A New Yorker's quest to find and preserve Grand Central Station's lost iron statues
By Rachel Adams | Online Only | Aug. 8, 2003
On a chilly afternoon in March of this year, former Long Island Rail Road Branch Line manager and railroad historian David Morrison made a strange discovery in a strange place: a 4,000-lb cast-iron eagle, its mouth open in mid-cry and its 16-foot wingspan spread wide, at Space Farms, a roadside zoo and museum in rural Sussex, N.J.
Part of a puzzle that has intrigued Morrison, 58, for more than a decade, the eagle is one of the former ornaments of New York City's Grand Central Station, razed in 1910 to make way for the current Grand Central Terminal. For 14 years, captivated by the work of a photographer who tracked down most of the eagles 30 years before, Morrison has researched the statues and documented their whereabouts.
When Grand Central Station, the neoclassical structure that opened in 1898 at the corner of 42nd Street and Park Avenue, was replaced by the larger Beaux-Arts building 93 years ago, the eagles were dispersed around the New York region. Most were bestowed to wealthy estate-owners, acquaintances of railroad mogul Cornelius Vanderbilt, whose empire had funded the new construction.
By mid-century, however, the majority of these estates had been divided into smaller lots, bisected by highways, and redeveloped, and many of the massive birds sat forgotten, neglected, or surrounded by overgrowth.
While on assignment in 1965, New York Daily News photographer David McLane came upon one of the more prominently displayed eagles at a railroad station in North Tarrytown, N.Y., 33 miles north of New York City. Curious, McLane began a quest to locate and photograph the remaining eagles. By the time of his death in 1986, McLane had found nine more, all within a 50-mile radius of their original Manhattan home, and had documented them in a series of photo-essays. He had even purchased one himself, from Mount Vernon, N.Y., for $100, and successfully persuaded the local town of Shandaken to place it on a bluff overlooking the Hudson River. In 1989, 34 years after McLane's search began, David Morrison would also become obsessed with the same statues and compelled to continue the investigative work of a man he had never met.
Morrison's attraction to the Grand Central eagles began with a similar interest: tracking the 22 marble eagles removed from New York City's Pennsylvania Station during the building's mid-1960s demolition.
"I was studying the eagles from Penn Station when I came upon a 1965 newspaper article by Mr. McLane about the Grand Central ones," says Morrison. "It just took off from there."
Morrison's preliminary research confirmed that most of the birds McLane recorded were in their same locations—two each in Cold Spring and Centerport, N.Y., and one each in King's Point, Bronxville, Garrison, and North Tarrytown, N.Y. The Bronxville eagle, which sat in a cluster of azalea bushes in the back yard of a private residence, was one of Morrison's first sightings.
"It was one of the only birds on private property," says Morrison. "So I went to visit the homeowners to tell them about what exactly they had behind their house."
Laurie Hawkes and Paul Grand Pre, owners of the Bronxville house—which had been built a decade and a half after the eagle's arrival in their yard-to-be—were excited by Morrison's hunt.
"They were glad that I could provide some information about the eagle," says Morrison. "And I told them that since I didn't want to see it sitting in that yard forever, I may have a plan in mind."
Since the onset of his investigation, Morrison had entertained the idea of bringing one of the eagles to Grand Central Terminal. In 1997, enthusiastically backed by Hawkes and Grand Pre, he began a campaign to reposition the Bronxville statue at Grand Central. Early that year, Hawkes and Grand Pre donated the bird to New York's Metropolitan Transit Authority, the association that owns Grand Central and oversees operation of Manhattan-area mass transit. Prompted by Morrison, the transit authority enlisted the Milford, Pa.-based Architectural Iron Company to restore the nine-foot-tall bird, weathered and in disrepair. "It was quite an undertaking," says Morrison. "The eagles had to be totally disassembled, then parts were recast, and the whole thing was sandblasted and repainted."
In October 1999, two years after the eagle was removed from Bronxville and rehabbed, the statue was trucked from Milford to New York City and placed on a round perch four stories above Grand Central's Lexington Avenue entrance.
Spurred by the success of this project, Morrison contacted the Capuchin Seminary in Garrsion, N.Y., on whose property another poorly preserved Grand Central Station bird sat, with the prospect of restoring their statue. This time, he had a different destination in mind for the eagle: the Smithsonian Institution's National Zoo in Washington, D.C., where an original Pennsylvania Station eagle has resided—looming, appropriately, adjacent to the Bird House—since 1965. "If the idea came to fruition, I thought, it would be the only place in the world where you could see a Penn Station eagle and a Grand Central Station eagle simultaneously, " says Morrison. "It would be wonderful."
The Capuchin Seminary gave the bird to the Metro-North annex of the Metropolitan Transit Authority in early 2001, who again selected Architectural Iron to do the restoration work. Concurrently, Morrison began to petition the powers-that-be at the Smithsonian Institution, hoping for a positive response to his proposal. He did not receive one.
"I talked to the zoo directly, and wrote to several state and local representatives about the issue," he says. "From the beginning, I've heard the same basic thing: for the time being, we can't accept it. It's a shame. To have the two eagles together would be a real piece of history."
Today, two years after the transit authority spent more than $70,000 on the eagle's restoration, the Garrison statue languishes in Metro-North's Croton-Harmon, N.Y., rail yard, awaiting a permanent home. Despite repeated attempts by Morrison to bring the statue to the National Zoo, the Smithsonian Institution has consistently rejected the offer.
The recent find at New Jersey's Space Farms, however, has helped allay Morrison's frustration about the stalled Zoo plan. The statue's previous location is not known; brought to Space Farms in the mid-1960s, it may be the twin of the eagle bought by McLane from Mount Vernon, where another now-missing statue originally stood. Or, speculates Morrison, it could be an 11th eagle McLane never located. Either way, it is a Grand Central Station bird, a fact that, to Morrison, is exhilarating enough.
"The Space Farms eagle is sitting on a most extravagant pedestal," says Morrison. "It's beautiful. It's just so good to see the birds outdoors, prominently displayed, no matter where they are. Outside is where they should be."
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