Photographs & History

Photographs and History

From Iron Fortunes to Railroads: A Brief History on McKim, Mead and White

From modest beginnings with a commission for the Coleman family in the iron rich hills of the Lebanon Valley to becoming one of the most important American architectural firms, McKim, Mead and White began building its legacy in the village of Cornwall, Pennsylvania in 1880.

Stanford White's first commission with McKim, Mead and White was Alden Villa. This interior detail is of the foyer and main staircase. Cornwall, Pennsylvania.

Stanford White's first commission with McKim, Mead and White was Alden Villa. This interior detail is of the foyer and main staircase. Cornwall, Pennsylvania.

It all began when a 25-year-old Stanford White set sail for Europe to visit his long time friend, the American sculptor, Augustus Saint-Gaudens in 1878. White had been working as the head draftsman for the noted architect Henry Hobson Richardson, where he had befriended Charles McKim.  McKim left Hobson in 1872 looking to develop his own firm joining William Rutherford Mead and later in 1877, William Bigelow, McKim’s brother-in-law to create McKim, Mead and Bigelow.  In short time during the course of the partnership with Bigelow, McKim’s marriage failed and as a result Bigelow left the firm. Looking to fill the vacancy McKim joined White at the last minute traveling to Europe in an effort to recruit him to join the firm. Their trip to Paris would be an inspirational time and upon their return, White came on board with McKim and Mead to create one of the most prolific firms in American history. Though McKim was already on his way to being well established and White had a great deal of creative freedom under Henry Hobson Richardson on account of his ailing health they would now be able to fully express their creative aesthetic under the auspices of McKim, Mead and White.

Shortly after starting the firm, White began work on what is arguably his earliest residential commission, a project with Ann Caroline Coleman in 1880 to construct a home for her son Robert Percy Alden and his new wife Mary Ida Warren in the iron hills of Cornwall, Pennsylvania.  Some have theorized White was given the commission because of his status as junior partner having to make the lengthy trips from New York City to Central Pennsylvania, often working on the train to develop his design. Overlooking the Coleman’s profitable iron foundries, the unique home, reflects White’s influence from working with Richardson while drawing from his European travel sketches and his contributions to the shingle style vocabulary that would become typical of the young firm. The house itself and the interiors within had a great variety of styling seen through out the firm’s commissions in the coming years. Alden Villa or Millwood as it would be referred to was a unique formative design that reflected a young and talented architect refining his own vernacular.

During the firm’s most creative period (1879-1915) McKim, Mead and White received nearly 1000 commissions, many of which are considered some of America’s most important buildings. Within the firm, Mead focused on running the office, while McKim and White were the creative minds, designing private homes, institutional and commercial commissions. Among these were estates for the cultural elite of New York, constructing villas on Long Island and Newport, Rhode Island. Highlights of the commercial and institutional commissions included the National Museum of American History in Washington DC, the Brooklyn Museum, New York University, Hotel Pennsylvania, Rhode Island State House and the New York and Boston Public Libraries among others.

Birds Eye View of Pennsylvania Station, NY, NY circa 1910. The colonnades and entries to the station building were the first of three elements in the processional sequence, the portal. Detroit Publishing Company, collection of the Library of Congress.

Birds Eye View of Pennsylvania Station, NY, NY circa 1910. The colonnades and entries to the station building were the first of three elements in the processional sequence, the portal. Detroit Publishing Company, collection of the Library of Congress.

Main Waiting Room, Pennsylvania Station, NY, NY circa 1908-1910. This design was based on the Frigidarium or cold pool of the Baths of Caracalla, Detroit Publishing Company, collection of the Library of Congress.

Main Waiting Room, Pennsylvania Station, NY, NY circa 1908-1910. This design was based on the Frigidarium or cold pool of the Baths of Caracalla, Detroit Publishing Company, collection of the Library of Congress.

Track level and concourses, prior to completion (note panks over track area bottom left). Exact year unknown but roughly between 1908-10.  This space also referenced the baths of Caracalla while acknowledging the modern methods of train shed construction. Detroit Publishing Company, collection of the Library of Congress  .

Track level and concourses, prior to completion (note panks over track area bottom left). Exact year unknown but roughly between 1908-10.  This space also referenced the baths of Caracalla while acknowledging the modern methods of train shed construction. Detroit Publishing Company, collection of the Library of Congress.

Unfortunately tragedy didn’t stop here, as the Pennsylvania Railroad would destroy Pennsylvania Station in 1963 at just over 50 years old. The cash strapped railroad optioned the air rights to Penn Station, calling for the demolition of the head house and train shed replacing it with a new office complex and sporting arena. Plans for the new Penn Plaza and Madison Square Garden were announced in 1962 and demolition began in ’63. A concession for the air rights was that the Pennsylvania Railroad would receive a modern smaller subterranean terminal and 25% stake in the new Madison Square Garden Complex at no cost. What seemed to be an unimaginable act quickly took place as demolition began sparking an international outrage. While the destruction of Penn Station was allowed the act was certainly not unnoticed. Within 18 months of the demolition, New York City would enact the first landmarks preservation act in America making the lost station the poster child for historic preservation. Though a tragic end to an unwinding legacy, the legendary firm of McKim, Mead and White is survived by many of the magnificent buildings they created during their time, including Alden Villa in the village of Cornwall, Pennsylvania, a commission from the iron empire of the Coleman family of Lebanon County.

Pennsylvania Railroad Electrification

Yesterday, February 10th marked the 78th anniversary of regularly scheduled electric powered passenger trains running between New York City and Wahshington DC, a result of the Pennsylvania Railroad’s effort to electrify the main line system throughout the congested Northeast region.

Formerly known as Germantown Junction, North Philadelphia marked where the 1918 electrification of the Chestnut Hill Branch diverged from the main line to head north into the suburbs. This junction today sees Septa trains diverging on the same route while handling the north - south traffic of the Northeast Corridor. Note the massive signal bridge which originally spanned up to 8 tracks, and the early lattice style catenary pole in the foreground.

Formerly known as Germantown Junction, North Philadelphia marked where the 1918 electrification of the Chestnut Hill Branch diverged from the main line to head north into the suburbs. This junction today sees Septa trains diverging on the same route while handling the north - south traffic of the Northeast Corridor. Note the massive signal bridge which originally spanned up to 8 tracks, and the early lattice style catenary pole in the foreground.

The Pennsylvania Railroad’s electrification projects date back as early as 1895 when the railroad used the Burlington and Mt. Holly Railroad as a test subject for a 7 mile 500 volt DC trolley system. The experiment lasted just six years when the Mt Holly powerhouse caught fire. In 1906 southern New Jersey subsidiary West Jersey & Seashore Railroad, built a third rail 600 volt DC system from Camden to Millville and Atlantic City via Newfield. Like an interurban or trolley system the line utilized overhead wire in congested areas like Camden but also had several installations in the countryside, as way to test the durability of trolley wire versus third rail at higher speeds. The same year the PRR installed yet another 600 volt DC system on a short Cumberland Valley Railroad branch running 7.7 miles from Mechanicsburg and Dillsburg all predecessors to the first large scale use of this technology on the railroad. In 1910, the PRR would construct a similar 650-volt DC system to operate the newly opened New York Terminal. Running from Manhattan Transfer near Harrison, New Jersey east to the beautiful Penn Station and ultimately to the sprawling Sunnyside Yard in Queens.

Map detailing the Pennsylvania Railroad's electrified territory circa 1947. Collection of    Rails and Trails .

Map detailing the Pennsylvania Railroad's electrified territory circa 1947. Collection of Rails and Trails.

Soon after the benefits of electric traction were realize in the New York Terminal, attention was focused on the Philadelphia area to relieve congestion, in particular operations radiating from the stub-end Broad Street Station complex. After considerable research the railroad adopted the use of high voltage alternating current for this and all future projects like that of its northern neighbor the New Haven who began use of this technology as early as 1907. Initial electrification included the district between Broad Street and Paoli on the Main Line, which was completed in 1915, followed by the Chestnut Hill Branch in 1918, and the White Marsh Branch in 1924.

PRR Document ET 1 Circa 1935. This document highlights a number of important specifications and layout of the newly completed electrified system, including catenary cable design, substation locations, insulator types and the completion dates of each segment among other items.  Collection of PRR.Railfan.net

PRR Document ET 1 Circa 1935. This document highlights a number of important specifications and layout of the newly completed electrified system, including catenary cable design, substation locations, insulator types and the completion dates of each segment among other items. Collection of PRR.Railfan.net

Expansion continued south to Wilmington on the main line including the branch to West Chester in 1928 and north on the main line to Trenton and the Schuylkill Valley Branch to Norristown in 1930 thus completing the electrification of Philadelphia region suburban lines. Subsequent studies indicated an economical advantage of electrification outside the commuter zones for regional and long distance trains between New York, Philadelphia, Washington DC and Harrisburg, prompting Pennsylvania Railroad President William Wallace Atterbury to close the gaps in electrification beginning late in 1928. Despite the Great Depression the electrification project continued through 1933, completing the retrofit of the New York Terminal for AC traction and finishing catenary work to complete the network to Wilmington and Paoli.

The PRR electrified network still serves the modern needs of Amtrak, providing propulsion for Acela, regional and local passenger rail service through out the Northeast. At Shore, on the Northeast Corridor a southbound passes as another northbound region approaches. Note the catenary above the void in front of the camera, this is where the line to Delair diverges and used to have multiple tracks, all electrified into Pavonia Yard in Camden.

The PRR electrified network still serves the modern needs of Amtrak, providing propulsion for Acela, regional and local passenger rail service through out the Northeast. At Shore, on the Northeast Corridor a southbound passes as another northbound region approaches. Note the catenary above the void in front of the camera, this is where the line to Delair diverges and used to have multiple tracks, all electrified into Pavonia Yard in Camden.

Understanding that Wilmington would not be a suitable southern terminal for electrification, catenary was extended to Washington DC including Potomac Yard, financed by a 70 million dollar loan secured from depression era federal recovery programs. Beginning in January of 1934, various reports say up to 20,000 men went to work, comprising of furloughed railroad employees and new hires in the electrical / construction trades to complete the electrification of the New York – Washington DC main line, which opened for business on February 10th 1935.

As a result of the success on the north south “corridor” the PRR sought to complete electrification from the eastern seaboard west to the Harrisburg terminal including all associated freight and passenger main lines. Work commenced on the Low Grade from Morrisville to Enola, the main line from Paoli to Harrisburg and the on the Columbia Branch and Columbia & Port Deposit. Completed in 1938 the entire electrification created a powerful conduit that put the railroad in an excellent position to handle the impending pressure of war time traffic demands.

The Harrisburg power Dispatchers office, which was slated to close the beginning of this month controlled the electrical supply network for both signal and catenary systems. This massive installation is an engineering marvel by itself, an impressive monitor and control system consisting of hundreds of push button breakers and miles of wiring. Though this facility remained in service, the actual console was taken off line and replaced by computers which were located out of view.

The Harrisburg power Dispatchers office, which was slated to close the beginning of this month controlled the electrical supply network for both signal and catenary systems. This massive installation is an engineering marvel by itself, an impressive monitor and control system consisting of hundreds of push button breakers and miles of wiring. Though this facility remained in service, the actual console was taken off line and replaced by computers which were located out of view.

The electrified infrastructure has remained visibly the same over the ensuing decades, surviving the Pennsylvania Railroad, Penn Central, Conrail and Amtrak. Though Conrail abandoned the electrified freight service in the 1980's Amtrak continues to maintain and modify where needed the original fixed tension catenary system. With the implementation of CTEC, its centralized traffic and electrical dispatching center, the company has slowly decommissioned all the former PRR power dispatching facilities in favor of new computerized systems. Today, when you ride the Northeast Corridor, look at the details amongst this great infrastructure, they reveal the various phases of construction and symbolize the ingenuity and engineering ability of the great Pennsylvania Railroad.