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Terminal Conditions

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

The St. John’s Terminal Building, a grungy, monolithic freight warehouse built in 1934 as the terminus of the High Line elevated railway, is at the center of a massive and controversial proposed development that would transform the waterfront at the foot of Greenwich Village. To raise funds for critical repairs to Pier 40, the decaying commercial pier at Houston Street, the Hudson River Park Trust has agreed to accept $100 million from private developers for 200,000 square feet of unused air rights, which would be transferred from the pier to the St. John’s site, just across the West Side Highway. The proposal, which would require zoning changes, is now working its way through the city’s land-use review process.

If approved by the City Council, the air rights sale would allow the St. John’s developers, Westbrook Partners and Atlas Capital Group L.L.C., to put up five buildings, ranging from 175 to 430 feet tall, between Clarkson and Charlton Streets. At two million square feet, more than five times the size of the nearby Trump SoHo, the project is something of a beast. It would include 1,586 apartments, significant retail space, and a hotel or office tower. Some area residents worry that it could set a precedent for similarly giant projects nearby.

The scale and controversy of the project recall the tremors that shook the area a few blocks south in the 1860s, when Cornelius Vanderbilt, known as the Commodore, had the temerity to build the original St. John’s Freight Terminal in the very heart of what had once been a serene and elite residential neighborhood.

St. John’s Park, bordered by Varick, Beach, Hudson and Laight Streets in a wild, marshy part of what is today known as Tribeca, had been laid out in 1803 by Trinity Church in an effort to create a residential enclave modeled on the gracious squares of London’s West End. As an added enticement, the church built a lovely chapel, called St. John’s, facing the park on Varick Street. But it was not until the 1820s that fashionable New Yorkers moved to the square in great numbers, building elegant Federal row houses around it and fencing off the park, which was reserved for the exclusive use of those who owned the bordering lots. No expense was spared in beautifying this lush showplace: Catalpas, cottonwoods, horse chestnuts and silver birches were planted, while fountains and gravel walkways were laid out with appealing symmetry. Over time, gaslights and curbstones were added.

The area surrounding the park became “one of the most gravely respectable parts of the town,” as Harper’s Magazine described it, remaining at this “aristocratical high-water mark” into the 1840s, after which it became a mixed commercial and tenement neighborhood.

The decline of St. John’s Park was hastened by the laying of train tracks down Hudson Street, the park’s western edge, by the Hudson River Railroad in 1851. But the ultimate insult came in 1866, when Commodore Vanderbilt, who controlled the railroad, purchased the park from Trinity Church and its co-owners for $1 million. Vanderbilt lost no time in chopping down 200 trees, tearing up the park, and building in its place a four-acre, fifty-foot-tall freight station of red brick and granite.

A figure of Trumpian self-aggrandizement, Vanderbilt crowned the Hudson Street façade of his gargantuan new train shed with a 150-foot-long, 31-foot-high bronze bas relief celebrating his triumphs on land and sea. At the relief’s center, in the sort of arched niche in which saints appear in churches, stood a twelve-foot-tall, four-ton statue of the commodore himself. He wore a fur-trimmed overcoat, with his left hand, as The New York Times described it, “modestly extended.”

To Vanderbilt’s left, along with images of Neptune and a sea monster, was a tableau honoring the commodore’s career as a ferry entrepreneur and steamship operator, including the image of a mighty steamer called, unsurprisingly, the Vanderbilt. To the commodore’s right were depicted his railway achievements, presented in the context of their contributions to American prosperity: an eagle, a sword-wielding personification of Liberty, and a rendition of the St. John’s depot itself, from which emerged several train cars pulled by a locomotive named, yes, C. Vanderbilt.

The monumental terminal aroused in the public just about every feeling but indifference. The Times admired the commodore’s “genius for the sensational,” while George Templeton Strong, a high-born lawyer and diarist, was disgusted by the “hideous group of molten images,” which he ridiculed as an “act of Idolatry and Mammon Worship—the honor thus paid to a successful money-maker as a Hero.”

Scientific American was similarly derisive, as the architectural historian Christopher Gray has observed. Under the headline “A Huge Joke in Brass,” the magazine mocked Vanderbilt’s colossal overcoat, noting that it was “ample to protect from frost a Siberian sledge driver”; the bronze reliefs were “absurd,” the magazine opined, “in many respects ridiculously so.”

The terminal’s transformative effect on the once genteel neighborhood was immediate. Even before the depot was completed, the Times lamented of the area that “privileged nursery-maids and children no longer wander or gambol through its rural precincts.” Women were rarely seen outside the “surrounding cheap boarding-houses,” which tended to be crowded with young retail clerks. One line of houses on the formerly exclusive square had come to be called Hash Row.

By 1885, an average of 275 freight cars were rumbling daily through the once placid neighborhood, carrying such cargo as butter, fruit, hides and machinery. The depot, Harper’s declared, had “crushed the region utterly, so far as its fitness to be an abiding-place of polite society was concerned”; by 1893 the once fine houses were “tragedies in mellow-toned brick and carved wood-work that once was very beautiful.”

In 1934, the successor St. John’s Terminal was built closer to the waterfront at its current location on West Street, where a shabby, faded banner still bears the words “St. John’s Center.” The building’s forebear was demolished two years later.

Appropriately, perhaps, both the site of the original terminal and the imperial bronze statue that stood atop it are today all but swallowed up by the city’s transportation infrastructure. Much of the St. John’s site is now given over to a looping exit road from the Holland Tunnel. The sculpture of Vanderbilt, meanwhile, stands above 42nd Street in front of the downtown façade of Grand Central Terminal, generally unnoticed by the automobile drivers who whizz past him day and night. His hand is still “modestly extended.”

John Freeman Gill’s first novel, The Gargoyle Hunters, will be published by Alfred A. Knopf in March 2017


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