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Clockwise from top-left: The Simone Foundation Automotive Museum, National Cryptology Museum, Centralia, The Wagner Free Institute of Science, Henry Chapman Mercer Museum Complex.
Posted: 9/9/12

In David Kahn’s seminal 1967 book, The Codebreakers, he describes the human brain as “an overactive cryptanalytic gland.” The exhibits at the National Cryptology Museum prove that this “gland” is fundamental to survival.

The NCM chronicles human strategy and mechanical methods used to conceal, and to decode, cryptic information. It presents information as the most significant resource in any competition, a powerful weapon that writes the course of history. It shows how power is historically gained and sustained through secrecy.

The NCM’s galleries are arranged to honor the “silent” cryptologist of the National Security Agency, to outline the histories of abstract forms of written languages, to display an array of machines fabricated to camouflage written language, and to mimic the cryptanalytic gland’s ability to deconstruct codes.

This unique museum displays 19th and 20th Century mechanical “cipher” machines developed to obscure, and to unlock, languages. Three of its highlights are Germany’s Enigma machine of WWII, two generations of Cray supercomputers (with clear acrylic replacing parts of its outer shell to allow you to see the intricate networks of countless tiny wires and electronics), and a library filled with rare and one-of-a-kind books containing coded languages that remind me of Carl Andre’s visual poems. The museum displays coded objects and images developed by various cultures, including hobo codes, slave quilts, the Rosetta Stone, pictograms and hieroglyphics. Exhibits feature famous single items such as the seemingly innocent Zimmerman telegraph that, once decoded by the British, prompted the U.S to enter WW I. Other exhibits offer tributes to individuals and groups who made unique contributions to the National Security Agency such as Cherokee Indians, African Americans and women. Its small museum store offers many curious items, publications, and an enticing selection of toys, puzzles and books for kids.

Regardless of your politics, the National Cryptology Museum deserves a visit. It is a museum about how survival depends on the primal game of hide and seek.

The National Cryptology Museum is located outside the entrance to the National Security Agency, just off MD 295 (the Washington/Baltimore Parkway) at the Fort Meade exit (MD Rte. 32).

In the mid-eighties, when I was preparing to move to Italy, I asked a friend who had lived there to give me some idea of what to expect. Without hesitation he said two unexpected things: “Americans eat to live, and Italians live to eat,” and “Americans ride in their cars, but Europeans drive their automobile.”

Life built around food in Italy did not take long to appreciate. But it was not until I returned to the States two years later that I fully understood his second comment. Driving home from JFK airport, I was stunned by the width and straightness of roads that accommodated huge cars that seemed to float under the indifferent guidance of inattentive drivers. I had driven Europe’s Autostrade and Autobahns, but it took the return home for the differences in the automobile as an object, and in the attitude of the driver, to sink in.

The Simone Automobile Museum is not about America’s love affair with the car, or about the nostalgia associated with most antique and classic car museums scattered around the country. The Simone is a unique collection of European racecars that offers insight into the evolution of design with one objective: speed on the open road. The collection focuses on the relationship between the driver and the road as told by the car, a history of form and function resulting in objects of intrinsic beauty, elegance and refinement. Each era in the collection oozes with innovations of efficient mechanical design. Everything about the European racecar is designed to aid the driver in handling the auto at extreme speeds on demanding roads.

To drive a European racecar demands a highly skilled, assertive, courageous and confident driver. Each car is built around a driver. The racecar is built as small, low, light, and streamlined as possible. I began to feel overwhelmed at the thought of being contained within an intricate design capable of pushing the driver’s limits and marrying him to a dependency on the machine.

Its high compression small engine efficiently delivers high torque to push the car quickly, and its large air-cooled brakes are designed for frequent aggressive breaking. The suspension and modified wings in later models hold the car’s tires firmly to the road surface against the inertia that pushes the car outward in hairpin turns and through twisting chicanes. It is designed to allow a skilled driver to push the envelope of speed faster and faster.

The museum’s location is bizarre and ironic, surrounded by the huge car dealerships of the Philadelphia Auto Mall, and the fleets of rental cars at the Philadelphia Airport. It deserves a building alongside the museums of the Parkway to showcase a collection of extraordinary beauty that epitomizes form defined by function, representing everything that is expected in the highest form of an art.

The Simone Automobile Museum was rewarded the prestigious 2011-2012, International Historic Motoring Awards, Museum of the Year, at ceremonies in London. Executive Director Frederick Simone retired following a long and distinguished career as a mechanic of another kind of finely tuned machine; he was a surgeon and Professor of Neurosurgery.

On the fourth Saturday of a month, a few of the collection’s sixty-six racecars are taken outdoors to the museum’s three acres of blacktop. There is a noise never heard, the smell of combustion and of rubber burning, some speed, and an exhilarating experience. Even without being one of the drivers of the cars, the museum takes you to another place and time.

6825 Norwitch Drive, Philadelphia, PA

The Mercer complex of museums appeared in Kate Kraczon’s May 13, “Top Five” listings. These three museums in Doylestown would also be at the top of my listing, and if I were to visit the Philly area for three days, the museums definitely would be deserving of one of my days.

Each time I visit Mercer’s buildings, I am reminded of the eccentricity of the self-taught archeologist, artist, builder, and dog lover. A tour of his buildings reveal his evolving idiosyncratic construction methods in working with reinforced concrete.

In building his home, Fonthill, Mercer’s initial plan was no more than a blocky clay model reminiscent of the early 70’s “house” sculptures of Joel Shapiro. His unusual method was to pile up used wooden crates, cap them with dirt, then a layer of sand, and embed his hand-made decorative tiles in the sand before building a network of steel reinforcements over which he cast cement. As each room was formed, the floor for the rooms above, or the roof to top that portion of the building, was formed.

His one-room-at-a-time methods were a constant challenge as cured concrete is not a forgiving material. Moving through Fonthill you recognize examples of dilemmas that Mercer encountered in his construction techniques. Sometimes his resolutions are ingenious, and at other times they are odd and even comical compromises. Mercer’s building process is like witnessing the give and take method of DeKooning struggling to reconcile previous moves within a painting, or watching David Smith cut and weld metal as he works out relationships in a sculpture.

As the house swells from its simple origin of a concrete casting over an existing farmhouse, you witness the growth of Mercer’s confidence in his abilities, and an emergence of his aspiration to create magnificent spaces. Passing through his labyrinth of passageways and among his inventories of tile mosaics is like moving within the recesses of his brain.

Mercer died a poor man, having spent his inherited fortune to live the extravagance of his purposeful vision. Above all of his accomplishments, it is the nature of his individualism that is a treasure.

The Wagner is a museum of a museum. It survived after essentially being closed, completely intact, for a century. Entering the building is like walking into a stadium filled with line after line of glass sarcophagi, and lacking spectators. Light flows across the space from banks of enormous windows. Arranged across the gallery floor are lines of display cases flanked by tiered balconies looking down onto the collection.

Few visit the museum, so you are often alone with the collection and a feeling of privilege. As you enter you sense that you have stepped back in time. This timelessness is evident in the superb examples of mineral and animal specimens that seem to have been awaiting your visit for 150 years. You are reminded of your own passing through time and inevitable mortality.

Adding to the feeling of intrigue and privilege is the access you are allowed to this priceless collection of scientific study. You may freely open any of the hundreds of drawers to see not only the objects, but the antiquated manner in which they are organized. Reading the portrayals of the artifacts, you realize how radically our culture and politics have changed, through the interpretations and definitions of the objects. Even the exquisite penmanship of the display cards is a treat.

Please refer to Kate Kraczon’s “Top Five” listing that appeared on May 13, for her description of the Wagner. In my hypothetical three-day visit to Philly, the Wagner would demand a morning or afternoon. Like Henry Mercer, William Wagner was an obsessive amateur, and like Mercer, it is the purposeful pursuit that lingers long after leaving the museum. sarph

1700 West Montgomery Avenue, Philadelphia, PA 19121

ROAD TOUR: the Bounty of the Pennsylvania Landscape
Pennsylvania has long found ways to cut, drill, dig, mine, strip and frack to reach its bountiful riches: America’s first oil wells, underground and surface coal deposits, and natural gas trapped in rock across the rolling belts of the Appalachians that stretch diagonally across Pennsylvania. On this road trip you will wind through breathtaking landscapes, stopping to witness the lingering, enduring evidence of this economic history. An entire town was forcefully evacuated and condemned as the result of a coal mine fire that continues to burn to this day, sending fire and smoke into its streets. Mountains that were stripped of all trees and vegetation to remove surface coal continue to rise eerily barren. And today rough dirt roads are cut through state recreational forests to carry trucks laden with secret chemical formulations, which are driven deep into the rock to release and capture natural gas. What are these chemicals; how toxic are they; have they reached the ground water? These are closely guarded, corporate secrets. Be sure to carry along a cooler and a case of bottled water on this road trip.

The first portion of this trip might be familiar to readers from Tyler Emeritus Professor Richard Cramer’s landscape class, and the weekend field trip they took each year.

The coordinates (listed in parenthesis) are from the DeLorme Pennsylvania Atlas and Gazetteer.

Begin this tour by driving North on I-495 (the Northeast Extension of the Pennsylvania Turnpike) to I-80 West (p. 57, A-5). Exit I-80 at Bridgeport and follow PA 940 to Freeland where you will drop down to the Eckley Miners’ Village (p. 57; B-4). Eckley was once a coal-mining town, population three thousand. Today Eckley is a Museum. Its buildings and coal breaker were restored for the 1969 film the Molly Maguires, a film about a secret organization of Irish coal miners, starring Richard Harris and Sean Connery. Today you can tour the town, many of its buildings and a history museum. From Eckley, take the slow tour of former coal industry related towns on PA 940 West to Hazleton and continue on PA 924 West to Brandonville, where you turn left on PA 339 South (p. 56, D-2) to Mahanoy City (p. 56, D-2). The quicker alternative is to take I-80 West and I-81 South to the Mahanoy City Exit (p. 56, A-4)

Along the way you drive on, across, or alongside a landscape of the strip mining remains of scarred, leveled plateaus of former mountain ridges. Occasionally you will see massive piles of rubble that remain at the sites of old coal breakers.

Highway 54 passes through the classic coal-mining towns of Vulcan, Mahanoy City, St. Nicholas, Shenandoah, and end in Girardville (p. 55, E-8), the home of the Hiberian House, the meeting place of the Molly Maguires. At St. Nicholas, PA 54 makes a right hand turns. Soon you will see a mountain of coal rubble that can serve as a vantage point for the massive St. Nicholas Coal Breaker. Continue on 54 a few miles to Ashland (p. 55, E-8), home of the Anthracite Museum. Stop here, if you have the nerve, for the Lokie Ride, a coal car that takes you deep into the Pioneer Tunnel Coal Mine. In Ashland, turn north on PA 61 to Centralia (p. 55, E-8). As you approach this once-thriving town of one thousand, the caustic smell of burning sulfur assaults your senses. For more than fifty years, coal in the miles of former mines under the town and its landscape have been burning. Over time new cracks occur, allowing the fires below to reach the ground, burning the streets, buildings and forest. Centralia smolders to this day, with science-fiction eeriness, a man-made Yellowstone. On Sunday mornings many former townspeople return to their churches to commune with others, gathering in an act of defiance to forced evacuation from their homes and the loss of their heritage.

From Centralia either return to Philadelphia, or make your way to I-80 West to northwest Pennsylvania to begin a long and slow tour across the scenic “Endless Mountains” along Route 6, which runs from west to east across the top of Pennsylvania.

Exit at PA 322 (p35, F-6), head toward Clarion and continue to Cranberry. At Cranberry (p. 34, D-1), turn right onto PA 257 to Oil City. From Oil City go north on PA 8 towards Titusville (p.20, G-1) passing through the Oil Creek State Park. Just south of Titusville is the Drake Well Museum, which chronicles the history of the area’s economic boom following the discovery of oil and the first oil wells in the United States. Nearby be sure to look for a beautiful outcropping of granite, bound like a Cristo-wrapped project. The iron pipes twisting around the rock are studded with hand pumps to move the oil along. From Titusville begin to make your way back east, crossing the Allegheny River and the Allegheny National Forrest and eventually meeting Route 6, once considered as one of the most scenic drives in America.

The most scenic and interesting section of this long meandering highway begins in Galeton (p. 24, E-4). A worthwhile stop is the Pennsylvania Lumber Museum that tells the story of the logging industry that once dominated the economy of north central Pennsylvania. You will then pass through the Tioga State Forest before arriving at the entrance of Pine Creek Gorge (the Grand Canyon of Pennsylvania), a few miles to the west of Wellsboro (p.25, E-7).

Wellsboro is a picturesque and historically significant small town that is quickly being spoiled by fracking. Its motels are filled with workers, its air is choked with dust from the constant traffic of tankers, flatbeds loaded with massive machines, and pickup trucks, all depositing mud from the newly carved dirt roads onto the paved roads in the area. Be sure to visit the Tioga County Courthouse in the center of town. Tables and chairs have been placed along the corridors to accommodate the flood of company representatives, who scour old property ledger volumes to trace the lineage of land ownership. Look closely over the shoulders of the clerks; the handwriting of the scribes in the older books is beautiful.

Continuing east from Wellsboro, watch for the mile after mile of the fracking industry staging centers. Recently built lakes dot the landscape, to hold water for the tankers. New steel buildings line the highway, their gravel lots filled with tankers, oversize dump trucks, earth moving equipment, and drilling machines. Venture down the new dirt roads to find a well, and risk being turned back by frackers.

Ridges along the horizon display towering lines of modern wind turbines. Although they are a welcome relief of clean energy, renewable energy, I wonder if they were built to supply power to the fracking industry.

Route 6 ends in Scranton. Before you return South on I-495 to Philadelphia, you can visit Scranton’s Lackawanna Coal Mine, the Anthracite Museum of Scranton, the Scranton Iron Furnaces, and take a 26 mile, two hour ride on a steam engine train.

I was disheartened when I returned this summer to areas I had originally visited in 1986. I had loved the Wellsboro area, but I cut short this summer’s trip, sickened by the overwhelming changes. I spoke with townspeople, who are emotionally torn between their economic needs and their concern for the environment, the land and most especially their children’s health. Will this area eventually be another Centralia tragedy, a dangerous, inhospitable, and abandoned land?

The Centralia trip can be done in one long day from Philadelphia, but a night over would be recommended. The entire tour would be an estimated 800 miles with at least a driving time of 20 hours, and the listed stops could be done reasonably in five days.

"I was born in a small town in north Georgia, raised as an only child in an even smaller town in Alabama, left home for college in Georgia, and then Connecticut, before a job at Tyler School of Art brought me to Philadelphia in 1972. Until I left Tyler a couple of years ago, I split my time between painting, life, and hanging out at Tyler a few days each week. My paintings was first shown at Byker Gallery in NY in 1976, and this year work was shown at ArtSites in Riverhead, NY, and at the Woodmere Museum and Tiger Strikes Astroid Gallery in Philadelphia."