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Fantastic Voyage: SS Columbia and Streamline Moderne Architecture

The preservation movement across the country is primarily focused on restoring residential architecture and post industrial buildings. With the arrival of the SS Columbia in Buffalo (September 2015), the city has an opportunity to learn about a unique variation of historic restoration and cultural preservation.

The restoration project, with an objective of returning the boat to full operation, is shifting the paradigm toward a renewed appreciation of the vibrant maritime social history in the United States.

It also offers an opportunity to understand how architectural styles were influenced by and/or reacted to social climates.

Maritime design on land would emerge decades after the SS Columbia was built (1901) in the form of Streamline Moderne architecture. Most architectural styles were a reaction to social climates they proceeded and Streamline Moderne was no exception. The style translated strong horizontal lines, rounded corners and bands of windows into sublime buildings. It was a reflection of austere economic circumstances as a result of the Great Depression (1929 1939) and represented simplicity while still maintaining an undertone of innovation and speed.

Considered to be one the finest examples of Streamline Modern in the United States, the Pan-Pacific Auditorium in Los Angeles opened on May 18, 1935 and destroyed by fire in 1989.

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The Eckhardt Building located at 950 Broadway is great example of the style in Buffalo. The interior of the building continues the stainless steel railings that curve gracefully into the next set of stairs. A view of the railings begin at the 45 second mark and continue to the 1:30 mark in a video made by Broadway Fillmore Alive. Another example is the Alleyway Theatre in Buffalo. 

Arthur J. Pulos wrote in American Design Ethic “The perfect aerodynamic form was believed to be a teardrop plowing through space with the round end forward…” This statement embodies the design of the SS Columbia and fundamental design elements of Streamline Moderne architecture.

The similarities between the SS Columbia and Streamline Moderne architecture become evident when comparing photos of both (not all architecture examples are in Buffalo). Aerodynamic curves, emphasis on horizontal, smooth white surfaces, nautical themes like sleek railings and arched supports were combined to mimic sleek ships whose clean lines parted the waves and cleaved the air. 

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One of the most interesting images that connects the SS Columbia to the architecture of its destination of Boblo Island is of the interior of the dance hall. The colossal window, framed by an arch with a pointed apex was most likely inspired by Gothic architecture but could also be viewed as an inverted boat hull and a continuation of the nautical theme. Twenty five years after the dance hall was erected the idea of an inverted boat hull crystalized as the internal support structure of the Steinberg hat factory in Luckenwalde, Germany, when Streamline Moderne was gaining traction around the world. (image 8 and 9)

The restoration of the SS Columbia will return the historic steamship to the water and offer passengers a chance to experience water travel in a modern era. Perhaps it may also lead to a revival in Streamline Moderne architecture and a return to simple design as reaction to a complex world fixated on change, mobility and speed.

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Lead image: SS Columbia, approximately 1908, after extension to hurricane deck on stern

For more historic image follow this link to a recent article by Patrick Sisson for Curbed

For blueprints of the boat go to www.curbed.com

To find out more about the organization handling the restoration go to sscolumbia.org

The nomination report can be found here.

The SS Columbia is expected to leave Buffalo, NY in 2016 and travel to NYC area for final restoration.

Written by T. A. Marciano

T. A. Marciano

www.tracymarciano.com

View All Articles by T. A. Marciano

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