Sunday, July 17, 2011

The End of an Eero

My latest excursion was unfortunately a bit of a bust. I'm not sorry I went, for a few reasons I'll get to below. But this won't be the kind of exhaustive story that I might have liked it to be. I've had bad luck with very few other buildings. One of my favorite buildings in New York has eluded me. On a recent trip to see it, we arrived literally one minute after they locked the doors, and the weather chose that very moment in an otherwise perfectly sunny day to send an enormous cloud across the sky. With the exception of the CBS Headquarters, I'm pretty sure this is the last Saarinen building I'll be likely to cover here until I'm able to get down to D.C. again. [Good news, everyone: I actually have two more.]

The good thing about having all my routes entered into Google Maps is that it was immediately apparent that I would pass right by another stop I'd been hoping to make ever since I heard about it a year or two ago. It was so close, in fact, that I was able to get to it in only five minutes to and from the highway. It's what's been nicknamed the "Boat Graveyard" in Staten Island. It's a bunch of very old rusty boats, mostly resting on the river's floor, sitting in this sort of bay.

The unfortunate thing about this stop is that the Google Maps view there is far better than any photo I could have taken. As I suspected before I even arrived, there really is no way to get up very close to it, unless you happen to be in a boat yourself. This website appears to have some pretty nice images of it.

What made this worth the detour for me, though, was that the business that appears to be most closely associated with the old boats is a company called Donjon Marine Co., which was founded by a man named Arnold Witte. In fact, the sign on their building read "Witte Donjon Marine Salvage" or whatever. I really should have taken a picture of it, but didn't think of it at the time. As I've said elsewhere, ours is not a terribly common name. And it appears that pretty much the whole Witte family, John, Thomas, Paul, Matthew, and James, when not busy being Jesus' apostles, all help to run the business.

I walked into their sort of scrapyard or whatever you'd call it and approached one of the guys working there. I asked him if there were any way to get up close to see the old boats. He said "not really," but told me there's a small clearing about a mile down the road to the east where some of them could be seen. He was really very nice and I appreciated his help. I've said elsewhere that I've noticed you can tell how obnoxious an employer is to work for by the attitudes of their employees. If this guy was any indication, the Wittes are great to work for (I'm not surprised). I said "I thought I ought to show you..." pulling out my driver's license and showing it to him, " name." "Ryan...oh, Witte, right," and he pronounced it the same as my family does, "witty." "They're the owners of the company, are you related to them?" he asked me. "No, not that I know of," I said, "that is, I'm sure we must be back hundreds of years ago."

In any case, if you're looking for marine salvage services in the New York area, I must highly recommend Donjon. With a name like Witte behind it, I am certain they are the ones to trust.

Unfortunately, the clearing the guy told me about offered only the most limited views and only of a couple of the boats off to the side, not the main cluster of them.

It's possible that if I had driven around to the other side of the river, I might have found a view of the big cluster of rusty boats, but I would have been even further away from them than this. It didn't seem worth it to try, when it might have been as limited a view or as difficult to access as this one. I asked a guy in this auto body shop across from this clearing if he knew of any way to get a better look at the boats, but he didn't seem to think so. I used the restroom at the car wash next door and continued on to my principle destination, Eero Saarinen's Bell Telephone Laboratories Building (first phase 1962, remainder 1967).

I missed my opportunity to get onto the Garden State Parkway, but luckily the road I was on, US Route 9--although very likely slower--took me in more or less the same direction. The essay I'm on at the moment in my reading is a brilliant piece by Michael Stanton, talking about the transition between the urban, the suburban, and the exurban. He has such a clear and deep understanding of the American landscape that I found it incredible he hasn't written more. But it was apropos for me to be in New Jersey, which is pretty much just one giant strip-mall. Route 9 is miles-long stretches of strip malls and big-box retail stores punctuated by cloverleaf turn-arounds, what struck me as being a disturbing waste of the rural geography and a perfect metaphor for the overblown supremacy of the automobile in this country. My Zipcar that day was a Prius, coincidentally. From the moment I picked it up until I dropped it off again, I swear the fuel gauge didn't even seem to budge.

I ended up needing to stop for directions twice, first at a gas station and then at a little motel. I asked the woman at the motel desk if she could help me find the Bell Labs building in Holmdel, which I said is evidently on something called Crawfords Corner Road. She said "oh, that must be the AT&T building." She was close. They actually had a printed list of directions to various different sites in the area that she gave me. AT&T was the listing just above Bell Labs. Bell was listed as "Lucent Technologies," though. Not realizing that Lucent (now Alcatel-Lucent) is the umbrella corporation over Bell Labs, I asked "oh, so Lucent is the company that most recently owned the building?" She said "yeah, it's been called other things, but we call it Lucent around here 'cause we're old school." LOL

Now I haven't been aware of Bell Labs for as long as I'd like to admit, but now that I am, I'm becoming as fascinated by it as I am by 3M or DuPont, the two other research powerhouses that come to mind. I actually learned about Bell in the research I did for Lincoln Center. Harrison & Abramovitz designed the Bell Telephone Pavilion at the 1964 World's Fair and a scientist from Bell, Manfred Schroeder, provided data for the acoustic analysis of Avery Fisher Hall to help determine what was wrong with its acoustics before its 1976 renovation. Bell Labs was in some integral way involved with the invention of the transistor, the solar cell, the laser, the touch-tone telephone, and the launch of the first communications satellite, Telstar. No way should Lucent get credit for all that.

The welcome mat I discovered were a bunch of tiny No Trespassing signs. The entrance is about a mile away from the actual building itself. I could see it, but barely.

I contemplated hiding the car and walking in, but it was so far away! I decided to take my chances. It didn't even look like there was anyone in there. I tried my best to find out beforehand who or what organization owns the building now, someone who I might be able to ask permission (they most probably wouldn't have granted me permission anyway, because of what you'll see below). For anyone who might be reading this who'd have some legal objection to this post, I'll offer you the following protests. I love Saarinen's work implicitly. The building is magic. I spent $70 to rent a car to drive out and see this building alone. I spent over an hour of my time getting there just to see it. This entire blog I think is proof enough that my interest and devotion to the architecture of this building is legitimate. If you still want to press trespassing charges, then I say go right ahead, and for the record, karma is a bitch.

To be fair, I could totally understand why they wouldn't want anyone taking pictures of it. It really is a shame what has happened to this place. It's starting to look like a wildlife refuge.

That isn't the best shot of the geese, but I thought the Heliport sign was so cool. When I first drove in, a deer came out of the woods back by the water tower. I thought I'd snapped a photo of him, but I don't see him in my long shots.

No doubt there was a moment in between when the building was first completed and today, when the plantings had grown in, softening the hard sharpness of the building's modernism, but hadn't turned to weeds. It must have been truly spectacular. But part of the problem, I think, is that Saarinen's landscaping was so rigid and strict. The grounds maintenance must have required an entire army of gardeners. Unlike the more rambling PepsiCo grounds, which I suspect might overgrow somewhat pleasantly if left unattended, the style of Bell Labs' landscaping would demand constant attention to retain its full glory.

The building is truly mammoth, as I discovered when I could see its full expanse. The lake had hundreds of fountains curving through it and also served for air conditioning and a water source in case of fire. Some of those bushes appear to have been allowed to grow unchecked for at least five years. It was at this point that I noticed there were actually vehicles parked in front of the building. For a building this huge, it was sort of spooky to think that there were probably only about ten people inside it. Who knows what they were doing there. But for that reason, I didn't dare get much closer to the building than this. Instead I just drove around the oval ring road, stopping occasionally, getting out and taking a picture. I'm still torn as to whether I would have had better luck going on a Sunday. Likely there wouldn't have been anyone there at all to catch me trespassing. On the other hand, since I couldn't determine who owns the building now, there was much more likelihood of being able to see the inside of it by going on a weekday when there would be people there.

Photo by Cervin Robinson, Yale University Library.
I do really wish it had been possible to see the inside of it. Its atrium looks unbelievably spectacular. It was supposedly the first atrium of its kind ever employed in a corporate building, and was inspiration for the one at the Ford Foundation Building by Saarinen's successor, Kevin Roche.

As sad as it is, I will say that it is an exquisite modern ruin, much like Philip Johnson's New York State Pavilion. And this was another reason I was glad that I went. Seeing the condition it's in now, imagining the exorbitant cost to bring it back to pristine condition, I very much fear for the fate of this building. I have a sinking feeling in my heart that it may not remain standing for very much longer. The good thing about it is that it's probably way too large to go at it with a wrecking ball. What would be the point, anyway? To build something ugly in its place? But if no corporation big enough to handle it finds it appealing, it may just sit there for the next fifty years, crumbling into the ground, lonely, forgotten, and uninhabited, like a giant fossil from a past age.

While I prefer perfectly clear skies whenever possible, the few passing clouds were actually perfect for capturing this building. Without them, the mirroring of the glass would be much less obvious. This glass was allegedly invented specifically for this building and was one of the things that was praised so highly about it. It also reflected the majority of the sunlight, cutting down on costs.

After one time around the loop, my heart racing, figuring I'd be arrested, I decided to go in a little closer to at least get a shot of the building's cladding and front entrance.
As I'm taking this last shot, I see a guy coming out of the building and getting into a little white security truck. I knew he was coming for me, so I jumped back in the car to get the hell out of there. I had all these lies running through my head of the "By the time I saw the signs, I was already inside," or "I just came in to turn around," varieties. After a couple more of those, my conscience kicked in and I got back around to my normal "honesty as best policy" mindset. I decided I would tell him what I said above, how I'd driven so far just to see it that I wasn't about to simply turn around and go home because of a couple of little No Trespassing signs. What harm had I done, anyway?

I passed right by his truck and made the right turn to exit the grounds, watching the rear view mirror with bated breath. He paused at the intersection, I suppose to be sure I truly was leaving, and turned to drive back to the building. How do you spell relief? I took one last shot of the water tower and headed for home.

It had taken me far less time than building visits of yore for obvious reasons. I could be much less exhaustive and I could get no really good looks at the building's finer details. I tried to wrack my brain to think of some other building I could visit with the extra time I had on the Zipcar. I ended up hitting a ton of traffic on the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. I had just enough time to find the building I was looking for, drive past it, but not enough time to actually park the car and get pictures of it. That building is extremely easy for me to get to by subway, though, which I will do sometime soon. I'll let that be a surprise. The good news is that, for once, I managed to get the Zipcar back to the garage about five minutes before it was due and without sweat running down my face from racing to get it back on time.

One more thing I'd like to mention is this route into New York from New Jersey. Having approached the city from many different directions, I'm struck by how the views are planned. I'm tempted to wonder, as many criticisms as one might be able to fling at Robert Moses, if he didn't do this on purpose. The first one is at the top of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge (Othmar Ammann, 1964) from across New York Harbor. Of course I couldn't get a good look at that one without getting into a car accident, but it's really spectacular. The second one is even better, and I remember it quite clearly from living in Brooklyn and driving in to go clubbing.

The BQE is sunk below grade up to this point, and then all of a sudden, it rises up under the Brooklyn Heights Promenade, you come around a corner, pass a large building, and BAM there's the great mountain of the lower Manhattan skyline.

I was able to take that picture while still watching the road, don't worry. With a short Google, I couldn't find a photo of what the skyline looked like in 1961, when the BQE first opened, but it must have been breathtaking. I also can't even begin to imagine what the scene was like in this part of the expressway on the morning of September 11th. But for certain those who took this route to commute into the city before and after that day would have had this view as an awful reminder of what is now missing for months afterward. I'm not really prone to all that "greatest country on earth" nonsense of which many Americans are guilty (most of whom have never even left their home state). But every time I saw that view in those first years of living in New York, and I saw it quite a lot of times, it never failed to make me think to myself, "I'm in the center of the universe." The Trade Center Towers helped, as did a setting sun and the buildings lit up after dark, but it still impresses.

Bittersweetly, this marks the end of Saarinen in the tri-state area.

Not to fret, we still have plenty more incredible architects to get through!

All text and images ©2011, Ryan Witte, unless noted.

No comments: