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Another building from Grand Central’s architects – the NY Railroad Branch YMCA History Photos

Friday, December 20th, 2013

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:

Warren & Wetmore:
The New York Central Building
Yonkers Station
White Plains and Hartsdale stations

Reed & Stem:
Glenwood Power Station

Stem & Fellheimer:
Utica station

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 and new YMCA
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.

Lobby and Bathroom
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.

Bible study group and one of the second floor dining rooms
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
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.

Billiards, Bowling lanes, and a typical bunk room

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.

The Vanderbilt YMCA
The YMCA that replaced the Warren and Wetmore building, which still exists today. Construction photo at left from the Museum of the City of New York.

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.

Railroad Men
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.

Tuesday Tour of the Hudson Line: Cortlandt Train Photos

Tuesday, November 27th, 2012


Crugers and Montrose stations. Both stations were closed in 1996 and replaced with the new Cortlandt station.

Today’s tour of the Hudson Line takes us to one of Metro-North’s newer stations – the second newest on the line after Yankees-E 153rd Street, Cortlandt. Located a little over 38 miles from Grand Central, Cortlandt is in the upper, unelectrified portion of Metro-North’s Hudson Line, and situated between Croton-Harmon and Peekskill. Historically, there were two stations in this area – Crugers and Montrose – both of which were closed in favor of the new Cortlandt station. Space is always a critical issue at many Metro-North stations, especially when it comes to parking. Many stations have almost endless waiting lists for a parking permit. Cortlandt was one of the few places on the upper Hudson Line where there was room for expansion, and more room for parking. Especially built to replace Montrose and Crugers, the new station was opened in June of 1996.


Local timetables to Montrose and Crugers, and Hudson Line timetables from 1996. Note that Montrose and Crugers were there at the beginning of the year, but by midyear were replaced with Cortlandt. Thanks to Doug Dray, Otto Vondrak, and Bob Mortell for these timetables.

Although the parking situation was much improved at Cortlandt, Metro-North looked to expand even more, and in 2009 began a massive improvement project to the station. A new 720 car parking lot was built on the west side of the tracks, almost doubling parking capacity. Other improvements included a heated waiting room including a concession area, new canopies, and a new elevator. The New York State Department of Transportation improved the intersection between the station and Route 9A, which was also considered part of the project. The new road had lighted sidewalks built especially for those using the train to get to the nearby Veterans Hospital.


Pre-construction rendering of the improvements at Cortlandt

 
Cortlandt before and during construction. Before photo by Tom Panettiere, construction photo by George Kimmerling.

 
Aerial views of Cortlandt station, before and after the expansion. Note the new, larger station building, and the massive new parking lot on the west side of the tracks.

The MTA had a formal ribbon-cutting ceremony after the renovations to Cortlandt station were complete back in February, attended by both Metro-North president Howard Permut and MTA Chairman Joe Lhota. In his statements at the ceremony, Permut said “[Cortlandt] will address current and future needs of the railroad and the communities it serves,” which is actually quite true – especially the future part. Though most don’t attribute foresight as a quality generously abound in the MTA, whoever came up with the upgrades for Cortlandt was certainly thinking about future expansion. A blocked off stairwell to nowhere, gated off with a sign that says “Authorized Personnel Only” looks like a perfect spot for a third platform to be constructed – at some point in the future if ever needed (if electrification further north ever happens?).


Ribbon cutting ceremony at Cortlandt station.

Included in the original construction of the station was an Arts for Transit piece titled Three Statues (A Short History of the Lower Hudson Valley), by Robert Taplin. Three seven-foot tall statues stand beside the station, each representative of a historical group of people that were common in this area. On the left, a wealthy Dutch landowner. In the middle, a laborer from the early nineteenth century. And on the right, a Native American figure. The figures look out over the long shape of the Hudson River, rendered in stone.

That’s about it for today’s tour – next week we’ll head back south on the Hudson Line to another station in the Bronx. There are only four more stations left to be featured on the Hudson Line, after which my camera may go hibernate for the winter (except for the part where I go ride Alaska Railroad’s winter train)!

 
  
 
  
   
  
   
  
 
 
  
   
   
  
   
 

The trains don’t stop here any more – save me, I’m your history. Photos

Monday, May 7th, 2012

Hidden away in a nearly-forgotten corner of my computer’s almost-full hard drive are a few photos that were never meant to see the light of day. They were dark, and the day was rainy, and they were downright horrible. But a bit of graffiti scrawled on the side of the station that I remembered photographing always sat in the back of my mind. It read, “The trains don’t stop here any more. Save me, I’m your history.” A news article that was sent to me today (thanks, Jeff!) led me to dig out those photos.

The station on which the graffiti was written is Millwood – once part of the long-gone Putnam Division. Hardly in spectacular condition (but certainly not the worst), the status of the building has been in limbo for quite a while. Again the station finds itself in the news, as a demolition permit has been applied for. Though tearing down this historical building would be sad, I find it laughable that the article mentions a proposal for making a replica of the station. Why not save the real thing, while it is still here?

 

“Save me, I’m your history.” An apt observation. I wonder who wrote it…

Tuesday Tour of the Port Jervis Line: Salisbury Mills – Cornwall Train Photos

Tuesday, April 24th, 2012

Continuing our Port Jervis Line tour where we left off last week, we depart Harriman station, bound for the next station on the line, Salisbury Mills – Cornwall. We’re still moving along what was once known as the Graham Line (named after Chief Engineer Joseph M. Graham), which was created to better accomodate freight. Really, the most noteworthy part of the then-Graham Line, today’s Port Jervis Line, is the Moodna Viaduct. Many months ago I did post a bit about the viaduct, so I wont really rehash any of that here, but in order to finally arrive at Salisbury Mills – Cornwall station, you cross over the viaduct. Although I am sure the valley looks quite beautiful from the train, I don’t think the viaduct can fully be appreciated until you view it from afar.


Train crossing the Moodna Viaduct. The Salisbury Mills – Cornwall station is located right at the end of the viaduct.

The facility at Salisbury Mills – Cornwall is relatively underwhelming – at least in comparison to the lovely viaduct we just crossed. The first thing one notices upon arrival are how long the station name signs are – long enough to contain two rows of text. If Metro-North’s goal was to come up with some of the longest station names possible, they certainly succeeded on the Port Jervis Line. Sadly, Salisbury Mills – Cornwall just misses out to Middletown – Town of Walkill for the honor of Metro-North’s longest station name.

Back at Harriman, I mentioned that a few of the stations on the Port Jervis line feature a little historical sketch on the canopy. Unfortunately, the one at Salisbury Mills – Cornwall is left blank… which is really too bad, since it would give this relatively plain facility a (very small) bit of character.



Old views of the depot at Salisbury Mills. Upper image is a postcard view from the early 1900′s, lower image is from 1971. The original Salisbury Mills station was on the Erie’s Newburgh Branch.

Salisbury Mills – Cornwall is one of a few Port Jervis line stations that is ADA accessible, and the south end of the platform has a small high-level platform for passengers requiring wheelchairs. From this end of the platform you can also see the end portion of the viaduct, although it looks far shorter from this vantage point. Though the station has two shelters for patrons to use, the one here on the platform’s south side is a bit nicer than the one on the other end (this portion of the platform is also covered by a canopy). Next to the shelter are two lovely parking pay machines (doesn’t everyone love to pay for parking?!), and more towards the middle of the platform you can find two NJTransit ticket vending machines.


View of Storm King Art Center, showing works by Mark di Suvero. [Photo Credit]

As an art lover, I’d certainly be remiss if I did not mention that the Salisbury Mills – Cornwall station is not far from the wonderful Storm King Art Center. If you haven’t heard of it before, Storm King is a sculpture park situated on over 500 acres of land. Many noteworthy artists have works on display, such as Isamu Noguchi and one of my personal favorites, Alexander Calder. Back when I featured Greenwich, I mentioned artist Mark di Suvero, as a sculpture of his is located right next to the station. That sculpture’s companion piece is located here at Storm King. Unfortunately there is no public transportation that will carry you from the station to the art center, so you’d have to get a taxi to take you the place – though it is only three miles away from the station.

That is about it for Salisbury Mills – Cornwall. Next week we will continue with Campbell Hall station. Everything seems to be going by so fast… we’re already half-way through the Port Jervis Line!

  
   
 
  
 
   
 
  
   
 

The life of a subway cat… Transit Museum

Friday, March 16th, 2012

If you’re a regular New York City subway rider, it is highly likely that at least at some point during your journeys you’ve seen a subway rat. Rats are such a plague on the system that someone even started a site called Rate My Rat (thankfully, Metro-North doesn’t have to worry about this problem quite so much – though there are always exceptions). Since the New York Transit Museum is housed in a retired subway station, they too have visiting rats. And who better to take care of those rats than a cat?

 

Enter Sadie the subway cat, an adorable feline that has already been featured here once before. Though she may have been adopted to keep the rats in check, I’m told that she doesn’t too much in terms of catching rats. In fact, one of the security guards at the museum told me she got scared and ran away from a rat once, without even hissing or making a noise at it.

Sadie is, however, one of my favorite parts of the museum. It had been nearly two years since I saw her last – as every time I visited the museum she was somewhere hiding. But on my most recent visit, she was in a strange mood and starving for attention. She interrupted several tour groups of children, and wandered around the museum’s various restored cars while I snapped her photo. She’s gotten quite chubby since the last time I saw her, but she’s still adorable. Not like the Transit Museum will listen to anything I suggest, but I most definitely think they ought to get her a cat cam. It would be interesting to see the museum from a cat’s point of view!

  
   
  
   

Ahhh, the life of a cat. Getting to lounge around in some old subway cars all day doesn’t sound that bad, actually.