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

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.

 
  
 
  
   
   
  
 
   
  
   
  
  
 
   
 
  
   
 
  

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The Mansions that the Railroad Built, Part 2: Hyde Park

Quite a while ago I shared with you the story of Newport’s Marble House, one of the many mansions constructed by the Vanderbilt family with their wealth earned from the railroads. Today we’re going a little bit closer to home, and checking out the mansion of Frederick Vanderbilt in Hyde Park. Frederick was one of four sons born to William Henry Vanderbilt, and was the grandson of family patriarch Cornelius Vanderbilt.

Postcard and brochures from the Vanderbilt Mansion Postcards from the Vanderbilt Mansion
Brochures and postcards from the Hyde Park Vanderbilt mansion. Although considered modest by the standards of the “Gilded Age,” a mansion is still a mansion, and far more than a regular person could afford.

I always joke that both Cornelius and William Henry Vanderbilt were experts at making money, while all the further generations were just experts at spending it. This is for the most part true – William Henry’s two eldest sons Cornelius II and William Kissam inherited $75 million and $50 million, respectively. With that money they constructed mansions in New York City, Newport, Long Island, and other locales, and threw extravagant parties within. Frederick, on the other hand, was lucky to inherit only $10 million (apparently eloping with your cousin’s ex-wife, over 10 years your senior, is generally frowned upon). Despite that, Frederick was the only grandson to wisely invest that inheritance and actually earn, rather than spend, all the money.

Frederick’s Hyde Park mansion was designed by architecture firm McKim, Mead, and White, and completed in 1899. The Beaux Arts mansion was one of several that Frederick owned, and was usually occupied during the winter.

Postcards from the Vanderbilt Mansion
Postcards from the inside of the mansion.

Today the mansion is owned by the National Park Service, and is operated as the Vanderbilt Mansion National Historic Site. The place is worth visiting, not only for the mansion, but the grounds also provide a lovely view of the Hudson. I must admit I was quite impressed with the guides – I am aware that I know far more than most about the Vanderbilts, and generally the architecture folks aren’t quite as versed in the history of the railroads. While I was waiting for some sort of factual slip up, our guide Mike actually gave a wonderfully detailed introduction to the Vanderbilts that was not only historically accurate, but both humorous and interesting.

If you’re interested in checking out the mansion, Hyde Park is located just a few miles north of Poughkeepsie. The National Park Service offers shuttles from Poughkeepsie station seasonally (May to October) to the historical sites in Hyde Park, so it is completely possible to do a trip by public transportation alone. Unfortunately Metro-North does not offer any package deals with train fare to these historical sites, so you’ll have to purchase them separately.

Anyways, that is about all I have for you today – enjoy some photos of the mansion below! Note that in the past photography was not permitted inside the mansion, however that has been rescinded this season. Photography is permitted inside, provided you do not use a flash.

 
  
 
 
  
 
  
  
 
   
 

Oh, and before I forget, if you’re interested in playing the acorn game, it is possible to find a few around the mansion…
 
The acorn and oak leaf, the adopted crest of the Vanderbilt family, were frequently found in the mansions and other buildings that the family commissioned. Unlike some of the other mansions, the motif is far less prominent here. The few acorns you’ll find at Hyde Park are mostly on the second floor – incorporated into the banisters and other minor detail work.

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Railroads, Mansions and Money: The Vanderbilts in a nutshell

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.






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The curious story of the ghost horse in Grand Central

For some time I’ve wanted to write a post about a particular odd topic, and have waited until now to do so. I figured Halloween would be an appropriate time of the season to mention it, as not only does it have to do with Grand Central, but a ghost in Grand Central. An equine ghost.

I’m not exactly sure how I first came across the story of racehorse Maud S, but it was likely when randomly reading about some of the Vanderbilts’ extravagant and expensive possessions. Without a doubt, Cornelius Vanderbilt was a true master at making money, and his son William Henry was quite adept at adding to that fortune. Cornelius’s grandchildren on the other hand, William Kissam and Cornelius II, were quite the masters at spending money. Though that is not to say that their father William didn’t purchase some pretty crazy things. One such purchase was the racehorse, Maud S. At the time Maud S was one of the fastest racehorses in the world, and held the record for the fastest mile. Her sale to Vanderbilt infuriated some in the racing world – he was taking this amazing horse away from the races to instead be privately corralled outside of Grand Central so he could ride her whenever it struck his fancy. Of course, this is the 1880’s and much of the area around Grand Central Depot was rural, and in terms of the city of New York, considered well “uptown”. But the fact of the matter was, if one of the richest men in the world wanted one of the fastest horses in the world to pull him around in a carriage, it would be done, and William Henry Vanderbilt certainly had deep enough pockets to pay for it. Plus, he was probably never late to New York Central board meetings.


This entire post was merely an excuse to post a picture of William Vanderbilt’s amazing facial hair

I’m not exactly sure what fascinated me about the story of this horse… maybe the fact that even today, a bed and breakfast has a room named after her? Or maybe how a windmill manufacturing company was also named after her? Perhaps it was her big obituary in the New York Times and other papers across the country? (Several internet sites claim the obituary made the first page of the Times, though this is false – it made the 12th page on March 18, 1900) Nope, I think it was the article in City Scoops that said that she is currently roaming the halls of Grand Central near the Oyster Bar – as a ghost.

Of course, the story is most likely a joke. The author even describes herself as a “professional storyteller”. Whether a joke or not, there are actually tourists that believe this shit! I had no idea that there are actually New York City ghost tours, and ones that even visit Grand Central! Perhaps I am a Halloween party pooper to say it, but there is no ghost of a horse wandering the station. I’d be more likely to believe that ghosts of some commuters haunt the station. In fact maybe that should have been written as a warning in Mileposts – don’t run to your train as you might trip, fall, die, and become the next ghost to wander the halls of the station come next October! And way before Metro North, I’m sure plenty of people have died in the station. It was, after all, built in the early 1900’s, railroading was hardly the safest occupation, plus it was being constructed as the previous station was being dismantled, all while maintaining train service. People certainly have died there. But those deaths are hardly as glamorous, and frankly amusing, as a fancy racehorse.

For all of you that happen to be in Grand Central on Sunday, have a Happy Halloween… and do keep your ears open for suspicious neighing…
…coming from me standing in front of the Oyster Bar.

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Friday’s from the historical archive: 1800’s photos from “The Road of the Century”

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).


1877, Train with snow plow during a snow storm.


1896, First advertisement of Red Cap service.

See more pictures from the atrocious book “The Road of the Century”

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Friday’s From the Historical Archive: “Commodore” Cornelius Vanderbilt

This week I figured I would talk about a rather important railroad figure, Cornelius Vanderbilt. He significantly shaped the early history of what are now known as the Hudson and Harlem lines. You may recognize the name, bordering Grand Central Terminal is Vanderbilt Avenue, and even inside the terminal, there is a Vanderbilt Hall. Many Vanderbilts that came after him was known only because of the fortune that Cornelius amassed in first steam boats, and then later, railroads. He wasn’t much of a philanthropist, but in his final years he donated money to what is now known as Vanderbilt University in Tennessee. Apparently many students there have little clue for which Vanderbilt the school was named. This hardly surprises me, as supposedly some children nowadays think that it was Buzz Lightyear, that was the first person to walk on the moon.

Cornelius Vanderbilt, who was nicknamed the Commodore, certainly was an interesting character. In fact, if tabloids as they are now existed when Vanderbilt was alive, they would have loved him. Tiger Woods is absolutely nothing in comparison to Vanderbilt. Cornelius certainly enjoyed his prostitutes. It would be tabloid front page news!

His married life wasn’t much better. Both of his wives were in fact related to him, they were cousins. And even more strange, his first wife, Sophia Johnson, was a cousin on both his mother and his father’s side of the family. It was from one of his prostitutes that Vanderbilt acquired syphilis, which he spread to his wife. Though all of this occurred before penicilin existed. The preferred treatment for syphilis at the time was mercury.

Dementia brought on by late stages of syphilis marked the final years of Vanderbilt’s life. He had built his fortune with small ships, and later steam ships, but it nearly doubled when he got into the railroad business. However it is uncertain how much of this was of his own doing, or the work of his son, Billy. Vanderbilt had eight daughters and three sons. William, known as Billy, was designated as Vanderbilt’s heir. Cornelius hated the idea of his fortune getting split, so upon his death the majority of it was left to Billy. Billy was not his favorite son, however, and was Cornelius’ second choice as heir. George Washington Vanderbilt, Cornelius’ favorite son, died before he was twenty-five from tuberculosis after serving for a time in the Union Army during the Civil War. It was only after his death that Billy became the chosen heir. Vanderbilt’s other son, Cornelius Jeremiah, was essentially disowned. He was explicitly barred from ever referring to himself as Cornelius Vanderbilt, Jr. He was an epileptic, which didn’t win him any favors from his harsh father. But it was his dealings in fraud that truly formed a wedge between himself and his father, who had little desire to pay for his fraudulent son’s debts.

After the death of George Washington Vanderbilt, Cornelius began to groom Billy in his role as heir to the Vanderbilt fortune. He was installed on the boards of various railroads that his father owned or influenced. In his later years Vanderbilt was not completely there due to syphilis’ effect on his brain. However the name Cornelius Vanderbilt instilled confidence to people involved in the industry. So he served much as a figurehead in his later years, with his son Billy making all the decisions. The building of Grand Central Depot was one of such actions.

In his later years, Cornelius married a far younger woman: Frank Crawford. The marriage, however, was mostly one of convenience. Frank was a distant cousin from Alabama who had very little money and ran the risk of becoming completely destitute. Billy on the other hand did not approve of some of the prostitutes that frequently ended up in his father’s bed, and thus desired his father to be married. In fact when Frank arrived as a guest of the Vanderbilts, her mother accompanied her. Vanderbilt’s family didn’t care which of the two he married, the mother or the daughter, but they did want him to marry one. Upon Cornelius’ death his wife received little of the man’s fortune, as Billy had arranged a prenuptial agreement prior to the marriage.

After Cornelius’ death the majority of his fortune was given to Billy, however several of his daughters, and his son Cornelius Jeremiah, contested the will. Their desire to have the fortune split more fairly amongst the Vanderbilt children failed, and not long after Cornelius Jeremiah committed suicide by putting a bullet in his brain.

Although Cornelius is long gone, he is forever in the history books because of the large fortune he amassed, first through ships, and later associated with various railroads such as the New York and Harlem (today’s Harlem Line), the Hudson River Rail Road (today’s Hudson Line) and the entity to which he leased both, the New York Central. In the Historical Archives there are several items regarding Vanderbilt, including several obituaries, and a piece about his life that took up several pages of the New York Times the day after he died.


Vanderbilt’s ego was so immense, he figured that many young ladies, so enamored with him, went to purchase railroad bonds because on each bore his own likeness. The archive also has several railroad bonds on display.

Cornelius still looks out on the city of New York every day. His statue is located under the main facade of Grand Central Terminal.

Please note: This post was written based off of the information in the biography Commodore: The Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt written by Edward J. Renehan Jr. Some of the statements made in the book (including the syphilis and prostitutes) have been questioned by other authors for authenticity.

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