Rescuing the Work of a Pre-Eminent Designer

By Lawrence Biemiller

Roanoke, Virginia -- Care to take Scott Gartner and Bill Green up on a little wager? They'll bet you they can find five things in your home that were designed by Raymond Loewy.

It doesn't matter if you don't know who Loewy was -- there's no way you've escaped his influence. Got an Exxon credit card? He did the logo. Shell? BP? He did those, too. Stamps? Check for the Postal Service's familiar winged eagle on the side of the sheet -- Loewy designed it. Heinz ketchup? Pack of Lucky Strikes? Box of Nabisco crackers or cookies? Not only did Loewy do Nabisco's logo, he did some of the company's cookie shapes as well.

Have we hit five yet? "We tell people," Mr. Gartner says, "that if you're in a room and you can't find five things designed by Loewy, you're not trying hard." Even today, 20 years after he retired and nine years after he died -- at age 92 -- his work is everywhere, and his influence on industrial designers is enormous.

For almost five decades Loewy and his firm, Raymond Loewy Associates, were pre-eminent in a profession he had helped create. Before he got interested in logos, Loewy designed everything from Studebakers and Coldspot refrigerators to the interiors of President Kennedy's Air Force One and the Skylab space station. Loewy's 1933 prototype for a streamlined pencil sharpener is in the Brooklyn Museum; his 1935 design for the Pennsylvania Railroad's big GG1 electrics put the G's among the best-loved locomotives of all time; even the Lionel version is striking. The silverware Loewy designed for the Concorde proved so popular that Air France and British Airways couldn't keep it on the planes.

Mr. Gartner and Mr. Green, both architecture professors at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, have been keen on Loewy since they discovered that a building he designed has been all but abandoned here in Roanoke, barely an hour's drive from the university. Now they're scheming, sketching, schmoozing, and doing everything else they can think of to rescue the structure, a 1909 train station that Loewy redesigned in 1949 for the Norfolk and Western Railway. Mr. Gartner and Mr. Green want -- no, intend -- to see it restored and put to good use.

"I'm confident that it can be reused," says Mr. Gartner, heading his car off the interstate and into downtown Roanoke. Loewy's once-sleek station sits unused now, crowded by parking lots. The concourse that extended out over the main line was cut off two years ago so the railroad could run double-stacked container cars, Mr. Green says from the back seat, but otherwise Loewy's work is pretty much intact. Mr. Gartner and Mr. Green were even able to persuade the railroad, now part of Norfolk Southern, to save the big gridded window Loewy designed for the concourse's back end. The railroad reinstalled the window at the back of the station, where the concourse used to begin.

Right now the station doesn't look like a building you'd spend a lot of time trying to preserve. Loewy's plain sandstone portico has square columns above which stretch the words NORFOLK AND WESTERN RAILWAY. Behind the columns is a wall of glass divided into windows and doors by simple aluminum mullions. The design seems utterly unremarkable today -- at best an ordinary reminder of the '50s -- and it's hard to imagine how bold it must have looked in 1949: crisp, gleaming, modern. "There's a trough between when a building ceases to be useful and when nostalgia for it develops," Mr. Gartner notes, and Loewy's 46-year-old station design seems to be right in the middle of it.

But maybe not for long. Roy Thomas, a Norfolk Southern superintendent of buildings and construction, meets Mr. Gartner and Mr. Green at what's now the station's door. Before they even get inside, Mr. Gartner and Mr. Green are interrupting each other to point out Loewy's details -- small squares in the paving that create a path to the original front doors, brushed-aluminum columns, marble door surrounds.

After the railroad ended passenger service, it refitted the station as office space, adding dropped ceilings and wood-paneled partitions, even painting the brushed-aluminum columns to make them look like wood. So while Mr. Gartner goes off exploring stairways and basements, Mr. Green points out glazed tiles and places where the original paint shows through. In a few minutes the details start to add up, and you begin to see what passengers arriving for the N&W's crack Pocahontas would have seen on an April day in 1950.

Light from the front windows, he says, flooded a large open space with a terrazzo floor and a yellow ceiling. On either side, marble walls stretched back toward the concourse, moving ever closer to one another so that they formed a huge wedge culminating in the gridded window. A Tuscan-red wall displaying an N&W route map separated the front of the station from the concourse. Below the map curved an information desk, the deepest point of which was at the map's center. In the middle of the ceiling was a shallow decorative dome, also yellow, with recessed lighting around its edges. Doors led to separate restrooms for black and white travelers; behind the restrooms were a baggage room and a cafe with a zigzagging counter.

The counter is gone now, as are the curving desk and the route map, but Mr. Green says almost everything else survives, hidden beneath the partitions and the false ceilings. The station needs a new heating system, but otherwise renovations would be relatively inexpensive. He and Mr. Gartner say the the local visitor's center could move here from a downtown storefront -- indeed, they describe tour buses unloading out front, maps being handed across the curving desk, lunches being eaten in the cafe.

Of course, there's the little matter of the railroad's still owning the station, and the matter of persuading the visitor's-center people that they want to move, and the matter of finding money for the renovation. But Mr. Gartner and Mr. Green seem unperturbed, and indeed their track record is looking pretty good just now. A renovation scheme they and their students created for Roanoke's Virginia Transportation Museum won the support of the museum's board, which is currently raising money to pay for it. Renovations they planned for part of the city's Science Museum have already been completed; more are probably in the offing. And now they've got their students thinking up housing ideas for vacant lots in the Gainsboro district, a black neighborhood just a few blocks from the station.

They're even working on a design for a mobile home with 10-foot ceilings and a handsome, building-like exterior. This too started as a class project, with students examining the changes mobile homes' owners had made. Most common were peaked roofs (which make the homes more house-like) and porches (which serve as transitional spaces). The students found, Mr. Gartner says, that mobile homes' "aesthetic of movement and impermanence" was really a disadvantage, and that "residents don't want to live like that." Having devised a mobile home they think is a big improvement over what's on the market now, he and Mr. Green are searching for money to build a prototype.

"We're always looking for projects where a small amount of input will have a big effect," Mr. Green explains. They're hoping the Loewy train station is just such a project, and a Loewy exhibition they're planning for the transportation museum may help move things along. It will also give Mr. Gartner and Mr. Green an excuse to track down other Loewy designs, some of which are becoming hard to find (the Postal Service, for instance, is replacing Loewy's eagle with a newer one). Besides the streamlined Coldspots for Sears -- Loewy redesigned them every year, as if they were cars -- there were the McCormick-Deering cream separator, and the red countertop Coke dispenser, and the streamlined Farmall tractor. The museum already has a 1950 Studebaker Land Cruiser, with air scoops and a bullet nose that Loewy copied off the P-38 fighter plane. And out back there's a GG1, which -- at 79.5 feet long -- seems likely to be the biggest item in the show.

Unless, of course, Mr. Gartner and Mr. Green can bring in the S.S. Panama, or a Lockheed Constellation, or a string of Pullmans from the 1938 Broadway Limited (all had Loewy interiors, and the Pullmans had Loewy exteriors as well). Or maybe they'll come up with a Lucky's supermarket, or an International Harvester showroom like the one in Liberty, Tex., Mr. Gartner's home town. Long shots, of course, even for people as resourceful as Mr. Gartner and Mr. Green. On the other hand, though, you just might not want to be betting against them.

Copyright © 1995 by The Chronicle of Higher Education. Published April 21, 1995.