Atlas Obscura
Your Guide to the World's Hidden Wonders

April 21 2016 12:30 PM

The Center of the Nation Monument Is Not Located at the Center of the U.S.

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While the center of the contiguous United States is marked by a small plaque and plinth in Kansas, the actual center of the United States (including Hawaii and Alaska) is off in a field in South Dakota. Oh, but the actual monument is about 20 miles away from that.

Hawaii became the last U.S. state to join the union in 1959. Previously the middle of the nation had been mapped as a spot in Lebanon, Kansas, but this point moved over 200 miles with the addition of the island state. The new spot was determined to be out in the middle of some South Dakota farmland, where a metal pole was driven into the ground to mark the location.

This seemed like kind of a weak way to honor the very middle of America, so the city of Belle Fourche, a little over 20 miles south of the makeshift marker, decided to do it up right. In 2008, the city installed a large granite compass rose and dubbed it the "Center of the Nation" monument. There is even a metal disc in the middle that looks like an official geographic marker for people to stand on and take pictures.

Sure, it might not be on the exact center of the country, but let's face it, this lovely granite compass makes a better photo op than some pole in a field.

Submitted by Atlas Obscura contributor arc459.

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April 20 2016 12:30 PM

See the Inside-Out World in Perfect Scale at Boston’s Mapparium

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Ever notice how big Greenland is on most maps? There is a problem with flat maps. Due to the distortion that happens when you plaster a sphere onto a flat surface, the sizes of things at the top and bottom tend to get all wonky.

Globes offer a much more accurate view of the world, but even they are not perfect. When you look at the sphere, its curvature distorts relative size because the countries curve away from you. If you want the best view of what our world really looks like, there is only one place for you: standing in the center of the Mapparium.

In the Mary Baker Eddy Library in Boston is a three-story stained glass globe, flipped inside-out so the left-right orientation is correct. A 30-foot-long glass bridge runs straight through the globe. Standing in the center of those 608 stained glass panels, you can see the inside-out world in perfect scale. And It. Is. Weird!

It is fascinating to view Earth this way. Africa is huge. North America, Europe, and Asia are all jammed way up against the North Pole. You have to look nearly straight up to see them. Sizes and locations of continents and countries you’ve always taken for granted are suddenly unfamiliar.

The Mapparium was completed in 1935, meaning that while the relative size of its land masses is correct, some of the country names and boundaries are decidedly out of date.

In 1930, Boston architect Chester Lindsay Churchill was commissioned to design the new Christian Science Publishing Society headquarters to compete with the other grand newspaper headquarters of the day. He had seen the 12-foot globe in the lobby of the New York Daily News building and wanted to do one better.

Originally called “the Glass Room” or “the Globe Room,” the Mapparium gets its name from the Latin words mappa (“map”) and arium (“a place for”). Built by Old World craftsmen who were fleeing an emergent Nazi Germany, the Mapparium opened to the public May 31, 1935. It cost $35,000—which was a lot of money back then.

Based upon Rand McNally political maps published in 1934, the Mapparium put the politics of the era on view. Colonialism was still in full effect, with huge swathes of Africa divided among the European powers. Much of Southeast Asia is still French Indochina, and don’t go looking for Israel or Pakistan, as they didn’t exist yet. Some countries are there but with their earlier names like Siam or Persia. Germany looms ominously large.

Renovated in 1998 and lit from the outside with LEDs, the Mapparium is now able to put on a short light and sound show. To clean the interior of the three-story glass globe, workers have to use a cherry-picker that is set up in the middle of the bridge. Workers go out on the machine’s arm and clean each panel with a gentle solution.

The Mapparium also has another unusual quality, one that was almost certainly unintentional. Like the dome in Grand Central it is a whispering gallery, but being a sphere, its acoustics are even stranger. People whispering privately in India can be heard quite clearly in Mexico. And if you stand in the center, you will find yourself speaking to yourself in surround sound.

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April 19 2016 12:30 PM

Why Only Apple Users Can Trash Their Files

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No individual part of computing delivers the satisfaction of the trash can.

Drag in your junk, command-click, and with an amiable rustle, all those files you don’t need anymore just disappear. No need to lug anything to the curb, or wait for the city to come around.

But the trash isn’t just a useful tool. A garbage-eye-view of computing reveals three decade's worth of compelling history for the humble can—complete with a protracted lawsuit that brought the rivalry between Apple and Microsoft to new, garbage-filled heights. It may be that no icon better embodies the development of modern computing quite like the representation of virtual rubbish.

As Apple developer Andy Hertzfeld relates in an online history of Apple's first user interface, the trash was born in the early 1980s, during a five-year burst of creativity that also brought us desktop windows, text highlighting, scroll bars, and other bits of computing infrastructure most users now take for granted. When the team realized that users needed a way to delete files permanently, they called this new feature the "Wastebasket." And when the company switched over to an icon-based graphical user interface, or GUI, they drew up an old-school can to represent it. “The initial trashcan was this beat up old trashcan you’d expect to see in an alley, with the lid half open and flies buzzing around it,” said software engineer Dan Smith in an 1986 interview with Semaphore Signal. "We had actually talked about putting in some sound effects."

April 15 2016 12:30 PM

A Painting Recreated in Topiary Form

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If you like post-impressionist painting, landscape architecture, gardening, horticulture, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, or just things that look like other things, then you’ll love Topiary Park.

Located in downtown Columbus, the seven-acre Topiary Park is, well, a topiary park that fully recreates the scene depicted in Georges Seurat’s famous painting A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte. The unique project was the brainchild of Columbus sculptor James T. Mason, who had the idea when his then-wife Elaine asked him to make a topiary sculpture for their backyard. Ultimately spiraling well beyond backyard-project scale, the couple pitched the idea to the city of Columbus, and work on the installation began in 1989 with the creation of artificial hills and the digging of a pond to stand in for the River Seine. James shaped the bronze frames and planted the associated greenery, and Elaine served as the original topiarist.

The site selected for the park had previously been the home of the Ohio School for the Deaf, which was founded in the 19th century and was, at the time, one of only five such institutions in the United States. The school grew so rapidly that by 1953 it had outgrown its constrained downtown location and moved to a larger property in the city’s North Side. The original buildings remained intact, though abandoned and decaying as the surrounding neighborhood went through a period of decline in the ensuing decades. A community revival in the late 1970s saw efforts to preserve and landmark the school buildings, but a suspicious fire in 1981 destroyed all but one of them, which was finally designated a historic site in 1982. The rest of the newly vacant property was turned into a park which is today still officially known as Old Deaf School Park, but has come to be known popularly as Topiary Park.

The art installation was officially dedicated in 1992 and consists of 54 people, eight boats, three dogs, a monkey, and a cat, all in the form of topiary sculptures made of yew trees. Visitors can take in this peculiar garden from a bronze plaque that marks the point of view of the original painting or wander among the living sculptures, joining them in their picnicking, sunbathing, and general reverie. Topiary Park is—fairly specifically, and somewhat surprisingly—the only topiary representation of a painting in the world.

Submitted by Atlas Obscura contributor alisoni.

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April 14 2016 12:30 PM

The Grave of the Female Stranger

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According to local legend, a young couple arrived in Alexandria, Virginia, by ship in 1816 and rented a room in Gadsby's Tavern at 138 North Royal St. The woman was gravely ill, and her husband hired a local doctor to help care for her—on the condition that the doctor ask no questions about his or his wife's identities.

The woman's condition quickly deteriorated, and she eventually died on Oct. 14, 1816. Her husband borrowed money from a local businessman to bury her in town, repaying him with a note from the Bank of England which later turned out to be a forgery. The couple had secluded themselves from the goings-on in Alexandria, and their presence at the tavern became subject to rumors and speculation.

The woman's grave can still be found in the St. Paul's Episcopal Church section of the town's cemetery. A slab bears the inscription, "To the memory of a Female Stranger whose mortal sufferings terminated on the 14th day of October 1816 Aged 23 years and 8 months. This stone was placed here by her disconsolate Husband in whose arms she sighed out her latest breath and who under God did his utmost even to soothe the cold dead ear of death."

There are many theories as to the woman's identity, most notably that she was Theodosia Burr Alston, the daughter of former Vice President Aaron Burr, who was mysteriously lost at sea in 1813. Another theory suggests that the stranger was Napoleon Bonaparte, smuggled out of exile in drag.

Either way, the grave briefly came to national attention in the mid-19th century when several articles recounting the legend behind it were published in newspapers across the country. The grave continues to be a minor tourist attraction in Old Town Alexandria.

Submitted by Atlas Obscura contributor JohnBense.

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April 13 2016 12:30 PM

The Fantastical Tourlitis Lighthouse in Greece

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As lighthouses go, you can't get much more evocative than the Tourlitis Lighthouse off the coast of the Greek port city of Andros. Rising up out of a weather-worn stone spire, the beacon looks like something straight out of a fantasy novel. 

The lighthouse was first built in 1897 just off shore from a castle in Andros. The stone column on which it was built had been shaped by millennia of natural erosion into the perfect pedestal for a coastal beacon. Unfortunately the original lighthouse was not long for this world and was destroyed during World War II. For a time, the rocky outcropping went without a proper lighthouse, and the fantastical image created by the former structure was all but lost.

However, the lovely beacon apparently had an extra life. The lighthouse was eventually rebuilt in the early 1990s by an oil tycoon who dedicated the structure to his daughter. The replica became Greece's first automated lighthouse, eliminating the need for an onsite keeper to operate the light. But even with the modern upgrade, the lighthouse still looks like something out of Dungeon and Dragons, with the winding staircase hewn from the rock itself, leading up to the door of the tower.

Since its renovation, it has become one of the area's foremost tourist attractions, drawing lighthouse peepers and photographers who come to gawk at its singular beauty.  

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April 12 2016 12:30 PM

The Surprising Resurgence of Side Saddle

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At the Pennsylvania Horse World Expo a few weeks ago, Shelly Liggett stood at the front of her booth, waiting for a woman—any woman—to walk by. “I don’t care the age, the size, the shape,” she says. “If they look like they’re a rider, we con them into sitting down and giving it a try.”

It is side saddle, the practice of riding a horse with both legs on one side. Liggett is the president of the International Side Saddle Organization, or ISSO, a group of horse lovers who like to ride “aside” in addition to astride. At every expo, show, and leisure ride she attends, Liggett is an ambassador for side saddle, aiming to entice dubious riders to take a seat and see how it feels.

Side saddle has been around for centuries, born of a need to preserve female modesty in the age of mandatory long skirts. Its origins have been traced to 1382, when 15-year-old Anne of Bohemia journeyed across Europe on horseback to wed King Richard II. Because of the need to preserve her virtue—or, in plainer terms, “protect the royal hymen”—Anne rode with both legs to one side.

April 11 2016 12:30 PM

The Great Glowing Ocean

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There is something magical about bioluminescence.

Fish, insects, plants, even the parts of ocean itself all glowing from within, creating their own internal light—it feels like something from a fantasy novel made real. So it is no surprise that Jules Verne, lover of all things strange and wondrous, would be intrigued by the phenomenon. However it was regarded as pure fantasy when, in 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea, Verne wrote of a vast area of the ocean that glowed from horizon to horizon:

“It is called a milk sea,” I explained. “A large extent of white wavelets often to be seen on the coasts of Ambouna, and in these parts of the sea ... the whiteness which surprises you is caused by the presence of myriads of infusoria, a sort of luminous little worm.”

Just a bit more imagination from a man whose characters tunnel into the earth only to find herds of mastodon grazing in the center. However in 2005, thanks to the devoted efforts of a curious scientist and satellite imagery, we discovered that Verne's milky seas had been squarely grounded in reality all along.

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April 8 2016 12:30 PM

The Oozing Whale Skeleton of New Bedford

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In New Bedford, Massachusetts, the setting of Herman Melville's story of the Great White Whale, there is a suspended whale skeleton that has been oozing oil for over 15 years.

The New Bedford Whaling Museum is filled with cannibal forks, the world's largest scrimshaw collection, canned whale meat, and 2,500 handwritten accounts of whaling voyages. Here the unusual is usual, including its collection of four whale skeletons hanging over the entrance. These giant marine mobiles include a humpback named Quasimodo, a fetal right whale and its mother Reyna, and the biggest—a blue whale called KOBO.

In 1998 KOBO ("King of the Blue Ocean") was accidentally struck by a tanker off the coast of Nova Scotia, and his carcass was saved for research and education. He is one of only four blue whale skeletons on display in the world, and at 66 feet long, with a 1½-ton skull, KOBO makes your head snap back in awe. It’s probably a good idea to keep your mouth shut if you do, to avoid the occasional drips of oil still oozing from his bones almost 20 years after the tragic accident. Whales are so oily, KOBO’s bones will keep leaking for many years to come.

The museum has taken advantage of these leaky bones as a learning opportunity and has set up a platform to funnel some of the whale oil into a small beaker. While the display inspires occasional questions from visitors, the answer to “Can I use this to cook with?” is "Probably not."

Submitted by Atlas Obscura contributor inksplatter.

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April 7 2016 12:30 PM

The Remnants of Manhattan’s 13th Avenue

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One of Manhattan's popular weekend destinations, the Hudson River Greenway bustles with locals and tourists alike, jogging, cycling, or simply enjoying the attractive neighborhoods along the waterfront. But among all the repurposed warehouses and piers, hardly anyone notices one small, fenced-off area untouched by the surrounding development.

Jutting out into the Hudson River west of 11th Avenue and between Gansevoort Street and Little West 12th Street, this tiny peninsula is home to some dilapidated buildings as well as a parking lot and depot used by the New York Department of Sanitation. But this apparently out-of-place little nub is all that remains of Manhattan’s lost 13th Avenue.

The grid street plan created for Manhattan in 1811 called for 12 grand north-south avenues (Lexington Avenue and Madison Avenue were later shoehorned into the layout). In 1837, however, with the city eager to expand and create more commercial shoreline, plans were made to create a 13th avenue by landfilling hundreds of feet of the Hudson River from 11th Street to 135th Street. The city sold underwater plots of "land" to interested parties who began hauling in trash and dirt and paving the results, allowing 13th Avenue to slowly rise from the waters.

Its emergence, however, was short-lived. At its greatest extent, 13th Avenue ran from 11th Street to 29th Street, where it merged with 12th Avenue. Then, around the turn of the century, New York found that it needed to build new, longer piers to accommodate the larger ocean liners that, at the time, represented the state-of-the-art in marine vessels. Unfortunately, 13th Avenue did not leave enough room to build these piers without extending beyond the city's jurisdiction, so officials opted instead to demolish the newly-built avenue to make way for the construction of Chelsea Piers.

The only block that was spared was the site of the West Washington Market—the small outcropping which today is known as Gansevoort Peninsula. Although not appearing on any official maps, and not signposted, Google Maps still shows the one-block remnants of the old avenue, which—being a Department of Sanitation facility—is not open to the public. It speaks to a time when the city of New York was such a booming port town that it artificially created an avenue and then erased it, both for the sake of dock space.

Submitted by Atlas Obscura contributor Luke J Spencer.

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