Image credit: James R. Irwin
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From its humble beginnings as a wood planing mill in 1861, the Western Electric site evolved into an elaborate complex that housed the research laboratories of Bell Telephone for over 75 years. A world centre for sound communication innovation, the labs produced new types of switchboards, telephone cables, transistors, and the first electronic amplifiers. Harold D. Arnold's invention, the high vacuum tube, solved a major technological problem in 1914 by making transcontinental telephone service possible.
The early 20th century West Side Improvement Project involved incredible vision and collaboration and left an indelible mark on the New York cityscape (if only as evidenced by the many dramatic films featuring the overhead track as a backdrop). However, the longevity of the ‘lifeline’ was far from assured. Full operation began in 1934 on the heels of the Great Depression, which saw rail freight shipments drop by 50 per cent. It had taken 40 years to conclude the agreement that led to the construction of the High Line; its popularity and usefulness lasted about as long. Once truck shipping muscled its way back into the economy, rail traffic dwindled to about two carloads per week.
The final blow came in the form of a one-year interruption in service in 1980 due to the construction of the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center. In the decades that followed, bids for renewal battled demolition schemes with little hope of resolution. It seemed that the elegant but rusting structure’s death would be as drawn out and agonizing as its birth.
Finally, in 1999, two West Side residents formed an organization called Friends of the High Line that began seriously advocating for preservation and restoration in the form of a public park. Architect Casey Jones was granted a fellowship to conduct a research and planning study, followed by the first sign of City Council support in 2002. The idea became more viable when it was projected that tax revenues created by the reuse of the space could realistically cover the cost of construction.
The complex was converted (1967-1970) under the direction of architect Richard Meier into a housing, studio, and theatre centre. This was the first subsidized housing complex for artists in the United States and one of the first major adaptations of an industrial building for reuse.
When I am asked what I believe in, I say that I believe in architecture. Architecture is the mother of the arts. I like to believe that architecture connects the present with the past and the tangible with the intangible.