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Posts Tagged ‘william kissam vanderbilt’

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.

All Aboard For an Excursion to Madison Square Garden, and the National Horse Show! History Photos

Tuesday, June 25th, 2013

In terms of historic preservation in the city of New York, Pennsylvania Station is a a sore spot for many. It was the gorgeous building that we didn’t save, that we couldn’t save. The Beaux-Arts station was a beautiful monument that was torn down, and for what? To be covered over with an arena. For this, Madison Square Garden has drawn the ire of many railfans and history buffs, but in reality the Garden has a longer history than even the original Pennsylvania Station, and is coincidentally linked to the New York and Harlem Railroad.

Ring for the National Horse Show at Madison Square Garden
The ring at the second Madison Square Garden is being readied for the National Horse Show.

Originally established in 1879 at East 26th Street and Madison Avenue, the first Madison Square Garden was a roofless arena that sat 10,000 spectators. With the completion of Grand Central Depot in 1871, the New York and Harlem Railroad moved their operations, no longer needing their depot near Madison Avenue. While the land was first used by P.T. Barnum as the “Barnum Hippodrome,” William Kissam Vanderbilt took control of the space two years after his grandfather’s death and renamed it Madison Square Garden. The Garden hosted various sporting events, including the National Horse Show, which would become a yearly tradition at the venue.

Parade of winners
Parade of winners at the 1896 National Horse Show, held annually at Madison Square Garden.

The National Horse Show at Madison Square Garden
The National Horse Show at Madison Square Garden, 1913.

The first Madison Square Garden lasted until 1889, when Vanderbilt sold the property to a group of wealthy investors including J.P. Morgan and Andrew Carnegie. They tore down the first Garden to build the second, designed by prominent architect Stanford White. The second Madison Square Garden opened in 1890 and lasted until 1925. The venue hosted a wide array of events, from boxing matches to plays, circuses, concerts and even the Democratic National Convention. Unlike its predecessor, the second Garden was fully enclosed, allowing events all year long, and in any weather.

Judging at the National Horse Show
Judging at the National Horse Show.

Scenes from the National Horse Show
British officers on their mounts at the 1910 National Horse Show, and horses outside Madison Square Garden. Alfred Vanderbilt, serving as the president of the National Horse Show, first invited the British cavalry to compete in the show in 1909.

The National Horse Show was one of Madison Square Garden’s major events, and was hosted at all four venues to bear the name, up until 1989. First established in 1883 by a collection of affluent members of society, the show was regularly held in November. While the spectators certainly included the rich and powerful, many regular people came to see the show, and some came by train. The New York Central offered special excursion tickets for those looking to go to the 1898 show, and printed an attractive brochure advertising it.

New York Central excursion brochure
A New York Central excursion brochure featuring the National Horse Show.

The brochure advertises that November is, “the best time of the year to visit New York…” which may strike some today as a bit odd. A warm locale like Florida sounds great for a winter vacation, but in the 1880′s anyone who was anyone headed to New York City. Fitting an event established by the affluent, the National Horse Show became a part of the New York social calendar, just as much as the opening of the opera season, or Mrs. Astor’s annual January ball. By summertime the socialites would move on to Newport, Rhode Island and their “cottages”, before returning to the city in November, and beginning the cycle anew.

Catalog for the 1898 National Horse Show
Catalog for the 1898 National Horse Show

Program for the 1898 National Horse Show
Program for the 1898 National Horse Show

The second Madison Square Garden was ultimately demolished, and in its place the New York Life Building was constructed. In 1925 the third arena to bear the name was opened, although it was located on Eighth Avenue between 49th, and not near Madison Square. Coincidentally, the place on which the third Garden was constructed was once a storage barn for trolleys. The third Garden lasted until 1968 when the fourth and current Madison Square Garden opened atop what was once the great Pennsylvania Station.

As for the National Horse Show, the competition is still held, although it now calls the Kentucky Horse Park home.

A Recap of Events: Grand Central’s Centennial Events Transit Museum History Photos

Wednesday, February 6th, 2013

Last Friday the MTA held a celebration for Grand Central’s Centennial, which expectedly turned out to be a widely attended day-long event. One of the main events was a rededication ceremony for the Terminal, held that morning. There were a wide array of speakers at the ceremony, including Mayor Bloomberg, Cynthia Nixon and Caroline Kennedy. Peter Stangl, the first president of Metro-North also spoke, as did Howard Permut, current president of Metro-North.

  
  

The West Point Brass and Percussion Band also performed, which seemed quite appropriate. According to historical accounts of Grand Central’s opening, the first song to ever be played in the Terminal was the Star Spangled Banner, which was not yet our national anthem at that time, on the east balcony. The band’s placement right below the east balcony as they played the song seemed rather appropriate, and probably the closest we’d get to reenacting what happened on February 2nd, 1913, at 12:01 AM. Also a fitting mirror was a presentation of a key to Mr. Permut by members of the Vanderbilt family – similar to the presentation of keys to Terminal Manager Miles Bronson one hundred years ago.

The only unfortunate thing to note is that much of the celebration was focused on the VIPs, as opposed to the lowly commuters that actually use Grand Central. (And for the record, no, running this blog did not qualify me as a VIP – I asked and was rejected. An “actual” member of the “press” granted me a pass in their stead. Thanks Steve!) VIP guests to the event got a special program and booklet, which are visible here:

Rededication ceremony program
Program for the Grand Central rededication.

Long poem in one booklet, short poem on this "Poetry in Motion" poster.
Two poems were written about Grand Central by poet Billy Collins. The long poem was illustrated in one booklet, and the short poem appears on this "Poetry in Motion" poster. The posters were not handed out at the event, but have been sighted on trains.

Booklet spread 1
Booklet spread 2
Booklet spread 3
Booklet spread 4
Booklet spread 5
Booklet spread 6
Booklet spread 7
Booklet spread 8
Booklet spread 9

The text on the inside of the booklet was the longer poem that was read by Billy Collins during the ceremony. The shorter poem, which he also read, appears in the program, and on trains thanks to Poetry in Motion and Arts for Transit.


Billy Collins speaks at the Rededication Ceremony

If you’re not familiar with Collins, he is a New York native that was both New York State Poet Laureate, and Poet Laureate of the United States… which in the poetry world is kind of a big deal. While I’m sure plenty of poems have been written about Grand Central, Collins’ poems may be the most high profile written about our lovely Terminal.


Well, Cornelius Vanderbilt is supposed to be here…

As of right now, I have little to say about the Transit Museum’s show “Grand by Design.” Unfortunately, a hundred years wasn’t quite enough to finish up the exhibition, and it seemed that things were missing. The fact that Cornelius Vanderbilt was not mentioned or pictured seemed like a mistake of monumental proportion. Apparently it turned out that Mr. Vanderbilt was supposed to be on that nice blank spot we’re all pointing to in the photo above. I was also disappointed that there was no mention of William Kissam Vanderbilt either – he was really the only Vanderbilt that had a direct influence on the construction of Grand Central. (If the Vanderbilts are still confusing you, it means you haven’t yet read this.) But in all honesty, I may have just been depressed that Anderson Cooper did not attend the event – he is a Vanderbilt, after all.

USPS Grand Central stamp

Another event that happened on Friday regarded the new United States Postal Service stamp, picturing Grand Central, illustrated by Dan Cosgrove. If you were one of the hundreds of people that failed to get the Grand Central centennial cover and stamp on Friday, you can purchase them directly online. Word was that within fifteen minutes they ran out of envelopes for the stamps. The whole purpose of the event was to get the stamp on the special envelope and get it postmarked… so I feel bad for all the people that waited in that line to get just the stamp, which could be purchased at any post office. If you’re looking to grab the covers with the February 1 date stamp online, the USPS site offers two versions for purchase, one with a color postmark for $21.10, or a regular first day stamp for $20.39.

Back on topic, the entire event was a big birthday bash for Grand Central. And no birthday celebration would be complete without a little music…
 
Sarah Charness played the electric violin, and later Melissa Manchester sang. Manchester also shouted “I love you, gorgeous!” at the sky ceiling, which might be cute, had I not been thinking about this.

…and a little bit of cake…

I hope you all like this photo, I dropped my piece of cake on the floor while taking it. And yes, only the VIPs got delicious cake.

The gorgeous cake was made by Eric Bedoucha of Financier Patisserie – a delicious confection modeled after the Information Booth’s clock. It was supposedly saved for the VIP dinner to be hosted at the Oyster Bar that night… which in itself is another mirror to actual events, as the first VIP dinner happened February 1st 1913 at 8 PM.

That about sums it up for the Centennial. With the ceremony past, I figured I’d leave off with a quick recap of all fifteen articles I wrote about Grand Central over the past hundred days.

Happy Birthday, Grand Central!

On the Hunt for Grand Central’s Acorns Train History Photos

Friday, October 5th, 2012

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 company stealing 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!

The Mansions that the Railroad Built, Part 1: Marble House History Photos

Friday, April 27th, 2012

When it comes to historical figures related to the subject of railroads, I don’t think you could find a more interesting person to read about than Cornelius Vanderbilt. The Commodore, as he was known, was brusque, at times ruthless, and didn’t really give a damn what anybody thought of him. While one biographer tells an interesting story of Vanderbilt’s sunset years – suffering from syphilis, going slowly mad, and operated like a puppet by his son – another biographer refutes that story as a complete fabrication (and he makes a fairly convincing case).

The undeniable thing we do know of Cornelius Vanderbilt is that he amassed a fortune first from steamboats, and later from railroads. The Commodore had no desire to split up his massive fortune upon his death, and thus the overwhelming majority was bequeathed to his son William Henry. From there the inheritance was divided between William Henry’s sons, with the larger portions going to the eldest two – Cornelius II and William Kissam. While the Commodore and William Henry were quite adept at making money, the next generation of Vanderbilts were quite fantastic at spending it. Today’s post is the first in a series about the extravagant things that this railroad fortune was spent on. A few of the Vanderbilt mansions are still in existence, two of which are in Newport, Rhode Island. The first we will be visiting is Marble House, which was financed by William Henry’s second son, William Kissam Vanderbilt.


Postcard view of Marble House, located on Bellevue Avenue in Newport, Rhode Island

Anyone who has been in Grand Central Terminal is somewhat familiar with the Vanderbilt family and some of the characteristics found in architecture created for them. A common motif is the acorn and oak leaf, which is frequently sighted in the Terminal, and at another Newport mansion – The Breakers – which belonged to Cornelius II. Other than its extravagance, not much about Marble House screams “Vanderbilt” – likely because it was wholly a creation of Alva Erskine Vanderbilt, wife of William Kissam, and architect Richard Morris Hunt. Alva and William wedded in mostly a marriage of convenience – she was sociable and knew her way around the high society the new generation of Vanderbilts desired to be a part of. He was certainly wealthy, but lacked the full acceptance of New York City’s elite. Together, however, they managed to host extravagant balls that launched them to the forefront of New York society.

Marble House was known as a cottage – or in the parlance of the wealthy of that era, merely a summer home. It was William’s gift to his wife for her 39th birthday – and an extravagant gift it was. The building cost around $11 million, $7 million of which was for marble alone. Built in the Beaux Arts style, the inside and out was influenced by both French and Greek art and architecture. After completion in 1892, Marble House remained in Alva’s possession until 1932 – despite her divorce with William in 1895.

Although a masterpiece for Alva, Marble House served as more of a gilded prison for one young Vanderbilt. Consuelo was the second child of William Kissam and Alva, and their only daughter. She described her mother as, “a born dictator, she dominated events about her as thoroughly as she eventually dominated her husband and her children.” She said of her father: “He was so invariably kind… gentle and sweet… with a fund of humorous tales and jokes that as a child were my joy,” but also noted “he only played a small part in our lives… our mother dominated our upbringing, our education, our recreation and our thoughts.”


Consuelo Vanderbilt, later in life. Drawn by Paul Helleu, the artist responsible for the sky ceiling in Grand Central Terminal.

Marble House was completed when Consuelo was 16, and it was not long after that Alva began searching for the perfect mate for her daughter. Though many desired Consuelo’s hand in marriage (and clearly, the money that came along with), her mother found the young Charles Spencer-Churchill, 9th Duke of Marlborough the clear winner. When Consuelo told her mother she would not marry the Duke, she was sequestered in the mansion: not permitted to leave, nor contact any friends. Her mother even faked a heart attack, “brought about by [Consuelo's] callous indifference to [her mother's] feelings.” Consuelo relented, and agreed to marry the Duke – who officially proposed to her in Marble House’s Gothic Room. Though the wedding was certainly paid for by Vanderbilt money, Alva did not permit any Vanderbilts to attend the ceremony, with the exception of her ex-husband.

Today, Marble House is maintained by the Preservation Society of Newport County, who has owned the mansion since 1963. Regular people can tour the mansion, however, for the truly wealthy, you can rent the place out for an event. The weekend I was visiting, this was the case. One of the employees there even said to me that some of the guests arriving for the festivities, “had more money than God.” I suppose it turned out well in the end – while everyone was distracted with the wealthy visitors, I was able to surreptitiously take a few photographs of the inside of the mansion. Many furnishings in the house are original that were donated to the Preservation Society, though the visage of the Commodore is visible throughout the house. Assumedly, these are not original, as I can not imagine Alva keeping these in her meticulously designed abode.

 
 
  
 
   
 
   
 
   
 
  

In addition to the main house, the mansion has a small Chinese tea house in the back yard, right next to the water. Several years newer than the main house – the tea house was commissioned in 1912, and opened in July of 1914. The small tea house is 1125 square feet with 14 foot high ceilings, and played host to various meetings of Alva’s pet cause – womens’ suffrage. There is something slightly amusing about a woman who fought for womens’ rights, yet forced her daughter into an arranged marriage for a noble title, but Consuelo did not seem to hold this against her mother.