Monthly Archives: February 2015

Central Park

Central Park, New York City

Central Park, New York City

Manhattan would be overwhelming without Central Park, the 843-acre green oblong that relieves the remorseless gridiron of streets and avenues.

With admirable prescience that arose from thirty years of debate, in 1853 the city’s authorities purchased the one remaining largely unused site within the 1811 street-plan for five and half million dollars.

The park was laid out from 1856 onwards to the designs of Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux.

The principle of their “Greensward Plan” was that a variety of landscapes, ranging from formal gardens to near wilderness, should present themselves to visitors in a series of apparently natural transitions. The project took twenty years to complete, and occupied up to 3,000 workers.

It is salutary to remember, when walking in Central Park, that to all practical purposes the entire landscape is artificial.

At a time when buildings never reached a greater height than five or six storeys it was possible to arrange, by planting around the park’s borders, that the city would in no way encroach on the illusion of a natural landscape within.

In fact, now that great tower blocks peer above the trees in most directions, an excitement that Olmsted and Vaux could not have predicted sharpens the Park’s appeal.

The designers provided a range of occasional buildings around the Park – the cast-iron Ladies’ Pavilion, the Belvedere Castle and the Gothic Revival Dairy. The most formal composition of all, the Bethesda Fountain, is, significantly, set at an angle to the street-gridiron.

The integrity of Olmsted and Vaux’s design has gradually been encroached upon by other, more obtrusive structures, such as the Delacorte Theater, the Wollman Memorial Rink, the Central Park Zoo and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

When Edward S Clark of the Singer Sewing Machine Co developed an apartment block at West 72nd Street in 1884 it was nicknamed the Dakota because it was so far out of town.

As the empty plots disappeared under bricks and mortar – and later concrete and steel – Central Park remained as an astonishing piece of urban green half a mile wide and two-and-a-half miles long, stretching from Fifth Avenue to Central Park West (a continuation in all but name of Eighth Avenue) and from 59th Street (also Central Park South) to 110th Street (otherwise Cathedral Parkway).

It’s impossible to overstate the importance of Central Park to New York life. It’s a breath of fresh air, a meeting-place for concerts and wakes, a setting for romance and sport. Sometimes it’s been – and still can be – unsafe and notorious for crime, but under normal circumstances, in daylight, it’s one of the most salubrious and enjoyable places in the whole of Manhattan.

For details of Mike Higginbottom’s lecture The Big Apple:  the architecture of New York City, please click here.

‘Peggy’ of Castletown

'Peggy', Manx Nautical Museum, Castletown, Isle of Man (2014)

‘Peggy’, Manx Nautical Museum, Castletown, Isle of Man (2014)

The Isle of Man is rich in romantic stories, some of them true, and none more palpably true than the saga of Peggy, George Quayle’s armed yacht, which recently saw the light of day for the first time in perhaps 180 years.

George Quayle (1751-1835) was a trader, banker and Member of the House of Keys, the Manx parliament, in the lively period of the late eighteenth century when the island’s economy struggled against the Westminster government’s opposition to the Manx habit of smuggling.

Peggy, which was built in 1791, was berthed in a purpose-built basement boathouse beside the harbour in Castletown, within sight of Castle Rushen. She would have had no difficulty in sneaking out to sea from her private dock under cover of darkness:

After George Quayle died Peggy seems never to have sailed again. Indeed, for almost a century she was apparently forgotten.

By the time word of her existence got about she was the oldest Manx boat in existence, three times unique as the oldest surviving schooner, of shallop construction, and fitted with sliding keels:

After the death of George Quayle’s descendant, Emily Quayle, in 1935, Peggy and her boathouse was bequeathed to the Manx nation and became the centrepiece of the Manx Nautical Museum, which opened in 1951.

She was very gently restored after the Second World War, and has rested intact and largely untouched until 2014, when a series of super-tides threatened her location.

To safeguard her and to assist her long-term conservation Peggy has been craned out of her berth and taken to a climate-controlled environment in Douglas:

The archaeological investigation and preservation process was expected to take at least five years.

What will happen to Peggy at the end of the project remains to be seen, though a recent Manx Heritage statement said, “The intimate links between Peggy and her boathouse are so very important that the final stages of the project will look at ways of housing her there when the conservation work is completed.”

Almost ten years after the restoration of Peggy began, an ambitious scheme to build a museum around her has been announced.  The readers’ comments to the Isle of Man Today (August 9th 2023) are collectors’ items:  Plans to revamp nautical museum are on display |

Baby Grand

Grand Theatre Doncaster (1984)

Grand Theatre Doncaster (1984)

I’ve never been able to understand why the borough of Doncaster has ignored its dark, neglected but intact Grand Theatre.

Built in 1899 within sight of Doncaster railway station to the designs of John Priestley Briggs (1869–1944), a pupil of Frank Matcham’s, it’s bolted on to the overwhelming Frenchgate Centre (built as the Arndale Centre, 1967), with the dual-carriageway inner relief road clipping the corner of its stage tower.

Most sources credit as joint architect Mr J W Chapman, the owner and lessee of the Old Theatre on Doncaster Market Place, who according to The ERA of April 1st 1899 “designed the whole of the arrangements, and personally drew the plans, which were passed by the Doncaster Corporation”.

Chapman’s specification made the Grand a thoroughly modern theatre, electrically lit using its own generator, heated by a low-pressure hot water system, with a sprinkler system for firefighting. All eight dressing rooms were fitted with hot and cold running water.

The auditorium has three levels, originally the orchestra stalls and pit, the dress circle and above that a balcony and gallery. The two boxes face into the auditorium and are not practical.

The original terra-cotta, cream and gold decorative scheme was executed by Deans of Birmingham.

The 26-foot proscenium is squarely proportioned, with brackets in the upper corners. The stage itself is 70ft wide, 32ft deep and 50ft high.

The roll-call of performers at the Grand runs from Charlie Chaplin to Ken Dodd and Morecambe & Wise, and includes such Yorkshire favourites as Albert Modley, Sandy Powell and Frank Randle.

It was where Julie Andrews’ debut took place when Ted and Barbara Andrews played in the December 1935 pantomime and carried their two-month-old daughter Julie onstage.

The Doncaster Grand was one of the variety theatres featured in BBC broadcasts in 1930s. Live theatre timing was not as tight as broadcasting schedules, so the outside-broadcast unit had to carry whatever came on while they were live on air: at Doncaster they got Florrie Forde, a paper-tearing act – and a troupe of jugglers.

The Grand was taken over by the Essoldo cinema chain in 1944 and it eventually closed in 1958. It operated as a Mecca bingo club from 1961 to 1990. In 1994, while under threat of demolition, it was listed Grade II.

The Friends of the Doncaster Grand Theatre have campaigned ever since for the restoration of the building, which now belongs to Lambert Smith Hampton, the owner of the adjacent Frenchgate Shopping Centre.

Doncaster Borough Council, meanwhile, has opened Cast, its performance venue “where you can watch incredible shows, share creative ideas and be inspired” – “a key driver for the creative industries and evening economy”:  It takes a moment to work out why it’s called Cast.

Faced with an intransigent owner and a council facing in a different direction, it must be difficult for the Friends to maintain momentum in their campaign to find the Grand a place in the town’s creative industries:

There are urban-explorer reports on the Grand at and

Update:   It’s a tribute to the persistence of the Friends of the Doncaster Grand Theatre that at long last practical steps are being taken to bring the building back to life:  Join the campaign to reopen Doncaster Grand Theatre (


Darlington Railway Station:  Pacer unit 142084

Darlington Railway Station: Pacer unit 142084

Of all the signals of a government’s contempt for the passengers of its nationalised railway, none is more palpably cheap and nasty than the Pacer unit.

They were built for British Rail at a time when economy was paramount, using a four-wheel chassis based on the experimental High Speed Freight Vehicle and bodywork derived from the standard Leyland National bus, another – more successful – attempt at nationwide standardisation built between 1972 and 1985 by British Leyland and the National Bus Company.

Effectively a bus body on a freight-wagon chassis, with basic bus seats and inward opening doors, these lumpen machines pick up every bump and indentation in the track, screech round curves intended for eight-wheeled bogie vehicles and make particularly heavy weather over traversing points and junctions. They are noisy and most are underpowered.

A rear-end collision at Winsford in 1999 showed up the physical frailty of the Pacer design:  Fortunately, the unit concerned was running empty, and the driver, at the opposite end of the train to the crash, was unscathed.  But the rear cab was destroyed and the bodywork of both coaches detached from the underframes.

These flimsy trains were built in the 1980s with a design-life of twenty years, but almost all of them are still in service, and they will be needed until at least 2020 because no new diesel railcar units are being built.

A number of early-model Pacers were sold in the late 1990s to the Islamic Republic of Iran Railways where they have not found favour.

There is, inevitably, a Pacer Preservation Society, with a magazine Pacer Chaser:

One day, it will only be possible to ride these beasts in a museum. For the foreseeable future, however, regular passengers have no choice:

Update:  A BBC News report indicates that the habit of patronising Northern commuters with life-expired rolling stock is set to continue with a proposal to upgrade 1978 District Line trains to work in Yorkshire and Lancashire:

Further update:  The award of the Northern Rail franchise to Arriva Rail North Ltd signals at last the imminent demise of the Pacers:

Final update:  The very last Pacer in public service travelled between Kirkby and Manchester Victoria on November 27th 2020:  Final farewell to Northern’s fleet of Pacer trains – BBC News.