I signed up for the New York Transit Museum‘s “The Golden Age: Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library” event not knowing quite what to expect. I did know this was a members-only event, which typically means it’ll visit somewhere hard to get into and worthwhile! The description said that the curator of the library’s Drawings and Archives would present a selection of materials from the “Golden Age of Railroading”.
As the day of the event approached, I got more excited and curious about it. We would probably see some cool things, and I have a general interest and nerdery about libraries and archives (some of my best friends are librarians!)
That cold evening, snow still on the ground, I left work early to park my car near my house and take the bus to the train down. I checked the time on my phone nervously throughout the train ride. Would I make it on time?
The D train spit me out in east Harlem, and, checking the time again, I started to book it down to Columbia. I wouldn’t make it by the 15 minutes early the museum always tells people to arrive by, but I should arrive on time for the start of the tour. I had looked at a map of where the Avery Library was in advance, and though not totally confident, I made my way. Stepping onto Columbia’s campus, I realized I’d never really been inside this little enclosed city. The buildings had a very old-worldly New England or even European college feel to them, a contrast to the more crowded buildings from more varied eras and styles in surrounding Manhattan.
I came to the back of the Avery library first, sighed (still worried about time) and made my way around the front. In the foyer I was greeted by a Transit Museum worker who checked me in. The tour hadn’t started yet, she said, so we chatted for a few minutes. Another museum member, one who I knew from many previous events, came through the grand doors. The three of us made small talk but were soon interrupted by the other museum worker – the tour was starting soon!
We made our way down the stairs and through a labyrinth of stacks, students working at computers, and even what looked like card catalogs. I wanted to take photos but there was no time. We arrived in a little lobby area right outside the Architectural Drawings and Archives department. Coats hung on a rack and backpacks and bags sat neatly on the floor. Going with that prevailing wisdom, my fellow member and I quietly shed our jackets and big bags. I prepped my camera.
The curator was already talking as we made our way into the main archives room (whoops, we were a few minutes late). She’d just finished an introduction of the library and archives and was about to start telling us about the materials curated for us. The materials, in various sizes and formats, were laid out carefully on a gigantic table in the middle of the room. Cardboard propped some of the things up diagonally towards us like museum displays. Large documents that had been stored rolled up were held down with a a small, delicate beanbag in each corner. Further from me, what looked like foam wedges propped a book open.
My companion and I inched our way closer to the table, finding an open spot between other guests who encircled it. As the curator spoke about each item, she proceeded slowly around the table. Sometimes she’d stop and point at something, leaf through the pages of a book, or pause for a visitor question.
Throughout, the curator emphasized that she didn’t necessarily know the full history of each of the materials or the places they pictured. The job of an archive, she said, was to collect and catalog such materials. It was up to researchers, experts, and anyone else interested to provide the history, the stories, and the context. We should feel free to chime in if we had any additional information or could answer our fellow visitors’ questions!
Once she’d explained each item we were free to walk around the table to take a closer look. I’d taken some notes on what the curator said, and between those and the neatly-typed captions near the items, I was able to piece together what each one was. I took a slow walk counterclockwise, negotiating the other visitors and their cameras, and mostly sticking with my companion.
First, at the corner nearest to where we’d come in was a plan for Grand Central Depot (one of the precursors to the current Grand Central Terminal). The drawing’s lines were strong and its gothic details intriguing.
Next, delicately pinned to a cardboard stand, were three sheets of technical train data. One was labeled “Table of railroad curve radii in inches” and the other two showed diagrams of train cars. These were on file with the architects of Grand Central Terminal, Warren and Wetmore, and so presumably would have been used to calculate architectural features of the terminal.
Next came a collection of construction photos of old Penn Station. Our guide explained that she chose these photos because everyone has seen photos of the old station’s beautiful interior, but the ones taken during construction are a bit more rare and unusual. I moved around, trying to see the details in the photos without getting high glare off their shiny protectors.
Rounding the corner of the table, there was a collection of drawings returning to the Grand Central Terminal theme. These were some of Warren and Wetmore’s alternate designs for the terminal. Four were visible, but they each sat on stacks indicating that there were many more materials in this collection.
Towards the center of the table, pinned on another board, were other items from the Warren and Wetmore collection: Union Station in Winnipeg, Canada, and a hotel in Ottawa, Canada (designed by Ross and McFarlane – I missed the exact connection to the railroad).
Behind us as we faced this long side of the table was a glass-windowed office containing neatly-arranged boxes and framed items leaning against each other on shelves. This looked like the curator’s office and storage for the collection. I was curious what other treasures lay inside those plain boxes.
The Warren and Wetmore theme continued with some photographs of the construction of Michigan Central Station in Detroit. I’d seen many photos, though never of the construction, of this station. It’s also sort of been in the news as of late – it’s now abandoned and has become a sort of symbol of the urban blight in Detroit as well as a dream destination for urban explorers. I would like to see it, even from far away, someday, and hope that it can still be preserved and repurposed. Our curator told us that one of the notable things about the station is not just its scale (there’s a huge office building on top) but how fast it was constructed.
Rounding out the Warren and Wetmore collection items were two drawings of a proposed, but unbuilt, train station for Dallas and some interior photos of a station in Houston. Our guide told us that Michigan Central, these two Texas stations, and even Grand Central Terminal (to a certain extent) followed a pattern of the time: build a grand train station in a pretty bare part of the city and because of the popularity of train travel, the city will grow up around the station.
In contrast to the grandeur of these large stations was a small sketch of a train station for St. James on the Long Island Railroad.
One of the more unusual pieces was a design for a curtain for a passenger train car. I didn’t write down the name of the artist, but he had previously designed mosaics, which was an interesting tie-in. You could sort of see that visual approach in the curtain’s aesthetic.
A mysterious, large-format book sat propped open on foam wedges. It was open to a page labeled “Metropolitan Underground Railway Company, Railway Station, Atlantic Ave.” In all of my reading about the history of the New York City Subway, I’d never encountered the name “Metropolitan Underground Railway Company” so I was a bit stumped.
Just underneath was a smaller, handwritten book. It looked almost like a composition book, and the script was curly, flowing, and hard to read. This was a survey of Manhattan Railway Company (the company that ran the Manhattan elevated train lines) data like platform height, length of track between stations, and all kinds of other details. It was dated 1885!
Across from the short side of the table, along the wall, were more shelves holding rolled up materials. Everything was quite organized, but it was clear this place has a lot of items in its collection!
Other guests discussed the materials amongst themselves as we all made our way around at our own paces. Sometimes I’d point something out to my companion or she to me in a low voice. Our curator circulated too, answering individual questions. If someone leaned too close to one of the materials or reached to turn a page of one of the books, it would grab her attention and warn them not to touch. Her love for and protectiveness over these rare materials was evident. I held my camera tight to me and was careful not to get too close out of respect for her and my own care for the artifacts.
A large blueprint, a plan for the Buffalo terminal, sat on the short side of the table. This included details about what materials were to be used in each part of the plan, translated in small keys near the corners of the document. The most noteworthy code, our guide pointed out, was a yellow “G” that indicated Guastavino tilework was to be placed there. Guastavino tile appears in many notable transit-related structures such as the old City Hall Station, Grand Central Terminal, and above the subway exit under the Manhattan Municipal Building.
Up next was an even larger piece, a track map for State Street Station in Chicago designed by Fellheimer and Wagner. I believe our curator said that at least some of these tracks, while underneath a more modern station structure, are still in the same configuration today. This piece had fascinating details like lots indicated for a church, a cereal company, and “National Tube Works”, and an ornately-drawn compass.
Another Fellheimer and Wagner structure, Union Station in Cincinnati, Ohio, was next. Our curator said the first piece was from a collection of very dynamic, dramatic renderings for the station. Next to that was a perspective drawing for a canopy over a platform at the station. This station still stands, but has been repurposed into a museum/public attraction.
Just below that was a return to the Grand Central Terminal theme – a panoramic photograph of the terminal soon after its completion taken from the north on Park Avenue. I stared for quite some time, my brain trying to make sense of the space, as it looks so radically different today. The photo featured horse carriages and early automobiles, and the space around the terminal looked nearly barren compared to present-day Midtown East.
With that, I was back to where I started at the table. I looked around – some guests looked like they were starting to get bored while others concentrated on getting just the right angle for their photo or engaged in rich discussions over the items.
Since everyone had pretty much seen everything, I thought we might be ushered out of the space at any moment. But no one was making a motion in that direction, so I decided to go around the table once again and revisit my favorite items.
I took in the details of a Penn Station construction photograph I’d missed – at first this looked like a lower level with a low ceiling, but then I realized it might be workers up on scaffolding constructing the oyster-cracker-like hexagonal ceiling of the main waiting room.
At one point on my trip back around the table, a visitor asked our curator if she would turn the pages of the Metropolitan Underground Railway Company book. She paged through it a bit as interested railfans hovered. The title page had some details about what this company set out to do – build a tunnel under the East River between lower Manhattan and Brooklyn. The guests agreed that this proposal – since it was much earlier than New York’s first subway, and the company name wasn’t familiar to us – was never built. But it was so interesting to look through this meticulously studied and put together artifact of something that turned out to not ever come to fruition (at least not in the way it proposed).
Our Transit Museum hosts soon began to nudge us towards departing. Our curator reminded us of a couple of related exhibits we might be interested in: Frank Lloyd Wright at MoMA and, upcoming, a Guastavino exhibit at the Museum of the City of New York. Many guests stopped at the information table near the door to take free cards, postcards, and brochures, and to leaf through for-purchase catalogs. The room rang out with last-minute questions and thank yous for our curator.
In the lobby, we bundled and saddled up a few at a time, and visitors trickled out of the library. I coordinated with my companion for the day and we decided that we both wanted to take some photos of the library in general (since we didn’t get to on the way in) and then eat dinner afterward.
We tried to be as quiet as possible (it’s a library!) as we made our way past the card catalog and rows and rows of stacks. It was an impressive amount of information, and all about fine arts and architecture!
I joked about not being able to find our way back to the staircase and out, but we made it with minimal confusion.
Outside, we were back in the cold winter air. Students and faculty bustled around us as we looked up at the grand library building like tourists. We stepped back to get a perfect night shot, and marveled at the scale of the building we’d just seen only a fraction of.
I vocalized my earlier thought that I hadn’t been on this campus before and was surprised by its character as a little city full of grand buildings. Companion and I chatted about our respective college experiences (neither at Columbia) as we marveled at the classical architecture around us.
After we made a dinner decision, we made our way off of the campus through rows of pretty, lit-up trees.
Warm food and good conversation were very much welcome after our brisk outdoor walk. We chowed down, caught up, and then made our ways to our respective public transit for the ride home. Overall, it was quite a good excursion: a unique opportunity to look at these rare materials (and something different than most of my outings), and it’s always nice to connect with other Transit Museum friends!