Tuesday, January 17, 2017

The Esoteric In Grand Central Terminal

I'm back from vacation, and for This Hidden City's 3rd Anniversary post, I thought I'd cover some of the lesser known (and seen) aspects of a place most locals and tourist have entered: Grand Central Terminal. I'll also try to dispel some myths along the way.
For the few unaware, Grand Central Terminal is the railroad terminal at 42nd Street and Park Avenue in Midtown Manhattan. Though another building, also called Grand Central Station, had been in use since 1871, it was torn down. The Main Concourse Building there now was built from 1903 to 1913 by, both, the architecture firm of Warren & Wetmore and Reed and Stem WASA Studio. It is different from what is now known as Grand Central Station, as that is a subway stop, and Grand Central Terminal is where all Metro-North Railroad train lines end (soon the East Side Access project will connect the Long Island Rail Road there as well).
While all other Metro-North stations are owned and managed by Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA), Grand Central Terminal is owned by Midtown TDR Ventures.
We'll start outside, and work our way around inside, until we reach its very depths and heights. As you enter on 42nd Street, one can look up 48 ft (15 m) to see the statue of Minerva, Hercules and Mercury, titled "Glory of Commerce", which was designed by the French sculptor Jules-Felix Coutan, and carved by the John Donnelly Company. Within the statue is the world's largest Tiffany clock, stretching 13 ft (4 m) across.

The clock was installed in 1914, but was heavily damaged throughout the years. In 1992, Rohlf’s Studio in Mt. Vernon began repairs. Since access to the clock was only available via one set of small stairs, it had to be disassembled piece by piece, and the repairs were not finished until 2004.
Walking to the center of Grand Central Terminal, we find another amazing clock atop the information booth. Created in 1913, by Seth Thomas Clock Company of Connecticut, the clock is worth $10,000,000, due to the huge convex opal faces on all four sides. The top of the clock holds a compass, pointing to true north with 100% accuracy.

Still looking up, we now notice the ceiling of the Main Concourse. The astronomical design was the idea of Warren Vanderbilt, and it was completed by Hewlett-Basing Studio, with consultation by Warren's friend, portrait artist Paul César Helleu. Sadly, they screwed it up, and drew out the constellations backward (reversed left-to-right). Instead of admitting their mistake, the Vanderbilts claimed it was meant to be seen from the viewpoint of the Heavenly Father. Though that still makes no sense, if it were so, why would most of the star sequences be correct, but the constellation order out of place?

Now, if you look near Pisces, you may notice a small hole in the sky.

Myth has it that, in a 1957 bid to redress anxiety due to the successful launch of the Soviet's Sputnik satellite, a U.S. Mercury Redstone missile was displayed in the hall, but at 6 inches (15 cm) too long, they dug out a hole so the rocket could fit. While most of the facts are true, the reason for the hole is not. It is actually what remains from where they installed an anchor holding a stabilizing wire to the rocket's tip. Feel free to do the math: ceiling height = 125 ft (38 m), rocket length = 70 ft (21 m).
On the other side of the ceiling, near the crab constellation known as Cancer, is a very fitting reminder about the hazards of smoking.
By the 1980s, the ceiling was pitch black, and thought to be caused by diesel and coal engine smoke from the idling trains. In 1984, they performed Spectroscopic studies, and found it was actually nicotine and tar from cigarettes. It took 12 years to clean up the mess, but they left one brick as black as they found it, as a reminder of what many of us are doing to our lungs.

Now, look back to the photo of the Information Booth Clock, and one can see the windows in the background. As you may have noticed, there are walkways within those windows. Known as the "glass catwalks" - as they are made from sheets of glass block, fitted between metal girding - the walkways connect offices on either side of the building.

The view from up there is pretty great, too.

Back down on solid ground, we walk under many of the 35,000 exposed light bulbs...

...to the 2,000 sq-foot (186 sq-m) chamber between the Main Concourse and Vanderbilt Hall, just outside the Dining Concourse. Here, you will find what many call the "whisper gallery". To get a little thrill, just plant your nose in one of the corners, and whisper whatever you'd like to someone doing the same in an opposing corner.

Oddly enough, no one knows if this effect was purposefully created, or is a happy accident of its construction.
As previously mentioned, Vanderbilt Hall is right next to the Dinning Concourse.

This area used to be Grand Central Terminal's waiting room, but is currently only used for special events or the terminal's yearly Christmas Market. Though roped off, one can venture in, and see the depressions made on the marble floor (worn out from 100 years of commuters' footsteps).
Heading underground, thirteen storeys down in fact...

...we pass 500,000,000-year-old bedrock...

...into one of the world's deepest basements. The 49-acre (20 ha) sub-basement is the largest in the city. It holds one of the most infamous rooms, known as M-42, which accommodates the old rotary AC-to-DC converters. Though all rail lines now run off solid-state converters, these old machines once supplied track current, nonstop.

Because of that, the room isn't even on Terminal blueprints. Well, that, and fear of subterfuge.
You see, in June of 1942, the Germans launched "Operation Pastorius", where four Abwehr agents were dropped off by submarine off the coast of Amagansett in Long Island (another four landed in Ponte Vedra Beach, FL). They were to sneak into M-42 with explosives, and destroy it, as well as a list of bridges, water treatment plants, and other rail stations.

The plan failed after one of the crew, George John Dasch (who disagreed with Nazi policies), gave up the rest.
The room known as M-42 also has what is considered to be the world's first electronic computer. It was built by Westinghouse Electric Corporation, in 1913, to help the terminal find trains that had broken down in tunnels. It was run through the use of an electric cord a conductor could pull if stalled, causing a bell to ring.

The system became obsolete by 1922, thanks to radio communication, but the computer is still on display, intact.
Last stop for this post is just under the Waldorf Astoria Hotel...

...and is known as Roosevelt's Station, though officially titled Track 61.

The abandoned train line was built in 1929 for all sorts of VIPs, with the first to use the track being General John "Black Jack" Pershing in 1938. It was made most famous by Franklin D. Roosevelt, and used to hide his disability due to polio.
The train that now sits there is said to be FDR's personal armored train car, but a simple internet search of the car's serial number shows it is an old Metro North Commuter baggage car parked there in 1985.

Still, the elevator that used to take FDR and other important folks up to the hotel is there, though - admittedly - not as exciting to see.

Thanks for coming with me this far, as I hope to continue to keep posting way past this anniversary.

Monday, November 14, 2016

The Hole

About a year ago, I posted how - if you wanted to visit a part of New York City that was more small-town, than big-city - you should visit the Vinegar Hill district of Brooklyn (click here to read more). If even that spot seems too urban for you, I would suggest a visit to an area known as "The Hole".
This is a part of the city that is almost completely rural in look, and feel, yet still retains a very New York quality.

It's a place where the sidewalks inexplicably end into wooded areas...

...and the puddles never seem to drain.

Located on the border of Brooklyn and Queens, the five-block area is disputed to be a part of East New York, Howard Beach or Ozone Park, but neither neighborhood claim it as part of their district.
Located on the north side of Linden Blvd, between S Conduit Ave and Drew St, the whole place lies 10 meters (32ft) below sea level, and is prone to severe flooding.
The following photo is of the intersection of Emerald St and Dumont Ave, with the last rain a week before the pic was taken.

Sadly, this has caused many of the residents to move out, leaving quite a number of abandoned single-family homes, giving the community its title of being a "lost neighborhood".

Some lovingly refer to the region as "the Wild West", and there are parts that do seem lawless.

Speaking of "Wild West", if you're done walking the area, and would still like to check out some of the history nearby, head over to where Linden Blvd meets S Conduit Ave. There sits an idyllic ranch that was once the home to the New York City Federation of Black Cowboys.

The organization was dedicated to keeping the memory and tradition of African-American cowboys alive, and honored the 8000+ black cowboys of the Western Frontier. The group held youth programs, rodeos, and visits from schools, using horsemanship to teach local youth important life skills.

The property now belongs to GallopNYC, a non-profit helping the disabled through therapeutic horsemanship, though if you hang around the area long enough, you may just spot one of the ol' wranglers.

Monday, October 17, 2016

John Bowne House + Old Quaker Meeting House

In the north-east section of Queens sits much of an old Dutch town, later absorbed by the expanding NYC borough. Flushing, originally called Vlissing, was established in 1645 by a charter of the Dutch West India Company (part of the New Netherland colony).
The area is rich in the history of religious freedom, due to a theological battle between New Amsterdam Director-General Peter Stuyvesant, farmer John Bowne, and the local Quaker population. It seemed the religion of Quakerism was, at that time, prohibited by Puritanical decree. A group of thirty residents drafted, and signed, a petition known as The Flushing Remonstrance, on December 27, 1657, forcing the Dutch governance to allow freedom of religious practice.
After George Fox founded the Religious Society of Friends (more commonly known as Quakers) in England, he traveled to "the New World", and began preaching in a small grove of oak trees in Flushing, 1672. There now stands a pyramid-shaped rock to memorialize the spot where many congregated to hear him speak.

Directly across the street is John Bowne's house.
Despite the ban on Quakers, Bowne held meetings in his home, and he was soon arrested by Stuyvesant. After expulsion to Holland, John appealed, and won his case to worship freely.

Built in 1661, the site was also a stop in the Underground Railroad during the Civil War.
Though additions have been added to the original structure, much of the interior is preserved, and holds furniture, clothing, and work tools, dating back to when it was originally constructed.

Located at 37-01 Bowne Street, family members lived in the home until 1947, when they donated it to the city as a museum. It was entered into the National Register of Historic Places in 1977.
Now, walking north, one turns west (left) on Northern Blvd to see the original Flushing Town Hall.

Built in 1862, it was the seat of the Flushing town government, until the area was consolidated with New York City in 1898. The building became a New York City Landmark in 1968, and was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1972.
Just across the boulevard is the Old Quaker Meeting House.

After returning to the Americas, John Bowne bought the land in 1692, and, now free to hold Quaker services, quickly began work on a house of worship. Finished in 1694, the first recorded meeting was held on November 24th, making it one of the oldest religious chapels in the United States.

In 1776, the house was seized by the British, and converted to barracks, as well as a hospital and prison. After the Revolutionary War, the Quakers were allowed to return in 1783.
Along the rear of the building is the Quaker graveyard, which was established sometime in the 1670s, and is the reason the land was purchased to construct the meeting house. Though it is believed Bowne (and his wives) is buried here, Quakers did not use tombstones until 1820, so there is no way to know for certain. Graves of note include: abolitionists William Burling and Matthew Franklin; founder of The New York Gas Light Company, Samuel Leggett; John Murray, Jr., founders of the Free School Society and Society for the Manumission of Slaves.

The Landmark Preservation Commission designated the Old Quaker Meeting House a landmark in 1970.
If you are still walking the neighborhood, looking for old churches and cemeteries, head south on Main Street to see St. George's Church.

While established in 1702, as a mission of the Church of England by the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts, their first church in the U.S. was not built until 1746. In 1821, after purchasing new land, a second church was constructed on its current property of 135-32 38th Avenue, though the building there now is the third structure on the site (constructed in 1854).
In September of 2010, the infamous "Brooklyn Tornado" blew the 45-foot wooden steeple off the tower, crushing a NYC bus. Luckily, no one was hurt, and the steeple was rebuilt in 2013.
The church is surrounded by a cemetery, which was in use until 1887. Grave markers (about fifty) and burial vaults (nine) are found throughout the grounds, except for its main entrance along Main St. It is believed a few graves actually lie under 38th Street's asphalt.

The church, as well as its graveyard, were made a city landmark by the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission in 2000.

Monday, September 19, 2016

East Village Eccentricities

Just like my "West Village Weird" pieces (see part one here, and two here), I'm setting this up as a walk through parts of the East Village, as well as a bit of the Lower East Side, in Manhattan.
Unlike the West Village, the east side has less outlandish spots to see, but there are still quite a few interesting things about the area.
We'll start out on an odd little lane, Stuyvesant Street, near the corner of 10th Street, where stands the oldest house in the Village.

Built for Nicholas William Stuyvesant in 1795, the building was made a landmark as part of the St. Mark’s Historic District in 1969. It is thought to be the third oldest residential home on the island of Manhattan. On the same block is No. 21, which was built in 1803, by Petrus Stuyvesant for his daughter Elizabeth. After she married Nicholas Fish, the property became known as the Stuyvesant Fish House.
Walking a block over to the southeast corner of 2nd Avenue and 10th Street, we have the Yiddish Walk of Fame.

2nd Avenue was known as "Jewish Broadway" from 1890 through 1930, and when the owners of Second Avenue Deli thought to honor the local Yiddish community in 1985, they figured something similar to Hollywood's Walk of Fame in front of the restaurant might work. Though the names may be unfamiliar to most, the biggest celebrity on the sidewalk is Paul Muni (born: Meshilem Meier Weisenfreund) who played in I Was a Fugitive From a Chain Gang. In 1996, the owner, Abe Lebewohl, was murdered, and years later a dispute with his brother and the landlord closed the deli for good - it's now a bank.
If you're into history, or just old buildings, and continue east on 10th Street, until you reach Avenue D, you have the old Dry Dock Banking House, at 145 Avenue D.

It is the third oldest building in the Village (and oldest in its Alphabet City section), as it was constructed in 1825. The place used to only house those working at the docks along the East River, but after the property was sold by the company, it became a boarding house up until 2005.
Heading down, and west a bit, we come to Tompkins Square Park, as well as St Mark's Place - both having so many wonderfully weird things about them, that I wrote a whole piece last year (read that here).
One place I didn't mention in that article is the Museum of the American Gangster. Located in the downstairs parlor of a building originally once owned by mobster Frank Hoffman, the spot was a jazz club in the 60s, where greats like John Coltrane played. After a few years as a theater run by Howard Otway, his son Lorcan turned it into what it is today. Though a bit steep in price, visitors can see crime-related items such as the bullet which killed Pretty Boyd Floyd, John Dillinger's death masks, and casings from the final shootout between the cops and Bonnie and Clyde.
Back on 2nd Avenue, just north of St Mark's Place, one can see what many believe to be the most beautiful building in all the East Village: the Stuyvesant Polyclinic.

Constructed in 1884, in a neo-Italian Renaissance style (by German architect William Schickel), the facade of the building holds a number of terra cotta busts of philosophers, and scientists, such as Hippocrates, Linnaeus, Alexander von Humboldt, and Anders Celsius,

Known as the German Dispensary, they offered free medical care to the poor German Americans of what what then known as "Little Germany". During WWI's anti-German attitude, the clinic changed its name to Stuyvesant Polyclinic of the City of New York. By 1954, the hospital had treated its 6-millionth patient. Soon after the building was designated a landmark (1976), the clinic was bought out by the Cabrini Medical Center. Though closed in 2007, the Cabrini Center was founded by the first U.S. saint, Mother Cabrini, whose mummy lays in Washington Heights (see my post about her here).
Further south, one can visit the Merchant's House Museum, also known as the Seabury Tredwell House. Located at 29 East Fourth Street, it is the only 19th Century home in the area that is completely left intact, inside and out. Built in 1832, by hat-maker Joseph Brewster, philanthropist, and cousin to the owning family, George Chapman, thought to make it a museum in 1936. With its well-preserved period rooms, the old home is known as "the most haunted building in Manhattan".
Still on 2nd Avenue, but now between 2nd and 3rd Street is the New York Marble Cemetery.

Founded in 1830, it is Manhattan's oldest non-sectarian burial place, and it is believed that about 2,100 early New Yorkers have been interred on these grounds. Burials of note consist of Chief Engineer for the Erie Canal, Benjamin Wright; Stevens T. Mason, first governor of Michigan; and 1937 Whig mayor of NYC, Aaron Clark.
The second oldest non-sectarian burial place in Manhattan is just one block west, at 52-74 East 2nd Street, with the similarly named New York City Marble Cemetery.

Establish as year after the New York Marble Cemetery, the graveyard holds 258 vaults made of Tuckahoe marble.

Designated a NYC landmark in 1969, notable burials include James Lenox (who helped form the New York Public Library) and Mayan archaeologist John Lloyd Stephens.
If you're still looking to walk about, there are another handful of curious features nearby, though outside the East Village.
In Little Italy, there is the marble plaque for Peter Caesar Alberti (who also has a marker in The Battery), out front of the Italian American Museum at 155 Mulberry St.

Alberti was a Venetian immigrant within the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam, and is seen by many as the first Italian settler in the area.
A few blocks northeast is the Mott Hardware Key at the entrance of 52 Kenmare Street.

The owner of Mott Hardware told me he installed the large work of art in the early 80s, so it's been there for over thirty years now.
Lastly on this trip, one will head further east to Essex Street, just south of Delancey Street, where there is a plaque to commemorate the founding of the very first Jewish service organization, and quasi-Masonic lodge known as B'nai B'rith.

Led by Henry Jones, and eleven other German-Jewish immigrants, the group was founded at Aaron Sinsheimer's café (which used to be at 60 Essex Street) in October of 1843. Originally called Söhne des Bundes (translated: Sons of the Covenant), they formed to take on "the deplorable condition of Jews in this, our newly adopted country", according to fellow-founder Isaac Rosenbourg. Soon after forming, B'nai B'rith used its growing membership to gain political leverage, and were thanked with the curse of being forever listed by some conspiracy theorists as one of the many masks of the Illuminati.
I'm unaware of anything else one should really take notice of in the immediate stretch, but by all  means: if I missed anything, fill me in, as I'd love to take heed.