Saturday, November 03, 2007

Two walls

This is a sort of "good news - bad news" story about walls. First the bad news:
A 6.5-metre section of Rome's ancient Aurelian Wall collapsed near the capital's central train station after days of heavy rain, a conservation official said Friday.

The wall, part of a 16th century restoration, crumbled into a pile of bricks Thursday evening after water infiltrated the section, said Paola Virgili, an official in charge of the wall's restoration. No one was reported hurt.

The Aurelian Wall — named after the third century emperor who built it to defend the city against the first barbarian onslaughts — surrounds Rome with more than 17 kilometres of fortifications, towers and gates.

Experts had previously determined that the entire wall section in the area, a 370-metre stretch in the north of the capital, was in danger of collapsing and they had planned to start restoring it Monday.

"It came down before we could even cordon it off," Ms. Virgili said.

At one time I could name most of the Roman emperors up to Constantine. My first thought was that the walls must be named for Marcus Aurelius, even though the century seemed wrong. Actually, the century is right and I'm wrong. The emperor in question is Lucius Domitius Aurelianus (270-75), better known simply as Aurelian. Aurelian began one of the recoveries after a period of civil war and disunion that so often plagued the Roman Empire. The Aurelian Walls are the walls of the city of Rome at it it's greatest as depicted on the maps in many ancient history books. From the story, it appears the city of Rome plans to restore the wall, which is nice, but it would have been nicer if the rain would have held off a few days and they had been allowed to save the walls.

Here's a happier wall story:
A lovely little piece of subway history on the uptown platform of the No. 1 line at 59th Street-Columbus Circle — so old it actually antedates the trains — was concealed from generations of riders by a false wall.

With the false wall being removed as part of the station renovation, history has come to light again: a blue-and-white Art Nouveau plaque, with a flowery border (worthy of willow ware) encircling the words, "The Tiles in This Exhibit are the product of the American Encaustic Tiling Co. Limited / Zanesville Ohio / New-York N.Y."

What exhibit?

It turns out that the 59th Street station was a kind of proving ground for the architects Heins & LaFarge in 1901, three years before the Interborough Rapid Transit Company trains began running through it.

"The architects used its walls as an art gallery, experimenting with decorative ideas in various colors of tiles and other materials," Philip Ashforth Coppola wrote in Silver Connections: A Fresh Perspective on the New York Area Subway Systems (Four Oceans Press, 1984). "When the real decorating of Columbus Circle began, all these preliminary experiments were covered over and forgotten." That is, until this fall.

The transit authorities plan to remove the plaque along with some of the surrounding tiles and move them to the New York Transit Museum. In the mean time, the plaque is there on the wall where it has been for the past 106 years. Only now, any subway rider can view it.

Any city, even a relatively new one, has hidden history and lost treasures. Next time you go downtown in your town, look up above the signs and crowds and take a moment to really see the buildings. You never know what kind of architectural treasures might be hidden in plain sight.

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