I have given my last talk of the Brunel Lecture Tour to a full house in Boston for a partnership event organised by the English Speaking Union and the Boston Victorian Society. The tour has taken me from Washington to New York and way up the mighty Hudson River to Syracuse, just short of Niagara Falls. We say New England but perhaps Old England gives a better flavour.
In Boston I stayed at the Somerset Club, a fine old house once belonging to David Sears and overlooking Boston Common. It feels like a cross between gentlemen’s club and high table at an Oxford College, and appropriately enough, I gave my talk here on the Queen’s birthday (the official birthday is June of course). The next day, I breakfasted alone in a huge high ceiling-ed morning room, with chandeliers, oak panels and tables laid with silver for fifty people. Jacket and tie for breakfast, but only lounge suit for dinner – from the photo gallery of past Presidents on the staircase, they have clearly relaxed the rules a good deal since the old days. Outside in the quad beneath the north wall, heavy with ivy, are daffodils and hyacinths just in flower. A sprinkler is playing on the lawn. I am served by someone who I can only describe as the club’s faithful old retainer. Have I gone back in time?
Well not entirely. I am now flying to Austin, Texas, and working online at thirty thousand feet. In Austin I present the opening paper on Brunel at the EWRI conference. And 1.30 this morning I gave a telephone interview for BBC London radio breakfast show, in response to all the press following an excellent article on The Brunel Museum in the Evening Standard. Our project with Tate Harmer for the Grand Entrance Hall has also been covered by architecture and building journals, and it is reassuring to know everything is moving forward in London even if I am moving graciously backwards.
It has been a whistle-stop tour – or rather a tour to the distinctive Amtrak horn – with another day, another town, another talk. Sometimes I have stayed in and dined in anachronistic splendour: in Fort Orange Albany the formal dinner began with the loyal toast, proposed by a Dutchman. In the Philadelphia Club I was shown the public room with petition doors, used during the Civil War when matters became partisan and heated. One gentleman had his membership suspended for knocking down a Radical Republican, which I think is probably fair. However he appealed and came back to resign! In Princeton my audience spoke mostly in cut glass accents, but just outside the town I visited a museum on the site of Roebling’s factory. Roebling who built Brooklyn Bridge, amongst many other bridges, emigrated from Germany and was born the same year as IKB. Even in small corner of America, it has been a journey of contrasts. I have done my best to tweet in between lectures, and find a Brunel or English connection, but of course not everything is or was English. Not even Marc Brunel. I have often talked about the nineteenth century rather than the Victorians. It seemed appropriate to apologise in Washington DC for burning down the White House, but I also found myself apologising in Newport. I did not apologise in Fort Orange, but I did wear an orange tie…
Sometimes I have stayed in clubs, sometimes I have stayed with a member of the English Speaking Union…
That must be the Hoover Dam
And those must be The Rockies
…and enjoyed meeting with their family. They have all been perfect hosts and have looked after me and taken me around the sites. In Shippensburg, a small town with a very good university, I stayed in a small hotel run by the university.
Audiences here have all been very receptive, but usually they have not heard of Brunel. This is interesting and a very different experience from giving talks in the UK, where the name is well known. I have sometimes felt quite evangelical, and lots of Americans know about him now. And they know about Rotherhithe and our plans for a Mayflower Pier in time for 2020.