Friday, July 29, 2011

No EZPass here: the Holland Tunnel at the Newark Museum

Few people know this, but one of the original Holland Tunnel toll booths is in Newark.

Huh? you ask. Did they start collecting tolls on McCarter Highway? 

Uh, no, it's in the Alice Ransom Dreyfuss Memorial Garden behind the Newark Museum on Washington Street.

Well, that makes sense. It's old, so it should be in a museum collection.

You're right, sort of. The Holland Tunnel opened back in 1927 as the first automobile tunnel under the Hudson River between Manhattan and New Jersey. It's been designated both a National Historic Landmark and a National Historic Civil and Mechanical Engineering Landmark, well worth noting in a museum. Its original toll booths, now replaced by more modern versions, were bronze art deco masterpieces, at least as far as I'm concerned.

So that's why the toll booth is in the sculpture garden.

Well, it's a little more complicated than that. Not only is it a great representation of late '20's structural decor, it's a newer work of art because it houses sculptor George Segal's Toll Booth Collector.

Segal was an influential member of the Pop Art movement and had his studio on a chicken farm in South Brunswick. Many of his plaster-cast sculptures reflect everyday occurrences and are installed in mundane environments like city streets and New York's Port Authority Bus Terminal. It's not surprising that he chose the toll booth as a setting for his work.

The bored-looking attendant inside the booth was life-cast from Sam Miller, the Museum's director when the sculpture was done in 1980. Reportedly, Segal was inspired to use Miller as a model because "one of the responsibilities of a museum director is to always hold his hand out, seeking donations."

Despite that, you don't have to pay a dime to see Segal's work in Newark. The garden is open to the public during museum operating hours, and Toll Booth Collector is one of a handful of sculptures and notable structures to be seen there. It's also a calm, green oasis in the middle of the city, and like the museum itself, well worth a visit.

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