Story 06: The Big Move

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Sidebar-The Giant Elevator

Written by Mike Spock, Duncan Smith, Kathy Murphy and Dan Prigmore

When Dan Prigmore took over the management of the project and its finances, he brought in his own architects, Dyer Brown, to complete working drawings and supervise the contracts. They took the Cambridge Seven Associates schematic plans pretty much as is, with one very important exception: the giant elevator designed to move the Museum of Transportation's vehicles from floor to floor and school-bus-loads of kids up to MOT would be enclosed in glass and relocated to the Fort Point Channel side of Museum Wharf. A bonus was that it afforded a spectacular view of Boston and the harbor that fit perfectly with Duncan Smith's dream. In Duncan's interview he describes his draw to the harbor:

...the museum had this enormous potential, not as an antique auto museum, but as a way of talking about technology and the evolution of American culture, using transportation, including cars, as metaphors for this process both developing and peopling this country. And most particularly in the context of Boston, because it has had every single important transportation system and social impact in our history. Every change has gone through the city, leaving its mark... [Looking] out the window at the Fort Point Channel, you can put your finger down almost anywhere and see the impact of commerce, transportation, and the impact of this history on people's lives. It's one of the things that makes Boston so uniquely rich...

It was all there: the Central Artery, South Station, Logan Airport, the railroad Fan Pier, lobstermen, warehouses, docks, bridges, tunnels, ferries, container ships, sailboats, cars, trucks, trains. It was Richard Scarry's Busytown. The giant elevator ride would be a too-good-to-be-missed interpretive opportunity and a terrific landmark for MOT. So relocating the elevator became key to Dan Prigmore's revised plan. But there were significant costs to that scheme as well, as Smith points out:. we began to fundraise for our old new building, we converted two ground-floor bays into temporary onsite project offices and a exhibition gallery where we invited prospects for lunch, cocktails or dinner....I remember at the end of one party everyone standing at the open [loading] door looking out, and all of a sudden a freight car came whizzing by on what we all assumed was a dead track.... It was a surprise.

Later, as the construction loan was about to be closed, Kathy Murphy, a young lawyer working in John Bok's office (and a future member of TCM's board) was assembling the loan documentation, including the property survey, which had arrived at the very last minute. She recalls:

I remember, getting the survey, finally, and running over to the law firm [where the closing was awaiting this final document]...with it and unfolding the survey and finding out that the elevator was going to land right on top of the railroad track. We had to stop everything and figure out how we were going to get the permission of the railroad because it turned out that railroad line, the spur track, had not been abandoned. It was still an active line.

We had to find somebody to deal with us putting an elevator on the railroad track....John Carberry [a member of MOT's board] and Duncan Smith were instrumental in tracking down this guy from Conrail in a bar in South Boston and getting him to focus on it enough so that we ended up negotiating a lease of the spur track and the railroad's easement, a lease to Wharf Museum, Inc., to use that spur track so that we could put the big elevator right on top of it.

Duncan picks up the story from here, adding slightly different details, but essentially arriving at the same outcome.

...this was a very serious problem....a railroad right-of-way is an act of God and you can't terminate or interfere with it....When we bought this building there was a functioning right-of-way through here which was compromised by the fact that there was no connection at the other end of the railroad yards onto the main track. It had been cut.

...we discovered that [the] head of Conrail's real estate department in New York was a Greek gentleman, an old and dear friend of Nick's [Contos] of the [No Name] restaurant....At some point Nick bought this piece of junk castoff railroad land from him and then sold it for millions to the [proposed third harbor] tunnel right-of-way gang.

We all went down to Nick's and explained our problem with the elevator, the right-of-way and the dead trackage. The guy took a set of building plans back to New York, and had the people in his office redraw the railroad right-of-way across our property in such a way that the elevator was not on the right-of-way. You know the way H.O. model tracks can snake around, make[ing] these impossible turns? The right-of-way in front of this building comes up to the elevator, makes a sharp right turn, goes out, makes a sharp left turn, goes by the elevator and makes a sharp right turn, comes back to the building and goes out to the street. The plan was filed and approved by Conrail, which was the end of this guy across the street who was threatening to sue us. Anyway, the right-of-way drawing was hilarious...

Finally, Dan Prigmore completes the story:

...[in the plan] we had put the elevator outside the building...and were fully committed to that program....The adjacent property [with rights to use the same track that ran across our property] was owned by one of the most difficult human beings on this earth....we finally made contact and did a deal. Essentially the argument was we had joint rights to it. "Some day you're going to want to do something. And if you're impossible now, I guarantee you in perpetuity there will be impossibleness on the other side. This costs you nothing and you should do it." And we got it done...

Once again, that was the level of complexity we had to deal with and the depth of the relationships we had to call on to get of the pieces of Museum Wharf done.

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