Though the clock tower in Grand Central may be one of the coolest windows of all of New York City, if you’re looking for an entire vantage point to see the city in a new way the old New York Central building is an absolute gem. I’ve professed my love for the buildingpreviously, but I recently got a chance to head up to the building’s cupola – high above the bustle of Park Avenue and face-to-face with the behemoth MetLife Building. From Harlem-125th Street it is possible to see the four miles down Park and spy the old railroad building – likewise, from the building’s cupola you can see straight ahead to the station’s platform and arriving and departing trains.
If you’ve ever wondered what the view from the top of the New York Central Railroad looked like (well, sort of, a lot has changed since then!), here are some photos from the cupola:
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, 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 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
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.
Grand Central Terminal isn’t the only building that lights up for the holidays… the old New York Central Building is another gem to behold. When I featured that building on the site – designed by Grand Central architects Warren and Wetmore – I mentioned the lights, but didn’t include any photos. Constructed to be the corporate offices of the New York Central Railroad in 1929, the railroad sold the building in the 1950s and has gone through several name changes since.
However you want to call it – the old New York Central Building, the Helmsley Building, or 230 Park – it looks gorgeous at night. While Grand Central’s light show ends tomorrow, the lights here are year round. Similar to the lights on the Empire State Building, the show can change colors for various holidays or other events. Over 700 individual lights were added to the building, and lighting designer Al Borden was hired to create 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.
Of course, one can not pass up the opportunity to take more photos of Grand Central’s light show and exterior on an abnormally warm winter evening…
I figured I’d wrap up this post with a look at this year’s holiday card for those that didn’t receive it. The front features Mount Kisco station, and the unique station mileage sign that graces the building on the track side. The sign lists the original length of the Harlem Division – from Grand Central to Chatham in Columbia County. Astute viewers will note that the station view is visible through the window of an M8, which on a few days this year were actually in revenue service on the Harlem Line.
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 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
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.
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
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. [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.
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.
When it comes to any monument with a long history like Grand Central, there’s plenty to write home about. As those who have followedthisblogfor awhileknow, I have an affinity for railroad postcards, and especially those from Grand Central. Over the past one hundred years, countless cards featuring the Terminal have been printed and sent all over the world.
Part of the reason I find these postcards so interesting is that they are a great way to see how Grand Central has changed over the past 100 years. Many buildings sprang up around the Terminal – most notably in 1929 when the New York Central building was constructed behind, and in 1958 when construction commenced on the Pan Am building. But perhaps most notable are the cards that show what everyone thought Grand Central would look like. Several of the postcards were printed before Grand Central was ever completed – and one even imagined the inside of the Terminal with a glass ceiling, not the painted sky ceiling we are all familiar with (which did appear in an early Warren & Wetmore sketch).
As Grand Central’s centennial is fast approaching, I thought this would be a perfect time to share a collection of Grand Central postcards. Special thanks to Steve Swirsky, as probably about half of these cards are from his collection. Enjoy!
In two short years our lovely Grand Central Terminal will be celebrating her centennial. In the years that we’ve known her, she has relatively few undiscovered secrets – countless books, documentaries, and articles have told her stories to anyone curious enough. Sure, mediaoutletsalways present these as grand, never-before-heard secrets, but for the railfans, we know (and have discussed their veracity endlessly). One can be so caught up in the immense grandeur of the monument designed by Reed, Stem, Warren, Wetmore, and Wilgus (one must never forget Wilgus) that some of the most obvious details are completely overlooked. Perhaps overlooked is not the correct word – as on a normal day one cannot really get a proper look of the exterior of this grand structure. In fact, a closer look is completely blocked by the roadway that diverts traffic around the station – one of the details that won Reed and Stem the contest for design of the station in the first place. Unless you’ve taken the roadway around the station, chances are you’ve not gotten a chance to see up-close the eight-and-a-half foot tall likeness of Cornelius Vanderbilt. Nor have you gotten a good, full-frontal view of the massive sculpture on the front facade (the enormous scale of which is practically imperceptible from the ground). But there are days in which these views are open for all to explore, and to photograph. They may call them Summer Streets, but to me, they are a great time to view Grand Central.
If you are familiar with the concept of Summer Streets, the most typical image that probably comes to mind is a bicycle. For three Saturdays, usually in August, seven miles of street are temporarily closed off to cars – allowing bicyclists, skaters, and pedestrians to stroll to their heart’s content. Although the scene is dominated by the bicyclists, you will definitely see a few photographers (like me!) capturing the view sans the ubiquitous automobile. You can get up close and personal with the Commodore and a perched eagle, and roam around the exterior to see the New York Central (now the Helmsley) Building, which was once viewable behind Grand Central – until it was eclipsed by the Pan Am (now MetLife) Building in 1963.
Both the eagle and the Vanderbilt statue predate the Terminal, but have both returned to stand watch. The cast-iron eagle, with a thirteen-foot wingspan, once perched above Grand Central Depot, the predecessor to today’s Terminal. In the late 90’s the bird was discovered in Bronxville, eventually donated to the MTA, and returned to its historical home. The statue of Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt was designed by Ernst Plassman in 1869, and was relocated to its current home in 1913, when the Terminal was completed. The 35-story building at 230 Park Avenue, originally the New York Central Building, was designed by Warren and Wetmore and completed in 1928.
I’ve had a little obsession as of recently. It seems to be a common thing with me. The obsessions, they come and go, they fade with time. A book, a place, a subject… this site has turned the Harlem Line, and its history, into one of those obsessions. And through that came another minor obsession, that of collecting postcards. Specifically older postcards of Grand Central. They’re not too difficult to find. For a dollar or two you can pick them up on eBay.
At first I was looking for postcards in good condition. Old, yet preserved. Not tarnished by passing from hand to hand and through the mail system. I suppose the most recent auction I wasn’t paying too much attention. I liked the front of the card so much, I bought it, without a glance at the condition. But instead of being discouraged by the card’s lack of clean perfection, I am fascinated by it.
The scene in the postcard looks a little bit different from the scene today… and I don’t just mean the little things like the cars. As to be expected, the city’s skyline has changed. Buildings have changed hands, and changed names. Behind Grand Central’s facade stands the New York Central Buiilding, once the headquarters for the railroad. Opened in 1929, the building was designed by the architecture firm of Warren & Wetmore, who also worked on Grand Central itself. After changing hands several times, the building is now known as the Helmsley Building.
But today if you were to stand in front of Grand Central’s facade, it would not be the Helmsley Building that you see. For another addition to the skyline came in in 1963. The PanAm Building, today known as the Met Life Building towers over Grand Central, the thirteenth tallest building in the city. Its 59 floors block any visibility of the old New York Central building’s 35 floors.
The mystery of the postcard is hardly the front. It is the back of the postcard that captured my interest. The postcard bears a mail date of August 24th, 1936, and the stamp cost a mere cent. The sender, whose name is never established, happened to be staying in a hotel close to Grand Central. She (I’ve imagined the scrawl as belonging to a female) has used Grand Central as a landmark for orientation in the city, as so many before and since have done, and will continue to do. I wonder if the receiver of the postcard, Gracie, is still alive. And if she is, does she remember receiving it, or has the card been long forgotten? The address to which the postcard was sent, if it was ever residential, is no longer. A doctor of radiology makes his office there now, in a small, historic neighborhood of Boston. Within an hours drive of the location resides a woman, Grace Robinson, aged 98. I wonder if she was the original recipient. Perhaps I will never know. That is unless I send her a postcard of my own…
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.