Couple’s Quest to Solve Overlooked Mysteries of the City

May 15, 2009 at 1:40 pm Leave a comment

If you’ve ever parked by the marina in Flushing to see a Mets game, you may have been struck by the whimsy and drama of two white shelters that sit by the bay, structures that look as if their creator had been issued the challenge to design igloos that could take wing. Futuristic and fiberglass, they are too small and fanciful to rise to the level of something you would call a building, but they have a functional feel that suggests they are not pure sculpture.
Maybe you’ve wondered exactly what they are doing there, or even gone so far as to read the parks department sign nearby, which says they were once bus shelters at the 1964 World’s Fair. Perhaps you went a step further, wondering why two bus shelters would be so far from the road.

Most people probably end the speculation there. There are pitchers to root for or waterfront promenades to stroll along, and if you stopped to ponder every inexplicable curiosity you passed in New York, you’d spend your life wondering and never reach your destination.

Paul Lukas, a journalist and cultural critic, and Kirsten Hively, an architect, are not like most people. They were set up last year by a friend who noticed that they had in common a passion for observation, a habit of fixating on and documenting the quirks of New York — unusual manhole covers, inconsistent typography on street signs, overlooked designs of rare beauty.

Upon seeing the shelters for the first time, on her way to a ballgame with Mr. Lukas, Ms. Hively jumped up and down with delight. Mr. Lukas snapped a few dozen photos with a camera he carries. Some couples take their relationships to the next level by adopting a pet. Ms. Hively and Mr. Lukas adopted a pet project: to unearth the story behind the shelters, which the parks department sign informed them were called the Candela Structures, after the Spanish architect Felix Candela, who, the sign said, designed the Mexican Pavilion at the fair.

Were a documentary made of the two of them researching the structures — buildinglets, they call them — here would be some key scenes: Ms. Hively sitting upon Mr. Lukas’s shoulders, in order to get the necessary height to measure the shelters’ dimensions; the two of them poring through Mr. Candela’s archives at Columbia University and boxes of World’s Fair files at the New York Public Library; the couple zooming in on historicaerials.com to determine when a third, identical structure, whose presence they discovered through their research, had disappeared. They discovered that Mr. Candela had not designed the Mexican Pavilion (it was Pedro Ramirez Vásquez), and that the structures were never bus shelters, but instead, hospitality and information centers at the fair for the Coast Guard and a couple of outboard-motor brands.

“We eventually learned that every piece of information on the sign was wrong,” said Mr. Lukas, who calls himself a “detail geek, period.”

(One piece of historical arcana sometimes leads to another: In 2001, the city decided to issue 2,001 historical signs, which is a lot of signs to get right in one year. John Krawchuk, the parks department’s director of historic preservation, said the city was persuaded by the duo’s research, and is looking into fixing the sign for the shelters, which they consider picnic shelters.)

The couple just this week confirmed to their satisfaction that the shelters were in fact designed by the architect who oversaw the building of the marina at the World’s Fair, Peter Schladermundt. But they are still trying to determine who has the missing third one (their best guess is the Coast Guard, based on archived correspondence, although the Coast Guard told them it did not know of its whereabouts).

“They’re publicly owned, yet all their fingerprints have disappeared,” he said. “The city is full of things we take for granted simply because they’re there, and this is one of those stories. We felt like they could use some advocates.”

Mr. Lukas and Ms. Hively, who are now hoping for a restoration of the structures, have created an exhibit about the so-called Candela Structures “and the surprising degree of mystery and misinformation surrounding them,” which will be on view at the City Reliquary, a small museum in Williamsburg, starting Saturday.

“I’m sure no one has ever cared about these structures as much as Kirsten and I do right now,” said Mr. Lukas.

But their quest is not just about the smallest of details, it is about the vastness of the city, about how two small but seriously unusual design wonders from the recent past could “hide in plain sight,” as Mr. Lukas puts it, their provenance swallowed up in the rush of progress.

Among the various New York wonders hiding in plain sight are those New Yorkers who seek them out for the rest of us.

 
By SUSAN DOMINUS
New York Times

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Entry filed under: Go Coastal, Public Waterfront, Queens. Tags: , , , .

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