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Brooks Stevens Railroad Car Seat

Reclining seat designed by Brooks Stevens
for one of the Milwaukee Road's Hiawatha
luxury railroad cars, 1948

(Museum object #1991.92)

In an era when the choice between interminably boring highway drives and jam-packed, delay-prone airplanes seems equally dismal, cross-country travel by train still conjures images of comfort and leisure. This is no accident. Railroads in the mid-twentieth century took great pains to outfit their long-distance trains with the most comfortable, appealing accommodations they could imagine. The Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul and Pacific Railroad, more commonly known as the Milwaukee Road, was no exception. This swiveling, reclining upholstered railroad seat was designed by the Milwaukee industrial designer Brooks Stevens for the Milwaukee Road's streamlined Hiawatha service from Chicago to points west.

This chair was built in 1948 at the Milwaukee Road's massive car factory in Milwaukee's Menomonee Valley which, in addition to extensive metalworking facilities, was outfitted with a complete trim shop. The chair is upholstered in an uncut pile synthetic fabric, and the control for the reclining mechanism is cleverly hidden in the decorative aluminum castings on the right arm rest.

Milwaukee-born Clifford Brooks Stevens (1911-1995) was Wisconsin's foremost industrial designer. He was the youngest of 15 American designers to found the Society of Industrial Designers in 1944, and one of the few to work outside of New York. Stevens chose to center his business in the industrial Midwest, setting up shop in his home town in 1935. Over the next 40 years, his client list - which included the Allis-Chalmers Mfg. Co. (tractors), Cutler-Hammer, Inc. (electrical components), Outboard Motors Corp., Kearney & Trecker Corp. (machine tools), Miller Brewing Co., and Mirro Aluminum Co. (cookware) among others - reads like a who's who of Wisconsin business. Though personally flamboyant, Stevens prided himself on his pragmatic abilities to tailor his designs to the dictates of commerce and to get those designs manufactured.

In 1943 the Milwaukee Road began planning for its postwar passenger service on the highly competitive Pacific Coast routes and approached Stevens for advice. The railroad hired Brooks Stevens Associates to redesign its signature Olympian Hiawatha streamliners from stem to stern, inside and out. This was a rare opportunity for a designer, especially one in business for less than a decade, to create a completely integrated, designed space. Stevens recalled in 1973, "We were trying to make a train less mechanical, more homelike – more livable, you might say."

Stevens worked on every car of the new train, from the winged chrome cowling on the Fairbanks-Morse diesel locomotive, to the images printed on plastic laminate in the women's lounges. His firm designed the window shapes, furnishings, seating, lighting, and floor and wall treatments for six distinct cars: coaches, Touralux cars (booths convertible to sleeping chambers), Tip Top Grill cars (with a distinctive, nightclub-like layout), dining, and sleeper cars.

Stevens' best known work on the Hiawathas was the Sky Top lounge car, a glass-domed observation car at the end of the train, ideal for viewing the majestic scenery of the Rocky Mountains. 27 flat windows in 15 different shapes created the "solarium" portion of the car, an enclosure of almost 90% glass. Milwaukee Road historian Jim Scribbins described it as "the most strikingly contoured termination of any train in the United States."

The Sky Top lounge is generally identified with the Olympian Hiawatha - the Milwaukee Road's overnight service from Chicago to Takoma, Washington. However, two different versions of the Sky Top were built for two different routes. This seat is from the "Rapids" series of Sky Tops, four of which went into service on May 29, 1948 on the Milwaukee Road's twice daily Chicago-Minneapolis routes, called the Twin Cities Hiawathas. Each of these cars contained 24 parlor chairs forward of the solarium. According to Scribbins, "Within the main section [of the Sky Top lounge] were de luxe seats for 24 – big, comfortable, rotating, reclining chairs which were a pleasure to sink into."

A second generation of six Sky Tops, the "Creek Series," was built by the Pullman-Standard Car Manufacturing Co. of Chicago for service on the overnight Olympian Hiawatha. Instead of the swiveling lounge chairs, these Sky Tops featured eight double bedrooms forward of the solarium. Though Stevens had approached the Olympian Hiawatha as an integrated unit, the train was phased into service as the component rail cars could be built. Initial Olympian Hiawatha service began June 29, 1947, but the full set of streamlined cars, including the Sky Top sleepers, was not completed until January 1949.

Due to its high operating cost, competition from other cross-country routes like the Great Northern's Empire Builder, and the sharp decline of railroad passenger traffic due to burgeoning air and automobile travel, the Milwaukee Road discontinued Olympian Hiawatha service in 1961. The Sky Tops on the Twin Cities Hiawathas remained in service until 1970. As the Stevens-designed cars were broken up, assigned to different routes, refurbished and eventually sold off, American travelers lost the feel of being pampered within a painstakingly designed travel environment. Although a few Sky Tops have managed to survive, and exist today as isolated design icons, this chair reminds us not just of traveling in comfort, but of the comprehensive interior design that characterized one of the Milwaukee Road's most memorable trains.

[Sources: Stevens, Brooks. "Styling the Hiawatha" lecture, May 18, 1973, reprinted in The Milwaukee Railroader, Third Quarter 1997, 4-22; Adamson, Glenn. Industrial Strength Design: How Brooks Stevens Shaped Your World (Cambridge; MIT Press, 2003); Scribbins, Jim. The Hiawatha Story (Milwaukee; Kalmbach Publishing Co., 1970); Nighschwonger, Doug and William F. Strauss, Milwaukee Road Color Guide to Freight and Passenger Equipment, vol. 1 (Scotch Plains, NJ; Morning Sun Books, Inc., 1999).]


Posted on February 21, 2008

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