• 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.

  • Or scroll down for the latest publications.

Civil Rights Rebellion in the Essex County Jail

Season 13, Episode 6 of the series Abandoned Engineering
Streamed June 2024 in Britain, July 2024 in America

A film crew visits and explores the decaying remains of old Essex County Jail in New Jersey, a facility that became a powder keg of injustice that was set to explode in the 1960s Newark rebellions. Learn more about this historic building in our digital exhibit and the oral history video project to remember the hundreds who suffered in this space.
In every episode since 2016, the channel features three abandoned buildings. Each building is selected for its international significance, for important events that took place there, for its aesthetics, for its cultural importance, or the way this site motivates us to rethink and remember otherwise invisible histories of tragedy and pain. For this year’s season, the old Essex County Jail was one of just 24 sites selected from around the world. Other featured sites in past seasons include: parts of the Berlin Wall and Chernobyl, forts built for the Allied landing at D-Day, as well as dozens of equally important but less visited historic buildings and ruins.
Content and inspiration for this documentary grew from my Columbia University undergraduate senior thesis project about this jail, as well as my Cambridge University’s Master’s thesis about the American architecture of solitary confinement. Based on seeing my senior thesis project and reading master’s thesis online, the film crew contacted me about adapting this research for television. I was happy to provide them an interview, all my primary sources from the Newark Public Library, as well as suggested interviews with community leaders Ras Baraka and Fredrica Bey about the carceral state.
For British audiences, view the full series here on SkyTV.
For U.S. audiences, view the full series here on AppleTV. The series is also being syndicated and translated into 20+ languages for international audiences.

 

Launch digital exhibit about the carceral state in Newark.

.

Jersey City: Urban Planning in Historical Perspective

This project in two parts is a brief history of city planning in Jersey City
and a building-level interactive map of the entire city in 1873, 1919, and today.

.

Read / download book as PDF

Download opens in new window

.

Jersey City: Urban Planning in Historical Perspective
A booklet about the history of the master plan

Over its four-century history, the evolution of Jersey City mirrors the larger history of the New York region. Each generation of Jersey City residents and political leaders have faced different urban challenges, from affordable housing, to clean water, to air pollution, and income inequality. Each generation has responded through the tools of city planning and the master plan.
Jersey City’s six master plans – dated 1912, 1920, 1951, 1966, 1982, and 2000 – capture the city at six historical moments. Reading these plans and comparing them to each other is a lens to understand urban history, and American history more broadly.

.

Classroom Discussion Questions

1. How has the built environment of Jersey City evolved in the past century?
2. Who has the right to plan a city?
3. Who has the right to shape a city’s future?
4. Do you feel you have power over the plan of your city?

Read More

.

Reflections on my experience as PhD student, halfway through the program

As a third year student, I am more than halfway through the PhD program. So I thought now is as good a time as any to reflect.
In the same spirit of making public my undergraduate application to study at Columbia and my PhD application to study at Michigan, I am sharing the exam essays I wrote as a PhD student. When applying to Columbia, Oxford, Cambridge, and now Michigan, I struggled to find online example essays and statements that had worked for other applicants. In my case, I was fortunate to have academic parents to read my application statements and college professors to mentor me on how they saw admissions from the other side of the table. But I also realize that most applicants do not have these kinds of advantages in their social networks and must rely more on the internet for advice.
After 40 credits of coursework to be completed in no more than two years, I am expected to take a series of exams that qualify me to write the dissertation. When applying to PhD programs, I had no idea there were prelim exams or what the requirements were. Each prelim exam is different, unique to the student and my relationship with the faculty committee members on my dissertation. The exams consist of four things:

1. A Prelim Reading List: books assigned to me by committee members Robert Fishman, Ana Morcillo Pallarés, and Matthew Lassiter.
This list is the basis for their two questions.

2. A Minor Essay on Metropolitan History: written in 48 hours timed environment

3. A Major Essay on 20th-c. Urban History: written in 96 hours

4. A 90-minute exam with full committee to grill me on knowledge of reading list and topics not covered in the essays

I am posting them online, not as a “model” for what the ideal exam should look like and more as an inflection point and sample of the document that the members on your committee could expect you to write some day. In full disclosure, I am also sharing the draft of what will become my PhD proposal and the rough draft of three chapters completed. Maybe this reduces the cultural capital required to succeed at elite institutions. At the least, it is the kind of document I wish I could have had and known about when I was applying to PhD programs.

Read More

.

Eastern State Penitentiary Construction Sequence

Time-lapse animation of the prison’s entire design – building by building virtual model – from the 1820s to present.

.

“The founders of a new colony, whatever Utopia of human virtue and happiness, allot a portion of the virgin soil as a cemetery, and another portion as the site of a prison.”
Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter, 1850

.

.

Based on:
– Historic architectural plans (1837 report in French, pp. 124-38)
– Primary sources (1830 description)
– Reports on the historic preservation of this prison (1994 Historic Structures Report, Volume II)
Music by Philip Glass from the 1982 film Koyaanisqatsi, starting at minute 37:30
Link to text of audio narration

.

Computer Model

Shows prison as it appeared in the period 1836 to 1877 before later construction obstructed the original buildings.

.

The Paterson Silk Strike in Historical Perspective

1913 to 2023

 

A century later, the mills of Paterson sitting abandoned, their machines silent

Exactly 110 years ago today – on July 28, 1913 – Paterson silk mill workers voted to end their strike. Their strike had failed. But what has changed (or not) since then frames their historical struggle in the context of ongoing labor battles. The motivations of the strikers are as relevant in 2023 as they were in 1913: the fight for a living wage, for an eight-hour day, and – ultimately – for the right to work that feels meaningful.
The silk looms of Paterson required a high level of skill to operate: to draw the thin threads into delicate patterns, to weave the silk without breaking it, to never pull the threads too tightly that embroidered patterns curled up into themselves. Machines kept the rooms humid all year round – hot in summer, cold in winter – so that the silk threads remained damp, malleable, and less likely to tear from dryness. Workers suffered in the moisture; cases of asthma and lung diseases were common. Management was threatening to replace their skilled labor with machines. Whatever creativity and skill was still required to operate the looms was gradually being lost. Thousands in Paterson went on strike for five months from February to July 1913. They ultimately failed when management refused to concede to their demands and when workers in other mills refused to join in solidarity.
The machines in Paterson were powered first by water and wood, then coal, and finally electricity. The inventors of mill machines were scattered across the New York region. Factory machines needed to be close to the men who invented them and repaired them when, inevitably, these new inventions broke down. The investors in silk were on Wall Street and Lower Manhattan. The markets selling silk were department stores on Manhattan’s Ladies Mile, better known as Sixth Avenue. (Sixth Avenue was still largely residential.) A popular saying ran: 8th Street down the men are making it; 8th Street up the women are spending it.
The distance between markets and manufacturers was once measured in miles, the distance by train from Paterson to New York City or the distance by foot from the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory to Ladies Mile. This distance is now measured in thousands of miles. In the 19th century, Jacob Riis shocked the city’s elite with photos of Lower East Side tenements and factories located less than a mile from their Fifth Avenue homes. On June 7, 1913, the Paterson strikers brought the strike to the city. They boarded trains to Madison Square Garden and re-enacted their strike on stage for an audience in the thousands. Some strikers played on stage as police, others as management, and others as themselves. It was one of the the first times in American history that labor was transformed into a public pageant, into a public spectacle that hoped to make visible their struggle to New York City consumers. Pageants were traditionally military and state affairs that celebrated events like battle victories, elections, and fancy dress balls in theaters. To put on as large a public spectacle to celebrate striking and strikers was something new.
Fearful for their property and of socialists on their doorstep, Upper East Side residents organized their own unit of the National Guard based in a custom-built Park Avenue Avenue castle. Nicknamed the Silk Stocking Regiment for the wealth of its members, they paraded annually down Fifth Avenue in a display of wealth and force.

Read More

.

Time-lapse Animation of Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire

This animation reconstructs the exact conditions of the workplace, the locations of each fallen body, and the progress of the 1911 fire minute by minute. It is in an accurate-to-the-inch virtual reality model based on trial records, police reports, original measured plans, and primary sources.

.

Audio testimonies from:
Pauline Newman letter from May 1951, 6036/008, International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union Archives. Cornell University, Kheel Center for Labor-Management Documentation and Archives.
Louis Waldman eyewitness in Labor Lawyer, New York: E.P. Dutton, 1944, pp. 32-33.
Anna Gullo in the case of The People of the State of New York v. Isaac Harris and Max Blanck, December 11, 1911, pp. 362.

.

The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire on Saturday, March 25, 1911 was the deadliest fire in New York City history and one of the deadliest fires in American history. The factory was located on floors eight, nine, and ten of the Asch Building, built in 1901 for various garment sweatshops in Manhattan’s West Village.
To prevent workers from taking unauthorized breaks, to reduce theft, and to block union organizers from entering the factory, the exit doors to the stairwells were locked – a common and legal practice at the time. As a result, more than half of the ninth floor workers could not escape the burning building.
As a result of the fire and lack of workplace protections, 146 garment workers – 123 women and girls and 23 men – died by fire, smoke inhalation, or jumping and falling from the 9th floor windows. Most victims were recent Italian or Jewish immigrant women and girls aged 14 to 23.
After the fire, factory owners Max Blanck and Isaac Harris were not convicted and were ruled “not guilty.” They “compensated” each victim’s family a mere $75. The fire led to news laws requiring fire sprinklers in factories, safety inspections, and improved working conditions. The fire also motivated the growing International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union that organized sweatshop workers to fight for a living wage, job protections, and the right to unionize.
Click on individual annotations in model to fly around the factory and follow the time sequence of the fire.

.

Virtual Reality Model

.

Primary Sources

– Cornell University’s Kheel Center for Labor-Management Documentation & Archives (website)
– The 1,500 page transcript of witness and survivor testimonies (transcript)
– Victim names and causes of death (source and map of victim home addresses)
– Original architectural plans of the building used in the trial (PDF plans and source)

.

Architectural Plans

.

Stairway of death: view looking up the Washington Place stairway that was locked during the fire

Audio Sources

Horse drawn carriage
Power loom
Workplace bell
Classroom
Large crowd
Elevator
Small fire
Large fire
Fire truck bell
Fire hose
Dull thud
Heartbeat
– Closing song: Solidarity Forever by Pete Seeger, 1998
– Closing song: Solidarity Forever by Twin Cities Labor Chorus, 2009

 

The Time Columbia Built an Artificial Moon in Low Library

 

Low Library in 1905

.

The best definition of a university is, to my mind, a city from which the universe can be surveyed. It is the universe compressed into a city the size of Morningside Heights.
Aesthetically ancient but technologically advanced, Low Library rose to this challenge in the 1890s. Buried within hundreds of tons of Milford granite, Indiana limestone, and the unchanging architecture of antiquity were the latest technologies: electricity, steam heating, Corliss steam engines, and internal plumbing in a time when hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers still used outhouses and made less than five dollars a day. Flushing toilets – also known as crappers after Thomas Crapper who perfected their flush mechanism – were also a relatively new consumer product. It has always surprised me how the bathroom stalls at Low Library are divided by marble partitions of the highest quality that must weigh several hundred pounds each. Low Library was indeed built at a time when toilets were something to celebrate, in addition to books of course.
The goal of a great library was to collapse the universe into the size of a room. From the dome’s center was suspended a seven-foot-diameter white ball, which Scientific American described in 1898 as “Columbia’s artificial moon.” So that students could read by moonlight under a canopy of stars, this moon was illuminated against a dome painted dark to resemble the night sky. So in awe was Scientific American that they devoted as much page space to describing Low Library as to documenting the mechanics of this moon with mathematical formulas. With no other point of reference except candles, scientists calculated Columbia’s moon as equivalent in power to 3,972 candles.

.

From April 1898 issue of Scientific American

.

The only trouble was the lightbulbs’ carbon filament could only burn for 2.5 hours before “Columbia’s artificial moon” went dark. Scientists had not yet perfected the technologies of light. As a result, Columbia needed to replace the carbon filaments daily and could only illuminate the universe between the hours of 5:00 and 7:00 p.m. And yet, in line with Columbia’s Latin motto “In lumine tuo videbimis lumen” (In your light we see the light), Low Library was flanked by the emerging research departments of the global research university: physics, chemistry, mathematics, mining, engineering, and architecture. Then as now, these fields were seen as the frontiers of human knowledge.
For all the university’s focus on science, its core is built on the art and literature of antiquity. Low Library’s walls are several feet thick, thicker than was necessary in 1890s America that had moved on from heavy stone construction to steel-frame skeletal structures for skyscrapers and railroad stations. From Scientific American: “The imposing pile which forms the home of the college library looks down upon the great metropolis of the New World with something surely of the same pride with which the Parthenon of old surveyed the ancient Athenian city.” America – flush with wealth after conquering indigenous peoples in the American west – saw itself as inheriting the values of ancient Greece and Rome. New York, the American empire’s economic capital, needed cultural and intellectual symbols of power to match. Low Library was this symbol.

Read More

.

Cathedral of Beauvais: Sublime Visions; Thwarted Ambitions; A Sketch

Of all the stories of the greatest Gothic cathedrals, the tale of Beauvais is the most exciting. Construction of the Gothic cathedral began in 1225 at a time of bitter turmoil when France was establishing itself as a nation within its familiar modern geographical bounds. Beauvais, the tallest cathedral in France, was never completed, having endured two major collapses and a series of structural crises that continues to this day. Our Sketchup animation follows this dramatic narrative, allowing the viewer to experience and understand the famous collapse that brought down the upper choir in 1284 as well as the underlying design features that led to that disaster. Particularly intriguing is the visualization of the short-lived crossing tower constructed in the mid-sixteenth century and the rivalry between S-Pierre of Beauvais and Saint Peter’s in Rome.
It is hoped that besides appealing to a general audience of cathedral fans, this movie will be useful in the context of the classroom at high-school and university levels.

Directed by Stephen Murray

Produced by Myles Zhang

Special thanks to Étienne Hamon

Explore more

Further reading: Stephen Murray. Beauvais Cathedral: Architecture of Transcendence. Princeton University Press, 1989.
Visit Mapping Gothic for further photos and a panoramic tour of the cathedral interior.
Visit this link to download image stills of the cathedral at various stages of completion, for reuse in print publications.

Source files

Creating this animation required creating a computer model of the entire cathedral at all stages of construction. This model is shared below; click and drag your cursor to move around this virtual space.

Email [email protected] and [email protected] for access to source files.

High-resolution image stills from construction sequence

1220s fire to 1284 collapse
Before vs. after 1284 collapse
After 1284 collapse vs. after 1300s rebuilding
1284 collapse to 1550s transept
Proposals for completing cathedral
Proposed cathedral vs. actual extent of construction by 1573 collapse
Contemporary

Image sources

Hand-drawn image textures used in this model are based on actual scanned drawings of the cathedral: floorplan, choir section, choir elevation, and hemicyle section.

Audio sources

High medieval music: Viderunt Omnes by Pérotin, 1198
Late medieval music: Ave Maria by Josquin des Prez, c.1475
Contemporary cathedral: Pierre de Soleil by Philip Glass, 1986
Sound of material buckling
Sound of structural collapse

Lorch Column at the University of Michigan

As featured by Taubman College

.

Lorch Column at Taubman College

.

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.

.

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

.

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

.

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:

.

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.”

.

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

.