Several years ago I toured some of the mansions of Newport, Rhode Island – the place where anyone who was anyone had a summer “cottage” in the waning years of the 1800s. The very wealthy heirs of New York Central railroad magnate Cornelius Vanderbilt, were of course, no exception. William Kissam Vanderbilt had a mansion in Newport called Marble House, and his elder brother Cornelius II had The Breakers. While Marble House is remarkably lavish, it lacks the typical Vanderbilt aesthetic that one would find elsewhere – mostly because the home was designed for and by William’s wife Alva. The Breakers, on the other hand, has many of the obvious symbols representing both transportation and the Vanderbilts – the caduceus, acorns, and oak leaves.
Sketch by architect Richard Morris Hunt of the gates for The Breakers
Cornelius Vanderbilt II bought the property on which the Breakers sits in 1885. The house on the property was wooden, and burned down in 1892. After that fire, Vanderbilt commissioned Richard Morris Hunt to design a new summer home. Designed to resemble the palaces of Italy, the home had a total of 70 rooms and five floors. The Breakers is certainly one of the most extravagant homes in Newport, a symbol of the Gilded Age, and a representation of the fortunes amassed by the railroad barons of the United States.
For most people of my generation, the letters YMCA evoke an image of the Village People – far removed from the Young Men’s Christian Association it was founded as. Just as likely, one does not picture a group long associated with railroading, and certainly not an establishment designed by the likes of vaunted architects Warren and Wetmore. In reality, all of these statements are true – the YMCA was first established in New York in 1852, and a Grand Central Branch (also known as the Railroad Branch) was formed in 1875. Meeting in the basement of the Grand Central Depot, the fledgling organization was a second home to railroad men, and Sunday bible studies were led by Cornelius Vanderbilt II himself.
The YMCA organization was founded in 1844, but first became involved in the lives of railroaders in 1872 in Cleveland, Ohio. Besides the obvious religious aspect of the organization, it became a home where railroaders could be welcomed among colleagues and friends. Sermons and Bible studies, as well as decent places for railroad men to rest, get a meal at any hour, or diversions to pass the time, could all be found within the YMCA’s doors.
Typical scenes at YMCAs of the era. The first row depicts the 23rd Street YMCA in New York from the Library of Congress. Second row shows the Railroad YMCA in Washington DC by Herbert A French.
As Grand Central Terminal’s centennial year draws to a close, there are two more buildings designed by Grand Central’s architects that I wish to mention – one of which was the home for the Grand Central YMCA for fifteen years. In case you missed the previous entries in this series, you can check them out here:
The entire Grand Central Terminal complex, as envisioned by the New York Central Railroad’s Chief Engineer William Wilgus, was more than just a simple train station – it was a “Terminal City.” Hotels and other such amenities were built for the convenience of travelers, and the magnificent New York Central Building became the new home of the railroad’s management. One rarely mentioned feature of the Terminal City was intended to serve the basic railroad worker, and provided amenities to those that worked long hours to get people where they needed to go by train. Although the building was short lived, the Grand Central, or Railroad Branch, of the New York YMCA formed an inextricable piece of the fabric that is Grand Central, and the lives of those that toiled within.
The old YMCA (at left), and some members outside the new YMCA (at right).
Steadily rising from the modest organization it was founded as in a train station basement, the New York Railroad Branch of the Young Men’s Christian Association found its own home at the corner of Madison Avenue and 45th Street in 1886, whose capacity was doubled in 1893. By 1902 the Railroad Branch YMCA was celebrating its 26th anniversary as one of 170 local railroad branches in the US and Canada, all of which had a membership of more than 43,000. New York alone had 31 branches, and nearly 10,500 members. Plans for the new Terminal City, and this increasing membership, necessitated a new home again in 1912. Three Vanderbilts – William Kissam, Frederick, and Alfred Gwynne – each donated $100,000 for the establishment of a new seven-floor building at Park Avenue from 49th to 50th streets which perfectly fit with the aesthetic of the new Terminal City.
The new New York Railroad Branch YMCA
Opened in 1914, the new YMCA building was a fairly modest affair of cream colored pressed brick and Indiana limestone trim, 200 by 47 feet. Typical of the work of Warren and Wetmore, the building featured various fine detail work including the flying wheel – representative of transportation and the Roman god Mercury – an open bible marked with the symbols for Alpha and Omega, the lamp of knowledge, and a YMCA emblem. Leadership of the YMCA described the building as both dignified and attractive, and although fitting with the Terminal City, it was an easily distinguished building with its own individuality.
Members and guests of the YMCA had a wide options of amenities open to them. For those looking to socialize, the inside of the new YMCA featured a spacious lobby designed for such purpose – one could a piano and a fireplace to sit around. Warren and Wetmore detail work could equally be found inside the building, and engraved on the marble above the fireplace were the choice words “Sprit, Mind, Body,” a motto of the YMCA. Those looking to write letters home or catch up on news could find the requisite items in the Correspondence Room, while those looking for a little fun could find it on the six billiard tables also found on this floor. Finishing off the first floor was a checkroom for baggage and uniforms, lavatories, and a full service barber shop.
The lobby and bathroom found on the first floor.
No matter what hours a man worked, a restaurant and kitchen was open at all hours to serve, which occupied the entire second floor of the building. It featured the most elaborate restaurant of any YMCA at the time, with three dining rooms and seating for a total of 320 people. Meals ranging from ten to fifty cents were offered here, and lunches for thirty cents were offered in the popular Club Lunch Room.
Those that would opt for exercise could find a 40 x 75 foot gym, two full floors in height, on the third floor, complete with a spectator gallery for 100 people. The gym could be converted for use as an auditorium which could seat 500, and a stage and dressing room was available for this purpose. Four of the most modern Brunswick bowling alleys, featuring rubber “Mineralite” bowling balls were also located on this floor. A darkroom for the camera club, and a library with three reading alcoves could also be found on the third floor. Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt took on the responsibility of keeping the library stocked with the newest and most desirable books, at times donating up to a hundred new volumes per month. YMCA members could borrow two books at a time for a two week period.
Tracking the health of railroad men – the YMCA was a place to expand one’s spirit, mind, and body.
A locker room for the gym could be found on the fourth floor, as well as a lecture room with space for 125. Various classes were offered, from railroad-related Air Brake classes to First Aid, Public Speaking, and even Investing classes. For those on long swing shifts or long distance journeys that required rest, both single and double rooms were available in increments of 12 hours. These rooms occupied the fifth through seventh floors of the building. Several rooms were located on the fourth floor, but the majority took up the fifth, sixth, and seventh floors. Rooms averaged six by seventeen feet in size, and all had outside windows. At roof level one would find a canopied summer garden, seasonal courts for handball and tennis, and room for meetings during good weather.
Despite the featured amenities, the YMCA outgrew the building in a mere fifteen years, and the Warren and Wetmore construction was demolished. These days the Railroad Branch of the YMCA still exists, although it is referred to as the Vanderbilt Branch, in honor of Cornelius Vanderbilt II, the man that invested considerable time, effort, and money in the organization, back when it met in a lowly basement of Grand Central Depot. The exclusive male membership and religious aspects of the YMCA have been supplanted with a focus on community and opportunities for all. The organization has even distanced itself from its long standing acronym and has attempted to rebrand itself as merely “The Y.” Few ties to the railroad remain, besides the Vanderbilt name, and its proximity to Grand Central Terminal.
Some of the amenities offered to railroaders at the YMCA are still required to this day. Though definitely not as nice as the elaborate setup of the original YMCA Railroad Branch, locker rooms and bunk rooms for those with long train jobs to sleep can be found today in Grand Central. The upper floors of Grand Central hosted these for many years, though they shared one thing with the original YMCA – they were for men. Exclusive facilities for women didn’t exist all the way up through the Conrail years, but were finally established in the early ’80s. In the mid to late ’80s the bunk and locker rooms were relocated to the dark recess known as Carey’s Hole, and were relocated again to the third floor last year. In the lounge you can likely find conductors and engineers passing their free time playing cards, much as they did at the Railroad Branch.
The publication Railroad Men was printed by the Railroad Branch of the YMCA in New York. Note the design at left featuring the oak and acorn motif which appears frequently in Grand Central, symbols of the Vanderbilt family.
Sometimes I get questions from people about what I would do if I actually worked as a graphic designer for Metro-North. You know what I would do? I would hide acorns. Everywhere. (Hey, at least it beats some companystealing photographs from some website for an Employee “Professionalism” guide – there’s a joke in here, somewhere)
Maniculed Mileposts AND acorns. Because I CAN! (and yes, I know that Metro-North themselves don’t do the timetables)
Honestly, though, hiding acorns would be pretty funny. If you’ve ever been to Disney World, you may be familiar with the concept of hidden Mickeys. Mickey silhouettes are frequently hidden throughout the parks in places where you’d least expect them. Believe it or not, Grand Central has a particular item hidden in plain sight throughout – the acorn. I’ve mentioned it before, but the acorn was a symbol adopted by the Vanderbilt family, in lieu of a crest. As the saying goes, “from an acorn a mighty oak shall grow” – which appropriately reflects the successes of Cornelius Vanderbilt.
While the whole acorn thing is public knowledge, I don’t know how many people have made it into a game of finding as many acorns as possible. If Howard Permut has his way, you’d never wait more than 15 minutes for a train, but if you ever happened to get stuck in the Terminal with kids (or dingdongs with cameras), you can always spend the time hunting for acorns…
Although William Kissam Vanderbilt played a significant role in the aesthetic of Grand Central Terminal (and pushed the “Vanderbilt look” with the assistance of his architect cousin Whitney Warren), he played practically no role in the design of his Rhode Island mansion, Marble House. However, Cornelius Vanderbilt II’s mansion in Rhode Island, on the other hand, shares much of the same Vanderbilt aesthetic as the Terminal. In fact, you can also play the “Acorn Game” at his home, The Breakers.
I swear, one of these days I’m actually going to post all the photos I took at The Breakers last year… until then, have fun searching for acorns the next time you’re in Grand Central!
A few days ago I posted some lovely illustrations showing the fancy cars that operated on the New York Central and Boston and Albany railroads, all done by the American Bank Note Company. Admittedly, I had never really heard about that company until I saw their signature on the bottom of several of those illustrations. It was an intriguing discovery – not only does the company have roots dating back to the founding of this country, they’re still around today! Over the years they have done the engraving and printing for currency, postage stamps, stock certificates, and even railroad timetables. This style of illustration is what makes me absolutely adore old timetables from the 1800’s.
Because of my love of these illustrations, I’m amassed quite a little collection of them which I would like to share with you all. Though there were other engravers that did similar work, this collection is comprised of railroad-related engravings exclusively done by the American Bank Note Company. Many railroads used their services – you’ll note illustrations for the New York Central, the Pennsylvania Railroad, Grand Trunk Railway, and many others. In some cases I’ve isolated the illustrations from whatever they were a part of, often in the case of stock certificates. Hopefully you’ll enjoy them as much as I do… Have a favorite? Tell us in the comments!
I have a little confession to make – as much as I crack jokes about the younger generations of Vanderbilts and their amazing ability to spend their grandfather’s money, I must admit that despite all that some of them really have left their mark on the New York area. Outside of the railroad, Cornelius Vanderbilt II, grandson of the Commodore, had positions in all sorts of organizations. He held titles of Vice-President and director, was on the board of a few different hospitals, and was also a finance manager for a church or two. But one particularly noteworthy organization, of which he served as president, was the New York Botanical Garden. Vanderbilt, along with Andrew Carnegie and J. Pierpont Morgan also contributed monetarily to the gardens, which were formed in the 1890’s.
Postcard view of Botanical Garden station
The Botanical Garden station itself is located slightly less than ten miles from Grand Central, and mere steps from the gardens for which it was named. Although commuters do use the station, it is also frequented by tourists going to check out the gardens. Metro-North probably is one of the easiest ways to get to the gardens, and if you had any question about that, there is even a video on youtube that explains how easy it is to get there. The video does highlight the lack of consistency when it comes to the name of the station. All of the platform signs refer to it as “Botanical Garden” but the ticketing machines call it “Botanical Gardens”. I suppose it is not that big of a deal, but for the purpose of this post I am using Botanical Garden, as it is visible as such in my photos.
My longtime readers will recall the crazy idea that I had back in April or May of 2010, to photograph every Harlem Line station, and get at least one panorama photograph at each. I’ve spent the months since then photographing, and then posting a new station every week. Today my goal has finally been completed. Botanical Garden is the last station to be featured in my Tuesday Tour of the Harlem Line. Next week I’ll feature a little bonus, a station we all know. After that Tuesday posts will be on hiatus – but as soon as spring weather comes I can assure you that I’ll be out taking more photos.
There is a lot of wrong information, or downright confusion, when it comes to the Vanderbilts on the internet. I’ve seen articles saying they earned their fortunes in the 1930’s, and that Gloria Vanderbilt’s father was the man who made the millions. But the family has origins much earlier than that, with the “Commodore Cornelius” Vanderbilt. Can I fault people for the confusion? Not really, considering that there were six or more men named Cornelius, at least five Williams, and several George Washingtons. It is my belief that all New Yorkers, and everyone that ever steps through Grand Central, ought to know about the Commodore and his family that had so much influence on our area. It was he that united New York state’s oldest railroad, with New York city’s oldest railroad. The family that built the New York Central railroad into an empire, and constructed our wonderful monument, Grand Central Terminal. So, if you were ever confused about the Vanderbilts, hopefully they’ll now make more sense to you… as I present to you, the Vanderbilts in a nutshell.
If any of my readers are insomniacs, I highly recommend the book called “The Road of the Century: The Story of the New York Central.” I noticed that one of the libraries in the state owned it, and so I requested my local library to acquire it for me. The copy of the book looks remarkably ancient, though it was only published in 1947. Old enough, I suppose. Upon checking the book out, the librarian said to me, “So… You must like railroads?” I wonder if she were to work at a supermarket, and a customer was to purchase toilet paper, would she ask, “So… You must like toilet paper?” or “So… You must enjoy going to the bathroom?” …Sorry, I went off on a little tangent there. Back to the book, this dreadful, awful book. I don’t think I’ve ever held in my hand a more boring book… hence my comment about insomniacs. Get a copy, it will put you right to sleep. The New York Central has quite a rich history, but no one could have told it in a more dry fashion. In my mind I hear Ben Stein reciting the words in complete monotone…
So why exactly would I bore my readers with stories of a horrible book? Because it had one redeeming quality. Pictures. Wow, don’t I feel like a child, saying the only good part of a book was the pictures. But the pictures, they were good, and I figured I’d share with you all. Let’s “read” this book, together. And when I say read, I mean look at the pictures, and ignore all the snooze-inducing text.
Apparently the book was a donation to the library from the New York Central itself
1864, Michigan Southern & Northern Indiana conductors (or perhaps Abraham Lincoln impersonators).
My name is Emily, though I am known by many who ride the train simply as Cat Girl, for the hats I customarily wear during the winter time. I am a graphic designer, a former Metro North commuter and lifelong Harlem Line rider. This site is a collection of my usually train-related thoughts, observations, photographs, and travels, as well as my never-ending hunt for intriguing historical artifacts.