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Posts Tagged ‘20th century limited’

Grand Central Terminal’s Companion – The New York Central Building History Photos

Thursday, August 15th, 2013

When the New York Central Railroad’s chief engineer William Wilgus came up with the concept of Grand Central Terminal, there were most likely a few people out there that felt he was completely nuts. Despite the fact that at the time the NYC was one of the mightiest railroads in not only the United States, but the world, the price tag for the project was incredibly high. Without the concept of “air rights” it is likely that the project would never have moved forward. Covering the Terminal’s tracks and allowing buildings to be constructed in the “air” above turned out to be a very sound investment. The railroad owned significant amounts of highly profitable, prime New York real estate, and the neighborhood surrounding Grand Central and built on that land became known as Terminal City. The Biltmore Hotel, Commodore Hotel, and the Yale Club were all parts of this city within a city. But it was the New York Central Building, finished in 1929, that was the crowning achievement of Terminal City, and an appropriate companion for Grand Central Terminal.

Construction on the New York Central building
Construction photo of the New York Central Building. [image source]

One of the final buildings designed by Warren and Wetmore in New York City, the New York Central building became the new home of the railroad’s corporate offices. Although today we view the building as a Beaux Arts masterpiece, on par with Grand Central Terminal itself, when the building was completed in 1929 it was generally looked down upon by the architecture world. As American architecture had moved beyond the Beaux Arts style about ten years prior, critics felt the building was almost like a step backwards. Viewed as a whole, however, the New York Central building fits perfectly with its companion, Grand Central Terminal.

Postcards showing the New York Central Building
Postcards showing the New York Central Building

Some of the most wonderful parts of the New York Central building are the details and sculptural elements you’ll find all over, a major component of the Beaux Arts style. These elements were sculpted by Edward McCartan, Director of the sculpture department of the Beaux-Arts Institute of Design in New York City. While Warren and Wetmore frequently used the work of Sylvain Salieres, including for Grand Central Terminal, by the time the New York Central building was to be constructed, Salieres was no longer alive.

The building’s primary sculptural element is the clock that sits atop the front façade, featuring Mercury at left, and the goddess Ceres at right. Mercury is the typical deity used to represent transportation, while Ceres represents agriculture – one of many types of freight carried by the railroad. Found in various locations around the building are several other faces, whose identities never seem to be discussed. One of these faces is contorted into a painful grimace, and placed in front of a fiery torch. Perhaps this figure is representative of Prometheus of Greek myth – the titan who gave fire to man, who was punished by Zeus for the act.

The New York Central Building in print
Poster of the New York Central Building by Chesley Bonestell, and cover of the October 26, 1929 edition of the New Yorker with illustration by Theodore G. Haupt.

High above street level are the faces of American Bison, situated above stylized compasses, representative of how the railroads essentially built this country – or at least how it contributed to the migration of people to the west. Sharing a similar concept, a face resembling the Greek god of nature and the wild, Pan, appears towards the very top of the building. Eagles, representative of the United States, can be found above some of the doors to the building, and lions, a symbol of power can be found in the tunnel that carries Park Avenue through the building. Purely decorative columns, much derided by the architects of the day, can also be found on the upper reaches of the tower.

The New York Central Building visible from the construction site of another skyscraper
The New York Central Building visible from the construction site of another skyscraper

As the New York Central’s financial woes grew after World War II, the railroad began selling off some of its New York real estate. After being sold in the 1950′s, the New York Central Building became the New York General Building – a crafty idea that required only minimal changing of the signage. Eventually, the building was purchased by Helmsley-Spear, and it is rumored that Harry Helmsley’s wife Leona was the one who formally changed the building’s name to the Helmsley Building.

Perhaps the biggest travesty of the Helmsleys, besides all the tax evasion and treating their employees like dirt, was their grand idea to “update” the façade of the building. All of the architectural details on the building, including the sculptures of Mercury and Ceres, were coated with a layer of gold paint. Thankfully, during the building’s 2002 restoration, these elements were restored to their original state, without the paint. The building was sold in 1998, about a year after Harry Helmsley’s death, though it is said that Leona required a stipulation along with the sale – that the building would not be renamed. It is likely for this reason why the outside of the building still reads the Helmsley Building, while the property owners refer to it by the generic name 230 Park.

Many of the sculptural details on the building were painted gold by the Helmsleys in 1979
Many of the sculptural details on the building were painted gold by the Helmsleys in 1979. [image source]

The current owners have made several modifications of their own to the building – two bronze murals – weighing over a ton and comprised of 40 individual panels – depicting the streamlined 20th Century Limited have been installed in the building’s lobby in 2010. Though attractive, it would have been nicer if a more time appropriate scene was selected – the building predates the streamlined locomotive by about ten years.

Bringing the building into the “modern age,” the current owners also hired lighting designer Al Borden, who came up with a night time lighting scheme for the building. As the building is designated as a landmark, none of the lighting was permitted to “compromise the building’s architectural integrity.” Thus all light sources had to remain hidden, and none could be drilled into the building’s surface. Over 700 individual lights were added to the building, and similar to the Empire State Building, the colors can change reflecting holidays and other events.

 
A scene from the movie The Godfather was filmed in the former New York Central building. Note the portrait of William Henry Vanderbilt, and the old style #999 Empire State Express.

When constructed, the New York Central Building was one of the primary features of the New York skyline. It may not have been the tallest building, but it was certainly one of the more unique. It remained as such until the late 1950′s when it was dwarfed by the massive Pan Am Building, now known as the MetLife Building. Despite that, the building is still a symbol of New York, and has appeared numerous times in popular media. Moviegoers might recognize it as the building that appeared in the poster for 2008′s film The Dark Knight, and eagle eyed viewers may have seen some of the building’s inner rooms in the movie The Godfather.

The MetLife and Helmsley Buildings are visible from four miles away at Harlem 125th Street station
The MetLife and Helmsley Buildings are visible from four miles away at Harlem 125th Street station.

Let’s take a photo tour of the old New York Central building, including a quick peek of the marble-covered inner lobby. Weekends in August are the best time to check out the building, as part of the city’s Summer Streets program, which closes parts of Park Avenue to cars. You’ll be given the rare opportunity to not only view the building up close and personal, but to walk the Park Avenue Viaduct, and the tunnels that travel through the old New York Central building.

 
  
 
  
   
   
  
 
   
  
   
  
  
 
   
 
  
   
 
  

Happy Independence Day from I Ride the Harlem Line! Train Advertisements History

Thursday, July 4th, 2013

Our previous post featured some of the menus from the New York Central’s most famous train, the 20th Century Limited… but I left one out, as I felt it was appropriate for today. Printed in 1943, World War Two raged on, and much of the country’s resources were devoted to the war effort. Not only did the railroads move troops and materiel, they heavily advertised war bonds on timetables, menus, and even on a giant “billboard” in Grand Central. This particular 20th Century Limited menu featured a large American flag (the 48 star variety, of course) on the back with a little story about what our flag represents. It felt perfect for today! Happy Independence Day from I Ride The Harlem Line!

Wartime Menu

Wartime Menu

Wartime Menu

Is there anything to eat on this darn train? Tickets and menus from the 20th Century Limited Transit Museum History

Tuesday, July 2nd, 2013

Right before Grand Central’s Parade of Trains I got an email from Polly Desjarlais, one of the educators at the Transit Museum. The museum was looking for a copy of a nice ticket to duplicate and hand out to kids at the Parade, and there’d even be a costumed conductor to punch those tickets. Since there would also be a coloring book page of the 20th Century Limited, they were really looking for a ticket from that specific train. Unfortunately, my collection did not include a ticket from the 20th Century. Not only that, I had never even seen a ticket for it, whether in real life or otherwise. In the end, the museum ended up duplicating one of my many commuter tickets, and thus quite a few little children at the Parade of Trains “found themselves” on a Harlem Division train bound for Hartsdale in August of 1943.

20th Century Limited
Scenes from the 20th Century Limited.

Though I may be a little late to the party, I did finally acquire a ticket from the 20th Century Limited. Too late, unfortunately, to use for the Parade of Trains, but perfect timing to share with all of you. And because nobody wants to ride the 20th Century Limited on an empty stomach, here’s a small little collection of menus from the train. Enjoy a quick look back at life aboard not only Grand Central’s most famous train, but one of the most notable trains in American history.

Ticket from the 20th Century Limited
All aboard the 20th Century Limited!

20th Century Limited Menus
One of the more boring menu covers

20th Century Limited Menus
The more “traditional” 20th Century look

20th Century Limited Menus
Simple, yet elegant. When do we eat?

A Hundred Years of Commuter Tickets to Grand Central History Photos

Friday, March 8th, 2013

If you caught the article that I wrote in Railfan & Railroad Magazine for Grand Central Terminal’s centennial, you’re likely familiar with my thought that GCT is not just a beautiful building, but one that is still relevant and useful. Undoubtedly there are people out there that feel that Grand Central is just a washed up relic – a shadow of its former self. The mighty trains that once served the station – like the Empire State Express, and the Twentieth Century Limited – are long gone. In fact, since Amtrak left in 1991, not a single long distance train serves Grand Central – it is a commuter-only station. But just because the main demographic the station serves has changed, it doesn’t make Grand Central any less of a gem. Grand Central remains useful and relevant partly because it has reinvented itself over the years – all to keep pace with that changing demographic. The baggage check and a theater once located here seem suited for the long-distance traveler of yesteryear, while Grand Central Market is perfectly tailored to today’s busy commuter.

Although never the most glamorous, commuters have always been an important part of Grand Central’s history. The lower level of the Terminal, which now houses the “dining concourse,” was the realm of the commuter – the “suburban concourse.” Part of the wonderful design of Grand Central was that commuters never had to mingle with the long distance riders. They had easy access to the ramps, subway, and egress to get to where they needed to go. But that wasn’t the only difference between the two types of riders – commuters were also differentiated by the type of ticket they held. Monthly commuter tickets looked quite different from regular ride tickets, and over the past one hundred years their design changed many times. Here’s a look back at some of the varied styles, and one of the favorites in my collection.

Ticket booklet
This ticket booklet, stamped with the New York Central logo contained a photo of the rider, so no one else could use it. The monthly ticket could slip inside the pouch and was visible to the conductor.

Coupon book
A coupon book style ticket. Little ticket coupons inside were ripped out by the conductor for each ride.

Colored tickets
Various tickets with colored backgrounds. Similar to today’s monthly, the color changed each month, so it was easily visible to the conductor.

Pasted on tickets
Similar to the colored tickets above, these tickets contained a printed and pasted on portion which listed the station information.

Modern Metro-North Tickets
More modern Metro-North tickets. Today’s ticket can double as a Metro-Card.

Grand Central Ticket
My favorite monthly ticket – note the date that it was purchased. February 2nd, 1913 was the day Grand Central Terminal opened to the public. This type of ticket had boxes surrounding it, which the conductor clipped with each ride.

A visit to the secret library inside Grand Central Terminal History Photos

Friday, November 30th, 2012

Grand Central Terminal has plenty of secrets, though most of them aren’t quite secret, as they have been covered in the media in some shape or form. If you’re lucky enough to ever get on a VIP tour of the Terminal, there is one place that tour most likely will never go – the Williamson Library. That’s right – hidden within the walls of Grand Central Terminal, since 1937, is a library! It certainly isn’t flashy – and probably not tremendously interesting to anyone that isn’t a railfan – but one of the library’s prized possessions makes this one of my favorite Grand Central secrets.


Photograph of Frederick Ely Williamson, which appeared in Fortune magazine. Williamson served as president of the New York Central from 1935 – 1944, and founded the library.

Frederick Ely Williamson, the library’s founder and namesake, was born on June 14th, 1876 in Norwalk, Ohio, the son of a clergyman. A 1898 graduate of Yale University, Williamson got a job with the New York Central in September of that year, after graduation. His first job with the railroad was as a Mohawk division clerk in Albany, with a salary of seventy dollars per month. By 1917, he was an integral part of the railroad, coordinating the movement of war supplies on the eastern seaboard. When the government took over the railroads for the war, he became the general agent for the port of New York. After the war, he continued his employment with the New York Central until 1925, when he became the vice president of the Northern Pacific railroad, and president of the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy.

By 1932, Williamson had returned to New York, and ascended to the presidency of the New York Central, leading the company through the end of the Great Depression. During World War II he was appointed a Colonel by the Army, and named supervisor of railroads in the Eastern region. Williamson served as president of the New York Central until August 14th, 1944, when he resigned due to poor health. Shortly afterward, Williamson died in New York on September 29th, 1944, at the age of 68.

Although that short biography details the life of an intriguing individual, it leaves out one major detail about Mr. Williamson – he was not just a railroad executive, but a big railfan. A member of the Railroad Enthusiasts of New York, he founded the library that was eventually named after him in 1937. The library has been under the care of the Railroad Enthusiasts of New York ever since, and its current membership contains plenty of railfans, old railroaders, and even some current Metro-North employees.

  
Behind one very innocuous-looking door lies another door, and the entrance to the library!


Panoramic view of the Williamson Library, decorated with lights for the holiday season.

Located above the Apple store, the Williamson Library is generally closed off to the public. Without a keycard for the elevator, you’d likely never make it up to the floor. Even if you managed to do that, the outside door is so plain and unremarkable you’d likely never even notice you’re standing outside a room full of history. Contained within the library is an archive of over 3000 railroad-related books, periodicals, and other literature. Visitation for research is by appointment only, and the room is otherwise used for New York Railroad Enthusiasts’ meetings. It is also home to various old artifacts, including the first version of Metro-North’s mascot Metro-Man, and a remnant of the original 20th Century Limited red carpet.


The prized possession of the Williamson Library – a remnant of the 20th Century Limited red carpet.

The 20th Century Limited, which traveled from New York to Chicago, is likely the most famous train to have ever used Grand Central Terminal. The height of fashion and luxury, it transported countless famous faces throughout its history. Lavishly appointed, the whole experience commenced with a walk down a plush red carpet. It is claimed that the phrase “rolling out the red carpet” entered our lexicon because of this famous train. After the 20th Century Limited was eliminated in 1967, the old carpet was no longer needed. Thankfully, some folks had the foresight to cut the long carpet into pieces, and save a few remnants for posterity.



Advertisements and photographs of the red carpet in action.

If you’ve been following our Grand Central centennial celebration on facebook, 100 for 100 (which you totally should be!), you’ll recall that I mentioned the 20th Century Limited’s red carpet just the other day. I know of at least two different remnants of the original carpet – the one found in the library in Grand Central Terminal, and another that stays with the restored former 20th Century Limited observation car, Hickory Creek. If you visited Grand Central during National Train Day, you likely saw a portion of the red carpet – this was the one that travels with the Hickory Creek, and not the one that resides in GCT.


The other known surviving remnant of the 20th Century Limited red carpet in Grand Central on National Train Day. Photo by Otto Vondrak.

Whether the library’s portion of the red carpet will make an appearance for the Grand Central Centennial remains to be seen, but I certainly hope it will. It is definitely one of my favorite historical artifacts hidden within the Terminal, and with the library, one of Grand Central’s more secretive “secrets.”