3.9. CORNELIUS VANDERBILT MOVES INTO RAILROADS

In Volume 1, I documented how William Ogden had made Chicago the hub of the country’s railroad network by the end of the Civil War (i.e., the final decision by Lincoln to build the Union Pacific starting at Omaha).  With the exception of Ogden’s Chicago & NorthWestern, however, the trains into Chicago were built and managed by men from the East: Boston, New York, and Philadelphia.  It was these people we witnessed who made the decisions of where to build the major stations in the city, that had profound ramifications of the city’s urban structure.  It is only reasonable, therefore, that the actions of the most powerful post-war railroad man, Cornelius Vanderbilt (and later his son, William H.) would impact Chicago in a number of ways, including its architecture and urban fabric.  Vanderbilt’s long shadow did not miss the young John Wellborn Root.  From originally controlling a monopoly in maritime shipping throughout the East prior to the start of the Civil War, “Commodore” Vanderbilt had profited during the war, as had Potter Palmer, Uranus H. Crosby, and many others; Vanderbilt by selling his ships to the Federal government for a handsome sum, that he then prudently reinvested in the railroad business.  While he had made some minor investments in railroads to learn the business before the start of the war, he made his initial controlling move into railroads in 1863 by purchasing the company that had been the eye of the spite battle between Joseph Sheffield (Michigan Southern) and Robert Schuyler (Illinois Central), the New York & Harlem Railroad (see Vol. 1).  The next year Vanderbilt gained control over Sheffield’s parallel Hudson River Railroad.  Once it became clear that the Union Pacific would succeed in completing a track to California, Vanderbilt decided to extend his empire.  On December 11, 1867, he was voted in as the president of the New York Central by its stockholders, that he then proceeded to merge with his Hudson River on November 1, 1869, under the new name New York Central and Hudson River Railroad. Meanwhile, during this period he had also bought control of the Michigan Southern, in his first move beyond the borders of New York State that had transferred the ownership of Chicago’s La Salle Street Station to him.  The stock market crash of 1869 had reduced the price of the stock of the Lake Shore Railway (that ran along the southern shore of Lake Erie) that allowed him to easily buy control of it, that he then proceeded to consolidate with the Michigan Southern & Northern Indiana under the new name of the Lake Shore & Michigan Southern Railroad, thereby creating a shorter, more direct route to Chicago for his New York Central.  As with everything he did in life, Vanderbilt meant to control all rail traffic from the East to Chicago.  During this effort, Vanderbilt would become the country’s richest, and arguably, its most powerful person.

W.W. Boyington, La Salle Street Station, Chicago, 1867. (Kogan and Wendt, Chicago)

In the design of his new Grand Central Depot for the New York Central, Vanderbilt was committed to surpassing the size of Boyington’s Chicago station (and its national record clear span of 186’), for how could he permit his route’s western terminal in the mere midwestern backwater of Chicago to eclipse the eastern teminal where his trains to Chicago would begin?   He gave the commission to the same team that had just completed his gargantuan St. John’s Park freighthouse for the Hudson River Railroad on the lower west side: his inhouse engineer, Isaac C. Buckhout, architect John B. Snook, who was responsible for the overall design of the station, and his son, William H. Vanderbilt, who was in overall charge of superintending the construction of the project, that had commenced on November 15, 1869.

John B. Snook, Grand Central Depot, New York, 1869. (Stern, New York:1880)

The Commodore was truly committed to making his station the largest and most expensive (at $3 million, it may just have been that) station in the world.  While the final massing of the passenger station, indeed, resembled an expanded version of Boyington’s (with the exception that Snook had to increase the plan of the station house to an L-shape to provide more terminal space along the side of the shed), the building’s elevation did not emulate Boyington’s crisp, clean design, for the terminal’s design was a curious hybrid of both the latest architectural fashions from Europe.  While Snook kept Boyington’s French Second Empire massing scheme of a central pavilion flanked with corner pavilions, all three of which were surmounted with a square-planned dome, he dressed the building in the British Gothic Revival’s polychromy, employing red brick with cast iron ornamental highlights that were painted white to look like stone. 

George Gilbert Scott, Midland Hotel, in front of St. Pancras Station, London, 1865. (Online)

 In his choice of materials, Snook echoed George Gilbert Scott’s design of the Midland Hotel, then under construction immediately in front of the recently completed St. Pancras Station, that was the current longest clearspanned structure in the world at this time.  The main or front façade on 42nd Street was 249’ long and was placed at the head of the iron and glass railroad shed, whose dimensions did manage to just eclipse those of Boyington’s structure: 200’ wide (with 12 tracks) vs. 186,’ 652’ long vs. 542,’ and 100’ high (the iron arched trusses were semicircular in elevation) vs. 60.’

W. W. Boyington, La Salle Street Station Trainshed, Chicago, 1867. The wood and iron trusses clearspanned the 160′ wide space, that was 542′ long. (Douglas, Rail City: Chicago USA)
John B. Snook, Grand Central Depot, New York, 1869. Trainshed. John W. Root was Snook’s construction superintendent for this project. (Online)

While these did make it the largest clear-spanned space in the U. S., as I noted earlier both London’s St. Pancras Station (243’) and Birmingham’s New Street Station (211’) were larger in both span and length.  Vanderbilt would have to be satisfied with the fact that his New York station was at least larger than his station in Chicago.  All of the iron used in the shed was fabricated by Daniel Badger’s Architectural Iron Works, which would have necessarily involved two of Badger’s typically contracted designers in sharing the credit for designing the shed: Robert G. Hatfield (who had designed Bogardus’ Baltimore Sun Building) and Joseph Duclos.

(If you have any questions or suggestions, please feel free to eMail me at: thearchitectureprofessor@gmail.com)

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