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.

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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.

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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.