• This website includes dozens of videos, hundreds of essays, and thousands of drawings created over the past twenty years. Search to learn more about the history of buildings, places, prisons, Newark, New York City, and my PhD research on spatial inequality.

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Lorch Column at the University of Michigan

As featured by Taubman College

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Lorch Column at Taubman College

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As a new Ph.D. student, the massive Lorch Column welcomed me to Taubman College. On spotting the tall column from a distance, I knew I had arrived at my new home. I later learned this column was architectural salvage from the demolished Mutual Benefit Life Insurance building in my childhood neighborhood of Newark, New Jersey. To my surprise, an important lost landmark in my own city had become an important landmark to the University of Michigan. The column’s ancient stone base and ancient stone top, linked by a modern steel skeleton, is a fitting metaphor for the synthesis of past and present, the old and the new. In another way, its unusual history of transplantation and loss is a fitting metaphor for architecture’s own fraught relationship with capitalism.
Like many 19th-century insurance companies, Mutual Benefit saw its Newark headquarters as an advertisement to customers. Grand palaces to commerce modeled after the civic structures of ancient Rome would have symbolized to customers that this was a safe and permanent place to park their money. The logic followed that the taller and more imposing the monument, the more powerful and wealthy the company that built it. And a monument it was: eight stories of white Dover marble, copper-framed windows, and ornament copied from the temples of ancient Rome. The first floor was a banking hall lined with Vermont marble, while the floors above contained offices. Richly decorated cornice crowned the building. Behind this windowless cornice was an entire fireproof floor of life insurance records for the company’s thousands of policyholders. In other words, in its original form, the powerful and weighty Lorch Column supported the weight of nothing more substantial than the paperwork of bureaucracy.
Architect George B. Post modeled the four Corinthian columns and temple portico after the New York Stock Exchange he had completed a few years earlier. Comparing the details of the Lorch Column to the New York Stock Exchange, you will see they are almost identical in height, material, and ornament. The New York Stock Exchange was, in turn, modeled after the Roman Pantheon. A Roman temple to the gods had become an American temple to capitalism.
When erecting the structure that would eventually become the Lorch Column, Post faced stiff competition. His building was on Broad Street, Newark’s main commercial street, which was lined with dozens of other insurance companies and banks. After Hartford, Connecticut, Newark had the country’s second largest concentration of insurance companies. Across the street, there was the even larger home of the Prudential Insurance Company, built in stages by Post and Cass Gilbert. To the thousands of downtown commuters and life insurance policy shoppers, Mutual Benefit needed to one-up the competition. As The New York Architect wrote in 1909: “The problem was to design a building as different as possible from the Prudential Building and at the same time make it indicative of the strength and greatness of an important insurance company.” After some thought, Post concluded that since Prudential’s building was a granite castle in the Gothic style, his building for Mutual Benefit should be a marble palace in the Neoclassical style. In this way, the two structures and two companies would play off of each other: the industrial laborers and proletariat who purchased from Prudential’s Gothic castle vs. the upper-class and bourgeois clients who purchased from Mutual Benefit. For thousands of downtown shoppers and commuters, the two buildings stood on opposite sides of Broad Street, framing the entrance to downtown. The giant columns, Post reasoned, would be a fitting advertisement to the upper-class life insurance policy holders Mutual Benefit needed. So ironically, before what is now known as the Lorch Column met its own untimely death, it was an advertisement for others to insure against their own deaths.

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The Mutual Benefit Life Insurance Company building (left) and the Art Deco skyscraper that replaced it (right)

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Prudential Headquarters (across the street from Mutual Benefit, also demolished)

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Why was Mutual Benefit’s home demolished, despite its at-the-time cost of $1 million, its grand columns, and its important architect? The calculated logic of capitalism dispenses with history whenever the next and newest building can deliver its owner more profit in the name of progress. By 1925, Mutual Benefit moved shop to a larger building two miles away and sold its old home to the National Newark and Essex Bank. Looking to turn a profit in the overheated 1920s real estate market and to build a suitable monument to their own corporate power, the new owner demolished the six-floor Corinthian palace to erect a 35-floor tower of its own. Opened 1929, the National Newark Building was the tallest tower in New Jersey with its ornate temple roof modeled after the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus, one of the lost seven wonders of the ancient world.
In another twist of fate, William Starrett, who attended the University of Michigan and whose company built the Empire State Building, gifted the column to U-M. While the National Newark Building was inspired by a wonder of the ancient world, the Empire State Building is listed as one of the seven wonders of the modern world. Like the 102-floor Empire State Building, the 35-floor National Newark Building was finished just as the stock market crashed. Both entered the Great Depression as largely empty buildings that were urban monuments to corporate ego — hence, the Empire State’s early nickname the “Empty State Building.”
Ironically, the Lorch Column built, in the image of Roman columns that survived 2,000 years, barely survived 20 years. In the end, it was not time or nature or war that brought down the column; instead, the same calculated logic of profit and real estate that built this column demolished it shortly after.
As the American writer Kurt Vonnegut would say: “So it goes.” One monument to commerce replaces another. If not for the foresight of Emil Lorch, the first dean of Michigan’s architecture school, to accept the gift of this column, it likely would have ended in the landfill. As demolition crews hacked away at the monumental old New York Penn Station and carted its carcass to the landfill, architectural critic Ada Louise Huxtable condemned its demolition. Her 1963 New York Times article about old New York Penn Station speaks to the fate of that train station as much as to the fate of the Lorch Column:

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It’s not easy to knock down nine acres of travertine and granite, 84 Doric columns, a vaulted concourse of extravagant, weighty grandeur, classical splendor modeled after royal Roman baths, rich detail in solid stone, architectural quality in precious materials that set the stamp of excellence on a city. But it can be done. It can be done if the motivation is great enough, and it has been demonstrated that the profit motive in this instance was great enough.
Like the column that once advertised corporate strength but fell when the financial winds changed, Mutual Benefit Life Insurance itself fell apart in 1991. One of several reasons: investments in Florida real estate that never paid off and left the company bankrupt. By the 1950s, Mutual Benefit had become entangled in financing real estate; their largest projects included Mies van der Rohe’s Lake Shore Drive Apartments in Chicago. Mutual Benefit’s fall was, to date, the largest bankruptcy of a life insurance company in American history. The company’s assets were sold off, and the Newark buildings it still owned were sold to the Kushner family, who is now better known for their relationship with Donald Trump than for their real estate speculation.
In its afterlife as the Lorch Column at Taubman College, fate still follows the old column. It was capital and a desire to attract customers that motivated Mutual Benefit to build such a large column. It was capital and a desire to make more money that motivated the National Newark and Essex Bank to tear down this column. And it was success in real estate development that enabled Al Taubman to make a substantial donation to the architecture school that now bears his name. In a fitting metaphor for the power of capital to make or break architecture, the architecture school’s old home on the Central Campus, where the Lorch Column was first displayed, is now U-M’s Department of Economics. Where this column goes next in its journey across space and time is anyone’s guess. One thing is for certain though, even something carved in stone can change meaning depending on time and place and fate. “So it goes.”

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Related: Essay on the Demolition of Old New York Penn Station

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Warren Street School Demolition

As featured in:
1. Darren Tobia for Jersey Digs

2. The Vector, NJIT’s student newspaper
3. Read my analysis of campus architecture for some context on this demolition.

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“Those historians want to keep these old bricks. I can’t see why you’d want that s**t. F**k it. We might just slip in some new bricks. You can’t tell the difference anyway.”

– Conversation overheard between demolition workers at the Warren Street School

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“The university has never demolished any historic building of any value. Name one.”

– President of the university during a community meeting in October 2020

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When walking past the historic Warren Street School in spring 2021, a demolition scene by the local university shocked me. The building had been nominated to the National Register of Historic Places, together with five other Newark school buildings. Therefore, the drastic destruction should have been under state and local reviews. But demolition was approved on April 1, 2021, on April Fools Day.
The 150-year-old school was built by Jeremiah O’Rourke, the Supervising Architect for the U.S. Treasury Department and the architect of Sacred Heart Basilica and some of the largest civic structures in 1890s America. Before the university acquired the building in salvageable condition, it was the home of American History High School, founded by beloved Professor Clement Price to promote learning of American and local history by coming generations. Even with its windows now stripped out and demolition equipment parked around it, the grand master work for Newark’s proud history of public education was crying for this painful end delivered by the wanton and shameful act of university leadership.
At the orders of the university president, a short-sighted acceleration of demolition around the campus in the country’s third oldest major city has been savagely damaging the city’s history. These actions add to the list of hundreds of buildings already demolished in the area. While institutions like Rutgers and developers like RBH and the Hanini Group have embraced historic preservation, this university still insists on wiping the slate clean of history that it views not as an asset but as an inconvenience.

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The future of any great institution depends on the preservation and appreciation of its own history. I believe in saving old buildings not just because they are pretty. More than an argument for historic preservation on aesthetics alone, history – and the visible presence of history – shapes our appreciation for the sacrifices of those before us. Passing by the Warren Street School for twenty years, I thought every time of the thousands of immigrant children who attended school here for over 170 years uninterrupted. I thought of the Irish and Italian brick masons who carved the school’s terracotta ornaments by hand on wages of 5 and 10 dollars a day. I thought of these children’s parents, who came to Newark by steamship and steam engine to give to their children a better shot at life than they could ever dream of. I thought of the architect who built this building in the 1880s with care and love and hope that better civic architecture will produce better citizens.
It is the burden of history that shapes us, and it is on our commitment (or failure) to interpret and enrich history for the next generation on which each of us will be judged. I am reminded of architectural critic Ada Louise Huxtable’s words in 1963 when she described with horror the demolition of New York Penn Station.
“Until the first blow fell no one was convinced that Penn Station really would be demolished or that New York would permit this monumental act of vandalism against one of the largest and finest landmarks of its age of Roman elegance. Somehow someone would surely find a way to prevent it at the last minute – not-so little Nell rescued by the hero – even while the promoters displayed the flashy renderings of the new sports arena and somewhat less than imperial commercial buildings to take its place.
“It’s not easy to knock down nine acres of travertine and granite, 84 Doric columns, a vaulted concourse of extravagant, weighty grandeur, classical splendor modeled after royal Roman baths, rich detail in solid stone, architectural quality in precious materials that set the stamp of excellence on a city. But it can be done. It can be done if the motivation is great enough, and it has been demonstrated that the profit motivation in this instance was great enough.
“Monumental problems almost as big as the building itself stood in the way of preservation; but it is the shame of New York, of its financial and cultural communities, its politicians, philanthropists, and planners, and of the public as well, that no serious effort was made. A rich and powerful city, noted for its resources of brains, imagination and money, could not rise to the occasion. The final indictment is of the values of our society.
“Any city gets what it admires, will pay for, and, ultimately, deserves. Even when we had Penn Station, we couldn’t afford to keep it clean. We want and deserve tin-can architecture in a tin-horn culture. And we will probably be judged not by the monuments we build but by those we have destroyed.”

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Learn from the past.
Live in the present.
Plan for the future.

This was the inscription mounted at the Warren Street School’s entrance, which demolition cranes tore off and crushed in the dumpster. A site that once had a past, now has no past to learn from and to inform the present and future. Through demolition, our link with history is severed.

Bulldozer Urbanism

As featured in:

1. Preservation New Jersey: Ten Most Endangered Historic Places  May 18, 2021
2. After Warren Street School Demolished, James Street Named ‘Most Endangered’  May 18
3. Newark Historic District Designated as Endangered  May 18, 2021
4. James Street Community Rushes to Stall NJIT’s Demolition of Historic School  May 6, 2021
5. Nothing Lasts Forever, Not even at NJIT   February 1, 2021
6. SHPO Delays NJIT’s Plan to Raze 4 Historic Buildings    January 8, 2021
7. NJIT’s Plans to Demolish Buildings in Historic District Temporarily Derailed   January 7, 2021
8. Old Jail Could Inspire Youth to Stay Out of Prison – But Only If It Survives   July 4, 2020
9. NJIT’s Plans to Modernize Its Campus Could Cost Newark Some History   March 12, 2020

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James Street Commons demolitions completed and proposed as of April 2021

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Note: Visiting NJIT’s architecture school at age six and seeing students working there was what initially inspired my desire to study architecture. NJIT is an asset to Newark, and the school deserves the quality of campus architecture to match. I wrote and circulated this essay about NJIT’s under-performing campus design to members of NJIT and the Newark community. I am sharing it online, too, in the hope that future leaders of NJIT will collaborate with the community to create campus architecture that is culturally and historically sensitive to Newark.

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A Pedestrian’s Observations

Experiencing NJIT’s campus from the street

In publicity materials and in meetings with Newark residents and historians, the New Jersey Institute of Technology emphasizes the quality of its campus architecture and its track record of historic preservation. The school highlights its Central King Building (formerly Central High School) and Eberhardt Hall (formerly Newark Orphan Asylum) as trophies of historic preservation.
However, beyond its fortified campus carved out during the 1960s era of “urban renewal,” the university is now escalating its demolitions in the neighboring James Street Commons Historic District. Listed since 1978 on the National Register of Historic Places, this neighborhood is the city’s first historic district and contains some of Newark’s most significant historic assets. The spending of millions of dollars on building demolitions is odd when NJIT faced a 35 million dollar budget deficit in the first half of 2021,[1] and when other Newark institutions and developers are following an opposite path of historic preservation.
As NJIT expands into the James Street Commons Historic District, there is concern that new construction will not improve the built environment. For instance, NJIT’s proposal for 240 MLK included few to no windows at pedestrian eye level. The entrance to the parking garage and trash collection was from the side of the building that faced toward the residential neighborhood. Several other structures in the neighborhood are also at risk or have already been demolished by NJIT, such as Mueller’s Florist, which was a former corset and tin toy factory built in the 1880s to 1890s. Similarly, NJIT acquired the c.1890 brownstone at 317 MLK for ~$450,000 in livable condition. In following weeks and months before NJIT received demolition approvals, windows were left open and removed, thereby accelerating decay and water damage. The current demolitions follow a longer pattern among hundreds of other buildings demolished in my neighborhood. This would all be okay if only there was better quality architecture to replace what is being lost.
I write this essay as a series of architecture observations followed by recommendations. Firstly, I provide examples of how NJIT’s current campus design is detrimental to neighborhood street life. Secondly, I document the neighborhood’s appearance before and after NJIT’s interventions through my photo comparisons of past and present. Thirdly, I provide examples of more sensitive models for alternative neighborhood redevelopment.

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Completed in 2017, NJIT’s athletic facility is the newest building on campus.
The pedestrian view along the sidewalk has no windows.

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Demolition of the 140-year-old Bowers corset factory in progress (aka Mueller’s)

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Map of NJIT campus. Buildings that face toward the street with no windows at or near eye level are indicated with red lines. Surface parking lots and parking structures for commuter students and faculty are indicated with red squares.

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Architecture of Endurance in Manhattan Chinatown

As featured by City as Living Laboratory
And the Municipal Art Society of NY

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Eldridge Street Synagogue and Manhattan Bridge

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Welcome to Chinatown. With a population of ~150,000, this neighborhood is the largest ethnic Chinese community in the Western Hemisphere. Join us on a mile-long walk through space and time.
A few questions to keep in mind during our walk:
+ How has Chinatown changed over two centuries of urban growth? What has not changed?
+ What other cultures and ethnicities lived here before or simultaneously with the Chinese?
+ How are the challenges the Chinese faced imprinted on the built environment of Chinatown?
+ How does Chinatown street life blur the boundary between public and private space?

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Interactive Tour Map

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Thank you to Liza Cucco, Olivia Georgia, and Stephen Fan for co-creating this virtual tour. City as Living Laboratory has been exploring this neighborhood through walks for many years. A recent initiative explored issues of climate, equity, and health in Chinatown’s unique food system.

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The Privatization of Public Space in Lower Manhattan

Map created by author in QGIS with planimetric data from NYC Open Data

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More than a specific threat to New York City, the decades-long erosion of public space is an existential threat to democracy.

About 60% of Lower Manhattan’s surface area is listed as being public in some way, but only about 25% is totally unrestricted to the public in practice.*1

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New York City – and the world’s wealthiest corporations headquartered in Lower Manhattan – had much to do with inventing and spreading new technologies that influenced the urban form. Construction companies like US Steel at 165 Broadway supplied materials for the highways that sliced through cities. Car companies like Chrysler in Midtown encouraged America’s affair with gasoline. Groups like Chase Bank at 28 Liberty Street supplied home loans for whites-only suburbs. Stores like Woolworth at 233 Broadway helped replace small businesses on main street with one-stop department stories and suburban shopping malls. Above them all, the New York Stock Exchange at 11 Wall Street supervised the twentieth-century migration of wealth and capital from American industrial cities to foreign countries with cheaper labor. These changes might have started with the “titans of industry” perched in Lower Manhattan’s skyscrapers, but highways, cars, home mortgages, shopping malls, and de-industrialization all had consequences for the rest of us. This makes Manhattan the ground zero – and in more ways than just September 11 – to understand the forces shaping the loss of public space.
Over the past century, three forces in Lower Manhattan have been chipping away at the quantity and quality of public space: the car, the corporation, and the police state. Each of these three forces effected Lower Manhattan in particular and the nation at large. Each of these three forces, prompted by changes in technology, reshaped the urban form: 1) the invention of the affordable and mass-produced car that substituted for public transit; 2) the abandonment of cities for suburbs that was enabled by the car and encouraged by corporations; and 3) the invention of surveillance technologies to collect, store, and analyze data collected from public spaces. Each of these three technologies were, in turn, weaponized against the urban form to chip away at spaces that once belonged to society at large but which now belong to a select few. Each force will be analyzed in turn – the car, the corporation, and the police state – to reflect on the impact of each on Lower Manhattan’s urban form.

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Public spaces in theory:
~60% of Lower Manhattan’s surface area

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  1. * Percentages are rough estimates from author, based on area south of Chambers Street with planimetric data from NYC Open Data. An exact estimate is impossible to arrive at because there is no single definition of public space.

University of Michigan PhD Application

The following statements accompanied my successful application in fall 2020 to the architecture PhD program at the University of Michigan’s Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning. I received a full scholarship for six years with a graduate student stipend. I share these statements online for future applicants to Michigan or architecture PhD programs in general. These statements are no “template” for others’ applications. Just because this format worked for me does not mean it will work for others.
Personal statement
Research statement
Design portfolio
Curriculum vitae

.   Some B’s mixed in there, not all A’s

Columbia University transcript
Oxford University transcript
GRE scores

This was my CV at time of application. My current CV is linked to here.

I applied to an architecture program not having had an undergraduate or Master’s degree in architecture; many applicants have this. My undergraduate GPA in the “History and Theory of Architecture” major at Columbia was 3.9. The three people who wrote letters for me were Kenneth T. Jackson (history), Gergely Baics (history), and Stephen Murray (art history). As the country’s leading urban historian, Professor Jackson’s recommendation was important because my PhD research proposal described my interest in urban history. Professors Baics and Murray’s advice was equally important in demonstrating past research experiences. As a large and well-funded research university, Columbia equipped me with opportunities to work with faculty like them on independent research projects.
Applying to PhD programs is a crap shot. Hundreds of people apply to a handful of spots at a few elite programs. Those who are accepted are not categorically more qualified than those rejected. Perhaps there’s some extra feature in successful applications that sets them apart from unsuccessful ones. At least in my case, my design portfolio that demonstrated my artistic sensibility helped offset my lack of an undergraduate degree in architecture. The match in research interests between my research proposal and the work of Michigan faculty members like Robert Fishman and Joy Knoblauch was an added plus. However, I can just as much see myself having been rejected from Michigan with an identical application had I applied the previous year, had there been fewer places, or had there been different members of the admissions committee. This isn’t a criticism of Michigan either because all the top schools have more applicants than places and must therefore reject thousands of qualified people.
My advice to people considering a PhD is to be persistent about applying. I applied to fifteen graduate programs three years in a row before I was accepted anywhere. The application process is long, tedious, and hard to enjoy because applying feels like putting my heart and soul into courting a program just to be turned down with a generic rejection letter. I realize it is a privilege to have the time, money, and energy so much as to even apply. For a wealthy school with multi-billion dollar endowment to ask an applicant to fork over money for an application that will most likely be rejected feels like an extra jab. In my case, however, I cannot see myself doing much else other than teaching and researching in a university environment. So the time and energy investment made sense, despite 2020 being a uniquely difficult application year during the coronavirus when hundreds of programs were no longer accepting students. I am all the more grateful to be here.

Dear academics, our writing sucks.

Dear academics,
Our writing sucks. I am a first year PhD student in architecture with interests in urban studies, planning, and U.S. history. There is a problem if I am in your area and I cannot understand our overly-theoretical writing. Reading recent work decreases my desire to follow your path.
The problem is not that I do not care for our work. As much as ever, we are needed to frame the challenges our society faces with examples drawn from our knowledge. Only we can answer the important questions like: Why do American cities remain segregated decades after the 1960s civil rights movement? How did American cities become so reliant on the car and fossil fuels? How can the built environment be a tool for social equity? As much as ever, society needs us planners, designers, historians, and thinkers in the university to create a more affordable and more just city, a place where everyone can walk to public transit, public parks, and the supermarket. As academics, our job is to create a better society, not just to theorize about it. A scholar who writes about Martin Luther King or Gandhi and has never engaged in civil disobedience has not earned the right to call themselves a scholar. Writing must be a form of civil disobedience.
I do not blame you for bad writing. There are other forces at work. Here are just five of them:

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The Meaning of Notre-Dame

The construction of Notre-Dame mirrors the larger story of the French nation.
Medieval France was splintered into regional kingdoms and alliances between local feudal lords. In the tenth century, the Capetian rulers in central France started consolidating power and lands. Through conquest, marriage, and diplomacy, the Capetians expanded their influence first to Paris and then outward. By the thirteenth century, the Capetians controlled most of the land within the present-day borders of what is now France. Over this Catholic kingdom, they ruled generation after generation in centuries of uninterrupted rule until the French Revolution.
While the Capetians did not start as the largest and most powerful kingdom in Europe, they soon amplified their power through alliance with the church. From Reims Cathedral (where all Capetians were crowned) to the Church of St. Denis near Paris (where they were all buried), the French monarchs asserted power through their relationship with the church. They claimed their right to rule descended from God’s mandate. God himself ruled through and expressed his demands through the soul and mind of the king. To oppose the king would therefore be to oppose the wishes of God.
The construction of Notre-Dame of Paris was therefore a project for the Capetian kingdom in the capital city of Paris. With the monarchy’s control of France’s largest and most important trade center, the cathedral became a central symbol of the power of the city and the kingdom. From across Europe and France, other peoples looked to Notre-Dame for design inspiration. The model and building techniques of Notre-Dame were copied far and wide. Paris might have had limited geographic borders, but through the churches and monasteries in other regions that looked to Paris for aesthetic inspiration and theological guidance, Paris wielded a soft power to influence culture.

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Expansion of the Capetian lands from 987 to 1223. Arrows radiating from Paris point to the cathedrals inspired from Paris and Saint-Denis.

The blue area shown in 1154 shows the competing empire from the marriage of Eleanor of Aquitaine to King Henry II. The orange lands shown in 1223 are fiefdoms dependent upon the French Crown under king Philip Augustus. Animation from Stephen Murray at Mapping Gothic France.

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Among medieval cathedrals known to take centuries to complete, Notre-Dame was finished in short time. In just eight decades from c.1160 to c.1245, Notre-Dame emerged from the rubble in the completed form the public would recognize it today. Soon, neighboring towns in competition with Paris began erecting larger and taller cathedrals of their own. Among them, the powers centered on the cities of Chartres to the southwest, Amiens to the north, and Rouen to the northwest expressed their competition with Paris through their grander cathedrals. Not to be outdone, from 1220 to 1225 the Parisians rebuilt the entire upper levels and vaults of Notre-Dame to be taller, more luminous, and more ornate than before. The powers at Chartres, Amiens, and Rouen were soon crushed in battle and became the allies of an increasingly centralized French empire.
The public interprets cathedral construction as an act of devotion to God. The fine materials, craftsmanship, and physical challenges of construction symbolize the builders’ devotion, or gratitude for God listening to their prayers. The more expensive the project and the more difficult the construction, the greater the finished cathedral becomes as a symbol of sacrifice. Medieval stories often speak of the devout paying penance for their sins by dragging carts of heavy cathedral stones from quarry to building site. Or when the cathedrals faced structural collapse, natural disasters, and frequent fires, builders and clergy read these events as God expressing his dissatisfaction that their project was not good enough.
Less often does the public see the sacred built environment as an expression of political power, or as a tool of diplomacy and nation building. For the church to somehow be caught up in earthly affairs of wealth building, land investments, tax collection, and power squabbles seems vulgar and a distraction from the higher sacred mission. Cathedral construction required massive fundraising and tax collection efforts, the mobilization of thousands of laborers, and the sale of indulgences (donations to the church in exchange for certificates promising to reduce the donor’s punishment in the afterlife). As Notre-Dame of Paris reveals, construction cannot be separated from larger political events.
At every step in the history of the Capetians, monarchs sponsored building projects and used their power to carry out the political agenda of the church. Louis IX was made a saint for leading the Crusades to retake the Holy Land and its trade routes from Islam. The Sun King Louis XIV relied on the papal Cardinal Mazarin during his earliest years in power. And the ill-fated Louis XVI refused to share the monarchy and church’s monopoly on power with the people, causing the middle and working classes to wage the French Revolution.
The French Revolution asserted that government’s right to rule does not descend down from God and the church, as monarchs had claimed for centuries. Instead, political legitimacy flows up from the people, their right to vote, and their support for the elected government. Skepticism in the religious basis for political power, coupled with the Enlightenment belief that science and human reason alone can unlock social progress and the project of democracy, re-centered society on a new foundation. Church and state were separated, and with that Notre-Dame fell into a half-century of decay and abandonment.
In the French Revolution, Notre-Dame and hundreds of other French churches were abandoned, desecrated, and often demolished for the value of their building materials. Notre-Dame was confiscated from the church and transformed into a “Temple of Reason,” while most of its statuary was destroyed. The statues of 28 Biblical kings on Notre-Dame’s west façade were mistaken as French because their robes were modeled after Capetian kings. And so they were pulled down with ropes and decapitated by the mob in the city square. Not until the mid nineteenth century was Notre-Dame restored by Viollet-le-Duc with a new spire, new windows, new carvings, and restoration efforts sometimes so extensive that the cathedral surviving today is as much a product of the medieval era as it is a nineteenth-century creation. Notre-Dame began to emerge as a symbol of the French culture, identity, and nation.
Notre-Dame’s fire on 15 April 2019 reminded the public once again of architecture’s role in shaping and symbolizing national identity. The fire was as much a loss of architecture and cultural heritage as it was a threat to the French identity. The cathedral’s fire-damaged vaults and wooden roof turned to ashes symbolized an interrupted continuity with history. The cathedral had survived hundreds of years through plague, world wars, and revolution, as if symbolizing the continuity and purity of the French language, culture, and history. And now this link with history and the origins of the modern French nation was severed.
The efforts to rebuild Notre-Dame “as it was before” reveal the larger misconception that there is such a thing as a pure and original state. Pre-modern builders and patrons interpreted fires and natural disasters as innovation opportunities to rebuild what was lost as bigger and better than before, and often with the latest building techniques and architectural style. The church that stood at the site of future Notre-Dame, and which was demolished to build the current cathedral, was itself hundreds of years old and dating back to the late Roman Empire. And yet medieval audiences demolished it all the same with the confidence that what they built would be better than what was there before. Past generations at Notre-Dame viewed the cathedral and history as something fluid that could be embellished and improved through cycles of demolition. As late as the nineteenth century, Viollet-le-Duc imagined and added new details to the cathedral that never, in fact, existed.
Just days after the fire, architects submitted dozens of proposals to rebuild the site. Preservationists instead decided to rebuild the cathedral with the same pre-modern techniques, materials, and interior wooden roof trusses. Is contemporary art and culture so impoverished of beauty that contemporary society is incapable of enriching Notre-Dame with the building techniques and aesthetics of the modern era? Do we no longer believe in the forward path of progress, and must therefore pause the appearance of Notre-Dame the way it was?
The fire revealed that there are, in fact, two cathedrals: the physical cathedral built as a symbol of the French state and faith; and then the cathedral of our memories, with all the personal meanings visitors drew from their experience of the space. The two cathedrals are not the same because the meanings and symbolism we assign Notre-Dame in our memories are different from the cathedral’s intended purpose. The medieval clergy and kings never intended to create a symbol of the modern French state, of Victor Hugo’s literature, or of international Christianity. Yet Notre-Dame’s ability to acquire new meanings and identities through time speaks to the fact that this cathedral is a living work of art. With or without the physical cathedral, the Notre-Dame of our imaginations, of art, of literature, and of the millions of souvenir photographs will continue to live. At least in the collective imagination, Notre-Dame is immortal.

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Fire on 15 April 2019

A Drop of Water

Walking along Newark’s Pequannock Aqueduct from source, to tap, to sewer

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The general public views rural, suburban, urban, and industrial areas as being separate with different land uses, populations, and landscapes. The rural reaches and forests of northwestern New Jersey exist outside the imagination of Newark residents, as if these green mountain lakes with WASPy names have nothing to do with their lived urban experiences in the concrete and asphalt jungle. For the suburban and rural residents of West Milford, Ringwood, Wanaque, Bloomingdale, Kinnelon, Rockaway, Jefferson, Hardyston, and Vernon where Newark’s water supply originates, the experiences and troubles of Newark seem similarly distant, as if the quality of their forest oasis has nothing to do with the health outcomes of Newark residents. However, Newark’s century-old system supplies a half million people with some of the cleanest water in the country and invisibly knits together the fates of diverse communities along its buried path.

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Handmade drawing of Newark’s Pequannock water supply system, dated December 1892
The red line traces the path of the aqueduct from start at the Macopin Intake to end at South Orange Avenue. Green is the area of the watershed. The red graph beneath charts the relative height of the aqueduct above sea level at each point in the route. The aqueduct does not flow in a continuous downhill slope. Rather it hugs the ground just below the surface.

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Map of Newark water supply system in 1946, showing the Pequannock system opened 1892 (lower left) and Wanaque system opened 1930 (upper left). View full size map from Newark Public Library website.

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Over winter 2021, I documented the route of the Newark aqueduct from its origins in West Milford Township to its terminus in Newark Bay. I trace the path of Newark’s 26-mile-long aqueduct and 63-square-mile Pequannock Watershed and 94-square-mile Wanaque Watershed on the interactive map below.

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Click on water features to display details of name, dimensions, or volume.

■   Watersheds
■   Reservoirs (7 total)
~~ Aqueducts (~55 miles total)

■   Towns supplied with Newark water (~10)
■   Towns relying on Newark sewers (48)
~~ Main sewer interceptor (~ 28 miles total)
      Along path of Passaic River from Paterson to New York Harbor via Newark

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Homesteads to Homelots

The history of New Jersey suburbs as told through five data visualizations

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View of the city from the suburbs, author’s panoramic drawing of suburbs with urban skyline in the distance

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“The state of New Jersey offers an ideal setting in which to analyze the distinctive residential landscape of mass suburbia. [….] In time, 70 percent of the state’s total land area would qualify as suburban, so that by the turn of the twenty-first century New Jersey and Connecticut shared the distinction of being the nation’s most suburbanized states.”

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– Lizabeth Cohen, “Residence: Inequality in Mass Suburbia” in A Consumer’s Republic, p. 197.

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Northern New Jersey has long been central to the history of America’s suburban growth. From America’s oldest suburban developments to its most homogeneous to its most diverse, New Jersey’s 565 municipalities span the full portfolio of suburban living arrangements. New Jersey is unique in the sheer number of municipalities, each with its own elected leaders, school district, police, fire, and land use policies. As a result of inefficient and often duplicate public services in competing suburbs, New Jersey has some of the highest property taxes and cost of living in the country. This problem is not unique to New Jersey; it affects the country at large in dozens of other places. So the story of New Jersey makes for a powerful and revealing case study of larger trends in American suburban history.
This analysis examines New Jersey census data from 1940 to 2010. It is not the end point or a full analysis. Instead, each of these data visualizations plots a direction for future research. Telling history through maps and data reveals the history of a larger region and country, in ways that granular analysis of individual places cannot.

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Method

With data from the US Census Bureau, I extracted details on the population of every New Jersey municipality from 1940 to 2010, the period of greatest suburban growth. With spatial data on municipal boundaries from the NJ Office of GIS, I plotted the census data onto the map of municipal boundaries. This allowed me to see spatial patterns and to produce heat maps of population change over time. The spatial data also revealed the surface area of each municipality, which allowed me to calculate the historical population density of each municipality as a function of municipal population divided by municipal surface area. You can browse all the data visualizations or download the open source data here from Tableau. These data visualizations represent analysis of about 13,560 data points for 565 municipalities over eight censuses.

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