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Empire State Plaza features a spectrum of geological stories

Sunday, May 18, 2014
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Paleontologist Ed Landing points to a stone block in a 30-foot-high wall outside the New York State Museum.
Photographer: Patrick Dodson
Paleontologist Ed Landing points to a stone block in a 30-foot-high wall outside the New York State Museum.

Do you watch ‘The Walking Dead’”?

Ed Landing is thinking about flesh-eating zombies as he walks through the lobby of the New York State Museum.

“If you look at the marble walls, this marble came from there,” he says.

A paleontologist in the museum’s geological research department, Landing says the creamy white marble is of the type quarried in Georgia, close to where the first season of the AMC series was filmed.

“That marble is 500 million years old, much older than dinosaurs.”

On May 2, Landing gave a Gazette reporter and two museum staffers a private, two-hour geological tour of the Governor Nelson A. Rockefeller Empire State Plaza.

“It’s really like an outdoor exhibit of the museum,” he says.

In 1986, an 11-page geology walking tour of the plaza was authored by Robert H. Fickies of the New York State Geological Survey.

Rockin' the Plaza

-- The Empire State Plaza contains rocks from eastern North America.

-- The oldest rocks are more than one billion years old.

-- Rocks come from the three major classes: igneous, sedimentary and metamorphic.

-- The 98-acre plaza took more than 10 years to build and cost about $2 billion. It was completed in 1976.

-- About 24 million cubic feet of concrete and 600,000 cubic feet of stone went into the buildings.

But the museum doesn’t get many requests for such a tour.

“It’s really very seldom,” says Landing.

“Usually colleges and universities. Yale comes every year,” he says.

From the lobby, we stepped outdoors.

Have you ever really looked at the outside of the museum?

With a scientist at our side, a hidden world of Earthly evolution and prehistoric life was revealed in its 30-foot-high walls.

Using a wooden yardstick as a pointer, Landing touches the alternating dark and light blocks of stone.

“Between the sandstone, that’s black shale,” he says.

Flutes & drag marks

We can smell hot dogs cooking in a vendor’s cart a few feet away, and traffic is roaring down Madison Avenue, but Landing invites us to move in closer, until we are inches away from the wall.

He shows us raised areas, called “flutes,” that look like fat cigars.

“Geologists go nuts about this,” he says.

There are “drag marks,” the tracks of pebbles that once moved along a shallow seabed.

Tiny black marks, like pencil streaks, appear on another stone.

“These are the needles of Earth’s oldest trees,” Landing says, referring to the palm-like forest that once grew near Gilboa Dam in Schoharie County.

On our tour, we looked at a half-dozen blocks of stone. There were hundreds in this wall and hundreds more in a similar wall across the street.

“Each one is a picture,” says Landing.

Next we look at trace fossils, geological records of biological activity.

There aren’t many big fossils, but lots of tiny ones, like worm burrows.

Landing, who has worked at the museum for 31 years and specializes in the early evolution of animals, peers intently at the rock through his wire-rimmed glasses.

“There are two types of fossils in here,” he says, showing us the stem of a crinoid, a marine mammal that looked like a lily, and a brachiopod, a marine invertebrate with a bivalve shell.

Another era

Our next stop is Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, next door to the museum. Built in the 1850s, more than a century before the plaza materialized, the red sandstone building is made of the same rock you see in New York City brownstones.

“You can’t get it anymore. It’s extremely expensive,” Landing says.

But this rock is millions of years younger than the museum’s stones.

“This is age-of-dinosaurs stuff,” he says.

Next, we’re off to the plaza, where we place our feet on grey-and-white marble squares with patterns that ripple and swirl.

“Most of it came from Rutland,” Landing says, as he plods along, looking down and poking with the yardstick.

“I’m going to walk around until I see a recognizable fossil,” he says.

After a few minutes, the yardstick lands on a single marble square.

“Ah, this is a snail,” Landing says, indicating a 3-inch-long coiled shape.

As the tour continues, it becomes more and more obvious that the plaza is a geologic showplace — a rock hall of fame, if you will.

And Albany isn’t the only place in America where this happens.

“When it comes to capital cities, they work on getting varieties of rocks,” the scientist says.

As an example, Landing offers the Capitol building in his home state of Wisconsin. It’s made of white Vermont Bethel granite and is topped with the only granite dome in the United States.

The Empire State Plaza is loaded with Vermont pearl marble from the Green Mountains. According to the 1986 guide, over 300,000 cubic feet of the stuff was used to construct the plaza.

Why did they use so much Vermont marble?

“There’s not much good architectural marble in New York state,” Landing says.

After more than an hour, we’ve walked the length of the concourse, our heads lowered as eyes scanned the marble.

Acid-rain streaks

The Capitol looms ahead and soon we are standing just a few feet from a massive wall of granite.

“You see those white streaks? That’s from acid rain,” Landing says.

Returning back to the plaza and heading towards the museum, he stops and runs his hand over the marble benches that border the reflecting pool.

We touch the shiny bench, and it feels a little like sandpaper.

“This was once completely smooth,” Landing says. “Acid rain. It affects the marble.”

Is there a eurypterid, the state fossil, somewhere in the plaza?

No, there is not.

But we could see an artist’s image of the extinct, lobster-like arthropod at a granite monument in Dana Park, at the intersection of Lark Street and Madison and Delaware avenues.

The memorial honors James Dwight Dana, a prominent Utica-born geologist who did the world’s first research on the volcanoes of Hawaii.

It was ‘The place’

“At one time, Albany was the place for geology and natural history,” Landing says.

Much of the credit goes to James Hall, a geologist and paleontologist who taught at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, became well-known for his geologic studies of New York state and eventually the director of Albany’s New York State Museum of Natural History.

Geology was the reason that the New York State Museum was created.

In 1836, the governor and legislature divided the state into sectors and sent geologists out to look for economically valuable mineral deposits. The New York State Museum began as the State Geological and Natural History Survey in the same year.

Today, the New York State Museum is home to a treasure chest of 1.5 million rocks, minerals, gems and fossils, specimens that have been collected over nearly two centuries, including the world’s largest mineralogy collection.

“There really is quite a story here,” says Landing.

Reach Gazette reporter Karen Bjornland at 395-3197 or kbjornland@dailygazette.net.

 
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