Remembering Ben Palagonia, Turner City Artist from 1967-1994

September 11, 2015


Turner City artist Ben Palagonia, who illustrated thousands of Turner projects over 27 years, passed away on Wednesday, September 9, 2015. 

During Ben’s tenure, he transformed Turner City from a black and white illustration to a vibrant watercolor, doubled the size of the canvas to represent more projects, and detailed the tremendous growth and evolution of the building industry over nearly three decades. From his first Turner City in 1967 – which included the original Madison Square Garden – to his last, a collaboration with his successor, his son John, in 1994 – Ben’s creativity and imagination, his attention to detail, and his lifelong passion for the art of architecture have had an enduring and inspiring impact on Turner and the tradition of Turner City.

In memory of Ben, we would like to share with you a short history of Turner City’s artists written by Ben’s daughter Kathleen, whose father and brother collectively created Turner City for more than half a century.


The Artists Behind Turner City

Henry Turner, the founder of Turner Construction Company, came up with the idea of a composite landscape drawing of all the buildings his company constructed. An aerial view would be a way to capture Turner's building projects. Turner for Concrete was eight years old and the first rendering would capture construction completed during those years. 

Whether it was simply a way to attest to the accomplishments of the young company or a means to market and sell their services, it soon became a yearly collaboration between the architects, engineers, project managers, and artist. Over 100 years, six artists have produced renderings that have encompassed the emerging trends in building design as well as the expansion and boom and slumps in building development. Beginning as a small collection of industrial buildings (over twenty in the very early renderings), the Turner For Concrete has become the sprawling Turner City of today with over one hundred and seventy projects around the United States as well as those internationally as far flung as Asia, South America, Europe and Africa. In total, the artwork has depicted well over 4000 buildings and over a billion square feet of floor space. 

An accomplished illustrator, Richard W. Rummell was a natural choice to create the first cityscape of Turner's early buildings. Born in 1848, Rummell had a flourishing career in architectural illustration and landscape drawings when he was hired by Turner. By the early twentieth century, Rummell had amassed such work for Cornell University, the University of Virginia, the University of Michigan and the University of Pennsylvania. His work ranges from water color depictions of specific university structures to bird's eye views of entire campuses. For preliminary sketches of Cornell University campus, he went up in a hot air balloon and took photographs.

The first rendering Rummell did for Turner was in 1910 and comprised all their building projects from 1902 up to 1910 and issued in 1911. The buildings depicted industrial plants in concrete, a trademark of the company. The drawing was an accomplishment in clean lines and three-point perspective that would become a hallmark of all Turner Construction Company renderings. Each building is placed in three-quarter view, free standing with unobstructed views of the entrance of each structure. 

When Edward W. Spofford began drawing for Turner, the prototype city had been established. Construction for the company had increased and with it, the number of buildings on the Turner rendering. Spofford's first rendering depicts such structures as Cornell University Stadium, General Electric Company, James Madison High School (New York City), and Buck Hill Falls Inn for a total of sixty buildings. The locations range from East Coast to the Mid-West. 

Born in 1865 in Omaha, Nebraska, Spofford moved to White Plains, NY where he resided for most of life. He became a commercial artist, lithographer and cartographer. In addition to his work for Turner Construction Company, Spofford drew bird's eye views of Washington, DC, a panoramic map of Philadelphia, aerial views of Baltimore and Europe, and architectural renderings of independent factories and other buildings. In the five renderings for Turner, he lent his own interpretation by adding more dark contrasts and shadows. In his first rendering, in 1925, the trees at the top of the rendering meld into the building constructions making them a natural part of the landscape rather than just a frame for the drawing. As a result, his work emerges as a more representative city rather than a uniform grid of laid out buildings.  

With draping over the windows of the family garage and in the dark of night, Edwin D. Mott, created 32 drawings for Turner Construction Company from 1929 to 1962. His daughters, Jean Whitford and Barbara Smith, describe a man who was very secretive about how he created Turner City renderings. "Once he got it all laid out and knew where he wanted all the buildings to be, we weren't allowed in the studio anymore. He didn't want anyone to know what he was doing," his daughter, Smith, says. The only other individual that knew was his wife and she kept the secret till her death—never imparting it even to their two children. 
Mott's tendency towards secrecy about his work may have come from being raised by an inventor. Edwin was born in 1894 to Samuel Mott who made his living as an inventor in Passaic, New Jersey. His father held 23 patents, including a prototype of the helicopter propeller and worked under Thomas Edison on such innovations as the light bulb. As a young man, Edwin Mott was something of an inventor himself. "He was an unusual person, he was always inventing stuff for kids to play with. He built model trains. When we were kids, he built igloos for us to play with. He could play instruments by ear. He wasn't a Bohemian, but he was always creating something," Smith says about her father. He continued to build models and painted landscapes into adulthood. One of his commissioned works included a window display at a local bank. With a Polaroid of her father's work, Whitford describes, "It was a submarine on a conveyor belt, and it would go around and sink the ship. He invented the entire display. He did this during the war." 

It was as a young adult that Mott discovered his future as a professional artist. With no formal education in art or architecture, he became an apprentice to an architect. At that time, he was told that his talent lay in drawing not architecture. Whitford remembers, "One of his instructors said, 'You are in the wrong kind of work, you should get into art.' He said that was the best advice he ever got." Painting also became his passion. A tour of his daughter Barbara Smith's home is to step into the artistic life of Edwin Mott. Above her mantle is his masterpiece, a meticulously detailed ink stipple drawing of a country lane where the girls grew up. Their father was always going out to paint the landscape. And it became a family affair, taking his sisters and their husbands, and nephew Herb and setting up easels along roadsides, barns, or the beach. Whitford says he loved to be outside, painting what caught his eye: "Each one was good at what he did. My father was good at perspective. My uncle was good at colors. They did the same thing but each one looked different."

After talking with the daughter, one can tell there is a deep affection for what their father did and what he accomplished in his life. Barbara Smith owns most of Mott's fine art: paintings, ink drawings and watercolors. Her father's work covers every wall of her home. Jean Whitford keeps her father's commercial work and maintains a photographic archive of each of her father's pieces. At Smith's dining table we poured over photos of Mott's drawings, some in different stages of completion. Edwin Mott liked to take a photo of his work as it was progressing. During the early stages, the Turner paintings began as simple boxes laid out on a large table in the converted family garage and with a camera, standing on a ladder, he would take aerial shots of the model. According to Whitford, he was trying to scale each building to the same size: "He started receiving blue prints months in advance. Then he'd make cardboard models to get it down to the same scale." Then he would drape the windows of the garage, even during the day and lock the door. His wife was the only one who knew how he went about creating what became the final Turner City renderings. His daughters were forbidden to enter the garage—and while they remained curious, they obeyed his wishes. He finished Turner City with an ink wash on a large slanted easel engineered specifically for this project. Whitford remembers: "When he got the pencil drawing all laid out and he got it on the big board, he'd take it over to the [Turner]office. And each engineer had to O.K. their own building. And any changes that needed to be done, had to be done then—before he started on the painting." When the final project was completed and ready for submission, Edwin walked with the wrapped rendering in hand to the Ferry, a few blocks from his home in New Jersey. When he got into New York City, his daughters imagined that he hailed a cab and got it safely to the Turner offices. "That [Turner] painting was his baby. He made sure he got it there."

Perhaps the most challenging aspect of Edwin's years as an illustrator came during World War II. Because of the wartime censorship, locations and particulars of military installations and government buildings constructed by Turner were not allowed to be disclosed. The client was listed in the key but without a corresponding number to identify it on the rendering. Over Mott's thirty-two years of illustrating Turner projects, he has depicted the rise of military and government factories for the war effort to the boom in apartment and family housing of the post war Fifties and early Sixties. Smith relates that her father never tried to follow one kind of city layout: "He wanted to make it look like a city…not like a particular city….his city. Each city had a train…that was his trademark. And once I went in with him [to the Turner offices], and all his Turner paintings were lined up along the walls. That was something." 

When Edwin D. Mott died in April 1962, from complications during surgery, his brother-in-law recommended Edwin's nephew, Herb Mott as a replacement. In 1962, Herb Mott was making his career in commercial art and cartoon illustration. Mott was born in 1923 in Passaic, New Jersey. His father moved the family (his mother and one brother) to Ridgewood, still close enough to be with his aunts, uncles and cousins in neighboring towns. At eight years old, Mott began drawing at the side of his Uncles and Aunts. "It was Uncle Eppie [Edwin] that asked me to go along with them when they'd go outdoors painting. I'd troop along with them. Painting mostly. It was my first introduction to art," Mott recalled.

It was during World War II that Mott blossomed as an artist. Six months into his military service, a nineteen-year old Mott became a "realistic cartoonist." He was illustrating news stories and feature articles in the camp newspaper where he was stationed in Amarillo, Texas: "That's where I got to do what I wanted to do. I would draw all the time. I even drew the comic strip." After the war, Mott attended the New York Phoenix School of Art to develop some basic skills in drawing and painting in order to fill in some of the gaps in his informal education. 

Soon after, Mott was on his way as an in-demand magazine illustrator and advertising artist. He joined Henry Watts Studio as a "Board Man", drawing advertisements. In the late Forties and early Fifties, his freelance illustration work was appearing in many of the current magazines, including the covers of Boy's Life, Reader's Digest, and Sports Afield. In 1956, he was commissioned by the U.S. Airforce to paint an advertising poster "Jimmy Doolittle's Bombing Raid on Tokyo." One thousand prints were made and it is an advertisement that the U.S. Airforce uses to this day. Mott continued to illustrate for the Airforce, a job that has taken him to places like England, Germany, France, and Greenland. During the late Fifties and early Sixties, Mott began illustrating books of young adult fiction as well as educational books: "The business was good. Great. I was drawing all the time. And drawing a wide array of stuff."

When Turner hired him, Mott had not done much architectural illustration. While he had continued to paint with his Uncle Edwin into adulthood, his career had taken a different path then his Uncle's: "Turner [City] was such a great opportunity for me to get away from what I was doing and try something completely different. I had done some architectural drawing, but not to this extent and not at this scale." Stepping into his Uncle's shoes, shortly after his death, was a daunting task he approached with respect and full awareness of the history that the elder Mott had with the company: "I knew he had done about thirty years with Turner and I knew he excelled at what he did. I didn't want to mess with the formula."

His first illustration, a cityscape of thirty to forty buildings became the first officially titled Turner City. In accomplishing the renderings, Mott relied on the plans given to him on each project in order to scale the elevation, height and width of each building. He meticulously checked with the production manager of each Turner City project as he progressed with the rendering. He arranged bigger and smaller buildings into separate groups to enhance the symmetry, all the while keeping in the tradition of Turner illustration: "When you have an artistic mind, you can do everything. You are not corralled into one thing. This was a challenge, but it was also an opportunity."

Residing in New Mexico, Mott pursued mostly fine arts, but it is with pride that he looks back at his experience with Turner. "I was part of a tradition. I was very aware of that. I hope younger people will get something out of what we did."

For Ben Palagonia, drawing cities had been a part of his life since his childhood. At the age of five, he would stand on a chair at his mother's kitchen table—not tall enough yet to sit properly at it. With a pencil, given to him by his mother, he would draw directly on the white porcelain table surface, sometimes paper bags or butcher paper if they were available. It was the Depression and art supplies were a luxury. However, his mother would not quell her son's budding artistic talent. When he was finished and before she wiped the table top clean, his mother patiently looked over the drawing as young Palagonia pointed out each building and its particular merits.

Palagonia received recognition for his work early on, winning a Bronze Medal in a New York City-wide painting contest in his age group of nine. He attended New York School of Industrial Design, a vocational high school where he studied architectural drawing. After two years of service in the Army Airforce as a flight engineer, he apprenticed with an architectural firm and attended Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, New York. As a draftsman and renderer, he worked under such architectural luminaries as Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Philip Johnson.

When he began working for Turner Construction Company as their fifth artist, he already had extensive experience in architectural illustration and design, having worked on such projects as the Lunt Fontaine Theater, Carnegie Hall and the Winter Garden Theater. Palagonia recalled, "I had just done the Stevens Institute of Technology master plan. It was a bird's eye view and had maybe 25 buildings. In fact it was that rendering I did that decided Turner on using me because they liked the way Stevens turned out."

Approaching the rendering, the buildings themselves were as important to Palagonia as any real-life subject is to an artist. Each building within a project has a singular history with a life of its own. Palagonia studied and got to know each project down to the details of the kind of land it was built on and what the other surroundings were. It was this kind of attention to detail that he brought to each rendering. These were not merely objects to place on a page. They had a reason for being there: "The first Turner City I did was for projects completed in 1967. There were about 45 buildings, including Madison Square Garden. I had quite a number of colleges. I designed the city like a real city, education here, commercial in another area, factories there," he said. As in previous Turner renderings, the only parameters were that all front entrances had to face the viewer. How they were placed and how much was cut off from the viewer was left up to his aesthetic sensibilities.

The first project was also an opportunity for him to make changes. Edwin and Herb Mott had rendered their cities in an ink wash. Palagonia said: "The very first [Turner City] I did dictated a lot of things. I did it in pencil. I didn't want to do it as an ink wash. I said I could get more detail with a pencil. Which I did." Designing the city was the next challenge. Like his predecessors, he did not imitate one particular city. Because of the design idiosyncrasies of each building in a particular year, it became untenable to use New York or San Francisco or Chicago as a design model. "I was approached once to make it [Turner City] look like Washington DC, where intersecting five streets come to one avenue. The problem with that is, you have all these square buildings on round corners and unless you have a Flatiron Building, the real estate doesn't agree. The building shapes and sizes don't necessarily match up and you end up with a triangular building on a square piece of land," Palagonia explained. It is a puzzle that requires discipline and patience. When the blue prints arrived, Palagonia poured over each one, calling the project manager when he had questions. It was important for him to have as much detail as possible about each structure. If the buildings were near water or were on an expanse of isolated land, this information could come into play when designing the layout of the city. 

When the city was ready to be laid out Palagonia began with the streets: "I used the dimensions of New York City blocks. When I started in the Sixties there were such huge buildings I made the typical block six hundred feet by four hundred feet. Alongside it might be minor streets. I had super blocks and minor blocks. But there was no such thing as a dead end."

The actual size of the drawing changed with Palagonia as well. Until the sixties, Turner renderings were kept to thirty inches by twenty inches. As the projects and buildings increased each year, Palagonia found it difficult to maintain the integrity of the design within the parameters of that size drawing board. Palagonia recalled in his third year, that things had to change: "I was scratching my head trying to make it fit. And finally I called [Turner]. I just said [Turner City] needs to be wider. And the project manager said that was fine. That's when I realized that the design was really up to me.” Since then the size has remained close to the same, fluctuating a few inches more or less but sticking close to sixty by forty inches, but the aesthetics were left to him. In addition to this size evolution, Ben Palagonia was also the first Turner City artist to render the piece in color, beginning in 1989. 

Palagonia enjoyed this part of the artwork, painstakingly adding such details as five different species of trees and masonry work: "I liked to know if the real estate had birch or elm trees. If there was a stone arrangement, I'd include that too." In his pursuit of making the drawing come alive with the life and sites of a real city, he included hot dog vendors, pedestrians, and even an automobile accident, which he was quick to describe as only a minor fender bender. 
In 1994, Ben Palagonia began collaborating with his son, John, on Turner City. It was a partnership that evolved and blossomed over the years. Then, beginning in 1998, Ben passed the mantle to his son John, who began to design and draw Turner City entirely on his own, making him the sixth Turner City artist. "John designs it all himself. John gets the plans, and then we discuss it,” said Ben, proudly. “I'm here just for quality control. He's adhering to the principals that I adhered to. But he adds his own innovations."

Architecture was not the younger Palagonia's first love. As a child he sculpted in clay and drew cartoons, more for his entertainment than a serious pursuit of art. After high school, he pursued a number of jobs and traveled before deciding he would like to pursue art professionally. He attended Paier College of Art in New Haven CT, receiving a BFA in Interior Design in 1992. After he began working with independent architects rendering and doing freelance illustration and design, his father suggested that they work together on Turner City. John Palagonia took up his father's offer. The project became one of his primary professional pursuits. He relished the challenges that each year's work brought: "Each year you try to bring something different to the design. You don't want to repeat yourself. And you want to bring something to it that hasn't been there before." 

The challenge for John Palagonia, who also created Turner City using pencil and watercolor, has been to arrange the cities with big structures, such as stadiums—something that has been a recurring project over the last few years. Part of the concept is to create a cityscape that encompasses, as in the year 2000 Turner City, as many as five large stadiums and numerous high rises without making it seem unnatural or overwhelming one section of the rendering. Palagonia's designs have run towards creating downtown-like cityscapes with clusters of large high rises in the center and expansive stadiums scattered east, west and north.

Palagonia used color to innovate and improve upon each Turner City work he's done: "Color has been an element in the design, more so than it had ever been before. Like Delacroix's paintings, it's a way to bring your eye around a painting. If you have a red brick building placed in the center…that's where your eye is going to go."

Turner brought a new dimension to Turner City in 2014, creating the city in-house using Building Information Modeling (BIM). The shift to BIM exemplifies Turner’s commitment to embracing new technologies while honoring the history and the traditions that have set the company apart for 113 years. Turner City 2014—which includes projects located in more than 82 cities across North America, Europe, and the Middle East—reflects the progress of the projects it comprises; the City includes sustainable buildings certified as LEED Platinum, Gold and Silver by the U. S. Green Building Council and approximately $5 billion of projects that implemented lean practices and utilized BIM for trade coordination or other project functions.

Touching on unique features of the digital version, Ben Ferrer, the Turner BIM manager who oversaw the modeling process, said, “We’ve added an incredible amount of detail and the city is more interactive than ever before. We can fly through and explore in many different ways. We can create 3D prints from the models. There are a lot of possibilities.”

From 1902 to present, Turner City represents more than a hundred years of architectural development. Look at any one Turner rendering and the design and type of architecture depicted gives the viewer a sense of where he is in history. One would know it is World War I, because of the growing number of factories and the decrease in other commercial building work. This era is followed by a rise in industrial and commercial and department stores and the distinctive designs of the Art Deco movement. With the onset of World War II, commercial buildings stop again and military camps appear as well as large number of factories and government buildings. From rendering to rendering, year to year, there are changes. In the Fifties the rise of home building is apparent and the Sixties reveal the emergence of the glass high-rise and proliferation of commercial office space. The Seventies came along with the energy crisis highlighted by the sudden appearance of solar panel on tops of the buildings. The Eighties and Nineties depict the rise of the federated stores, department stores and fast-food chain restaurants. And most recently, increasingly large and complex commercial and mixed-use high rises, stadiums, airports and hotels built in markets around the world have come to populate Turner City. 

This rich and comprehensive visual history of design and trends in architecture is a legacy not just for students of architecture but laypersons as well. It is quite possible to become as passionate as these artists have been about the development of their cities with the buildings and unique structures they have depicted over the last century.  

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