The First Generation

So if the 1890 Madison Square Garden was the third generation of long-span roof, and the 1880 Seventh Regiment Armory was the second, what was the first? The first Grand Central train station, built 1869 to 1871. Again, the short decade between Grand Central and the armory was a long time in terms of structural technology.

A minor digression into corporate and railroad history: the first heavy rail in New York was the New York and Harlem Railroad, which began as a commuter line running the length of Manhattan’s east side, but eventually made it across the Harlem River and up to the north. (It still exists as the MTA Harlem Line.) When Cornelius Vanderbilt was assembling his empire, he combined the New York Central (running west from Albany) with the Hudson River Railroad (running along the river from Albany to New York) and got access to the city on the far west side. That was not particularly convenient for passengers, so he leased the Harlem road and connected the two, allowing him access to the east side tracks and terminals. The New Haven Railroad, serving southern New England, had a separate lease deal with the Harlem for the same reason, to get its trains in Manhattan. The Harlem had originally run horse-drawn cars as far south as Chambers Street, but built a steam terminal on 14th Street. When the city banned steam trains in the built-up part of the city, the Harlem moved its terminal to 26th Street (I’ve mentioned that building before: it later became the first Madison Square Garden, and was demolished for the 1890 MSG.) Then in the 1850s, the city banned steam trains south of 42nd Street, which meant the terminal had to move north again. That’s the reason that the first Grand Central, specifically designed as a terminal for all three railroads, was built on the north side of 42nd Street: it was as far south as it was legally allowed to be. Later, the city would ban steam trains from Manhattan entirely, which was the reason that the trains were electrified and the modern Grand Central constructed shortly after 1900. Bored and/or confused yet? Time to get to the building…

Here’s most of the front (42nd Street) facade in 1880:

This picture shows a number of important facts about the building as a whole. First, being so far from the center of the city, it’s surrounded by omnibuses and streetcars, and by small shops providing support to weary travelers – a wine shop and a restaurant are prominent – but no other large buildings. The tracks on the right allowed individual cars from trains to run further south, drawn by horses, but eventually were used for streetcars. You can see the beginning of the Murray Hill tunnel. Most critical for this discussion is the funny-looking brick wall behind the curved mansard roofs. That’s the south end of the train shed, which was taller than the head house building. (In 1898, the headhouse would be heavily modified and doubled in height, but that version of the terminal had a life of less than a decade before being entirely replaced by the modern building.) The picture at the top shows a long view of the train shed, but you can barely make out the roof structure. Here are a few views of the train shed:

Two of those views are engravings, but note that the first engraving gives the name of a photographer. An engraving made from a photograph is less accurate than the photograph, but more accurate than one made from the artist’s view. The trusses are wrought iron (there was no realistic way they could have been built of steel in 1870) and fairly similar to those used at the armory a decade later, with double diagonals and hinges at the base. The opaque (wood-framed) and glass portions of the roof are a series of flat planes supported on secondary ironwork above the trusses. The bottom of the trusses, where they are immediately adjacent to the trains, are covered in what appears to be cast-iron ornament. The rear (north) wall is cast iron, by Daniel Badger‘s Architectural Iron Works and is arguably closer to a real curtain wall than the bearing facades in most cast-iron buildings. This was the first long-span metal-framed roof in New York and one of the first in the country, and it set the bar fairly high. It wasn’t until the twentieth century that similar roofs with entirely fireproof decks were being regularly built.

Scroll to Top