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Troubled Marriage: Raymond Loewy And The Pennsylvania Railroad

Spring 1996 | Volume 11 |  Issue 4

AMONG THE MOST SUCCESSFUL PROFESSIONAL relationships of the first half of the twentieth century was the legendary association between the Standard Railroad of the World and the world’s best-known industrial-design firm, Raymond Loewy Associates. For two decades the mighty Pennsylvania Railroad and the dazzling Loewy organization collaborated on a set of images and objects that came to symbolize the Machine Age. Each organization proudly called public attention to its ties with the other. To many, this affiliation exemplified the immense potential for design in American industry, the ultimate merger of form and function.

Beneath the surface of that productive and symbiotic alliance, however, lay a troubled and intricate union of two very different cultures. Each had a strong and sincere system of values and a distinct world view, and each had its own idea of the proper role of a design consulting firm. The result was a fitful and constrained relationship that illustrated the difficulties of achieving a smooth fit for design within the corporation. The Pennsylvania’s hidebound railroad men saw the designers’ work as mere cosmetic frills, while Loewy and his associates saw themselves as an integral part of the railroad’s operations. The Pennsy-Loewy drama would be played out many times in other settings throughout the twentieth century, as the two cultures struggled to be of value to each other and to the larger society around them.

This particular alliance was forged in the mid-1930s, shortly before Fortune magazine published a lengthy, two-part essay on the Pennsy that began: “Do not think of the Pennsylvania Railroad as a business enterprise. Think of it as a nation.” The P.R.R. was clearly recognized as the nation’s leading railway and one of the premier corporations in the most advanced capitalist economy on the globe. It was the largest and richest American road, with 100,000 employees and a territory that stretched from New York to Chicago to St. Louis and back to Washington, D.C., serving half the population of the country. Depending on the particular measure chosen, it accounted for between 10 and 20 percent of the American railroad industry. It was a proud and conservative business that had never failed to pay a dividend since its founding in 1846. It sought to set the industry standards for technical advance, for system, and for safety. It was also a labyrinthine, hierarchical, insular bureaucracy dominated by engineers and the line operators who made the trains run. The Pennsylvania Railroad organization had some of the characteristics of the Atlantic Ocean that lay along its borders: It was vast, deep, and forbidding. In 1934 Raymond Loewy dropped onto its surface.

WHEN A FREE-SPIRITED designer collided with an inflexible bureaucracy, the accomplishments were memorable, but so were the conflicts

Loewy had emigrated to the United States from his native France in 1919, when he was in his mid-twenties. He had little training or experience in engineering beyond three years in a technical preparatory school, but he had style, a gift for sketching, and some connections in New York. He also had a great talent for self-promotion. In the 1920s he built a successful career in fashion illustration and advertising. In 1929 came an opportunity to redesign a duplicator for Sigmund Gestetner, and this led Loewy into the fledgling field of industrial design. Work came slowly at first, in the early years of the Depression. The Hupp Motor Company was perhaps his most important client before his association in 1934 with the Pennsylvania Railroad. Loewy would go on to become the most famous of America’s industrial designers, living well, making the cover of Time , and creating some of the most memorable designs of the twentieth century. Many of those designs were done for the Pennsylvania Railroad.

OVER THE YEARS THERE GREW UP IN THE PENN sylvania a legend that Loewy’s first job for the road was to devise a wastebasket. He did in fact fashion one for them, early on, which the Pennsy characteristically called a Refuse Receptacle. But records indicate that the real reason Loewy was initially engaged was to streamline the company’s electric locomotive, the famous GG-1. Despite the Pennsylvania’s proud heritage of leadership, it was a laggard in modernizing passenger equipment and in streamlining, which had made its first appearances on roads in the West. The company had been considering such matters at least as early as 1931, though its main interests lay in updating the interiors of passenger equipment and making only minor alterations to exteriors. By 1934, in addition to these issues, its officials were looking at the possibility of adopting new articulated passenger trains for use in the Northeast corridor.

It was unusual but hardly unprecedented for the Pennsylvania to turn to outsiders for help with design. The road had a history of engineering and building much of its own rolling stock, bridges, and other installations, including many of its smaller stations. It had a substantial in-house capacity for heavy engineering and construction, particularly at its enormous complex at Altoona, Pennsylvania. But it also had a history of working with other long-established engineering and manufacturing firms, such as Pullman, American Car and Foundry, and the Baldwin Locomotive Works. And for its most highly visible public structures, it had selected some of the nation’s most eminent architects. McKim, Mead and White had, of course, created the greatest American passenger depot, Pennsylvania Station in New York City. A number of its other stations were done by Frank Furness, and one of the profession’s leaders, Daniel Burnham, was the architect for the Pennsylvania’s Pittsburgh depot and for Washington’s lavish Union Station. Despite these exceptions, the organization men within the Pennsylvania were largely accustomed to calling the tune when it came to designing their railroad, and Raymond Loewy was still a little-known name in 1934.

Precisely how Loewy was chosen is not clear. In February 1934 the road was considering the use of “outside consulting talent” to refashion its passenger trains. The crusty chief of motive power, F. W. Hankins, grudgingly agreed that the road should look into modernizing its equipment, so long as it was sure to “get someone with good taste and someone who is acquainted thoroughly with general passenger car design from the viewpoint of what has been done abroad, as well as in this Country. … However,” he growled, “I am opposed to the employment or engaging of these so-called professional designers who have been brought up principally in plants where wall-paper designs are developed.”

Whether Loewy got the job because of his European background or for some other reason is not known. What is beyond doubt is that he entered the scene through the personal sponsorship of the man who would dominate the management of the road for almost the next two decades, Martin W. Clement. Clement had led the powerful operating department beginning in 1926 and was made executive vice president and heir apparent in 1933. Inal986 interview John W. Ebstein, a former Loewy staffer, suggested that the connection was made through Mary Reinhardt of New York City, a socially prominent woman who “knew every president of every major company. She would meet them at cocktail parties, receptions, and she told everybody about the up-and-coming designer, Raymond Loewy.” Clement eventually became Loewy’s most important supporter.

Loewy met with Clement and the purchasing vice president, C. D. Young, in the president’s office in Philadelphia on October 25, 1934. Following that session, Young arranged a meeting with other P.R.R. executives and told Loewy to “come prepared to tell us what you expect to accomplish on electric locomotives, how long it will take to prepare your recommendations and what will be your asking charge.” They agreed on a fee of $5,000 if the railroad decided to use Loewy’s ideas about the GG-1. One of the great partnerships in the history of industrial design was up and running.

TO MANY, LOEWY’S affiliation with the Pennsy showed the immense potential for design in American industry—the ultimate merger of form and function.

The tone of that relationship was immediately apparent in the skeptical reaction of Hankins to the arrangement with the New York stylist: “It looks to me as though [Loewy] is going to have very little time in which to study this particular locomotive, as the business will be placed next week. … you are just throwing $5,000 up in the air.” Hankins suggested assigning Loewy to other classes of locomotive or to passenger cars that needed streamlining and weight reduction. The vice president responded in a penciled note: “He should work on the GG-1.” Loewy agreed to move on a quick schedule, and he delivered his initial sketches within ten days. Though the Loewy contribution to the GG-1 consisted only of work on the exterior—rounding and smoothing the corners, substituting welding for riveting, and adding a flared paint scheme that suggested smoke- it was to prove one of his most widely admired designs.

The success of the GG-1 project and the famous Refuse Receptacle led the Pennsylvania to put Loewy on a retainer, securing his “exclusive services in the railway field.” The contract called for Loewy to receive an annual payment, at first $20,000, later ranging up to $25,000. In addition, the Pennsylvania would pay for labor, materials, and overhead charges. During the years the Loewy organization worked for the railroad, its income from this account sometimes exceeded $100,000.

Throughout the long relationship between the two organizations, disputes over billing were the most severe and most frequent source of friction. The Pennsylvania was a rigid bureaucracy accustomed to doing business by means of explicit, written directives flowing through clearly established channels. In the work with the design firm, top executives would sometimes offer ambiguous or off-the-cuff comments that left room for misinterpretation. Furthermore, the lines of communication and authority were often unclear between various departments of the railroad and their much more casual consultants. Internal Pennsy documents often denounced the designer’s charges as “outrageous,” and on many occasions there were comments that the jobs could have been handled as well in-house or more cheaply by other suppliers. Even when the amounts caused no complaints, the bureaucracy had trouble fitting the Loewy connection into its world, and there was repeated confusion about who had authorized what and which department was to pay.

THE TONE OF THE relationship was immediately apparent in one crusty executive’s reaction to news of Loewy’s hiring:“You are just throwing $5,000 up in the air.”

THIS PROBLEM APPEARED FROM THE VERY FIRST months of the retainer arrangement. A series of notes in the files of the supervisor of motive power expenditures revealed confusion over the appearance of this new moon in the Pennsylvania’s firmament. It began with the billing for the initial retainer payments: “Someone will have to pay him by 4/4 and I am setting this up so if there is any question it can be settled at the President’s conference on 4/1.” Other scribbled lines had a plaintive tone: “Have you anything on this and has disposition of cost been determined” and “Scope and nature of work so that charge can be properly accounted for.” Another note spoke of the design firm as if it were an infection introduced into the organization: “We should see if this extends beyond the M[aintenance] of E[quipment] Dept.” The mystery was explained as well as it ever would be in a handwritten memo at the end of Loewy’s first full quarter of activity under the retainer contract: “Mr. Raymond Loewy has been retained by the P.R.R.,” wrote the perhaps exasperated accountant, “to design things. … We have no papers or info.”

The problem of authorization dogged both the railroad and Loewy’s staff throughout their years together. Time and again the Pennsy executives would circulate stern memos announcing that this mess had to be untangled, that henceforth only certain departments or individuals would be allowed to authorize certain types of expenditures, and that strict accountability would now be insisted on. These disputes sometimes involved small sums, and to the looser Loewy organization it must have seemed picky and penny-pinching for their rich client to be constantly questioning every detail. Much of the difficulty, though, was the designers’ fault. They interpreted their instructions broadly and aggressively, as consultants sometimes will, in search of more billable business. Still worse was Loewy Associates’ tendency once in a while to pursue a project on its own in hopes of persuading the railroad to pay for it after the fact.

A small but telling example came in 1941. The chief of motive power, H. W. Jones, wrote to Loewy questioning a charge of $98.03 for “proposed change in the design of the clocks in Pennsylvania Station, New York (suggested by Mr. Loewy, June 1941).” “Will you please advise,” Jones demanded, “to whom this suggestion was made and who authorized the work.” Loewy breezily replied: “We received no authorization from the Pennsylvania Railroad to do this work, but started it because so many people called our attention to the fact that the complicated design of the numerals, lettering and hands [presumably the work of McKim, Mead and White] make it very difficult to tell the time at a quick glance. The attached photograph will illustrate the point.” Loewy closed by asking for “authorization to complete this study for presentation.” Despite the clearly public-spirited nature of the designer’s request, the Pennsy refused.

These scuffles went on to the bitter end. In July of 1949 an internal Pennsy memo detailed a dozen suspicious or puzzling items in Loewy’s bill for May of that year, including one category the consultants had described as “Development of New Equipment.” The memo pointed out: “Loewy says this item was authorized by Mr. Hankins, but it was not started until June 1947. Mr. Hankins has not been Chief of Motive Power since February 1,1941.” It went on to state the lesson explicitly: “It is dangerous to authorize work under such a broad heading. Authorizations to Loewy should always be specific.”

Most authorizations, in fact, were much more specific, and for the better part of two decades the stylists worked on an amazingly wide array of projects. The firm did some of what is now known as corporate-identity work, and it handled some advertising. It redid streetcars, created plaques, redesigned hotel bars and newsstands, devised exhibits for expositions, chose paints, carpets, and fabrics, and advised on “unusual and inviting” dishes for dining cars, “with the assistance of Mrs. Loewy, who is quite an authority on food preparation.” Loewy’s graphics staff composed a series of menus as part of what he called “the correct philosophy in reference to dining car service.” Once the firm was even asked to “select material for curtains to be used in dining cars operating through Southern States having statutes requiring the segregation of passengers.”

MUCH OF THE LOEWY STAFF’S ENERGY WENT into what can only be called interior decoration, whether for rolling stock or stations. In a complex five-sided project involving the Pennsylvania, the Pullman Standard Company, the New York Central, and the Central’s design consultant, Henry Dreyfuss, Loewy’s staff labored on the sleepers, lounges, observation cars, and diners for the glamorous Broadway Limited and the other trains in what the Pennsy publicized as its “Fleet of Modernism.” The railroad also refurbished many of its mid-size and smaller stations, and perhaps the largest single commitment by the Loewy organization was for architectural and interiordesign work. It standardized color schemes and worked on fixtures and decor for many P.R.R. installations in an effort to update the road’s physical plant for passengers simultaneously with its passenger rolling stock.

The best known of the Loewy projects, of course, were the locomotives. After the GG-1 Loewy worked on a number of others, including the famous S-1, which was among the most beautiful of all American streamlined locomotives. Only one was ever built, but it secured enormous positive publicity for the railroad and for Loewy. The designers also restyled a K4S steam locomotive, which had exteriors very similar to the S-1. Other locomotive work was done on the Q and T classes and on the unbuilt V-1 steam turbine. So well publicized was Loewy’s work on locomotives that he became forever after identified with the streamlined train. Though his firm’s efforts were almost wholly cosmetic, he acquired a reputation as an expert in locomotive design, which he did nothing to discourage. In 1937 he published through the chic Studio Publications of London and New York a book called The Locomotive (Its Aesthetics) . This was part of a series called “The New Vision”; the first entry in the series had been a book on aircraft by that well-known aeronautical engineer Le Corbusier.

IN ALL HIS locomotive work, Loewy was called in for decorative purposes after the important engineering questions had been settled.

In his book Loewy revealed a nostalgic love of the old-fashioned steam locomotive (which then still greatly predominated on American railroads) and deplored the aesthetic crudeness of diesel-electric ones, which, he sniffed, “could hardly be classified” as locomotives at all. Though he had a few good things to say about practicality, it was clear that visual attractiveness was paramount in his judgments about locomotives: They should have that familiar “locomotive look” that would reveal the “decidedly ‘racial’ characteristics” of the tribe of steam locomotives. All the “paraphernalia” for oiling and maintenance should be concealed, with no “maze of tubes, rods, and gadgets,” no “projecting elements.” (In this case, at least, Loewy’s efforts were counterproductive; covering up the maintenance equipment made his locomotives much harder to service than the ugly, old-fashioned kind.)

Loewy was entranced, he wrote, with the “captivating beauty of power and speed,” as artists had been at least since J. M. W. Turner’s famous 1844 railway painting Rain, Steam, and Speed . Loewy’s approach on the Pennsylvania was to convey the sense of speed through styling, so that a locomotive would look fast even when it was standing still. The reality of faster passenger transport lay elsewhere: in eliminating at-grade crossings, in improved switching and signal systems, in lighter1 weight trains, and in better roadbeds. Loewy certainly knew that his locomotive design work J was 99 percent aesthetics, and there can be no doubt that the managers of the railroad knew it as well. Yet it served both the railroad’s and Loewy’s purposes to pursue an almost wholly cosmetic, publicity-oriented approach to streamlining locomotives.

It is clear that the Pennsy (below the president’s level) saw Loewy and his staff as mere stylists and decorators, while the railroad men kept firm control of what they considered the real work of design—engineering. That was a line that Raymond Loewy Associates was almost never allowed to cross. The GG-1 set the tone for virtually the entire subsequent relationship: Loewy was called in only after the really important engineering had been settled. The Pennsy’s casual and sometimes frivolous approach to its consultants was revealed in a letter from the chief of motive power to Loewy in 1937: “When Mr. Clement was in Washington several days ago, he looked at Long Bridge over the Potomac River, and has asked us to determine what could be done to ‘doll up’ this bridge so that it will look something like the Memorial Bridge. Will you please arrange to look over this bridge and see if anything can be done to improve its appearance?”

ALTHOUGH THE TWO ORGANIZATIONS CLEARLY had a good working relationship, the design firm was generally given the opportunity only to affect surfaces, colors, and images. Also, it is important to remember, the involvement of Raymond Loewy Associates was almost wholly on the passenger side of the business. As with most American railroads in this era, the bulk of the company’s business was in freight, and so was the bulk of its attention. The real Pennsylvania Railroad always remained firmly in the hard hands of the operating engineers who had long dominated the company. Both sides in the alliance, in fact, saw the designers’ role falling fundamentally within the realm of marketing and publicity. Here design was advertising made tangible.

Indeed, the Loewy enterprise had no significant engineering capacity during the years it was working most closely with the Pennsylvania. (An engineering division was added after World War II.) Although the Loewy concern sought to give the impression that it was committed to and competent in practical questions bearing on engineering, science, and economics, this was not often the case. Loewy repeatedly called attention, for example, to a much-ballyhooed series of wind-tunnel tests done in conjunction with his locomotive streamlining. In fact, both the stylists and the railroad men knew that the testing was “more for publicity than for streamlining,” as John Ebstein of the Loewy firm later put it. Meanwhile, with much less fuss, Pennsy engineers in Altoona were considering such questions as the limitations of superheaters, the distribution of steam to cylinders, the loss of fuel through the stack, the relationship between airflow through the grates and fuel efficiency, the running temperatures of crank pins, and the stresses in rods and axles. Still, despite their lack of engineering expertise, the consultants could have improved many projects if they had been permitted a larger role and had been involved at an earlier stage. But that is not how things were done at the Pennsylvania Railroad.

Late in his life Ebstein gave a good summary of the Pennsylvania’s goals in working with Raymond Loewy Associates. The road was seeking an image: “Modernization. A clean look, with bright colors, to take away the grimy, dirty image they had.” To achieve that, the management of the Pennsy introduced into its often unenthusiastic organization one of the most advanced design firms in New York. The resulting clash was many-sided. The designers tended to be more idealistic, more visionary, and more cultured than the executives of the railroad. They took a longer view than the practical managers of the grimy coal-hauling Pennsylvania, and their horizons extended to the application of elements of European modernism. They were impatient with the road’s bureaucratic procedures and must have resented its occasional clumsy interferences in their aesthetic bailiwick.

Ebstein revealed much of the cultural clash when he described a trip to Pittsburgh, where smog made it impossible to photograph the station Loewy Associates was supposed to modernize. “I went back to New York totally in disgust,” recalled the fastidious Ebstein. Altoona, in many ways the Pennsy’s heartland, was even worse. It was “the dirtiest place. We hated to go there. The smoke and the coal dust. The hotel rooms were dirty. I do not recall whether Loewy spent any time in Altoona.”

BY THE END OF THE 1940S THE AFFILIATION WAS drawing to a close. The gathering clouds of business and financial troubles were darkening the Pennsylvania’s horizon. Placed at the margins of the corporation and defined fundamentally as advertising, the design function could hardly be expected to contribute to the solution of the Pennsy’s basic problems. At the end of 1949 the railroad halted or scaled down many of the projects Loewy was working on, and only a smattering of further work was done before the Pennsylvania formally notified Raymond Loewy Associates in 1952 that it was terminating the relationship. Not coincidentally, Martin Clement had retired the previous year.

Although much useful and some beautiful work was done from 1934 until the official break in 1952, the final sense is one of possibilities unexplored. The Pennsylvania Railroad was by the 1930s and 1940s an organization in decline. It had begun to slide along the slippery slope that would ultimately lead to the merger with the New York Central and to the horrors of the 1960s, when it destroyed its own grandest station and descended toward bankruptcy.

Perhaps more than any other leading American industrial designer, Raymond Loewy made it his primary goal to leave the world a more aesthetically pleasing place, to create what the historian Jeffrey Meikle has called “personally comfortable and tasteful surroundings.” Loewy argued that success at that pursuit was good business for his clients. With the Pennsylvania, he also argued that he sought designs that were economical to produce, operate, and maintain. There can be no doubt that much of his work for the Pennsy, and probably for others as well, placed aesthetic concerns emphatically above utilitarian and economic ones. And in practice, much of his value to his clients lay in securing for them superb publicity, advertising, and public relations. The Pennsylvania Railroad retained his firm to deliver just such results.

The designer and the railroad were largely in agreement that the Loewy firm’s major role was to be that of “stylist,” and that its central mission was to modernize the Pennsy. Below the level of top management, however, the men of the Pennsy generally regarded the designers as something of a burden forced on them from above. As a result, many of the jobs assigned to Loewy were done less efficiently than they might have been if he had been consulted earlier. The railroad’s conception of design as a last-minute “dolling up” caused many delays and expenses that could have been reduced if aesthetic matters and utilitarian concerns had been considered simultaneously. In short, many of the jobs Loewy’s firm did for the railroad could have been done better if they had been integrated more fully into the Pennsy operation.

It is probably far-fetched, though, to suggest that Loewy Associates or any other designers could have fundamentally altered the long-term decline of the Pennsylvania Railroad. In 1944-45, for example, the Loewy group worked on an abortive design for a new passenger coach for the postwar era, seeking, in Raymond Loewy’s words, to “incorporate such features as to meet successfully the competition that will be offered after the war not only by other railroads but bus lines, airlines and other means of transportation.” That project, like many others, never came to fruition, but it symbolized the designers’ inclination to look farther ahead and to think more creatively and more aggressively than the Pennsy management. In an environment of growing competition, declining resources, and regulatory restrictions, the postwar Pennsy was bound to encounter strong challenges. The railroad could have benefited from more of the verve and spirit of the man whose slogan was “Never leave well enough alone.”

Industrial design has contributed much to American industry since the invention of the profession in the Machine Age, but the corporate-design relationship has always been a troubled one. Both “partners” have missed opportunities as a consequence. And so has the larger society, which clearly needs the skills, perspectives, and values of both these two distinctive cultures—the corporation and the designer.

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