February 1966 | Volume 17, Issue 2
“The typical American,” wrote a perceptive French visitor in 1836, “has a perfect passion for railroads; he loves them … as a lover loves his mistress.” The offspring of this affaire de coeur was the early railroad station, upon which expense and imagination were lavished with a prodigal hand. For almost a century—roughly from 1850 to 1940—the depot was the communications center of the town, the place that symbolized the high drama of travel, of big cities, of distant frontiers, of Opportunity and Progress—in short, of everything that small-town Americans (which then meant most of us) yearned for. Ranulph Bye’s evocative water colors of several of these splendid structures, appearing in this portfolio, bear witness to that age of innocent wonderment. They are also monuments to a specialized architectural style that through neglect and the decline of railroads is fast disappearing from the scene. It was termed loosely “Railway Gothic,” but a closer look reveals a succession of fashionable eclecticisms. Not until the 1890’s did station design lapse into a stolid vernacular. Meanwhile, for a few glorious decades architects—and travellers—had an elegant time.
The once-bustling depot converted to some prosaic, trainless role is rather like the spirited race horse that ends up pulling the neighborhood milk wagon. No matter how useful the new assignment—and our sampling here includes, in clockwise order, a nursery, a private residence, an antique shop, a post office, a discount store, and a restaurant—the transformation is always something of an indignity. Nevertheless, there are very few who would dispute that even indignity is preferable to demise under the swinging ball of the wrecker.