How the High Line Became the High Line: Contemporary Architecture? Modern-day Preservation?

March 3, 2012
PresArch

The High Line, one of New York City’s newest parks, was built atop an abandoned freight railroad and even two years after the opening of Section 1, still seems to be the architectural topic on everyone’s lips (due in part, no doubt, to the opening of Section 2 in June 2011). What former New York City Mayor Rudolph Guiliani once considered an “ugly duckling” has blossomed into an urban swan, leading current New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg to call the High Line “an extraordinary gift to our city’s future.”

James Corner Field Operations and Diller Scofidio + Renfro have received massive praise for their “novel urban park” and the Meatpacking District, one of Manhattan’s west side neighborhoods, was completely transformed from a tired industrial area to a high-end hot spot in the time it took for the park to be constructed. In 2010 the New York Landmarks Conservancy even presented the Friends of the High Line with the Lucy G. Moses Preservation Award. The railway-turned-park has put on its best vintage dress and is a sweeping international sensation, and plans to create “copycat” High Lines are being proposed all over the world, from Chicago to Detroit, and from Mexico City to Jerusalem.

Yet with all of the excitement from the architecture world regarding the High Line’s success, the history of the infrastructure itself, as well as the actual process of its transformation, has seemingly received relatively little recognition. This warrants a second look at what exactly this project means for both architecture and historic preservation. It also begs the question as to whether the High Line has been so successful because it is a unique piece of contemporary design, or because it is the result of an effective execution and innovation of preservation strategy?

In order to set the stage for a discussion concerning the impact and role of preservation in the creation of the High Line, we present a history of the High Line and an overview of its transformation from a functional railway to an inventive public space.

A (Relatively) Brief History of the High Line

In 1923, a plan was first presented by the New York Central Railroad Company to transform a portion of the street level West Side Railroad (built in the mid-nineteenth century) into an elevated structure between Spring Street and West Thirty-fourth Street. The railway was part of a “west side improvement plan” and was considered to be the “life line of New York.” The “High Line,” a name given to the elevated railway only recently, was a replacement for the existing at-grade tracks that ran largely along Eleventh Avenue, and resulted in so many pedestrian deaths that the road became known as “Death Avenue.”

At the June 1934 dedication of the newly-elevated two-track line, the railroad development was hailed as “one of the greatest public improvements in the history of New York.” The New York Times wrote: “The roving New Yorker gets a [big] thrill out of the New York Central’s elevated freight road. Leaving the surface of Eleventh Avenue below Thirty-fourth Street, the railroad is set free from the city street map and takes directions of its own. High in the air, it cuts through city blocks. It passes into big buildings in its path and emerges on the other side to continue on its way, leaping any cross streets it meets.”

This excitement, however, did not last long. The Great Depression took its toll on New York City manufacturing, and although the railway played a crucial role in the transportation of goods during World War II, the development of the interstate highway system in the 1950s quickly overcame the City. As highways and trucks became the preferred mode of transportation, manufacturers’ dependency on the West Side Elevated Railway decreased, so much so that the southernmost portion (from Spring Street to Bank Street) was demolished in the 1960s. The last train passed along its tracks in November 1980, thus ending the use of the West Side Railroad for its original purpose.

In the 1980s, a neighborhood resident named Peter E. Obletz (who lived in two dining cars behind Pennsylvania Station) purchased two miles of the railroad from Conrail, who then owned the tracks. Interested in preserving and restoring the remaining portion of the elevated tracks, he founded the West Side Rail Line Development Foundation with the intention of reusing the railroad for passenger service. Yet after five years of an unsuccessful fight against the city, state, and individuals who wanted the tracks demolished, Obletz ended up selling the two miles of track back to Conrail. In 1991, the tracks were subjected to demolition once again, with five blocks from Bank Street to Gansevoort Street being torn down. Eight years later, the non-profit Friends of the High Line was founded by Joshua David and Robert Hammond, and along with Joel Sternfeld and his photographs of the abandoned rail line, sparked new interest in its preservation.

Friends of the High Line was much more successful in its endeavor to save the remaining elevated portion of the West Side Railroad and convert it to public use. In 2003, after years of lobbying for public and City support, an international ideas completion was held in order to brainstorm possible new uses for the railroad; 720 teams from thirty-six countries submitted proposals. The eventual decision to turn the decommissioned elevated railway into a public park was still a novel idea, as only one precedent existed in Paris’ Promenade Plantée (1993), the railroad viaduct-turned-elevated-park in the 12th Arrondissement.

In 2005, the tracks from Gansevoort Street to West 30th Street were donated to New York City by CSX Transportation, Inc. (which bought the line from Conrail in 1998), allowing construction of the High Line to begin.

 

The Transformation of the High Line

The transformation of the elevated portion of the West Side Railroad into the High Line was directed by the design team of James Corner Field Operations and Diller Scofidio + Renfro. (To see the entire list of consultants for the project, please visit http://thehighline.org/design/design-team).

Due to twenty years of deterioration, the High Line required a massive amount of deconstruction, reconstruction, and new construction in order to bring the vision for the park to life. The structure of the railroad was originally composed of mild steel columns and beams that supported a concrete slab, which in turn provided support for the iron rails and gravel ballast. Over the years of disuse, soil and other debris had accumulated on the line, supporting extensive vegetative growth; the result was the formation of a naturally occurring park (that was technically inaccessible) in the middle of Manhattan. Because of the unknown stability of the rail structure (mild steel and reinforced concrete, left unchecked, can suffer extensive corrosion/degradation and loss of structural strength) coupled with its proposed use as a public space, everything on the steel structure was removed, with the exception of a layer of concrete. A structural analysis and rehabilitation was conducted for the steel and concrete elements, followed by (according to the High Line website):

  • The tagging, mapping, and storing of each section of removed railroad track;
  • The repainting of the steel structure to match the original color;
  • The restoration of the decorative Art Deco railings that exist at locations where the tracks cross over streets, including repairs and fabrication of missing parts;
  • The removal of steel beams to allow for stairs to rise up from the sidewalk, “allowing visitors to come face-to-face with the steel beams and girders on their way up;”
  • The return of “many of the rails and other steel railroad artifacts” to their original location.

The new-design component of the High Line drew its inspiration from the vegetation that had grown wild for decades. But the reimagining of the surface of the elevated line looked far past a simple concrete slab topped with two sets of tracks and an organically produced greenspace. The railway was transformed into a completely new space, a world of vignettes composed of intricately designed plantings (meant to mimic the historic natural growth) and train-track-inspired concrete walkways that seemingly mold themselves into both plant beds and benches. The selectively-replaced original tracks weave in and out of the site, hiding beneath grasses one minute and in the middle of the walkway the next. And in the most playful nod to the High Line’s past use, just as the line gently curves into Chelsea Market, large reclining seats are built into a section of replaced tracks. If you are lucky, you can get a spot on one of the few that actually rolls.

 

Food for Thought

The High Line is a unique example of the retention of historic infrastructure in New York City, and architectural design, landscape design, and preservation all played a part in its creation. But its final physical transformation questions what the boundaries of preservation really are.

Was the High Line, so often publicized as a preservation marvel, fully preserved? How does selective reconstruction and demolition of original fabric fit into the modern definition of preservation? How does the High Line, as it was redesigned/reinterpreted, speak to its history, and does it need to? Have the unique (and extremely sought-after) views over and through the Meatpacking District and West Chelsea become more interesting to visitors than the structure itself?

Finally, how does the interpretation of the railway impact how the park is regarded? Should it be considered a contemporary piece of architecture and/or a work of preservation? We want to hear from YOU: pick one side, defend both, or argue that neither holds true… we want YOU to tell us how YOU view the High Line!

 

 

- Julie Rosen, PresArch


  1. Mel B says:

    Amaze <3 Love the Highline, the pics, and this article!

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