Dressing Up The Money Machine

In the silences of a post-industrial space I often walk the once-purposeful streets of the industrial age that formed the gritty chessboard of an Upstate city.  The avenues are often broad in design, rigid in direction, devoid of any tree or shrub.   The tilted shadows, turned out of their corners, run away from old stilled buildings and stretch themselves out across the mostly quiet, scarred neighbourhoods.   The communities that comprise Upstate are littered with these cast-off orphans, often transformed into a multitude of uses, but just as often not, left as discarded fortresses as the war for commercial survival moved on to new fields.  Only in the dark shroud of night do these places tend to regain some of the vanished luster of their once unquestioned importance; in the shadows of themselves, between dusk and dawn, they emerge, again, as what they once were, cracks invisible, faded paint unseen, rust removed from sight; these were once the engines of power and faith.

While many have been completely obliterated, wiped away from the urban landscape like chalk marks on a blackboard, others remain, waiting, waiting, like the communities themselves in the hazy wish for a return to that busy, humming, purposeful world of material production.  As a function of high output, these streets and buildings speak of uses so utilitarian, so single-mindedly derived, so intense, that the sweep of them often masks the deliberately refined details they sometimes exhibit.  In the midst of the demand to produce, the builders of financial dreams often took the time to express a subtle enchantment that spoke to the soul more than the bottom line.

Here at the end of a wide street an old felt mill stands, windows boarded, steps eroded, shabby doors clutching for support.  Like a blind woman alone on a corner, a beggar for coin and attention, the mill dressed in bluestone remains on its feet, persisting in loneliness.   High above, in the roof arch, a tin relief depicts a floral design in keeping with the Arts and Crafts Movement of the late 19th century.  Ironically, the attempt to return to a more medieval use of symbols and design patterns represented a rejection of industrialization and its dehumanizing processes.

Arts & Crafts above Eagle Felt Company, Johnson City.  Copyright James V. Michalec 2014

Arts & Crafts above Eagle Felt Company, Johnson City. Copyright James V. Michalec 2014

Around the corner a majestic theatre is clothed in Greek Revival, serenely stating its importance as a permanent, imperial place of tradition.  Bankers, in particular, employed this style as a way to depict an establishment that was strong and safe for one’s factory-generated cash.

The Theatrical Majesty of Greek Revival.  Johnson City.  Copyright James V. Michalec 2014

The Theatrical Majesty of Greek Revival. Johnson City. Copyright James V. Michalec 2014


Late 19th century America was an ecclectic moment in architectural design.  Attempts to pull in all past schools of design appeared everywhere as it became acceptable to incorporate Gothic, Italianate, Romanesque, Tudor, Queen Anne, and much more into residential and commercial buildings.  Main Streets constructed around industrial-age wealth usually demonstrate some or all of these designs, often in the same buildings. Rooftops in commercial districts often display them prominently, today a museum of past notions of greatness.

Main Street Display,  Johnson City.   Copyright James V. Michalec 2014

Main Street Eclectic Display.  Johnson City.
Copyright James V. Michalec 2014

The Eclectic Movement throwback to old patterns represented the last hurrah of serious tradition in American architectural design.  Americans have a knack for always wanting to create something unique or different.  To call something “brand new.”  At the height of the Eclectic Movement design architects were already experimenting in new ways using both imagination and new materials to push the appearance of the urban space in a new direction.  Chicago, the undisputed dominant industrial powerhouse by 1900, was a hothouse of innovation.  Architects there created a new kind of design for a rapidly industrializing economy that developed into the Chicago Architectural Style, known also as the Commercial Movement.  The chief characteristics included steel beam construction done in a square, with large multi-paned windows, that allowed for distinct production operations on multiple floors.  Simple and strong, these structures were the darlings of factory owners, symbols of mass production, being up to date, and a financial appearance of success – in short, all that was good.

Empty Endicott-Johnson Building and extra-wide Willow Avenue, Johnson City Copyright James V. Michalec 2014

Empty Endicott-Johnson Building, Chicago Movement.  Johnson City
Copyright James V. Michalec 2014

Whether ways are found to find some utility for all these empty buildings or not, they all exist in multiple time warps, victims of the consumptive rages of capital itself.  I never tire of looking at what is past while imagining, simultaneously, what the impetus was that gave rise to the monuments and their choice of dress in the first place.  In these light-shortened days of winter the great structures of red brick or yellowed concrete stand alone, testifying to the ways in which the wealth-generators of yesterday once proclaimed faith in their money machines and dressed them accordingly.