Transit Tuesday: Grand By Design Exhibition at Grand Central

After a boozy brunch with Dr. V’s cousins, we wandered up the sunny side of the street to Grand Central Terminal, celebrating its 100th anniversary this year.

The kiosks were great. You can ask about various GCT topics at the push of the button. When they aren't talking, they just look around and look bored. A former customer service manager relates that GCT before the renovation was "a hell hole." RL Fifield 2013.

The kiosks were great. You can ask about various GCT topics at the push of the button. When they aren’t talking, they just look around and look bored. A former customer service manager relates that GCT before the renovation was “a hell hole.” RL Fifield 2013.

The former waiting room space is used for exhibitions and events, and currently is home to Grand by Design: A Centennial Celebration of Grand Central Terminal. It’s rescue from demolition in the 1970s definitely gives us something to celebrate. And the exhibition is fun – lots of piles of suitcases, ASK ME booths with Metro North officials talking about Grand Central on video monitor, and lots of material culture and photos that make you wistful for the golden age of rail.

I particularly love New York Central’s children’s menu, where chicken nuggets are notably absent (tomato soup! creamed chicken! real food for children!). The exhibition continues by discussing the East Side Access project, where LIRR commuters will be able to arrive on the east side of the island, rather than continuing to Penn Station on the west side of the island.


Would it be too much to ask for limited Amtrak service to return to Grand Central? Please? Penn Station is killing us! Long live the headiness and adventure that is Grand Central.


Museum Monday: Collection Care Isn’t A La Carte – Washington Conservation Guild

Look at all those people who came to hear me! Washington Conservation Guild meeting, February 7, 2013.

Look at all those people who came to hear me! Washington Conservation Guild meeting, February 7, 2013.

On Thursday, February 7, I was invited to speak to the Washington Conservation Guild about the state of collection care. Regular readers will know that this is a topic about which I’m passionate. Preventive care maintains our tangible heritage. End story. If you wait for damage to occur, the most skilled conservation treatment can never fully restore the break, the crease, the loss in original pigment.

My talk had attracted a lot of other passionate people, or at least the curious. Seventy-six people turned out at the George Washington University Museum Studies program offices for the event. While not wanting to toot my own horn, I consider this invitation, for a collection manager to speak about collection care, is a seminal moment for preservation. Conservators and foundations like Heritage Preservation have been supporting a preventive approach since the late 1970s. With the kick off of the AIC Collection Care Network in early 2012, it’s been a big year for maturation of collection care.

The main point of my talk was this: collection care isn’t a la carte.

We get caught up talking about the activities of collection care: I vacuum, I do IPM, I oversee the storeroom, I work with visitors to the collection, I manage the documentation for the collection. Instead, we need to talk about the why of collection care up front: I facilitate preservation and access through preservation of physical and intellectual aspects of collections.

The accomplishment of some piecemeal collection care activities is not a comprehensive collection care program, where the inputs can be measured and the outcomes assessed, to see if we need more or less resources. Right now, I would imagine most people think they accomplish collection care if they vacuum once a month, build some storage supports here and there for objects that look really bad, and check the sticky traps occasionally during the morning walkthrough.

We can do better, and these were my recommendations:

1) We need to better define collection care – among ourselves, for our administration, and for our audience.

2) We need to better support collection care practitioners – through mentoring, mid-career training, and advancement opportunities.

3) We need to develop collection care resources that increase skill and nurture collaboration between all museum professionals.

4) We need to get the public involved – we need to demonstrate to our administration that the public is interested in collection care and will support it if asked.

Thank you Washington Conservation Guild for giving me the opportunity to voice these ideas. I noted that preservation takes place over hundreds and thousands of years. So must our diligence in demonstrating our belief and commitment to preventive care.

photo 5

From left to right, Larry Reger, Julia Brennan, RL Fifield, Hugh Shockey, and Mary Coughlin.

Book: The Look of Architecture by Witold Rybczynski

It’s a little bit untrue to title this small volume solely a book. It caught my eye while I was perusing the stacks last week at the New York Society Library. I love small books – they are a small offering of thought in a portable package, distilled and clean. The Look of Architecture (Witold Rybscynski, New York Public Library/Oxford University Press, 2001) springs from a  lecture series held by the NYPL and Oxford University Press for which they invite a notable scholar to lecture on their topic of choice. Clocking in at 119 pages, it made for a thoughtful unwind from the week during my flight from Montreal to New York.

My first interaction with an architect (or wanna-be architect) was my high school boyfriend, who unfortunately channeled way more of the bad of Frank Lloyd Wright than the good. So I smiled when Rybscynski starts out “Ask an architect what style he works in and you are likely to be met with a pained expression, or with silence.” Architects want their buildings to contain meaning through time, rather than express the culture of the time in which they were built.

I personally don’t know any architects.

Rybscynski challenges that people enjoy buildings not because they are timeless, but because they are of their time. We hear Gershwin in our heads when we see the Chrysler building, and we’re transported into nighttime photographs of New York, glowing with flashing marquees and elevated train trestles. Architecture is living bits of history in our midst. When we lose architecture, we lose that part of our meaning. I wonder about those who scoff at history, as I find it a mooring tether. It gives me things to cherish, as well as a point of reference for the advancement of our culture.

Sullivan’s “form follows function” edict also goes down in this small volume. Practically, it would imply that all buildings serving the same function, like a train station, would be the same. (Of course, regular readers know that I would need to target the train station mentions in this book). Train stations throughout the country used innumerable styles to craft the town’s identity for arriving passengers (read my ode to the local train station).

Take a short amount of time to delight in this book, and then delight in the world around you. Unless you live in blah post-1970 suburban tract housing.



What I Ate: Montreal

Knowing that my time in Montreal was short, I had my dinners planned out when I hit the ground. The cold weather gave me some leeway for big meals – or so I felt.

Fish Ploughman's lunch at Taverne Square Dominion.

Fish Ploughman’s lunch at Taverne Square Dominion.

I arrived at 11pm on Wednesday, so I quickly got myself over to the Taverne Square Dominion. There were a few parties cleaning up supper, and enjoying the tavern’s cocktails. A highlight of their offerings, the bar is strewn with antique glassware, bitters, and other paraphenalia that belies the 1927 date of the tavern’s opening. I relaxed with a Basil and Rye cocktail after a long delayed journey up north, and ordered a fish Ploughman’s lunch, the perfect compilation of tastes (though could you fault me for wanting another one of those runny scrummy devilled eggs?

I had scheduled the next night for pure debauchery at Au Pied du Cochon – pork and foie all around. While I did want to squeeze in a visit to Big in Japan, they aren’t open for lunch so I didn’t have the time. I went to St. Viateur Bagel in the morning, but forgot my European cafe manners, thinking it was order at the counter and sit. No! But at least I kept my meal light, a dry everything bagel and a good latte. Generally, I’m not a major carnivore. I like veg, and I believe that much of vegetarian cooking is more creative than traditional meat-based cooking. But I’m also not stupid – I don’t go to a meat-centric restaurant and order the tomato tart in January (like a woman down the bar did).

Foie gras, cranberry, goat cheese, french toast. Au Pied du Cochon, 2013.

Foie gras, cranberry, goat cheese, french toast. Au Pied du Cochon, 2013.

I started out with foie gras on french toast with cranberry and goat cheese. I loved the combination, but thought the cranberry was too strong with the foie. I don’t feel bad about foie, or veal for that matter. I do want to know it comes from a good source. My starter was enough for dinner, but I followed it with a pork foot stew with tomato over polenta. It was a treasure trove: bits of fat, something chewy (perhaps more than foot? maybe an ear?), something savory and peppery in the middle of the mound at the bottom. I lightened up with a lemon tart and a calvados on the house.

Pork with tomato etc over polenta. Au Pied du Cochon, 2013.

Pork with tomato etc over polenta. Au Pied du Cochon, 2013.

The kitchen is right there and the twister game of the chefs is plenty entertainment for a woman dining alone (see my post on Eating Alone). There was a variety of grunge, knit caps, and mechanic’s work shirts ported by the chefs. One woman assembled salads, pastry, and fries. The grill guy’s forearms were covered in burns. An added perk for my seat was its location: directly in front of all the food going out into the restaurant.


I’ve done my penance and run five and a half miles this weekend.


Transit Tuesday: How do you get to Annapolis without a car?

I was peeved.

During my Christmas break in Maryland, a winter storm blew in on the day I’d picked to spend some time at the state archives in Annapolis. My plan had been to look at criminal cases involving runaway servants, as well as look up wills and inventories for my 17th and 18th century Harford County ancestors (including the Cole family, see my series Digging Up My Ancestors about their cemetery move, beginning here). But it was really a mess out there, and seeing as Dr. V and I were going to borrow my Mom’s Jeep to get there, we decided on lounging around the house for another day. Besides, I might have grown up driving in freezing rain, but I sold my car about seven years ago. My skills probably weren’t as good as they used to be.

I spent the snowy day block-printing and daydreaming about train service to Annapolis, the one thing that would make a trip to the Maryland State archives from New York City without a car not as painful. Amazingly – there’s been no train service between Baltimore and Annapolis since 1950. Only buses will take you between Washington, Baltimore, and Annapolis now. Eww. Buses. (See BeyondDC’s feature Why streetcars are better than buses).

The WB&A logo incorporated electricity into its logo. Photo: Wikipedia.

Of the railroads that serviced Annapolis from the 19th century until the 1950, the electrified Washington, Baltimore, and Annapolis was the most innovative (read about the WB&A at Greater Greater Washington). As this article outlines, the seemingly redundant WB&A service had distinct advantages over the more established and faster B&O and PRR service: lower fares, more frequent half-hourly service, and better downtown termini in both Washington and Baltimore than that of the B&O or PRR. It also offered hourly service to Annapolis. Early successes of the WB&A included brokering a deal for Bowie Race Track to be built next to its line and providing service to Camp Meade during World War I. Today, parts of the WB&A’s right of way are used by the Baltimore light rail, and the rail-to-trail system in the area.

Anyone who has ever traveled on Route 50 between Annapolis and Washington during rush hour has mused if there isn’t another way.

Washington, Baltimore, and Annapolis Train Station in Baltimore. I love the sign out front lauding  cool clean, and frequent service on “The Electric Line.” The building still exists today. PHoto:

(Music Plays) Lydia, The Tattoed Lady – An eighteenth century woman’s tattoo

The New Yorker Photo Booth blog highlighted tattoed women and a book about them Bodies of Subversion: A Secret History of Women and Tattoo by Margot Mifflin (1997). The photograph of Maud Wagner caught my eye, my first perception of a Gibson girl like figure, and then realizing that the decorative pattern is not lace on her clothing, but inked flesh.

I argue with the caption for the photograph of Olive Oatman, reading ” Olive Oatman, 1858. She was the first tattooed white woman in the U.S. After her family was killed by Yavapais Indians, on a trip West in the eighteen-fifties, she was adopted and raised by Mohave Indians, who gave her a traditional tribal tattoo. When she was ransomed back, at age nineteen, she became a celebrity. Photograph courtesy of the Arizona Historical Society, Tucson, 1927.”

Through my study of eighteenth century servants and their dress, I’ve discovered a working woman who tattooed herself. Sarah McGee of Evesham, NJ ran away from her master in 1777. Her dress is typical of many working women in the American colonies. She wore upon her elopement “a snuff coloured worsted long gown, a spotted calicoe petticoat, stays and a good white apron, a snuff coloured cloak, faced with snuff coloured shaloon, a black silk bonnet, with a ribbon round the crown.”

And at the end of the advertisement, her master, Barzillai Coat, hastens to add “N.B. She has a cross on her right arm, put in with gun powder, and the two first letters of her name and the date of the year.” Sarah McGee is the only runaway servant in my database of 1000 who is described with a tattoo. The mention of her tattoo indicates the practice was not unknown to women of the lesser sort.

Wildlife Sighting at Airport Restaurants

I had extra time to kill in the airport on Friday night. My flight fell right over the dinner hour and I’d had an early lunch. Airport offerings are hardly lauded (Food and Wine Magazine did do an article on good eats at airports, but alas, I wasn’t at any of their featured locations). I wanted to sit, not grab and go and eat on my lap. My two options were mostly the same, offered the same fare, and had primarily the same populations sitting in them: men.

I parked myself with my iPad and ordered a beer. Did other women shun the mediocre food at airport restaurants in favor of healthier fare available at stands? I wondered if men were more willing (or had more travel money) to pay for a beer and sit in an airport restaurant. Perhaps women were just less present as business travelers (see my post on the lack of women in business class). For whatever reason, I was the lone woman (see another post of mine about eating alone). The available restaurants, a steak and chops joint and a sports bar even target a male audience. With our increasingly food-interested culture, better restaurants should become more available in more airports. 

Perhaps it was just a sports bar on a Friday.

My companions at a sports bar in the international terminal in Montreal. 1/18/2013.

My companions at a sports bar in the international terminal in Montreal. 1/18/2013.

Wanderlust Wednesday: Montreal

I spent a day in Montreal, QC last week. I had forgotten how cold it can be up north.  I quickly relearned that northerners find ways to snake through buildings and basements to get from point to point. Here are some of my travel notes from last Thursday:

Cords, shirt, thick sweater, run jacket, down parka, hat, hood, two pairs of gloves, hike socks, hike boots. That all was pretty good, except thighs would go so numb that I couldn’t feel them move. I stopped in Ogilvy’s on Sainte Catherine. Beautiful, elegant department store, Montreal’s first in 1860 something. Friendly woman, nice and inexpensive scarf added to cover my neck and chin. Onward.

Good to know the glasses are clean. Mount Royal neighborhood, Montreal. RL Fifield 2013.

Good to know the glasses are clean. Mount Royal neighborhood, Montreal. RL Fifield 2013.

Monteral Metro FTW but I flunked bagels at St. Viateur. This trough of bagels poured from a wood fired oven. What a sight! So much so that I didn’t notice the A emporter sign above where I asked for bagels. Then I asked for a coffee, then went to sit down a la New York and flustered the staff. Alas! More in Europe today than North America. I chewed on dry bagel while the table next door got cream cheese and piles of lox. It was late morning, I was staying light for my dinner at Au Pied du Cochon.

1960s Metro Peel station, Montreal. RL Fifield 2013.

1960s Metro Peel station, Montreal. RL Fifield 2013.

Rode that transit pass hard and put it away wet. Metro to Jean-Talon. Bush-style sheds [click here for a photo] were empty of vendors in the chill. A middle eastern pastry stand indoors enthralled, little almond purses sparkled with glitter. Then to old city, which I expected to be gimmicky. The stone buildings were gorgeous, too bad they held nothing supporting a real community, just galleries, restaurants, tourist shops. Popped out at Bonaventure to see the 1940s Central Station, bustling with commuters, CN Railway workers (their tower attached, and a large hall of restaurants and stands feeding them), Art Deco murals surrounding the hall. Checked in on Amtrak’s Passport App on the McDonald’s wifi. I feel so defiled.

Next to Atwater market. The tiny 19th century houses found throughout the city enthrall in their detail and whimsy. Still, not much going on during this off-season for verdure, but picked up chocolate. 1931 building, strings of lights outside illuminate summer vendors, now ice and cars.


Windsor Station. RL Fifield 2013.

Windsor Station. RL Fifield 2013.

Windsor station. The problem with 1990s renovations of rail stations is that so much of the rail is replaced with blah mall-style finishes. They left an arrivals/departures board with a few photos, but besides the steel arches and clocks overhead, what made it a rail station was ripped away, a sports arena sits where the tracks and their Bush sheds were. I wondered if the station had survived just another 20 years, what sort of transit rebirth it might have experienced, versus this quiet space. Outside, a line of jersey-wearing fans waited for some game.

Off to the McCord [Museum]. It was okay, I wasn’t floored. Their Cartooning Calamity exhibit was thoughtful. Felt that their Montreal history exhibit was okay, but needed something. Adopt-an-Artefact stickers fueled some thinking.

Found myself killing time in a mall made by gutting multiple old department stores, linking indoor Montreal from Metro Peel to Metro McGill. Makes winter commuting bearable I suppose. 

I’ll save the food I ate for another post, including a trip to Au Pied du Cochon and Taverne Square Dominion.

Food waiting to go out at Au Pied du Cochon. RL Fifield, 2013.

Food waiting to go out at Au Pied du Cochon. RL Fifield, 2013.

Transportation Tuesday: Great American Stations Project

Amtrak has built some humdingers of depressing rail stations over its forty year history. Compare the current Cleveland, Ohio shed where passengers now alight, compared to the glorious Terminal Tower. Recently, I switched trains at Springfield, Massachusetts. A grim 1970s box with plastic seats sat opposite the tracks from the mothballed 1926 Boston and Albany station (which will receive a $75 million restoration this year – so much luckier than its demolished cousins). It was the 1970s, the railroads were starved and Amtrak was charged with keeping rail going after an era of decline and cheap gas. Rail said old. Airports were looked to as a source of analogous design. Deteriorating historic rail structures were demolished in favor of parking lots or commercial development. The historic preservation movement was still ramping up their message.

 It's alive!!! Hattiesburg, Mississippi station after a 2007 restoration. Photo: Great American Stations.

It’s alive!!! Hattiesburg, Mississippi station after a 2007 restoration. Photo: Great American Stations.

Gas prices aren’t coming down again and airlines trim away service to even large cities, prompting new interest and expanded rail service. Last year, Brunswick and Freeport, Maine and Norfolk, Virginia all regained rail. At the same time, the local train station, if it still survives, has become once again a symbol of local meaning, of heritage, of craftsmanship, and of its potential for local economic revitalization. Whether it still receives service or has become a restaurant or theater, it’s a good time for railroad stations. Perhaps as an act of contrition and redemption for their soulless 1970s waiting room boxes, Amtrak has launched the Great American Stations project. The website offers towns information on how to begin a station renewal project, including historic preservation, fundraising, and design resources. It’s good for Amtrak because they get local assistance renovating a station. But it’s good for the community as they turn an abandoned building into a showpiece and get an added boost for their area – see this case study on economic revitalization around a station restoration project in Hattiesburg, MS.

There is an interactive map where you can click on a station and read about its design and use. The writing about each station is sometimes forcedly cheerful. The dreadfully utilitarian 1987 Stamford, CT station is described “The building’s boxy, hard appearance is broken by a series of dramatic cross braces that form large two-story “X” figures over the glass walls of the waiting room. A bold red stripe wraps around the access towers, bringing a punch of color to an otherwise gray color palate.” Yahoo. The map also needs to keep up with Amtrak expansion – Norfolk, Brunswick, and Freeport do not yet appear on the interactive map.

The era of the Amtrak box is over. Here’s a neat statistic: Amtrak has 170 working rail stations on the National Register of Historic Places. I wish all American station buildings were on this website, but only those actively served or owned by Amtrak. Check out the Leave No Station Unphotographed project at

On the Subject of Duck…

Picture postcard of duck hunting in a sink box at Havre de Grace, Maryland.

Duck is tasty.

It was popular fare in New York’s turn-of-the-century restaurants. Havre de Grace, located just a few hours from New York on the Pennsylvania Railroad, was a ready source of the fowl for New York City. Boats known as sink boxes were incredibly effective at luring waves of ducks to the table, in combination with late nineteenth century advances in shotgun technology. This combination was so effective that the decimation of waterfowl led to one of the first conservation acts, the Lacey Act, in 1900. Read this article on the disappearance of canvasback ducks by Chris Madson at

From the perspective of my own tidewater Maryland heritage, the only canvasbacks I regularly saw were among my grandfather’s hundreds of hunting and display decoys, made of wood and paint. The same for their widgeon, black duck, and so many other cousins. All I had ever seen were puddle ducks: Mallards. And those AFLAC type ducks.

Price list for fowl from J.C. Jackson, Baltimore. How about some vernacular names for ducks on here!  What’s a “yellowlegs?”

A quick search for canvasback duck at the New York Public Library’s What’s On the Menu? project yields several species once offered in New York City’s top restaurants: Red Heads, Mallards, Teals. One recipe for canvasback duck with fried celery (a riff on the wild celery that ducks eat) sits next to a recipe for roast black bear. It was the most expensive item on the Waldorf Astoria’s 1907 New Year’s Eve menu, at $4.50. The sense of adventure and triumph indicative of the Gilded Age extended into elegant dining. But after the Lacey Act, the flock quickly dwindled off the menus.

Here’s a recipe for duck (for once, without fruit!) from Fifty Years in a Maryland Kitchen.

Fifty Years in a Maryland Kitchen (1873).

Fifty Years in a Maryland Kitchen (1873).