Monday, 30 July 2018

Postcard of the Day No. 91 – Grain Elevators, Buffalo, NY

The city of Buffalo is the spiritual home of the grain elevator. At its height there were over 30 of these gargantuan storage facilities lining the river and harbour. Grain from the Midwest was shipped to Buffalo via the Great Lakes and stored prior to transhipment to the Atlantic seaboard and Europe. The end for the Buffalo grain trade came in 1969 with the opening of the St. Lawrence Seaway – only two of the surviving 15 structures are still handling grain. Elevator Alley as it is known, is still an impressive sight and has been developed as a visitor attraction – a campaign exists to have it designated as a National Park.

The example shown on today's card appears to be an early wooden cribbed construction with multiple hipped roofs. Later elevators were built in concrete and formed of cylindrical silos. Other cards show examples from Canadian ports – the last card shows a prairie elevator. Cereal growers would transport their crops to the local elevator from where they would move on by rail. In wheat growing states every small town would have its elevator. It would normally be the largest building in town, visible for miles and much valued as a landmark.

For artists and photographers grain elevators have been perpetual objects of fascination. Their overwhelming physical scale and repetition of geometric form offered rich graphic possibilities to the Modernist sensibility. They lent themselves easily to simplification and abstraction and supported the popular pre-war idea of the industrial sublime. Painters who explored them include Charles Demuth, Charles Sheeler, Ralston Crawford and a host of amateur artists, mainly from Canada, whose work (of variable quality) can quickly be found online. John Vachon, David Plowden and Andreas Feininger all produced memorable photographs of elevators. And the great Düsseldorf taxonomists, Bernd and Hilla Becher published their definitive survey in 2006. Their impassive scrutiny is extended over 200 plates.

Friday, 20 July 2018

Some State Belles

These are from a series of postcards issued by Raphael Tuck in 1910 for sale in the United States. It’s a simple concept – attractive young women, fashionably turned out and accessorised with emblems of local distinctiveness. Most comport themselves with modesty and decorum with The Pride of the Nutmeg State taking first place. But there are exceptions. Nebraska’s Favorite Daughter displays a sultry stare as she emerges through the cereal crops while The Washington Belle offers a sporty grin and a promise of something unconventional, encircled as she is by an equestrian whip. A final observation – the Mississippi Belle may be the only white person on a postcard to be be seen in a cotton field.

Wednesday, 11 July 2018

New York City Landmarks No.1 – Flatiron Building

This is the first in a series of postcard collections of well known New York City landmarks. Completed in 1902 as the Fuller Building with 20 floors and a steel frame. Developed on a triangular site, its distinctive wedge shaped profile soon acquired the name Flatiron. Chicago architect Daniel Burnham was responsible for the design and specified the finish on the façade, limestone at the bottom rising to glazed terra-cotta on the upper floors. Corner buildings always demand attention and the Flatiron quickly entered the public consciousness and over the succeeding century has become regarded as one of the city’s essential emblems. Its arrival at the junction of Fifth Avenue and Broadway coincided with the golden age of the postcard. Thus postcard images of the building are abundant and almost all feature the same head-on view. By way of variety, there are some nocturnal views as well. The present owner is an Italian property investment fund with a plan to convert the building into a hotel. The scheme has the approval of city authorities but awaits the conclusion of existing tenancies over the next few years. It will be interesting to see what happens next but the most likely outcome is yet another citadel for the seclusion of high net worth individuals.

Monday, 2 July 2018

Rendsburg Hochbrücke

This rather nondescript postcard was acquired more than 40 years ago at a time when I was looking for cards of bridges. I can even recall where I found it – in a box of cards at the back of an antique shop on Kensington Church Street. The card fails to do justice to the engineering splendour of the subject. Although I found out for myself when I visited last month just how difficult it is to reveal its wonders in a single photograph. Rendsburg is in Schleswig-Holstein on the Nord-Ostsee Kanal (what we would call the Kiel Canal), in territory that was for centuries contested by Denmark and Germany – it was finally incorporated into Prussia in 1866. Arriving on a train from Hamburg, I consulted a map and satisfied myself that a left and left again would soon bring me to the bridge I’d come to see. I couldn’t have been more wrong as I strode into the suburbs – but when I looked left while crossing at traffic lights I observed an extraordinary sight in the distance. The vast superstructure of a cruise ship was inching along, its upper decks towering over a Lidl store, offering a valuable clue to the location of the Canal. My route took me through the working port of Rendsburg via an avenue of warehouses and grain elevators, to the bridge itself.

The reason this bridge is special is that in addition to carrying a busy railway line over the canal at a height that permits ocean-going vessels to pass underneath, it is also a Transporter Bridge enabling a handful of vehicles and pedestrians to traverse in a suspended gondola (Schwebefähre). It was built in just 2 years between 1911 and 1913 to carry the Neumünster to Flensburg railway across the canal. Regrettably, since January 2016 when a myopic navigator allowed his ship to collide with the gondola the transporter function has been inactive. The gondola has been removed and remains in store while its future is debated. Given the very small number of surviving Transporter Bridges, it would be a great loss if it wasn’t restored to use.

Another feature to admire is the engineering solution to the problem of how to route trains to the deck of a bridge that stands 42 metres above the water level. The southern approach involved constructing a 5.5km inclined ramp at a gradient of 1/150. Space on the northern bank was more limited and had to be found by building what has become known as the Rendsburg Loop – a 360 degree circuit (5.5km in length) over the eastern suburbs that crosses over itself before finally returning to ground level on the approach to Rendsburg Bahnhof. It makes for an exhilarating, if occasionally vertigo-inducing, train ride. In a short-lived spirit of optimism I set out on foot to trace the Loop but had to admit defeat as it swooped off into the distance over a hundred gardens before suddenly turning up again in a place that made no sense. I found a place where a public footpath ran underneath, between the towering bridge supports but hopeless confusion soon set in and it was a relief to find the station more or less by accident.

There’s a handily placed waterside bar/restaurant (Brückenterrassen Rendsburg), more or less underneath the bridge where the overhead rumble of passing trains adds to the atmosphere. When a big ship passes the rooms overlooking the canal go dark. They also serve a monumental plate of Bratkartoffeln mit Ei und Schinken. Recommended.

 Note: The well-travelled Bridgehunter has a much more informed description of this bridge on his blog.