A Complete Architectural Scale Model of New York City
FROM the New York Sun
Midtown Manhattan lay in a jumble of six pieces in the back office space at the Queens Museum of Art. As though in a remake of "King Kong," a museum conservator, Joseph Chiarello, towered over the Empire State Building, reaching down amid a swath of Lilliputian structures. He was hovering over a miniature version of the Mid-Manhattan Expressway, an ambitious proposal that would have split Gotham at 30th Street, had Robert Moses gotten his way in the 1960s.
This scale model with Matchboxsize poplar buildings was recently
salvaged from an enclosed vaulted storage space under the Triborough
Bridge on Randall's Island. It will be on public view for the first
time along with other models as part of a threepart exhibition, the
most comprehensive ever, about Moses and New York City — "Robert Moses
and the Modern City: The Road to Recreation," opening January 28 at the
Queens Museum of Art, "Robert Moses and the Modern City: Slum Clearance
and the Superblock Solution," opening January 30 at the Wallach Gallery
of Columbia University, and "Robert Moses and the Modern City: Remaking
the Metropolis," opening February 1 at the Museum of the City of New
York. A related book, "Robert Moses and the Modern City: The
Transformation of New York," co-edited by the curator of the three-part
exhibition, Hilary Ballon, and Kenneth T. Jackson, will be published
simultaneously by W.W. Norton.
What better way to look at "Big Bob the Builder," as the New York
Daily News once called Moses, than by getting one's hands around his
gargantuan projects? The small-scale structures are helpful in
understanding this larger-thanlife figure who changed the face of the
city. "They give you a glimpse of Moses's-eye-view of the city," said
the chief curator at MCNY, Sarah Henry. "He thought of the city in a
sense from above." Ms. Ballon said they revealed Moses's commitment to
The archivist for Metropolitan Transportation Authority Bridges and
Tunnels, Laura Rosen, and Ms. Ballon went to examine a few of the
models three years ago in a cold, damp storage lair, where they had
lain on tables under plastic for three decades.
Except for the model of the proposed 1939 Brooklyn Battery Bridge,
the facsimiles in the exhibition had once been in the model room in the
Authority's administration building on Randall's Island. Ms. Rosen said
they were not on public display, though anyone who came to the building
could see them. Sometime in the 1970s the model room was turned into
offices, and some models were placed in the storage space adjacent to
the building under the Triborough Bridge. This show will be the first
time these models have been on display since the model room was closed.
(The Brooklyn Battery Bridge model was shown at the Queens Museum when
it was restored in 1990.)
Two people can carry most of the miniature models, some of whose
pieces are connected by metal hinges. Moses used the models to sell
businessmen, politicians, and other decision makers on his bold ideas.
A Brooklyn Eagle photo in 1939 shows the Brooklyn Battery Bridge model
at a meeting at the Majestic Theater in Brooklyn to promote the project.
At times, Moses could make the building process look all too easy.
The model of Moses's proposed Lower Manhattan Expressway, which was to
connect the Manhattan and Williamsburg bridges to the Holland Tunnel
and West Side Highway, has a portion with Lucite handles whereby one
can simply lift a neighborhood out and replace it with part of the
expressway. Ms. Ballon doubted that inserting the expressway in the
city could be done in such a simple, benign manner without spillover
effects to neighborhoods. It certainly was not the way the
preservationist Jane Jacobs saw things, Ms. Henry said.
The Mid-Manhattan Expressway would have carved a corridor along 30th
street, an area chosen to avoid Grand Central Terminal, Penn Station,
and Herald Square. This proposed elevated six-lane highway, Moses
boasted, would solve "the worst problem of traffic strangulation in
history." As explained in the book accompanying the exhibit, groups
like the fur industry, Murray Hill Home Owners Association, and Midtown
Realty Owners Association vigorously opposed it.
Moses's Brooklyn-Battery Bridge would have demolished Castle Clinton
in Battery Park. The proposed Long Island Sound Crossing provoked the
town of Rye to commence a lawsuit and Oyster Bay to donate 3,100 acres
in the path of the bridge as a wildlife refuge to the federal
government. Most famously, Jacobs helped halt a highway from running
through Washington Square Park, an idea Lewis Mumford likened to "civic
The models on display represent Moses's unbuilt dreams, showing in
sharp relief battles he lost. But the unbowed builder picked himself up
and began new projects. "He was good at moving on," said Ms. Ballon,
whose students at Columbia will be giving gallery talks on Moses. "The
viewer will be stunned once again by the scale on which Moses thought."
The models of the Mid-Manhattan Expressway and the Long Island Sound
Crossing were made by a company called Lester Associates. The Queens
Museum exhibition on Moses will coincide with the reopening of the most
famous model made by Lester Associates, the huge sprawling panorama of
New York that spans 9,355 square feet, making it the largest
architectural scale model in the world. Consisting of 890,000
buildings, the panorama took a couple hundred people three years to
build by hand. (As though in a Saul Steinberg cartoon, Nassau County
and New Jersey are painted in black with no buildings.)
Preparing the Moses models for the show, Mr. Chiarello has been a
one-man clean-up crew, taking a vacuum cleaner to the models, while
using an air-spray can on delicate areas. He removed accumulated dust
around Bayville and clamped down on the Long Island Sound Crossing
bridge with a few wooden clasps. It seems shrinkage had created some
stress causing it to buckle slightly. He was applying plastic glue to
prevent it from popping its head up like a sea serpent. He cleaned
other areas of the model with a solution that emulsifies dirt, soot,
Mr. Chiarello used a syringe to apply glue in hard-to-get places
under the bridge. His tiny tool kit also includes a brass file and a
small knife. Like a character out of "Gulliver's Travels," he held a
small wooden church in his hands, pondering where it belongs. He will
attempt to match the stain on the bottom of it to the pattern of
discoloration or loss on the surface of the model.
On the Mid-Manhattan Expressway model, Mr. Chiarello dusted with a
paper towel rather than cloth so that if an edge caught on a building,
it wouldn't harm the model. He also scrubbed where water damage had
caused acidic stains.
Jars of raw umber and yellow ochre lay nearby. He selected gray #5
to paint the tops of buildings, using brushstrokes influenced by his
mother, who painted scenes from her native Sicilian town of
Castrofilippo in Sicily. He was delighted to see on the Mid-Manhattan
Expressway model the very church where his mother and father, who was a
tailor, were married in the early 1920s. Mayor Jimmy Walker married
them in a separate civil ceremony, he noted.
For swaths of green grass and parkland, Mr. Chiarello poured out
"blended turf" bought at a hobby store in Nassau County. The material
is actually dried sawdust shaken as though from an oregano container.
The Mid-Manhattan Expressway model will be a centerpiece at the MCNY
exhibition, with ramps that people can walk up, in order to see from
overhead. "This will help visitors get a sense of the overall Moses
projects, not just the scene we all see from the street," said the vice
president for communications for the Museum of the City of New York,
The models have tremendous fascination all by themselves, said Ms. Henry. "These have the added level of an unrealized vision."
The executive director of the Queens Museum of Art, Tom Finkelpearl, said he gets a chill looking at the other Lester Associates model, of the Long Island Sound Crossing. Multicolored thumbtacks – red, orange, brown, yellow – mark where highways would have run through neighborhoods. "I think the particularly bad ideas didn't get built," he said. Yet with a grin, he mused that his trips from the Queens Museum to Midtown Manhattan meetings would have been shortened by Moses's projects.
It's awesome. From Global Photos:
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