted effort by existing cultural institutions.

A few days later, Joe Thompson, director of MassMoCA since its founding, was kind enough to give a group of prospective train museum enthusiasts a hardhat tour of the construction site for the vast expansion of the museum now underway, and the ways it will connect to Heritage Park and other attractions.

A hundred and twenty thousand square feet is just a number, just a phrase, until you step into the space.  Joe led us through Building 6 of the old Sprague factory, site of most of the expansion in progress,  wowing everyone with the dimensions of the interior, and moreover the vision of what it will contain when it opens next year.  What I most look forward to is the long-term James Turrell exhibit, but the other featured artists will certainly attract a wide range of viewers – Robert Rauschenberg, Louise Bourgeois, Jenny Holzer, Laurie Anderson.  The expansion will double the size and likely double the visitors to what will become one of the largest museums in America.

For pictures and more information, I direct you to an extensive article in the Albany Times-Unionwhich is unrealistically critical of space-rich but financially-limited MassMoCA, for failing to solve all of the factory town ills of North Adams, but otherwise sets the stage for further developments.

This is a story that will unfold in tandem with EMRCA and GCAM, Tom’s plan for another contemporary art space, along Route 2 near the airport, an unmissable stop right in the middle of the “cultural corridor.”  X-RR will attempt to stay current with each of these prospective projects.