via King's Handbook of New York City, 1893 (copyright expired)
By 1875 Cornelius Vanderbilt II, the favorite grandson of Commodore Vanderbilt, had risen from a clerk in the treasury department of the New York Central Railroad to a position of major importance. He was also active in St. Bartholomew's Episcopal Church and sat on the board of directors of the Young Men's Christian Association of New York. That year he received a visit from General John H. Devereaux, the president of the C. C. C. & I. Railroad, who lived in Cleveland.
Three years earlier the first Young Men's Christian Association for railroad workers had been formed in Cleveland. Now Devereaux explained the organization to Vanderbilt, who quickly embraced the idea. The concept of a Y.M.C.A. expressly for railroad workers had advantages to both the men and to the system. The employees would have a comfortable place to relax while in New York City, one which offered a variety of pastimes. On the positive side for the railroads, the men were not tempted to get drunk or jailed and therefore unable to return to work, and morale would be greatly uplifted, as well.
Vanderbilt began with a basement space in Grand Central Depot. In 1900 Railroad Men magazine, would recall, "the first Railroad Branch at the Grand Central Station, New York, began with a single room, a canary bird, a few volumes of U. S. Reports, and a secretary."
The detractors who warned that "The men won't have it" were soon proved wrong. The Railroad Branch of the Y.M.C.A. was a success and in 1886 Vanderbilt acquired land at the northeast corner of Madison Avenue and 45th Street as the site for a permanent building. Ground was broken on September 20, 1886 and construction was completed exactly a year later, in September 1887. The building rose three stories at the corner, with a two-story extension that ran 45 feet along the avenue. Vanderbilt personally paid for the construction, which cost him $100,000--about $2.95 million today.
R. H. Robertson of the architectural firm of Robertson & Potter, had designed the structure in a toned-down version of the Romanesque Revival style. While there were no chunky, undressed stone blocks and no medieval inspired carvings and gargoyles, so often seen in more aggressive Romanesque structures, it featured arcades of fully arched openings, a regimented corbel table below the roof, and steep hipped roofs covered with "Spanish Akron glazed tiles," according to the New-York Tribune. The Real Estate Record & Guide noted, "The basement is of Scotch sandstone, the superstructure of red brick, red terra cotta and tawny brown brick." The "tawny brown" bricks were Tiffany bricks, so named because they were recently used in the construction of the Louis Tiffany mansion.
The formal opening was held on October 3, 1887 "with appropriate ceremonies," according to the New-York Tribune. The newspaper said the building was "designed to be a 'place where railroad men may spend pleasant hours.'" In the basement were the "appliances for the physical improvement of the members," according to the article. These included a gymnasium, bowling alleys and a six-foot deep "plunge bath," or swimming pool.
On the main floor was the impressive library of 6,400 volumes. "It is a general and miscellaneous library," said the New-York Tribune, "intended to instruct, amuse and divert the railroad men." The branch's general secretary, George A. Warburton, confided a secret about the arrangement of the books:
Our library has this peculiarity, we have placed the works of instruction on the lower shelves, where they will be easy of access. The novels and lighter literature we have put up in the gallery, where those who want to read them will have to climb up stairs for them.
Also on the main floor were the reading room, furnished with easy chairs and outfitted with 100 daily, weekly and monthly newspapers; the social room were members could play chess, checkers and other games; the general secretary's office; and the "committee of management" room.
On the second floor was a 66-foot-long hall capable of seating 400 persons. Drop-down partitions enabled it to be divided into classrooms, "or the separated part can be used as a dining room during entertainments," suggested the New-York Tribune. There were also "beautifully finished" committee rooms on the second floor. In the tower were the kitchen and pantry, a janitor's apartment, and a lunchroom for the members. The New-York Tribune said the latter was "admirably furnished with lounges of an enticing character, while in the centre of this room is a table where hot coffee is served to members free of charge."
Trainmen stopping over in the city could take advantage of ten free sleeping rooms in the attic floor, furnished with brass beds and "fine clean linen." The New-York Tribune assured, "Like all the other floors it is finished in excellent taste." The newspaper commended Cornelius Vanderbilt, saying his intention "has evidently been, throughout, to give the railroad men the best that could be obtained without regard to cost." And, in fact, Vanderbilt felt that the initial budget of just $35,000 would not be sufficient, and directed Robertson to improve and expand the plans, ignoring the original figures.
Among the first events held in the hall was "an instrumental and vocal concert" on October 27. The New York Times said, "The crowd of invited guests could not get into the big meeting room, but contented themselves by packing the staircases and the approaches and there catching what they could of the music." Of great interest was the hall's volalion organ, a free-standing reed instrument. The New York Times said, "The audience was surprised apparently that, from an instrument seemingly not large nor built into a wall, such a rich volume of tone could be produced, united with a sweet and harmonious blending of reed and pipe sounds." There were also performances by a 30-voice choir, a pianist, and vocal soloists.
The branch offered many opportunities to the members, who paid 10 cents per month dues. There were classes in mechanical drafting, stenography, penmanship, and vocal music, as well as regular lectures.
So successful was the Railroad Branch that Robertson was called back to enlarge the facilities. On May 20, 1893 The Railway Review reported, "The large increase in the membership of the club has made it necessary to enlarge the present quarters." Once again, Cornelius Vanderbilt paid for the annex and the furnishings, which were projected to cost $80,000. The article said in part:
Every department of the club will have larger quarters. The gymnasium will be increased so that its dimensions will be 29x50 ft. The library, which contains 7,000 volumes and the most complete collection of railroad books in this country, will be enlarged by an extension of 8x18 ft. A bowling alley and a large set of baths will be added to the present equipment of the building.
The addition to the rear effectively doubled the size of the original building. Annual Report of the Young Men's Christian Associations, 1909 (copyright expired)
The addition to what was now known as the Railroad Men's Building was completed in time for the 19th anniversary of the Railroad Branch of the Young Men's Christian Association. Cornelius Vanderbilt addressed the ceremony on January 8, 1895, noting "the gratifying fact that an addition to the building had been necessary." In the past year, there had been 33,070 lodgers, 1,272 members had taken books from the library and, as reported by the New-York Tribune, "1,664 baths have been given." On an average day, between 530 and 640 men took advantage of the facility.
Cornelius Vanderbilt II died on September 12, 1899. His will left $100,000 to the Railroad Branch of the Young Men's Christian Association--a significant $3.7 million today. The club continued to offer comfort and education to its members. In his 1904 The Better New York, Its Sights and Insights, Allen Beekman Sutcliffe noted, "Everything is done to attract and make comfortable the railroad men. All classes of railway men meet as equals here, whether they be clerks, yardmen, baggage men, brakemen or the highest officials of the road."
As technology advanced, the Railroad Branch offered courses to keep its workers up to date. On September 29, 1905, The Railroad Gazette reported that three courses "of study for railroad men in electricity as applied to railroads" were being offered here. The article said, "Trainmen and other railroad employees are invited to join the classes with a view of preparing themselves for efficient service when the steam locomotive shall be superseded by electric locomotives on the lines running into Grand Central Station."
The planned expansion of the Grand Central Station complex in 1912 included the Madison Avenue corner. On February 23 The Sun explained, "The rebuilding of the Grand Central Station made necessary a change of site for the Y. M. C. A. building. It was said on authority yesterday...that the new building will be on Lexington avenue at about Forty-eighth street, and that it will be the finest railroad Y. M. C. A. building in America."
The designers of the new Grand Central Station, Warren & Wetmore, designed the new home of the Railroad Branch Y.M. C.A. on Park Avenue between 49th and 50th Streets. Vanderbilt's brothers Frederick W., Alfred Gwynne and William Kissam, donated $100,000 each towards its construction.
Warren & Wetmore's 1913 building has also been demolished. Record & Guide, December 6, 1912 (copyright expired)
The Madison Avenue building was demolished in 1917.
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