Finally, Moynihan.

Viewed as one of the most heinous crimes to ever have occurred in American architecture, the demolition of Pennsylvania Station served as a turning point for historic preservation in the United States. With the destruction of McKim, Mead, and White’s Beaux arts masterwork, Penn Station’s underground tracks and modified mezzanines still survived, but only as a shadow of their previous selves. Gone was the light spilling through triumphant glass archways and elegant classically styled columns—a fitting gateway to New York that allowed one to enter “like a god.” Instead, one now “scuttles in like a rat,” navigating the subterranean labyrinth as quickly as possible as to not linger in a place that had only become only dark and dismal. When the wrecking ball came later for Grand Central Terminal the citizens of New York had become galvanized against further architectural atrocities. The already expanding sentiment in favor of preservation coupled with outrage over Penn Station’s demise led to the founding of the Landmarks Preservation Commission in 1965, which declared Grand Central a landmark to be preserved. Successor railroad Penn Central carried their fight to the US Supreme Court, where the precedent for historic preservation nationwide was finally laid down in 1978.

“Until the first blow fell, no one was convinced that Penn Station really would be demolished, or that New York would permit this monumental act of vandalism against one of the largest and finest landmarks of its age of Roman elegance.”

— New York Times editorial

For some, merely preserving future landmarks would never be enough—one had to right a previous wrong. Many planners, architects, and students have all posited over the years about what might serve as a fitting replacement for the monumental Pennsylvania Station. From futuristic renderings of transit hubs that more resembled spaceship docking bays, to modern designs evoking the classical magnificence of the original station, to a modern rebuild of the original station itself—ideas were endless. Some involved outright removal of Madison Square Garden—returning the lost light to the station. Other ideas incorporated the steel bones of the Garden and wrapped them in glass. Yet other ideas promoted a relocation of the station itself to the neighboring Farley Post Office across Eighth Avenue, designed by the same architects in the same style as the original station. Ideas were tossed around for decades, funding was achieved and then pilfered, tenants were in and then out, support was gained and then revoked. Plans almost came to fruition in 1999, and then again in 2005, but fickle winds played havoc on any ground gained. Were it not for one influential cheerleader, the project never would have gotten off the ground—forever in an “I’ll believe it when I see it” state of limbo.

Champion of Architecture

Daniel Patrick Moynihan first came to New York aged six, his family settling in the neighborhood of Hell’s Kitchen. Formative portions of Moynihan’s youth included shining shoes in Penn Station for nickels and dimes, serving in the Navy, and his college years—culminating in a Fulbright grant to study at the London School of Economics. These years spent in New York and London, living among grand structures, sparked in Moynihan a lifelong interest and appreciation of architecture. Entering politics in the 1950s, Moynihan first served as a speechwriter and acting secretary for New York Governor Averell Harriman. He was later an assistant to Labor Secretaries Arthur J. Goldberg and W. Willard Wirtz, where he penned the “Guiding Principles for Federal Architecture” as part of a Kennedy administration initiative to reinvigorate the deteriorating Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington.

Moynihan’s guidelines have influenced the construction of government buildings for more than half a century, and established that good design was not optional—anything else would be a waste of taxpayer dollars. Although buildings should be efficient, accessible, and economical, they must also “provide visual testimony to the dignity, enterprise, vigor, and stability of the American Government.” Instead of defining an official architectural style, buildings should incorporate regional traditions and contemporary concepts in American architecture, and designs should come from the finest of artists, not mandated by politicians.

Moynihan’s extensive political career included working for four presidential administrations, ambassadorship to India, and later to the United Nations. He had a hand in many architectural redevelopment and preservation projects, as well as transportation infrastructure legislation, encouraging communities to plan for future transportation and mass transit needs. When elected as a senator of New York in 1976 Moynihan continued to champion these causes, culminating in a project that combined both of those worlds. While certainly a complicated man—holding views about race, reproduction, and health that may not coincide with contemporary thought—Moynihan’s steadfast pursuit of a new Penn Station will be his legacy. Restoring grandeur to the overcrowded Penn Station would at least right one wrong of the past. With Madison Square Garden’s placement providing a challenge to any redevelopment of the original site, moving the station into the neighboring Farley Post Office, no longer being fully utilized by the postal service, became the preferred concept with which to move forward.

The Farley Post Office

When plans were being made for Penn Station, the Pennsylvania Railroad sold the idea of constructing a new post office on Eighth Avenue to the US Post Office Department. The concept would be a win-win for both sides—the railroad had an immediate taker to sell air rights to, and the post office would have easy access to all of the tracks that would carry mail across the country. Accepting the offer in 1903, the government began planning the new post office. Under the Tarsney Act of 1893 the government was authorized to hold competitions for federal building design, and prominent architects of the day, including Cass Gilbert (who later designed the Woolworth Building and New Haven Union Station), Heins & Lafarge (IRT subway), and McKim, Mead, and White all competed for the commission. A judging panel of four prominent American architects ultimately selected McKim, Mead, and White, who conveniently were also working on the new station for the Pennsylvania Railroad across the street.

Designed to visually match Penn Station, an imposing façade of twenty fifty-three foot tall Corinthian columns sat atop a full-length set of thirty one steps, flanked on both sides by a square pavilions topped with a stepped pyramid. The internal steel framework and support structure of the building was hidden underneath stone and plaster coverings. Even the monumental columns of the façade were not solid stone, but a hollow decorative shell wrapped around a steel beam, a near perfect facsimile of the real thing.

A quotation from the translated Histories of Herodotus, which became an informal creed of the Post Office due to its presence here, was selected by the US Department of the Treasury and inscribed above the columns—”neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.” At the main entrance atop of the steps on Eighth Avenue was a two story tall marble floored reception hall with a painstakingly detailed ceiling decorated with the emblems of the ten member countries of the Universal Postal Union at the time of  construction.

Completed in 1914 and known as the Pennsylvania Terminal upon opening, the building later became the city’s general post office in 1918, over the former primary post office near City Hall. Not long after, with congestion at its peak, the post office was expanded westward. Purchasing the lot from the railroad, McKim, Mead, and White returned to expand the building and create an annex, seamlessly fitting with the aesthetic of the original edifice, completed in 1935. The post office stood guard as the slow destruction of sister building Penn Station commenced in 1963. Bestowed with its own landmark status in 1966, the surviving post office long served as a memory of what we lost. Dedicated as the James A. Farley Building in 1982, the new appellation honored the Postmaster General who oversaw the expansion of the building.

By the 1990s some—including Daniel Patrick Moynihan—had set their sights on the Farley Building as a replacement for Penn Station. Access to the tracks was no longer necessary for delivering the mail, and the Postal Service had already been thinking about moving mail sorting operations elsewhere. After much debate and negotiation, the Postal Service finally agreed to sell the building to the New York state government in 2002 for an estimated $230 million. With the site now guaranteed, the new Penn Station project could begin in earnest.

An array of ideas never built—Diller Scofidio + Renfro, James Carpenter Design Associates, SHoP, SOM, and Woods Bagot reimagine Penn Station with and without Madison Square Garden, or relocated into the Farley Building.

Project Comes to Fruition

The decades-long battle to build a replacement for Penn Station can only be described as complicated—from who would be participating and where the money would come from, all the way down to what it would look like. Various design concepts had been proposed over the years, some with larger price tags than others. Hellmuth, Obata & Kassabaum had proposed a 120-foot parabolic glass arch over Farley’s hall in 1993, imitating the train sheds of Europe. Skidmore, Owings & Merrill released other early concepts in 1999, uncovering the original structural trusses of the building to support a glass ceiling. A second set of glass panes built into the floor would allow natural light to penetrate down to track level. Above it would be a large video board showing video feeds of arriving trains, train schedules, the weather, and even stock tickers. Covering the other half of the hall underneath the glass ceiling would be several waiting pens with hard-backed seats for departures on each track. Although many liked elements of the designs, there were worries that the glass ceilings would be an extravagant expense, which the in-floor glass would only increase, along with limiting mobility through the hall.

Of course, debating the design was only the beginning of the complications. Local governments, politicians, railroads, and developers all needed to be on the same page—at the same time—to make the project work. Senator Moynihan and his team managed to wrangle funds for the project, but unspent dollars sitting idly make an attractive target for other cash strapped-projects, especially when continued delays led only to ballooning costs. Moynihan’s death in 2003 deprived the project of its biggest supporter, and just a year later longtime project opponent and President of Amtrak David Gunn signaled that the national railroad would be bowing out. Gunn cited both lack of funds and the inconvenient placement further west as reasons for their departure. New Jersey Transit and the Long Island Rail Road agreed to take Amtrak’s place.

By 2005 New York had selected Stephen M. Ross of The Related Companies and Steven Roth of Vornado Realty Trust as the developers for the project. Soon after they boasted of a tentative agreement to move Madison Square Garden to the Farley building, leaving the original site open for a new station—a plan that was largely rejected by preservationists and the public. In the end the plans to move Madison Square Garden fell through, and the idea of reconstructing the station above live tracks without impeding service proved undesirable. Finding another tenant large enough to fill the space would prove difficult, with attempts by the developers to woo the Borough of Manhattan Community College into a land swap deal in exchange for building a new campus at Farley ending in another failure. The developers then turned to attempting to lure a biotech or pharmaceutical company to the space, but the slow economy yet again stymied plans for redevelopment.

Yet the idea never fully died, and negotiations eventually lured Amtrak back on board. New railroad president and former New York state DOT Commissioner Joseph Boardman officially agreed to return Amtrak to the project in 2009. By 2010 the government agreed to provide $82 million in stimulus funds to get shovels in the ground, and a Transportation Investments Generating Economic Recovery grant would pay for the first phase of the project, with a $267 million price tag. On October 18, 2010, a ceremonial groundbreaking was held, but it wasn’t until 2012 that a construction contract was offered to Skanska and work truly began on Phase I. Completing that phase, which included the West End Concourse and providing a passageway under Eighth Avenue to reach the Farley Building, was completed in June 2017.

Despite the nearly 25 years it took to complete Phase I, work on Phase II commenced at a rapid pace. Skanska was again contracted to lead the construction, and a groundbreaking ceremony was held in August 2017. Vornado and Related solidified their deal to develop the retail and office space of the project with a contract, leasing the building for 99 years for a contribution of $630 million. The New York state government contributed $550 million, with another $420 million from Amtrak, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, with the rest coming from federal grants

Throughout all the political wrangling and negotiations artists had never stopped imagining what the station could look like. The concept of incorporating light into the project, in sharp contrast to the dingy current station, was well received and repeated nearly every one of these design iterations. Notable further ideas included James Carpenter Design Associates’ 2005 concept that reused the ceiling skylight approach, but was this time was structurally supported by long steel columns, evoking the original skylights of Penn Station. The Municipal Art Society challenged architects to redesign Penn Station’s original site in 2013, both with and without Madison Square Garden. These designs too were filled with light, yet in some cases they still managed to feel cold, with strange and overly futuristic details.

Despite the plentiful ideas across decades, designers often come full circle. SOM’s final design, which was built as part of Phase II, bears striking similarities to their first, notably in revealing and reusing the building’s structural steel trusses. The glass skylights remain, but take on a more fluidic and arching shape, and the floor below the skylights remains open for movement without additional glass mounted in the floor, or waiting pens segmenting the space. With Phase II’s commencement, the station long ago imagined by Moynihan was finally coming to life—and in a final nod to his tireless efforts, the train hall would named in his honor.

Views of the construction of Phase II, including the scaffolding used to install the glass skylights, the crew installing the marble flooring, and the preparation to hang the clock at the center of the hall.

Moynihan Train Hall

When Phase I was completed in 2017, providing riders with additional access to the platforms through the West End Concourse, many were impressed. The design was fully modern and bright, but like the old station it was also underground. To allay the feeling of darkness, the ceiling simulates a sky overhead with LED screens. While certainly a lovely touch, this preview can do little justice for the magnificent view awaiting a visitor in the train hall proper. An escalator connects the old station to the new through this West End Concourse, and while riding to the top one can finally arrive at the long-desired magnificent gateway to the west side of Manhattan.

Filling the east flank of the hall is a comfortable waiting room designed by Rockwell Group, with wood-wrapped walls, cushioned places to sit, tables for work, and ample charging outlets for the modern traveler. At the west, bright ticketing kiosks designed by SOM serve both Amtrak and Long Island Rail Road passengers. A light-filled Metropolitan Lounge designed by FX Collaborative, complete with upscale furnishings and alcove seating areas, boasts a balcony overlooking the expansive hall. Yet all of these fail to compare with the focal point of the redevelopment—a 92 foot high set of arched skylights, comprised of 3,384 insulating frit glass panels, held in place with 670 metric tons of structural steelwork and covering over 5,000 square meters of space. Fabricated and put in place by German company Seele Group, massive scaffolds needed to be erected skyward to facilitate their installation over a year ago. The Tennessee marble floor—Quaker Gray, installed by Miller Druck—provides a warm and elegant touch to the designed space. From that floor one can look skyward and marvel at the six foot by twelve analog clock designed by Pennoyer Architects, yet another nod to the original Penn Station, whose Roman numeraled clock likewise held a position of honor below the skylights. Although the inside of the building is certainly the highlight, the outside has also been given a restoration, with Boston Valley Terra Cotta replicating ornamental designs for the top of the building. After dark the building’s façade is now awash in a cycle of ever changing colored light. The entire redevelopment is itself a work of art, breathing new life into the stately former postal facility.

A photo gallery from Moynihan Train Hall’s opening day. Many visitors came to see the redeveloped building throughout the day, and both the ticketed waiting room and Metropolitan Lounge remained open for all to see.

The Art of Moynihan

Hearkening back to Moynihan’s guiding concepts, the train hall is filled with art (although the man himself would likely have preferred the inclusion of more American artists). Three permanent installations are joined by a video loop of designs created by Moment Factory playing across the four display screens on the east wall below the skylight. Illustrated renditions of an array of New York state landmarks, including the Chrysler Building, Brooklyn Bridge, Apollo Theatre, Flatiron Building, Verrazzano Bridge, Dewey Arch, Coney Island Cyclone, Gantry Park, Bannerman Castle, Buffalo City Hall, the New York State Capitol, Letchworth State Park, and Montauk Point lighthouse, sail across the giant screens. Evoking the Kodak Colorama that was a mainstay for years at Grand Central—with static imagery changed every three weeks—the Moynihan screens provide a modern take on a canvas of ever-changing art.

Kehinde Wiley, known for riffing off of and reimagining the works of old masters with black models, created the stained Czech glass triptych at the 33rd Street entrance entitled Go. The hand painted piece is backlit over the ceiling, featuring break dancers flying across a cloud-filled sky. The work is a modern reinterpretation of the classical frescoes that adorned the ceilings of notable buildings, a connection complete with a young woman’s outstretched hand, referencing Adam’s hand meeting God’s in Michelangelo’s masterpiece on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.

Berlin-based artists Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset created The Hive, a diverse city of aluminum skyscrapers, both replica and invented, hanging from the ceiling at the 31st Street entrance. A mirrored base allows viewers to interact with, and become a part of the artwork, despite its location high overhead. The piece weighs more than 30,000 pounds, utilizes 72,000 LED lights, and has six buildings able to change color.

Enclosed within the station’s waiting room are Penn Station’s Half Century, photographs by Canadian visual artist Stan Douglas which recreate nine moments in time at the original Penn Station. Due to the Covid-19 pandemic Douglas individually photographed 400 people in period attire over four days of shooting, later layering the images together to form the crowds in each photo. Interiors of Penn Station were digitally recreated utilizing archival plans and photographs. Reimagined moments include two scenes of an impromptu Vaudeville performance while passengers were stranded in the station due to a snowstorm, soldiers saying their goodbyes before heading off to war, an airplane on display to promote Transcontinental Air Transport, wartime murals plastered across the walls, bandit Celia Cooney’s return to New York by police after spending 65 days on the lam, African American labor organizer Angelo Herndon’s arrival at the station after the Supreme Court decided in his favor, the futuristic Lester Tichy-designed “clamshell” ticket counter installed in 1956, and a scene from the film The Clock, where Judy Garland’s character trips over a soldier’s foot in Penn Station sparking a whirlwind romance—which now appears to take place in the real station, as opposed to a California sound stage.

Overseen by the Public Art Fund, all of the pieces were created remotely, later being delivered to Moynihan for installation. The overarching theme for the three permanent installations is the play between old and new, a reflection of the modern adaptive reuse of a classically-designed piece of architecture. Their total cost was $6.7 million.

Moynihan’s Future

Despite setbacks during construction due to the pandemic, Governor Cuomo was determined to open Moynihan Train Hall on time. Although the hall and its expansive skylights are gorgeous, and you can actually step aboard a train here, it is not yet a world-class destination. Missing are the typical amenities that one would expect from a train station, including restaurants and shops. Walls have been erected to obscure active construction areas from the public. The is expected 120,000 square feet dedicated to retail and restaurants is still a work in progress. Atop the north balcony will be a signature restaurant with tables overlooking the hustle and bustle of the hall. A food hall designed by Elkus Manfredi architects will be located on the ground floor. Two more signature restaurants will round out the culinary selection, with one rendering showing a restaurant providing outdoor dining at the corner of 33rd and 9th Avenue.

The lone open amenities are a Starbucks and a small Taste NY kiosk on the ground floor adjacent to the waiting room. Magnolia Bakery’s storefront, also located on the ground floor, looks more ready than the rest. French-inspired cafe Maman, nostalgic pizza parlor Sauce Pizzeria, traditional coffee shop Birch Coffee, artisanal water bagel maker H&H Bagel, comfort food purveyor Jacob’s Pickles, specialty roaster Blue Bottle Coffee, locally made Davey’s Ice Cream, and graffiti covered eatery Burger Joint are all slated to be part of the final repertoire of eateries which, along with the retail shops, are expected to open this fall.

Work continues on completing the 740,000 square feet of office space also on site—complete with 70,000 square feet of outdoor park space on the fifth floor, where one can look down upon the tops of the train hall’s arched skylights. Facebook has signed a lease for the Moynihan office space, adding to their existing lease at soon-to-open 50 Hudson Yards, cementing a foothold in the West Side’s “tech hub” and joining giants Google, Apple, and Amazon.

The Postal Service still maintains a presence in the building’s entrance hall for anyone looking to buy stamps or mail a letter—but some hope that they will eventually move all operations elsewhere, finally leaving the structure open for a full adaptive reuse.

Moynihan Train Hall is open daily from 5 AM to 1 AM, off hours travelers will have to use dreary Penn Station. Visit at different times to fully appreciate the light aspect of the design—recommended times are midmorning on a sunny day to catch the rays through the skylights, or after dark when the space is illuminated by color changing LEDs.

Taken as a work of art, Moynihan Train Hall and the Farley Building’s redevelopment is truly as beautiful as it is remarkable. It is another facet of the West Side’s transformation over past fifteen years, along with the opening of the High Line, the rapid development of shops, a public plaza, an arts center and several high rises as part of Hudson Yards, the expansion of the Javits Center and the extension of the 7 Line. Yet Manhattan’s core has always lain closer to the East Side, and it is debatable how much this transformation will shift residents, workers, and visitors westward. Coupled with the behavioral changes of remote work and reticence to travel due to the pandemic, it remains to be seen how many people will truly use Moynihan Train Hall and whether it will ultimately be deemed a worthy investment or a tastefully designed boondoggle that neither sped up trains nor increased their frequency.

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Substations and Sabotage: The true story of M42 and Nazi spies in Grand Central

For a station with as storied a history as Grand Central Terminal, there’s bound to be a few hoaxes or tall tales shared over the years. The best stories always begin with a kernel of truth, to lay a believable foundation to imagine from. In the case of Grand Central’s sub basement, known as M42, a tall tale has sprung a life of its own. Just search for M42 online and you will read stories of a “clandestine” or “top secret” basement that “Hitler tried to destroy.” In reality, most things you’ve heard about M42 are probably false. The fictional story has been told so many times, and like a game of telephone, the claims have grown more extravagant over the years. In some cases the claims are even contradictory, depending on who tells the tale. Hopefully we can set the record straight, and finally put this oft-repeated myth to rest.

Claim: The M42 substation that powered the Terminal opened when Grand Central did in 1913.

Truth: The original electric power conversion substation was located at 50th Street and was moved underneath the Graybar Building in 1929 so that the air rights could be sold to build the Waldorf Astoria.

About ten stories below the ground, deep underneath Grand Central lies its basement, known by the top-secret-sounding name M42. The designation refers to the basement itself, not the substations (of which there were two), but in public consciousness they are synonymous. The name is more modern in nature, as no historical texts use this designation for the supposedly secretive place. Initially the small space was used for two boilers that heated the Terminal during the colder months. Once the railroad signed an agreement with the Waldorf Astoria in 1929, however, they quickly enacted a plan to move the unsightly substation above ground at 50th Street. The small underground space was greatly expanded by digging out a large section lying directly underneath the Graybar Building. Equipment from the old substation was painstakingly dismantled, lowered to track level, transported underground, and then lowered further again to arrive at the new location. The largest size rotary of 4,000 kW weighed 68 tons, and required about 90 days to take apart, move and then reassemble and install.

Claim: There were only two spies.

Truth: The real-life operation to damage infrastructure had a total of eight spies.

Many people find the story of Nazis in Grand Central to be so believable, largely because bits of truth have been woven into the tale. Although their missions never included Grand Central as a target, there were truly two instances of spies sent from Germany to the United States in U-boats during World War II – Operations Pastorius and Magpie.

Some retellings of the Grand Central sabotage story put the spies as members of Operation Pastorius, which had eight members. This is the most plausible, as the operation did have targets in New York, including railroad infrastructure, although the primary goal was disrupting aluminum production. Other versions of the tale say there were only two spies, corresponding more closely to Operation Magpie, which occurred two years after Operation Pastorius. For Magpie, two Nazi spies were sent to Maine to gather intelligence on American factories, shipyards, testing facilities, and whether Nazi propaganda seemed to have any affect on the populace. That operation ended as similarly as the first, with one of the participants surrendering to the FBI. Neither operation included sabotaging the substation at Grand Central, but gave the tale its air of truth.

Claim: The sabotage was to prevent the United States from entering the war.

Truth: The United States had already declared war on Germany.

Pearl Harbor was attacked by the Japanese on December 7, 1941, leading to the US to declare war on Japan. Germany, as allies to Japan, declared war on the United States on the 11th of December, 1941. Later that day the United States reciprocated by declaring war on Germany.

Hitler’s pact with Japan required them to come to Japan’s aid if they were attacked by another power, but Germany was not required to declare war if Japan started the conflict. The decision by Hitler to declare war, often seen as illogical by historians, allowed the US to enter the European theatre with little opposition from the populace.

Operation Pastorius occurred in June of 1942, and Magpie in September 1944, both after Germany’s declaration of war had drawn the United States into the conflict. Hitler was said to have directly ordered some type of sabotage himself, telling the Abwehr “to finally do something in America.”

Claim: The rotary converters at M42 were a target of Nazi saboteurs.

Truth: As part of “Operation Pastorius” several American factories and railroad targets were selected for sabotage by Nazis, but neither Grand Central nor M42 were named as targets.

Many tales from World War II are indeed captivating, but none more so to Americans than the misadventures of Nazis on our own soil as part of Operation Pastorius. In June 1942 two teams of Nazis landed on American beaches at Long Island and Florida in U-boats with the goal of disrupting wartime aluminum production. Trained at a sabotage school outside Berlin, the two teams of four men each had a list of targets to attack, including factories and railroad infrastructure.

Sam Roberts, in his book Grand Central: How a Train Station Transformed America, attempts to debunk several myths but is relatively generous while addressing this subject, essentially stating that Grand Central as a target could have been plausible, considering that one of the saboteurs’ goals was to disrupt train movements. That is true to a point – there were several named primary targets, and then there were secondary goals which included causing terror by bombing Jewish-owned shops, and putting bombs in train station lockers to induce panic.

From the MI5 report, a list of Operation Pastorius’s targets. Railroad-related targets are highlighted.

The truth of the matter is that Operation Pastorius is extremely well documented. No less than five books have been authored recounting the details, including a first hand account by leader of the Long Island team and whistleblower George John Dasch. In addition to those sources there are declassified transcripts of the testimony at the military tribunal held after all eight saboteurs were caught, as well as an extensive report from MI5, UK’s intelligence agency. Not a single one of these sources ever mentions Grand Central as a target. Hell Gate Bridge? Yes. Newark Penn Station? Yes. Horseshoe Curve? Yes. But neither Grand Central nor M42 are ever named, and neither is throwing sand on a rotary converter.

In terms of “disrupting railroads” reports and confessions are clear in what the saboteurs learned, and how they planned to enact this sabotage. It included bombs that looked like other materials, including coal and writing utensils, damaging locomotives by introducing abrasives into their lubrication systems, and derailing trains carrying raw materials to and from the essential wartime aluminum factories that were the primary goal of the operation. Cryolite and magnesium plants were also targeted due to their usage in producing aluminum. Aluminum, considered vital for national security (even to this day), was used for many wartime applications, but notably was the primary material necessary for aircraft production.

During World War II, railroads carried 90% of the military’s freight, and 98% of its personnel. As a major coal hauler, targeting the Chesapeake and Ohio would disrupt the delivery of the essential fuel that powered wartime factories. Taking out the Hell Gate Bridge would cut off New York City’s direct railroad line to factories of aircraft engines, helicopters, and submarines in Connecticut. Bombing the tracks at Newark would cut New York City’s rail link at the opposite end, as well as interfere with troop and supply movements. Some of the largest staging areas for the war effort were located alongside railroad lines in New Jersey, including Camp Kilmer for troops, and Belle Mead for supplies. Pittsburgh, which produced more steel for the war effort than all the Axis powers combined, would be blocked from reaching Philadelphia and eastern ports across the Pennsy’s main line if Horseshoe Curve was successfully damaged. In most cases the detriment of any sabotage would be short lived – bombed tracks could be quickly rebuilt, or trains could be rerouted on alternate trackage.

Claim: A simple bucket of sand could entirely disable the electrical system.

Truth: Ten rotary converters and backups would keep the system going.

When the electrical system for the New York Central was constructed, care was used to create, as described by General Electric, “[infrastructure that was] doubly insured against failure.” Power was generated at two different stations, one at Glenwood, and another at Port Morris. The rotary converters at M42 predecessor 50th Street were one of nine such substations designed to step down the high pressure 11,000 volt alternating current from the generating plants and convert it to the 600 volt direct current that powered the third rail.

When opened in 1930, the equipment housed at M42 was responsible for illuminating more than 100,000 electric lights, moving more than 650 trains daily, operating 325 elevators in 28 buildings, and supplying those buildings with heat and hot water. There were a total of ten rotary converters, three more than were located at the previous 50th Street substation. Technically the basement was split into two separate substations – the eastern portion, 1T, powered the third rail system, and the eastern half, dubbed 1L, provided the power necessary for the station and nearby buildings. In addition, there was a battery backup consisting of 160 cells, each 7 feet long and weighing over 4,500 pounds, which could each provide power to the buildings for a short time in the event of a failure.

Say you did manage to get down to M42 with a bucket and threw it into one of the rotary converters. According to Robert Lobenstein, retired General Superintendent of Power Operations at New York City Transit (which used similar rotary converters to power the subways), the sand would “likely destroy the brushes on both the AC and DC sides of the rotary, and rough up the commutators and slip rings. If somehow the sand got into the bearing caps, the machine would be rendered useless until parts were replaced and sand was flushed from the oil reservoirs.” He notes that materials other than sand thrown into an operating rotary could potentially lead to a massive “flashover” that would knock the saboteur off their feet and result in “a short circuit on the DC side leading to a ring of fire on the commutator, destroying coils and throwing molten lead solder around the room.”

Although temporary damage to the rotary from the sand was likely, it was also possible that if not enough sand was thrown into the machine it could have just spun off and kept going. Whatever the result, (even in the case of a major flashover) capable railroad employees could dismantle the massive machinery and replace any fried parts with spares or items that they fabricated, eventually restoring the rotary to service.

Remember, though, M42 had a total of ten rotaries. A bucket of sand would only take out a single one, so at most you’ve only succeeded in reducing the output capacity of the substation. All five of the rotary converters used to power the third rail had a total capacity of 16,500 kW, and before being moved to M42, the converters at the previous substation had a slightly lesser combined capacity of 14.500 kW. And when that substation was first put into service it only had a 6,000 kW capacity. The trains had before and could again operate with reduced capacity. Losing one converter, even if it was one of the larger 4,000 kW machines, would not cause a serious detrimental affect on the system.

Ultimately, in order to completely halt traffic through the Terminal you would need more than one bucket of sand. All four saboteurs, with a bucket of sand each, would greatly reduce capacity, but still wouldn’t completely disable the system. They’d have to invite a fifth friend to go play in the sandbox with them.

The substation at Irvington, one of nine total for the electric division.

Claim: Taking out M42 would cripple all train movement in the Northeast.

Truth: M42 was a small piece of a larger electrification network, and most trains would operate as normal.

Grand Central and the lines running from it were part of an entire electric zone – the Hudson division was electrified to Croton, a distance of 34 route miles, and the Harlem division was electrified for 24 route miles, ending at White Plains (with a total electrified trackage of 251 miles). Two generating stations provided all power to the electric zone, and nine substations converted the power and distributed it to the third rail for use by trains. Besides the substation in the basement of Grand Central, the other substations were located along the tracks at Mott Haven, Kingsbridge, Yonkers, Irvington, Ossining, Botanical Garden, Tuckahoe, and White Plains. These eight substations contained 32 total rotary converters, and provided a total capacity of 49,000 kW.

If one did manage to successfully disable the two substations at M42, there is no doubt that it would cause issues. The Terminal, as well as several nearby buildings and hotels, depended on the power from these substations. In the case of the third rail, the next closest substation – #2 at Mott Haven, approximately five and a half miles away – would attempt to back feed DC power to Grand Central. Trains would have to operate at reduced speeds as to not overload the system, meaning there is no guarantee that even trains in the station would come to a complete standstill. As the system was built with redundancy in mind, the failure of one substation should not have adversely affected the operation of the entire electric zone in normal cases. Grand Central was a special case, however, as its substation carried a heavier load than all the rest, and was located at the end of the line.

The thought that disabling M42 would cripple all trains in the Northeast is a gross over exaggeration. The “Northeast Corridor,” which some stories specifically name, is not even connected in any way to Grand Central, and would be wholly unaffected. Other sources use the terminology “Eastern Seaboard” which is also entirely incorrect. The only place that would potentially feel any affect would be Grand Central itself. The remainder of the electrified zone had its own substations to keep running normally, and beyond that zone trains were operated by steam engines, which would also be unaffected by any electric sabotage.

Imagining the Terminal without electric… Grand Central is illuminated by battery powered floodlights during the 1965 blackout. Photo by Ted Russell.

Claim: The Nazi saboteurs that landed by U-boat were caught after they tried to check a bag at Grand Central, or were arrested in Grand Central.

Truth: The eight saboteurs were caught because one of them confessed to the FBI almost immediately after arriving on American shores, and before any sabotage was carried out.

Leader of the New York team, George John Dasch, called the FBI very soon after arriving in New York City, having taken the Long Island Rail Road from their landing point of Amagansett, on the southeast end of Long Island. Although the call was initially thought a joke, a few days later he boarded a train for Washington DC intent on meeting with the FBI in person. He described himself as, “not an American agent in the legal sense, but a fighter against Hitlerism and determined to have this mission blow up right in Hitler’s face.” Dasch maintained that he had decided to expose the mission as soon as he was asked to complete it, before even arriving in the United States. He viewed his return to Germany after living in the United States for many years a mistake, and thought the mission would be the only way he could return without raising suspicion, all while performing a heroic act to boot. Alternately, some in the FBI were skeptical and posited that Dasch only had a change of heart upon landing on American shores. Irrelevant of when he decided to talk, it was Dasch’s confession (which initially was not even believed until he showed off the large piles of cash that were provided to him to complete the mission) and the assistance of fellow Long Island landing team member Ernst Peter Burger that spoiled the plot and led to the capture of all operatives. All of the saboteurs, with the exception of Dasch and Burger, were quickly executed by electric chair after a military tribunal within two months of arriving from Germany.

The spies were not arrested in Grand Central, nor were they found because of anything they did in Grand Central – claims that differ depending on who tells the tale. Most of the spies probably never even went to Grand Central during the mission, as the New York team used the Long Island Rail Road and Penn Station. Thiel and Kerling of the Florida landing team made their way through the Grand Central, but only because they imagined direct trains from Florida were being watched, so they opted to take a roundabout journey to New York via Cincinnati. They subsequently checked in to the nearby Commodore Hotel and in truly suspenseful fashion, promptly fell asleep. Later Thiel did meet an old friend at the Terminal, at the famous information booth – the only times Grand Central is mentioned in the testimony.

Claim: One of the Nazi spies worked in Grand Central.

Truth: All of the saboteurs had lived in the United States previously, but none were employed at Grand Central.

George John Dasch was a complicated fellow. He had lived in the United States for eighteen years after illegally entering at the port of Philadelphia as a stowaway. Married to an American woman, he had been employed as a waiter in New Rochelle, a role his mother found demeaning. Even worse, Dasch had been unemployed for several months and rendered nearly penniless after becoming embroiled in a legal battle with a local labor union. This destitution made it easy for Dasch’s mother to ultimately convince him to return to Germany, with a promise that not only could a family member get him a better paying skilled job, but also with the assurance that everything at home was normal, better than normal, even, and as long as he kept to himself the Nazis would have no interest in him.

Returning to Germany directly from the United States was not possible at the time, so Dasch took a multi-week trek through Japan, China, and Russia to reach home, a trip sponsored by the German embassy. Upon return, Dasch worked for several months translating American radio broadcasts, but observed that things were not really better – he felt the populace had been rendered quasi slaves, unable to think for themselves. And contrary to his mother’s thoughts, the Nazis were quite interested in Germans having returned from the US, thinking that their familiarity with the country and language would prove an asset for sabotage missions. Being invited to participate aligned with his goal of trying to get out of Germany – under the eye of the Gestapo, attempting to flee would have been nearly impossible otherwise.

Each of the chosen saboteurs had their own unique stories, but shared the collective experience of having lived for several years in the United States working menial jobs before returning to Germany for one reason or another. Haupt was a 22 year old who came to live in Chicago as a preschooler, spoke English better than he did German, and was an American citizen. Quirin had lived in the US for 13 years, and worked as mechanic for GE in Schenectady until he was laid off during the Depression. Burger had become a naturalized American citizen, and worked in both Milwaukee and Detroit as a machinist, and later as an artist. He did a seventeen month stint in a concentration camp upon his return to Germany after writing a paper critical of the Gestapo. Heinck had come to the United States illegally, and worked odd jobs in New York City including busboy, handyman, and elevator operator. Kerling likewise worked odd jobs in the New York area, including at a meat packing facility in Brooklyn and as a handyman in Mount Kisco. Neubauer had lived in Chicago and Miami for nine years, working as a cook. He was drafted into the German army after returning home to visit family. Thiel worked as a machinist for Ford in Detroit, was a porter in New York, and performed other odd jobs throughout his journeys to Illinois, California, and Florida. None of the eight had ever worked in Grand Central or for the railroad in any capacity.

Claim: The existence of M42 was considered top-secret and only became public knowledge in the 1980s.

Truth: The New York Central Lines, and General Electric, were rather proud of the substation – photos and details of it were published in several newspapers and magazines.

If you had just managed to move an entire substation with equipment that weighed a total of 850 tons according to schedule, without damaging a thing, all while operating continuing, uninterrupted train service you’d probably be pretty proud too! When Grand Central’s electric system first went online General Electric released a promotional book called “Electricity on the New York Central” which gave descriptions of the system, the new electric locomotives, as well as the rotary converters. It contained photos of the original substation at 50th Street, as well as substation #5 at Irvington (seen above). The rotaries and where they were located was not at all a secret.

After the move, the two substations at M42 were also not a secret. The March 1930 edition of the New York Central Lines Magazine contained an article titled “Moving Terminal Power Plant Engineering Feat.” An article entitled, “Metal Roots That Feed the Living City” appeared in the April 13, 1930 edition of the New York Times, containing a picture of the substation under construction and a description of the move. June 1930’s Scientific American likewise had a story, entitled “Moving a Substation Underground.” The article contained before and after pictures, as well as thorough descriptions of the move and an explanation of the equipment found within. General Electric also had an advertisement that ran in several magazines in the 1930s boasting the new Grand Central Substation as “one of the most remarkable substations in existence.” Not only does the ad show a picture of the room, it details what equipment is in the substation, and for anyone who might be unsure as to where the substation is located, actually contains a photo at street-level of the Graybar Building and states that it is 100 feet under its sidewalk. Considering all the publicity at the time, the idea that the substation was considered classified information until the modern era is a complete fabrication.

Claim: Dasch was viewed a hero for foiling the sabotage plot.

Truth: Dasch was jailed and deported.

This one isn’t actually part of the Grand Central tale – but if for some reason you thought that Dasch would receive a hero’s welcome for exposing the saboteurs, you would be wrong. Despite promises of a presidential pardon, Dasch was jailed until the war was over and then deported to the then-partitioned Germany. He continued to seek a pardon so he could return to the United States, but it was never granted. In 1959 he wrote his own account of the events of Operation Pastorius, titled Eight Spies Against America. He moved frequently due to being seen as a traitor by his neighbors, and died in the early ’90s.

In closing, Grand Central is, of course, an important place. But it does not have to be at the forefront of every story, nor woven into every New York historical happening. There are enough legitimate tales within the walls of Grand Central to keep any storyteller busy for ages – we need not continue telling fantastic fables.

Special thanks to Bob Lobenstein for graciously sharing his knowledge with me and answering my silly “what if” questions about rotary converters!

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2017 in Photos

As we find ourselves in the final hours of 2017, I thought it might be a nice time to look back at some of the more memorable photographs to appear on I Ride the Harlem Line this year. As you likely noticed, posts were few and far between this year, as things were again, rather busy. Despite that, we still adventured to the Beacon Line, Grand Central for Amtrak’s temporary return, and the new Penn Station. While some may find 13 an ominous number, I tend to find it lucky – so let’s take a look at the top thirteen photos posted on the I Ride the Harlem Line website or social media pages this year.

#13 – Hartford, Connecticut

One of my favorite spots to catch Amtrak’s New Haven to Springfield line is this one at the historic Hartford Union Station. This shot from early April captures the Vermonter as it passes Connecticut’s capitol building and approaches the station.


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