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Red Star Line Museum Opens in Antwerp

By Catherine A. Cardno, Ph.D.

A new museum in Antwerp, Belgium, interweaves a modern immigration museum among three historic buildings that hosted immigrants bound for North America almost a century ago.

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Built in 1894, the building known as RSL 1 is the oldest in the Red Star Line Museum complex in Antwerp. Its steel Polonceau trusses were left in place while a new, insulated roof system with hidden beams was added. Red Star Line Museum, Antwerpen/Joris Casaer

November 12, 2013—Composer Irving Berlin is as famous for his popular music as he is for his patriotic songs, including such well known standards as "Putting on the Ritz," and "God Bless America." Attaining worldwide acclaim as an American composer, Berlin was an immigrant who arrived in the country as five-year-old Israel Isidore Baline in 1893, traveling with his family from Europe via the Red Star Line (RSL) immigration complex in Antwerp, Belgium. Arguably the most famous person to emigrate from Antwerp to New York's Ellis Island, he was one of 2 million who made the arduous journey back and forth between Antwerp and the Americas aboard RSL ships in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

His voyage, and those of others who shared similar experiences, have now been commemorated by the Red Star Line Museum, which opened this fall in Antwerp, along the Scheldt River. The design team created the museum by carefully updating and interweaving three historic buildings on the site that had been used by the RSL for examinations and baggage handling for third-class passengers traveling to the Americas. Thus the buildings both house the museum and are part of its exhibitions. A modern 29 m tall observation tower with a 25 m high deck, designed at the scale of a steamship bow, offers a modern space for visitors to contemplate the approximately 10-day journey undertaken by so many Europeans.

The three historic RSL buildings on the site are known respectively as RSL 1, 2, and 3. RSL 1, built in 1894, and RSL 2, built in 1913, were one-story brick buildings constructed without insulation or additional load-bearing support. They featured pitched, corrugated metal roofs and peaked skylights along their ridgelines. The buildings encompass, respectively, about 4,150 sq ft and 6,120 sq ft. RSL 3, built in 1921, is an approximately 8,875 sq ft two-story concrete building with a flat roof. The modern concrete and steel observation tower built for the museum has been dubbed RSL 4.

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The structure known as RSL 2 was built in 1913 and now serves as the museum’s point of entry. Its deteriorating wood posts, which supported the original wood trusses, were reinforced with steel plates. Beyer Blinder Belle

"These are three fairly banal buildings on the waterfront in Antwerp, though the importance of their use really transcended the quality of the buildings," says Richard Southwick, a partner in the New York City office of Beyer Blinder Belle Architects & Planners LLP, and the firm's director of historic preservation. Southwick led the architectural restoration of the compound. The firm also designed the restoration effort of the Ellis Island Immigration Museum, the American counterpart of the Red Star Line Museum in Antwerp. 

"We wanted to keep the buildings intact and really tell the story of the buildings as part of the interpretation," Southwick says. "Most of the inspection stations in Europe were destroyed during World War II, because they were at port locations and the ports were all bombed." As a first step, the design team identified a so-called "period of significance" on which to focus their preservations efforts. The time frame began in 1921, when all three buildings began operating as a complex, and ended in 1935, when the line ceased operations. 

RSL 2 was selected as the entry point for the museum and the location of all of the modern visitor services because it had been a storage warehouse for baggage, making it the least historically significant building on the site. From RSL 2, visitors are directed into interpretive exhibits in RSL 1, which was previously used for baggage disinfection. From that point, visitors are directed through the concrete base of the modern observation tower, RSL 4, and into additional exhibition space located in RSL 3, which previously handled passenger bathing and inspections.

All three buildings remained standing through the years, suffering what Southwick calls "benign neglect," so they had to be updated to meet modern safety codes and provide museum-quality climate control. Energy-efficient skylights and new sandwich-style insulated roof assemblies that contain hidden steel beams were placed atop RSL 1 and 2. This required new structural framing systems to strengthen the buildings' weak masonry walls.

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The museum honors the two million immigrants who traveled between Antwerp and the Americas aboard Red Star Line ships in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Henri Cassiers poster, 1899, © Letterenhuis Antwerp

In RSL 2, the new support system had to work with the deteriorating wood posts embedded in the building's masonry walls; the posts supported large open-web wood trusses. Each of the existing wood posts in this building was reinforced with two 4 cm wide, full-height steel plates, according to Southwick. The new plates tied into the hidden steel beams in the roof, and the original cast iron base plates for the wooden posts.

The museum's new mechanical systems were hidden in a new underground level created beneath RSL 2. "We excavated down about 4 m, and underpinned [it], and did a whole new concrete cast-in-place cellar," Southwick says. The new cellar houses all the visitor and museum support spaces, including restrooms, lockers, workrooms, and mechanical equipment. The ground floor of RSL 2 hosts the museum's cafe, ticket booths, and gift shop.

The existing steel Polonceau trusses of RSL 1 were left intact, but steel pilasters—which tie in to the new roof system's hidden beams—were set within cutouts in the existing western brick exterior wall to provide additional support, according to material provided by the architects. A new, replacement concrete wall was added to the east. 

In the early 20th century, the RSL was responsible for the return passage of any emigrant who was denied entry at Ellis Island. To reduce costs, it built a replica of the American inspectiohat it could weed out those potential emigrants whom they deemed would be refused admission to New York. The building was in "pretty decent shape structurally," according to Southwick and so did not require significant intervention work.

However, because most of the museum's exhibits are housed in RSL 3, the interior climate requirements for this building were the most stringent, according to material provided by the architect. The exterior walls were insulated with 2 cm of rigid polystyrene insulation, 5 cm of polyurethane insulation, a continuous vapor barrier, and a new gypsum wallboard designed to mimic the look of the original plaster wall. The flat roof deck, which is slightly concealed behind a raised parapet, was insulated with a combination of rigid insulation boards, a vapor barrier, and a water- and heat-absorbing vegetative roof system. Mechanical systems were placed under the green roof, above the historic roof slab, according to Southwick.

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The lynchpin of the museum complex is a new 29 m tall concrete-and-steel observation tower with a 25 m high deck, designed to resemble a steamship bow. Beyer Blinder Belle

The exhibition partitions in RSL 3 are approximately 3 m high, which leaves a minimum 1 m high expanse above the exhibits and below the slab so that visitors can get a sense of the building's volume and historic elements, Southwick notes.

For the entire museum complex, "none of the modern mechanicals are visible, because they're always above the top floor or below the lower floor, and then we did all the distribution of air conditioning ducts and electrical conduit and all that below the slabs," Southwick says. 

Injection grouting was used to strengthen the soil on the site under RSL 2 and 1, as well as under the new observation tower, according to Southwick.

According to Southwick, the "lynchpin" of the entire museum complex is the new observation tower, RSL 4, which has been designed to be symbolic of emigrants' journey to the new world. 

The observation tower is founded on a two-story concrete base that contains mechanical equipment and is supported by a large concrete footing. Above this two-story base, the tower has been designed to mimic a steamship's bow: A slender concrete elevator core extends upward, encircled by a stepped ramp so that visitors can walk up and around to reach the top. Steel fins that are supported by, and tied into, 8 in. diameter canted steel posts at each level help to provide lateral stability. The fins follow the geometry of the tower and wrap around the concrete center, offering visitors a sense of the scale of a steam ship's exterior.

As visitors climb the tower, the fins obscure their view of the water, located to the west, while the back of the tower offers glass railings and a wide view of the city to the east. "As you continue this arduous climb [up the tower], seven times around on this stepped ramp, you never really get a good view of where you're going—which is the west, the river, the North Sea, and Ellis Island beyond that—until you get to the very top," Southwick says. At the top, the central concrete tower blocks visitors' views to the east—their past—while the views to the west—their future—open up.

The structural, mechanical, and electrical engineering for the museum complex was completed by Antwerp-based Arcade N.V; the Antwerp-based building contractor STRABAG Belgium N.V. conducted the on-site construction work.

The museum houses photographs, papers, journals, and various other items from the many emigrants who departed from the complex, including one of Irving Berlin's "transposing" pianos, which has been loaned to the museum by his daughter Linda Emmet and the Berlin family.


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