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The art of the railroad station

While I heartily agree with my colleague Jacques Kelly's observations last week in his column noting all of the new and exciting things happening in the city, there was one item I simply couldn't abide.

And that's the 51-foot-tall burnished aluminum "Male/Female" statue, a metal monstrosity with a red and green heart, that looms like some fugitive from an A.C. Gilbert Erector Set over Baltimore's Pennsylvania Station.

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Since 2004, the $750,000 statue, fashioned by Maine artist Jonathan Borofsky and commissioned and paid for by the Municipal Art Society of Baltimore City, has stood in the city-owned plaza in front of the railroad station.

It has survived strong winds, violent summer thunderstorms and even a Niagara of criticism. It even became the subject of a Zippy the Pinhead comic strip several months after its installation.

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An editorial in The Sun at the time characterized the statue as "oversized, underdressed and woefully out of place."

It continued: "We are neither prudes nor philistines in matters of art, and it is possible that in some other spot this rather flashy display might be pleasing. But it fails both as a complement to the almost century-old granite and terra-cotta grandeur of Penn Station and as an appropriate symbol of Baltimore for visitors and residents alike."

Frank A. Wrabel, a Baltimore bank purchasing agent by day and a rail historian by night whose specialty is the old Pennsylvania Railroad, is no fan of the metal colossus, and he isn't afraid to say so.

Something of an expert on Penn Station, he published a detailed 51-page article on the history of the station and its tunnels in the Pennsylvania Railroad Technical and Historical Society's journal a decade ago.

The classic beaux-arts station that was designed by architect Kenneth Murchison and built during the age of steam, opened for travelers in 1911.

"Perhaps we can put an agenda in motion, do an about-face, and place something in the plaza that's a credit to the station's grand entrance," Wrabel said in a telephone interview this week.

"We have to envision what sort of message we're sending to travelers who use the terminal. So, right now, we have a sculpture that clearly conflicts with the station and sends out a bad message. We now have the opportunity to look at something that is more appropriate."

Wrabel says that most civic artwork honors local historical figures, soldiers or politicians, and that the railroad industry seldom honored its own.

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"Most railroad managements were conservative and viewed such self-promotion as being unacceptable," Wrabel said.

However, there are some examples, Wrabel points out, such as Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt, founder of the New York Central Railroad, at New York's Grand Central Terminal, and several notable Pennsy figures at 30th Street Station in Philadelphia.

Also, statues of two Pennsy presidents, Alexander J. Cassatt and Samuel Rea -- who played pivotal roles in extending the railroad from its then-Jersey City beachhead and then under the Hudson River into Manhattan -- were in the original Pennsylvania Station in New York. (Journalist Lucius Beebe described Penn Station as that "massive affront" to the Vanderbilts' smaller uptown Grand Central Terminal on 42nd Street.)

Cassatt and Rea were depicted as Roman emperors, and their statues were placed in two prominent niches in the station that opened for service in 1910, and where they no doubt amused passengers and visitors until its demolition in the mid-1960s.

Wrabel's nominee to be placed in front of our Penn Station is John Mifflin Hood, the dynamic 19th-century president of the Western Maryland Railway.

During his tenure, Hood transformed the 90-mile debt-ridden railroad with "12 asthmatic locomotives," said The Sun at the time, into a modern road with 268 miles of track that began at tidewater Baltimore and coursed through Western Maryland and Pennsylvania, carrying passengers, coal and agricultural products.

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After retiring from the Western Maryland in 1902, Hood headed the United Railways and Electric Co. in Baltimore, until his death in 1906.

After the Baltimore Fire of 1904, Hood donated money to assist in the rebuilding of the city, and in gratitude, the Baltimore Burnt District Commission commissioned a statue of the transportation executive.

In 1911, John Mifflin Hood III unveiled his grandfather's statue, which depicted him dressed in a dapper Prince Albert frock coat and sporting a full set of Vandyke whiskers.

It originally stood in Hopkins Place until 1962, when urban renewal moved it to Preston Gardens, directly across from Mercy Medical Center.

"Why not put Hood in front of our Penn Station? It's a very attractive statue, and he was an important figure in Baltimore's industrial and transportation history," Wrabel said. "Also, Western Maryland trains used this line and stopped at Penn Station until discontinuing commuter service in 1957."

Hood's relatives complained that their ancestor was consigned to "a secondary street facing backward," and that he had always looked to the West as being an integral part of the Western Maryland Railway's fortunes.

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"Well, that's a little debatable," Wrabel said. "Actually, the geography lent itself to that location, and some thought he was looking toward the railroad's Hillen Station, warehouse and yards" on the east side.

"He only turned his back on his old railroad when they moved their corporate offices years later into the Commercial Credit Building on St. Paul Place and Saratoga Street," he said.

fred.rasmussen@baltsun.com


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