Here’s a thought. If you had been in Louisville (Kentucky) in 1937, you could have witnessed the unveiling of a dramatic new building unlike anything the world had seen before – and you would have had public transport to thank for it.
Its architect, whose work I’m celebrating this week, produced a series of mid-20th Century bus terminals which revolutionised the way long-distance coach travel in America was perceived. He was an early pioneer of total transport design for coach operator Greyhound, with whom his work became inextricably linked. He wasn’t just a transport architect either, but a pioneering public transport engineer, probably the first American to develop the discipline rigorously at a time when little or no scientific thought had been given to how bus terminals should be laid out and provisioned to most effectively serve both passengers and transport operators. His legacy can be seen every day in several American cities, in the form of fantastic buildings like this:
If you’re an American reader, the name William Strudwick Arrasmith might be familiar to you. I can assure you, however, that his name is virtually unknown this side of the Atlantic, and his work little recognised. No-one knows exactly how many Greyhound bus terminals he designed. He claimed it was around 65, though Strudwick’s biographer Frank Wrenick identified 50 after exhaustive research, some of which were unbuilt proposals (Wrenick, 2007: p172). Nevertheless, this made him one of Greyhound’s most prolific architects, if not the most prolific, and certainly the most influential on the style of the company’s buildings. Most of Arrasmith’s terminals have since been demolished (we’re having a bit of a month of lost bus stations, aren’t we?) though by my count 11 survive.
So let’s celebrate Arrasmith’s glorious design work by finding the surviving Greyhound terminals which show how he made bus terminal design an integral part of company branding with sound operational underpinnings.
[Before we get going though, it’s cards on the table time. The following draws heavily on Frank Wrenick’s book The Streamline Era Greyhound Terminal. I knew a little about the mid-century Greyhound terminals, and Wrenick’s book confirmed what I knew, but it also gave me a great deal more information. It’s one of the few comprehensive sources of information on the subject, certainly the only one easy to get hold of in the UK, and it wouldn’t be fair to spoil the book by giving all the details of Arrasmith’s now-lost terminals. So, if you want to know more about them and see some pictures, as well as finding out more about Arrasmith’s life and work in general, you’ll have to get the book. It’s good.]
Arrasmith’s first commission, for Southeastern Greyhound (Greyhound was a national operator comprising a number of regional companies), was in Louisville (Kentucky), and his terminal there opened in 1937. Greyhound traditionally got its retained architects to partner with local architects when they designed terminals, and Arrasmith’s firm was chosen as partner for the Louisville commission. However, Arrasmith’s proposed bold design so impressed Greyhound that he was given sole responsibility for the terminal, without oversight from any of Greyhound’s existing established architects.
Previous Greyhound terminals had been styled either to match existing local architecture, or to suit whatever whim engaged the architect at the time, leading to a variety of architectural styles, some of which were modern, but some of which looked much more old-fashioned than the Greyhound company wanted to appear, or in fact actually was.
When the Louisville Greyhound terminal opened, it was thoroughly modern and quite unlike anything that had previously been seen in America or indeed, I suspect, the world. You can see a picture of it here. It wasn’t the first Streamline Moderne terminal that Greyhound had commissioned, but Arrasmith evolved the Streamline style much further than it had gone before. The Louisville terminal included many design details which would become trademarks of Arrasmith’s work for Greyhound, including an integrated totem and canopy structure over the main entrance of the building (sometimes L-shaped, sometimes an inverted T), windows which wrapped right round the building, and fluting elements which enhanced the horizontal thrust and vertical detailing of his terminals.
1937 also saw Greyhound introduce its Supercoach, a gorgeous streamlined blue-painted bus sporting white scoops over the wheel arches, designed by American industrial designer Raymond Loewy (see a colour photo here). It represented the most up-to-date technology then available. To match this vehicle, Arrasmith clad the Louisville terminal in large steel plates, enamelled in glossy Greyhound blue (not only visually striking but easy to keep clean – similar to the gloss finish approach pioneered by Leslie Green on London tube stations in the 1900s using shiny ceramic tiles).
Previous Greyhound terminals had included blue elements such as small tiled areas, but Arrasmith’s terminal was all blue, and all streamlined. The large enamel plates resulted in only a small number of join lines on the building’s exterior, making it look smoother than anything seen before. A white line around the top of the building matched the roof colour of the Supercoach buses. The physical similarities between building and bus didn’t end there, either. The seating within the terminal featured blue leather seats on chrome steel tube frames, just like on the Supercoach buses. It was total design, at a level of harmony only equalled by London Transport in the 1930s. The comparison between the flamboyant Streamline Moderne of Arrasmith’s Greyhound terminals and the more restrained version used on London’s contemporaneous Country Bus garages (see here and here) very much reflects the character of the two countries at the time; England more conservative and America much more adventurous.
It wasn’t universally like when it was built, but then nothing that makes a real impact on the urban streetscene ever is. Greyhound, however, loved the Louisville terminal. So impressed was Southeastern Greyhound that commissions for similar “Greyhound Blue” terminals rapidly followed for Arrasmith in several other towns. Unfortunately, the Louisville terminal was demolished sometime in the 1970s (according to this website), but a couple of these glittering sapphires survive:
Now used, appropriately, as an architect’s office, 1938’s Jackson (Mississippi) terminal shows the smooth finish to Arrasmith’s early terminals, here achieved uniquely for Arrasmith by architectural glass rather than enamelled plates. It’s an extraordinarily eye-catching building even to this day. There is nothing about it that’s not absolutely stunning. How often do you see a bright blue building, even today? There would have been no mistaking that this was Jackson’s Greyhound terminal from the colour (or color) alone, and if that didn’t get the message across, the totem (which originally featured the word “Greyhound” written out vertically) would have left no doubt. And just look at the detailing around the roofline, the way the totem and canopy lead your eyes naturally to the entrance doors, those runs of windows. I want one…
Amongst Arrasmith’s Greyhound Blue terminals was a one-off, at Binghamton (New York), which was finished with a stone-coloured façade rather than blue panelling, and featured the “Greyhound” lettering and logo as three-dimensional block features, which were dramatic touches on what was otherwise a much more traditional and heavy-set building compared to the Greyhound Blue terminals. Even Wrenick (2007: p133) admits to being unsure of the reason for its more conservative appearance, though it’s still a curvaceous streamlined piece of transport eye-candy. Opened in 1938 it remains a much-loved local building and still serves as the transport center for Binghamton having been redeveloped in 2010 (see here).
Yet again, it’s incredibly stylish. The totem’s base is a small triangular canopy, which curves back into the main building, while the stepped entrance porch is very inviting. It’s not a large building, but Arrasmith cleverly made it look bigger than it really was. What is actually a wing wall designed to screen the bus stands behind it from the street (on the right), looks as though it is part of the actual building. The rows of glass blocks suggest it’s several storeys tall, when in fact it’s barely a storey-and-a-half (see the door of the new building behind it for the true scale).
The other survivor of Arrasmith’s Greyhound Blue terminals can be found in Evansville (Indiana), although it has not been used as a bus terminal for many years. This terminal opened in 1939 and features an unusual scalloped drum-shaped element in the centre of the building, behind the totem. It is clad in the enamelled steel plates which formed the external skin of most of Arrasmith’s early Greyhound terminals.
Your first instinct is that this is a symmetrical building, but a second glance confirms this is not the case at all. Unlike the terminal at Jackson, the windows are taller and more widely spaced, but the way the two wings of the building curve round at their ends and where they meet the central drum give a typically slippery look to the building. Arrasmith was very good at hiding the ‘ugly’ bits of his terminals (i.e. the bus stands) and here he uses the bulk of the building to screen them off. You can just see the protruding canopy at the far right which gave cover to customers boarding/alighting coaches, but it doesn’t attract much attention. That’s because your eye can’t help but be drawn to the main entrance (thanks to that totem, which has neon-illuminated lettering and Greyhound logo) where the word ‘Greyhound’ is formed of individual letters in a lovely wide typeface on a fluted blue background. You’ll also notice the glass blocks above the canopy, like on the Jackson terminal. Other architects working for Greyhound adopted the blue-panelled style which Arrasmith had developed, for instance at Blytheville (Arkansas) where Noland Van Powell produced a visually similar design in 1939.
Arrasmith’s biggest break occurred in 1938, at the opening of the Greyhound terminal in Hartford (Connecticut), designed not by Arrasmith, but by one of Greyhound’s other favourite architects, T.W. Lamb & Associates. That was the day when the second string to Arrasmith’s bow was to prove extremely important.
Arrasmith remains notable to this day not just for the look of his Greyhound terminals, but because he was one of the earliest examples of a transport architect who brought significant mathematical rigour to the question of how bus terminals interact physically with the buses which use them. He was keenly aware of the way that different plots of land would influence the layout of his bus stations (including the terminal building, bus stands, and access roads) and the relative efficiencies and ease of access that these different layouts represented. He also understood the importance of providing adequate access in and out of the terminals for the buses using them. Today, it’s taken for granted, and computer programs such as Transoft Solution’s AutoTURN are regularly used to assess the ‘swept path’ a bus will take as it enters and leaves a bus station, or indeed makes its way through a new road junction. It’s no simple task, because the overhang of the bus beyond its wheels means the body of a bus needs more space than the turning circle its wheels can achieve, and the practical swept path is a lot wider than the body of the bus is.
Arrasmith would go on to define the most efficient internal layout for bus terminals, identifying the services required in such buildings and suggesting the amount of space which should be given to various passenger facilities as a percentage of the terminal’s total floor area, or compared to the number of bus stands the terminal served. His paper in The Architectural Record in 1940 was one of the earliest attempts to codify bus terminal design. This is even more impressive than it sounds because I assure you that it’s still quite common for bus stations, especially smaller ones, to be designed without any formal attempt to work out which and how many passenger facilities should be provided.
Before the 1930s, there had been a degree of ‘finger in the air’ assessments of these aspects of bus terminal design (as opposed to the structural engineering design of the actual buildings, which was quite well understood, ensuring that buildings would stand strong), until Arrasmith applied really rigorous thinking to the problem. In particular, he got to grips with the mathematics of turning circles. That would have been no mean feat because slide rules were the order of the day for carrying out the complicated mathematics underpinning the geometry involved. There were no computers, nor even calculators (well, there were, but they were people; ‘calculator’ was a job description, not a piece of electronic equipment).
Not everyone was quite as rigorous as Arrasmith, which brings us back to Hartford, and a story from Wrenick (2007: p55) which I’ll paraphrase. During the grand opening of Hartford’s Greyhound terminal, the ceremonial first Supercoach to enter the terminal drove majestically towards the new building…and promptly got itself well and truly wedged between the two buildings flanking the entry ramp. The swept path of the bus was larger than the ramp that had been provided. It was highly embarrassing for both Greyhound and Lamb & Associates, and Arrasmith suddenly found himself in a position to bid for the job of designing the new Greyhound terminal in America’s capitol, Washington D.C., a job which it had previously been assumed would go to Lamb & Associates. Next week, we’ll see what he came up with.
[Sorry about that. Unfortunately the day job puts some limits on the amount of typing that can get done on the blog each week. I do love it, but it doesn’t actually pay the bills…]
bibliography and further reading
First and foremost: Wrenick, Frank E. (2007): The Streamline Era Greyhound Terminal. McFarland & Company, Inc: Jefferson, North Carolina, and London
Bayer, Patricia (2011): Art Deco Postcards. Thames & Hudson: London. A number of visualisations of early Greyhound terminals can be found here. It was the gift of this book that finally provoked me into writing this article, which I’ve had on the slate for a long time. Thanks Dad.
RoadArchitecture.com’s Greyhound terminals page. Lots of lovely Greyhound terminals and information here
And, as ever, anything linked to in the text above.
how to find the Greyhound terminals
On the beauty of transport’s map you can click…