Cass Gilbert’s Griffins

After visiting enough historical railroad stations (or by reading this blog) it doesn’t take too long to get accustomed to the decorative symbols enmeshed within the architecture. A set of symbols, like the caduceus and the winged wheel, are all associated with transportation, and can be found on stations near and far – especially those designed in the Beaux Arts style. Many of these stem from the Roman deity Mercury – the swift messenger god that became associated with transportation, always depicted wearing a winged cap and a with caduceus in hand. Also common is the winged wheel, representative of both Mercury and speed, which has represented transportation beyond railroads. The auto industry has made use of the symbol, and it can even be found in use today as the logo of the Detroit Red Wings. Other symbols, like the eagle, are representations of American patriotism. And for all those New York Central fans, the acorns and oak leaves symbolic of the Vanderbilt clan can be found within the railroad’s most notable stations.

   
  
A – Winged cap and caduceus, both symbols of Mercury, god of transportation, New York Central station, Bronxville
B – Winged wheel, transportation and speed, New York Central building
C – Caduceus and horn of plenty, symbol of Mercury, and of prosperity, Michigan Central Station, Detroit
D – Eagle, representing American patriotism, Utica Union Station
E – Acorns, adopted crest of the Vanderbilt family, New York Central station, Yonkers
F – Mercury, Roman god of transportation, Grand Central Terminal

On one Metro-North station, however, you’ll find a particular symbol that isn’t quite common in rail stations – the griffin. Griffins are the mythological hybrid of the lion and the eagle, depicted with a lion’s body and an eagle’s head. Besides being the venerable king of beasts, as the lion was generally regarded as the king of animals and the eagle as the king of birds, the griffin guarded treasure and wealth. Architect Cass Gilbert incorporated the symbol into several of his designs, including New Haven Union Station, and the West Street Building in Manhattan, which was used as an office building by the Delaware, Lackawanna and Western Railroad. Many men amassed fortunes in the railroading business, and these griffins became the symbolic guardians of this wealth.

The West Street Building, circa 1912
The West Street Building, now usually called 90 West Street, once towered over lower Manhattan, circa 1912

Though Cass Gilbert is usually remembered as the designer of New York City’s first skyscrapers, his elaborate portfolio consisted of museums, state capitol buildings, courts, libraries, and even train stations. Gilbert’s most notable station is New Haven’s Union station, which opened in 1920 and replaced an earlier station destroyed by fire. For a Beaux Arts design, the station’s exterior is really rather plain, but the inner waiting room and ticket windows are undoubtedly beautiful. Over-exaggerated embellishments are few, though observant viewers can spot griffins on the wall in the office section of the station.

 
  
   
  
 
   
  
 
  

Through a twist of fate, Gilbert’s most notable griffins would be those found on the West Street Building. Completed in 1907, the 23 story building was one of the tallest in lower Manhattan. Over time it became dwarfed by neighboring skyscrapers, and eventually the World Trade Center. Though it was always a gorgeous historical part of New York, the West Street building gained much notoriety after the attacks in September 11th, 2001. The building took major damage – fires lasted for days, and debris rained down on it from the collapsing towers. Two people died in the building’s elevator, and portions of one of the hijacked planes were found on the building’s roof. Ultimately, solid construction won the day – although the damage was immense, the building survived.

90 West Street and the World Trade Center
90 West Street eventually became dwarfed by the World Trade Center, seen in 1970 during construction and in 1988. Photos by Camilo J. Vergara.

Nearly a hundred years apart - 1907 and 2001
Nearly a hundred years apart – 1907 and 2001

September 21, 2001
FEMA photo showing the damage and debris pile below 90 West Street on September 21st. Photo by Michael Rieger.

90 West Street was eventually restored, and reopened as a residential building. It now contains 410 separate apartments, ranging from studios to three bedroom units. Countless embellishments inside and out were destroyed, though many were recreated using old photographs. Many of the gargoyles on the outside are modern creations in the style of the originals. One of the original surviving griffins, however, can be found in the lobby of the building. He’s no longer guarding the wealth of railroads, though I suppose one could say he is now guarding the wealth of the well-to-do tenants of the building – studios start at about $2250 a month.

  
 
  
 
  
 
  

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The Street Railway of the New York and Harlem Railroad

Alfred Stieglitz, The Car Horses
Arguably one of the most famous photos of a horsecar in New York City, by famed photographer Alfred Stieglitz.

Want to irk a railfan or a history buff in only a matter of seconds? Just tell them that you’re in Grand Central Station. Grand Central is, of course, a Terminal – and as Danny Brucker would explain, “because trains terminate here.” The previous incarnation of Grand Central was, however, a station, and had tracks that did continue further south.

Grand Central Station
This is Grand Central Station, circa 1905. This, on the other hand, is not Grand Central Station.

If you’re up on your Harlem Railroad history, you’ll remember that the New York and Harlem Railroad began operating in 1832. Starting with a mile of track from Prince Street to 14th Street, the first trains were pulled by horses. As the line grew, first to Harlem, then beyond to Westchester, and ultimately to Columbia County, passengers would have to transfer to steam locomotives for the rest of their journey. Thus the New York and Harlem Railroad was a combination of two distinct parts – a street railway line (which eventually lost the horses) about ten miles long, and the railroad line, north of 42nd Street, about 137 miles long at its peak.

New York and Harlem Railroad
An early horsecar on the New York and Harlem Railroad in New York City. As a random aside, it was these railroad horses, often worked extremely hard, that were a significant reason for the founding of the ASPCA in 1866. The ASPCA actually operated the first “horse ambulance” and made sure these rail workhorses had fresh drinking water daily.

Eventually the rail line was leased to the New York Central, and the street railway line to the Metropolitan Street Railway Company (and later the New York Railways Company). When Grand Central Terminal was completed, the divorce of the two was quite obvious, but before that, where exactly did the street railway operate? For the most part, on Fourth Avenue, and extending as south as Ann Street, about a mile from the southern tip of Manhattan island. To get a better picture of the line and where it operated, we of course have a lovely map!

Street Railway Lines

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Tuesday Tour of the Hudson Line: Marble Hill

 
 
The old station at Marble Hill, pictured in 1927, and in 1946.

As we’ve toured the Hudson Line, we’ve encountered several stations with fairly confusing backgrounds. There are stations that nobody seems to be able to spell correctly, like “Spitendivel” and “Pokipse.” And there’s also Ardsley-on-Hudson, which isn’t in Ardsley, and shouldn’t be confused with the former Putnam Division station of Ardsley (despite the fact that the New York Central printed Ardsley-on-Hudson timetables as just Ardsley). Today’s tour takes us back to the Bronx, to another station also surrounded in a bit of confusion – Marble Hill.

 

Views of the tracks near Marble Hill in 1935.


Special timetable with new daytime trains for the West Bronx stations, including Marble Hill… where that Bronx name is subject to debate.

If you were to look at any of the local timetables printed by the railroad, or even at a map, you’d likely get the idea that Marble Hill is part of the Bronx. On the other hand, I probably have at least one person that wants to hit me for calling Marble Hill part of the Bronx in the paragraph above. As New York City grew, we humans have significantly changed the landscape of Manhattan island and beyond – and I’m not just talking about massive buildings and skyscrapers. At one point in history, Marble Hill – named for the marble quarries once located here – was part of Manhattan island. When a canal was built to link the Harlem and Hudson Rivers, Marble Hill was separated from Manhattan and became its own island. And when, in 1914, the original course of the Harlem River was filled in, Marble Hill became connected geographically with the Bronx.

Marble Hill, then and now
Map of the Marble Hill area from 1895 (when the canal was completed), and an aerial view of what the area looks like now. Note the “island” of Marble Hill on the 1895 map.

Politically, residents of Marble Hill vote for the Manhattan Borough President, Senator, City Councilman and Assemblyman. But due to the geographic nature of the area, Marble Hill is serviced by the police, emergency and fire department from the Bronx. Because of the general confusion, residents of Marble Hill end up in the archaic directory known as the “phone book” for both the Bronx and Manhattan, and letters written to either borough will be delivered by the US Postal Service. Nonetheless, Metro-North considers it part of the Bronx, and you’ll find Marble Hill listed in the local timetable for the West Bronx.

 
Around Marble Hill in the ’60’s. Photos by Herbert Maruska.

The current Metro-North station at Marble Hill is located a bit more north than the historical station operated by the New York Central. The old station had four tracks running by it (visible in the photos above), where the current station only has three. Both locations, however, are easily within walking distance of the 225th Street subway station, which has a significant effect on the ridership at the station.

In 2008, Metro-North reported that over 900 people were using Marble Hill station, but only 100 were using it to get to Grand Central. At least 300 people were getting off southbound Hudson Line trains and transferring to the subway. Another 300 were using Marble Hill for the reverse commute, possibly making the connection with the subway. Although it would likely lengthen the commute time, many people may be doing this as a cost saving measure. For example, a Tarrytown to Grand Central monthly would cost $266, but a Tarrytown to Marble Hill monthly only costs $88. Purchasing that along with an unlimited-ride Metro-Card would yield a savings of $74. For others, the subway may just provide easier access to their places of work.

  

Some non-Metro-North action in Marble Hill. Seeing Amtrak trains at Marble Hill is a rarity, as they generally branch off from the Hudson Line before Spuyten Duyvil, unless for some reason they need to be detoured. Photos by Mike Foley.

Besides the geographic anomaly and the unique ridership of Marble Hill, the station really is typical of Metro-North. You can find the same station signs, wire benches, blue trash bins, and ticket vending machines as almost every other station. The station itself consists of a short island platform, connected to street level with an overpass, which contains the aforementioned ticket machines. The station is located right alongside the river, and visible from the station is the Broadway Bridge, which connects both cars and subway trains to Manhattan.

That about wraps things up for Marble Hill – next week we’ll feature our final Tuesday Tour of the Hudson Line, Poughkeepsie.

 
  
 
  
 
  
 
   
 
  
 
  

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WTFopoly: New York City Subway Edition Monopoly Game

I am so eagerly waiting for my WTF subway shirt. But it hasn’t arrived yet. So in order to console myself, (and in my boredom) I created some more amusing subway WTF-ness. Now not only can Metro-North hate me, but NYC Transit (I still love you, I swear!) can hate me too! And maybe even Parker Brothers, who publish the game.




Instead of Community Chest (what the hell is that anyways?), I opted to replace it with the “Service Change.” For pieces, I figured it might be amusing to throw in a delightful subway rat, and even a pigeon in there. If you bought the “extended version” of the game, there would even be a special “limited edition” Sadie the Subway Cat piece. Gotta market that stuff! And everybody loves cats!

As for the properties in the game, and how I determined where each of them belong, I used the 2009 Subway Ridership Facts & Figures. Blue, green, and yellow properties (the highest value) are the top subway stations, system wide. Red represents Manhattan, Orange is Brooklyn, Magenta is Queens, Light Blue is the Bronx, and the top subway stations for each (not counting any stations previously used). The Purple spots are the bottom two stations in the subway system by use. Instead of the four railroads typically used in Monopoly, there are the other MTA entities: Metro-North, Long Island Rail Road, Long Island Bus, and the other half of NYC Transit, the bus system. There are no “utilities” but instead MTA Bridges, and MTA Tunnels.

Oh, and in order for you to get thrown in jail, you are caught with a copy of the master key.

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