Atlas Obscura
Your Guide to the World's Hidden Wonders

July 1 2016 12:30 PM

The Oslo Opera House

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The Oslo Opera House (Operahuset i Oslo) is a beautifully crafted cultural building whose sharp, white surface draws your imagination to an iceberg silently drifting in the ocean, with the morning sun shining though crystal blue glass windows as it would frosty water. This is no coincidence either.

The goal was to make the capital city's Opera House, commissioned in the year 2000, feel like a part of the surrounding nature, and the building's architect, Snohetta, drew inspiration from icy glaciers.

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The roof is sleek and easy to climb, making it the perfect destination for a Sunday walk. You can also admire the many works of art commissioned to complete the Opera House, most notably "She Lies" by Monica Bonvicini, a stainless steel and glass sculpture in the middle of the sea.

The building's design has earned it several awards, and it is today protected by the Norwegian Directorate for Cultural Heritage. It is a building meant to be easily accessed by the public, as a gift to the people, which is why the entrance bridge is open 24/7.

The Opera House opened in 2008 and is now the home of both the Norwegian National Ballet and the National Theatre in Norway.

Submitted by Atlas Obscura contributor Sunniva.

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June 30 2016 12:30 PM

North Carolina’s Road to Nowhere

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The Fontana Dam, rising high above the Little Tennessee River in western North Carolina, is the tallest dam in the Eastern United States. It was a long and winding road to build the dam, and what was lost during the journey can be seen in the “Road to Nowhere.”

Fontana Dam was built in 1941, on land given over to the Tennessee Valley Authority by the Aluminum Company of America, or ALCOA. Entering World War II meant a huge spike in the demand for aluminum for aircraft, ships and munitions, so a deal was struck for the TVA to build the dam with ALCOA as the primary consumer. With a ready-made customer in the War Department, the aluminum company stood to benefit from all that hydroelectric power coming in.

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Who didn’t benefit were the flooded-out communities along the banks of the rising water.

Where there had previously been small towns, villages and homesteads along the north side of the river, there was now Fontana Lake, and people who lived and worked there were either bought out or moved off.

Part of the dam deal, to assuage those being displaced, was to build a road from Bryson City to Deals Gap along a route north of the river. It was intended to not only allow people to make the journey but to provide ongoing access to their ancestral lands and cemeteries. The road was to be cut through the newly created Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

The people were moved, the water rose, and by the 1970s—30 years after the original agreement was made—only a small portion of the road was built. This small section, still there today, is about seven miles long and ends abruptly at a quarter-mile tunnel in the middle of the park, in the middle of nowhere. With no road, a consolation prize of $58 million was agreed to be paid to Swain County.

As of today only $12 million has been paid, and the county has filed a lawsuit for the remainder of the promised money. It’s no wonder one landowner has maintained his now-iconic sign:

“Welcome to the Road to Nowhere – A broken Promise! 1943 - ? →”

Submitted by Atlas Obscura contributor ashleeweeks.

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June 29 2016 12:30 PM

Philadelphia’s Moon Tree

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Philadelphia’s Washington Square Park, a block south of the more famous Independence Hall and Liberty Bell, is mostly thought of as the home of the Tomb of the Unknown Revolutionary War Soldier. Few visitors realize that only a few yards away is the replanted clone of a Moon Tree.

In 1971 Astronaut Stuart Roosa was on the Apollo 14 Moon mission, but before being an astronaut he had served as a firefighter for the Forest Service. The Forest Service asked him to help in a little experiment—to bring tree seeds into space to see if they would germinate once back on Earth. Roosa was happy to oblige and brought hundreds of tree seeds, comprised of five varieties, on a ride to the Moon.

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While in orbit, the capsule containing the seeds ruptured, but remarkably the seeds still popped when back in Forest Service hands. The seedlings were spread around the world, just in time to commemorate the 1976 bicentennial. They were called “Moon Trees,” and were sent off to everywhere from the White House to Texas, from Brazil to the Emperor of Japan.

It’s here in Washington Square Park that NASA and the US.. Forest Service planted the first of the Bicentennial Moon Trees. The little sycamore struggled to hold on, but didn’t make it for very long. In 2011 it was dead but soon replaced with another seedling—this time a clone from clippings of the original Moon Tree. (The Forest Service, on hand for the replanting ceremony, reported plans to recycle the old sycamore into signs and plaques that will remain in Washington Square Park.)

Space botany aside, the park itself has a long history, beginning in the early 18th century when it was everything from a cattle market and grazing site, to the city’s Potter’s Field (burial for paupers and the unknown), and cemetery for the city’s black population. Also buried here are victims of the Yellow Fever epidemic of the late 18th century.

Now, right in the old soil where so many known and unknown had been buried 200 years before, is the first of many space-faring saplings starting their earthly journey. The Forest Service doesn’t have a complete list of Moon Trees, but they are trying to track them all down—at least the ones that have survived. You can find out more about them here, here, and here. But that’s just a start; there are potentially hundreds of Moon Trees out there in this world.

Submitted by Atlas Obscura contributor grislydiscovery.

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June 28 2016 12:30 PM

The Cumberland Pencil Museum

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“Fraser-Smith. Charles Fraser-Smith.”

OK, he wasn’t James Bond. But Charles Fraser-Smith was thought to be the inspiration for the gadget guru “Q” in the Ian Fleming series, serving as an agent for Britain’s military intelligence arm during World War II. Fraser-Smith came up with lots of inventions and gadgets for soldiers and flyers during the War, including a pencil with a secret compartment to hide a map and a compass. Fraser-Smith thought that such a pencil could be used by British prisoners of war, to aid them in an escape. When he needed a company to help produce his James Bond–escape-artist pencils, he paid a visit to the Cumberland Pencil Co. in Keswick, Cumbria.

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Pencil manufacturing in and around Keswick goes back nearly 200 years, but the discovery of graphite goes back much further, to around the 16th century. Graphite was used for all kinds of things besides being stuffed into sticks of wood, including munitions manufacturing. Graphite mining became a major industry in Cumbria, and several factories began to pop up in the 19th century to take advantage of the supply. What was to become the Cumberland Pencil Co. goes back to 1832, fabricating writing implements under the name of Banks, Son & Co. The company changed hands a few times over the years, becoming Hogarth & Hayes in 1875, and finally the Cumberland Pencil Co. in 1916. The factory turned out graphite pencils, colored pencils, and artist’s charcoal for another 90 years, finally closing in 2007 and relocating 20 miles west to the town of Workington, where they still make fine pencils and other art supplies under the brand Derwent.

The little museum alongside the Cumberland factory will tell you the whole story, and they have the world’s largest colored pencil too boot. It’s 26 feet long, weighing just under half a ton. Just think what Charles Fraser-Smith could hide in that thing.

Submitted by Atlas Obscura contributor laurensverkade.

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June 27 2016 12:30 PM

The Most Alluring Women of 17th-Century England

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On a wood-paneled wall in the Communications Gallery of London's Hampton Court Palace hang 10 portraits in a line. All are of women, and all the women look remarkably similar: frizzy-haired, goggle-eyed, double-chinned, and swathed in great gathered folds of silk. These are the Windsor Beauties—the 17th-century equivalent of the Maxim Hot 100.

The Windsor Beauties were chosen to be immortalized because they were the most alluring and powerful women at the court of Charles II, who became king of England, Ireland, and Scotland in 1660. Being selected for a Windsor Beauty portrait meant becoming a celebrity pinup; copies of the portraits and engraved prints of the women circulated among admirers. Baptist May, Keeper of the Privy Purse and “court pimp,” in the words of Samuel Pepys, kept a stash of eight portraits in his private lodgings. Half of the women among those eight were royal mistresses.

And really, at that time, who wasn't carrying on with Charles II. The king's reign, which came after more than a decade of Puritan-fueled political upheaval, was so characterized by hedonism and licentiousness that he earned the name “the Merry Monarch.”

Attractive women were a necessary part of the king’s party ethos, and he wasn’t about to let a little thing called marriage get in the way of pursuing them ardently. Charles II kept multiple mistresses and fathered at least a dozen children, none of whom were born to his wife, Catherine of Braganza.

June 24 2016 12:30 PM

The Museum of Western Film History

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Two hundred miles and a 3½-hour drive outside of Los Angeles sits the town of Lone Pine, California. Nestled in the Alabama Hills of the Eastern Sierra Nevada mountain range, Lone Pine has served for almost a century as a destination for Hollywood filmmakers seeking sites for exotic location shooting.

Starting in 1919 with the Western film serial Lightning Bryce, Lone Pine and its environs have appeared as the backdrop for genre classics starring Gene Autry, Hopalong Cassidy, and John Wayne as well as less successful revisionist Western fare like Kevin Costner’s The Postman and 2013’s box office bomb The Lone Ranger. The landscape has also doubled as the Himalayas in films like 1939’s Gunga Din, Spain in 2000's Gladiator, and even outer space in science-fiction movies like Rocketship X-M from 1950 and Star Trek V from 1989.

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The Beverly and Jim Rogers Lone Pine Film History Museum celebrates the Hollywood history of the region. Within the museum, the history of film at Lone Pine becomes a stand-in for a broader history of Hollywood and the Hollywood Western. It traces the evolution of the genre through big stars like John Wayne and singing cowboys like Gene Autry and Roy Rogers. It recounts the movement of the genre from Tom Mix silent films and big-screen epics like Rio Bravo to B-Westerns like Gene Autry’s The Train to San Antone and more recent efforts like Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained.

It also narrates the genre in terms of the development of technology from the coming of talkies in the 1920s to the coming of television as a domestic medium in the 1950s. These stories are told simultaneously through authentic screen-used artifacts, movie posters, and children’s toys, among other objects.

As much as the museum outlines the history of a Hollywood genre and a history of media technology, it also maps broad currents of American history. The Western genre is a history of manifest destiny and the settlement of the region by white pioneers, but these films have also served as allegories of current events, and the museum bears this out too.

This is especially evident in films of the 1950s that began to deal with developments in American culture like postwar alienation, Cold War paranoia, and, in the case of Bad Day at Black Rock, the Japanese internment that occurred during World War II. However, the museum also makes historical contexts evident when it looks at the genre’s representation of Asian and Arabic people through Edward Said’s concept of orientalism. This idea shows how Westerners construct nonwhite people through racist depictions of savagery and primitivism.

At the Lone Pine Museum, visitors are encouraged to both tour the galleries and venture out into the hills and onto the locations themselves. This is, as the museum’s slogan argues, “where the real West becomes the reel West.” Indeed, the site intentionally juxtaposes fictional narratives with real spaces, highlighting the ways in which places are simultaneously fixed and mutable as they represent both 100 years of American history and futuristic science fiction.

The museum thus teaches us how to see both time and space in new ways—ways that blend the past, the present, and the future through tangible objects and material geographies.

Submitted by Atlas Obscura contributor Mabel Rosenheck.

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June 23 2016 12:30 PM

Country Club Plaza in Kansas City, Missouri

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Most people probably don’t associate Missouri, let alone Kansas City, with Spanish architecture. But one of the city’s most iconic landmarks looks to mimic just that.

Built by local real estate developer J.C. Nichols, Country Club Plaza opened during the height of the Roaring ’20s with a distinct theme: Seville, Spain.

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Named for the surrounding Country Club neighborhood, most know it simply as The Plaza, and the buildings have remained almost unchanged since opening in 1923. In addition to the architecture, there are more than 30 statues, murals, and tile mosaics that add to the Spanish flavor, and the blocks are anchored by several major architectural reproductions like the Cathedral of Seville and even San Francisco’s Path of Gold Streetlights.

The Plaza was the first shopping center in the world designed specifically to accommodate the auto-centric shopper. By including a number of semiconcealed parking garages, several gas stations and, eventually, even drive-thru banking, motorists could be shoppers, and vice versa. Everything you needed was one short drive away. There was a grocery, a drug store, even a bowling alley. And the developers made sure to include both midlevel retailers like Sears and Woolworth along with more high-end shops.

Country Club Plaza was an immediate hit.

In 1930, almost by accident, the Plaza hit on what’s become one of Kansas City’s longest standing traditions. The “Season of Lights” begins on Thanksgiving Night with a two-hour televised lighting ceremony, and every night through mid-January the entire 55 acres shine bright, drawing tourists from all over the world. As impressive as the light show is, in the 1950s and ’60s it was even more elaborate, with the massive street-level store windows displaying an enormous collection of Christmas-themed animatronics.

Curiously, with everything J.C. Nichols thought of, unlike most plazas in Spain, this one has no central plaza.

Submitted by Atlas Obscura contributor jusTodd.

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June 22 2016 12:30 PM

Brooklyn’s Studebaker Building

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In the early 1900s, Bedford Avenue in Brooklyn, stretching between Empire Boulevard and Atlantic Avenue, was known as “Automobile Row," so named for its clustering of showrooms, dealerships, garages and other businesses catering to American car owners.

The Studebaker building, a striking early-20th-century auto showroom, harkens back to the golden age of the American automobile industry. Built in 1920 by Tooker and Marsh, the building served as a two-story Studebaker showroom for almost 20 years.

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The Atlantic Terra-Cotta Company supplied the iconic white terra-cotta that decorates the entire edifice, which still maintains a visible neo-Gothic aesthetic. The building once stood with a giant electric sign advertising the Studebaker name and still bears the Studebaker emblem above its highest windows.

With rapid expansion of the Studebaker Corporation—from its humble origins as a wagon supplier in South Bend, Indiana, in the 1850s, to a manufacturer of gasoline-powered touring cars in the early decades of the 20th century—came a need to elegantly display the Studebaker product to the American public. In 1920, the corporation opened its showroom on Bedford Avenue in Brooklyn's Crown Heights neighborhood.

It is reported that Studebaker stopped showing cars here in 1939, and in 1941 architect Irving Cohen oversaw a major cosmetic upgrade to the building, removing the plate-glass windows from the streetfront and making alterations to the first and second floors and the mezzanine. A few years later, what had once been a prominent auto showroom had become a collection of a dress shop, furniture showroom, and offices.

Bought by a developer in 1999, the old Studebaker showroom stands today as a residential building of 27 apartments and has been granted landmark status.

Submitted by Atlas Obscura fellow and contributor daviddoochin.

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June 21 2016 12:30 PM

The Hidden Messages of Colonial Handwriting

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Imagine a world in which the font you use is chosen for you, based entirely on your demographic affiliations. All doctors write in Garamond, while designers are mandated Futura Bold. Middle-aged men get Arial; women, Helvetica. Goofy aunts must use Comic Sans.

Seem strange? A few centuries ago, that was just how things worked. In colonial America, "the very style in which one formed letters was determined by one's place in society," writes historian Tamara Thornton in Handwriting in America: A Cultural History. Thanks to the rigorous teachings of professionals called "penmen," merchants wrote strong, loopy logbooks, women's words were intricate and shaded, and upper-class men did whatever they felt like. So different were the results, says Thornton, that "a fully literate stranger could evaluate the social significance of a letter … simply by noting what hand it had been written in."

June 20 2016 12:30 PM

The Underwater Ballroom

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Beneath an artificial lake in Surrey, England, is an underwater ballroom created by a Victorian swindler.

British financier Whitaker Wright was not a man to do things in half measures. He lived big, he stole big, and when the time came, he exited the planet in a grand theatrical style.

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During the 1880s, Wright made a fortune by promoting silver-mining companies in America. None of the companies made money for the investors, though he himself did quite well. You might recognize a certain similarity with members of the modern finance industry.

Wright returned to England, promoting foreign mining companies on the London market. Now a rich man, he worked to insert himself into Victorian English society, which meant buying a very fast, very fancy yacht and building an extravagant manor. Wright ended up with a 32-room neo-Tudor mansion, equipped with a theater, observatory, velodrome, private hospital, and stables accommodating more than 50 horses. He also had three artificial lakes dug. All 9,000 acres of his estate were exquisitely landscaped.

Perhaps the most notable and unique addition to his estate was what has come to be called the "Underwater Ballroom." Built in one of the artificial lakes on the property, it was a hidden subterranean smoking room beneath a roof aquarium. Inside it one could look out and watch fish swim by as yellow light filtered in through the windows.

Above ground, the only clue to the ballroom's existence was the statue of Neptune emerging from the lake as if presiding over his realm. When the ballroom was occupied, smoke from the financiers' cigars reportedly piped out through Neptune's mouth. It was spectacular—and like everything else on Whitaker Wright's Lea Park estate, it was doomed.

With his network of corporations and a palatial estate complete with secret chambers, everything seemed to be going swimmingly for Whitaker Wright. But unbeknownst to his investors, the millionaire magnate was slowly drowning.

In 1900, Wright floated a large, unwieldy bond issue for London's Baker Street and Waterloo Railway. It was an expensive endeavor quite out of his usual comfort zone, and everything immediately went south. To keep investors from seeing him struggle, he began to issue himself a series of loans and shuttle them between his companies. Unable to keep things afloat, he fled, leaving his floundering investors in a panic.

Now considered a scourge and a scoundrel, Wright was retrieved and forced to stand trial. Needless to say, it didn't go well. Convicted of fraud, he was sentenced to seven years in prison by the Royal Courts of Justice in 1904.

In a court anteroom, Whitaker Wright took his own life by swallowing a cyanide pill immediately after sentencing and was found dead on the floor with a revolver in his pocket—assumed to serve as a backup in case the cyanide failed to finish the job.

After his death, Wright’s estate was auctioned off and sold to one Lord Pirrie, known today mostly for his role in the building of the Titanic. What use was made of the underwater smoking room is unknown.

In 1952, the mansion was completely destroyed in a fire. While new houses have been built, the landscaped park and the now ancient-looking ballroom still remain as the last remnants of Whitaker Wright's grand life.

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