Alexander Johnston Cassatt: The Man Who Spanned the Hudson

The mansion of Alexander and Lois Cassatt, 202-206 S.19th Street/West Rittenhouse Square, 1971, just prior to demolition.

Alexander J. Cassatt (1839-1906) was not a Philadelphian.  He was a Pittsburgh transplant who had started his career as an engineer with the Pennsylvania Railroad, and proved himself to be a master of transportation logistics.  As vice president of “The Railroad,” Cassatt enjoyed the good life.  He was the proud owner of a Frank Furness-designed mansion on West Rittenhouse Square and bred hackney horses on the Main Line, which his company had developed in the 1880s.

Cassatt was first and foremost a workaholic — he received his academic training from the notoriously rigorous Renssalaer Polytechnic Institute, the same school that produced Brooklyn Bridge designer Washington Roebling. In 1899, Cassatt came out of retirement to assume the presidency of the mighty corporation. ”Mr. Cassatt is a man of wealth, independence, and social prominence,” The New York Times noted in 1899. “He is fond of the comforts and enjoyments which wealth enables its possessors to enjoy, and it was only a few years ago that he voluntarily retired from the post of First Vice President of the Pennsylvania system because the work had been too exacting. In his letter of resignation at that time he said, ‘My only object in taking this step is to have more time at my disposal than any one occupying so responsible a position in railroad management can command.”

It was a decision that ultimately cost Cassatt his life.

After assuming the presidency of the Pennsy, he started planning one of the greatest construction projects in the country, one that would push the limits of engineering and his emotional endurance: a new set of tunnels underneath the Hudson and East Rivers, crowned by a new railroad terminal in the heart of Manhattan. He would battle accidents, reversals, and the extortionist machinations of New York’s Tammany Hall.

During the second half of the 19th century, the Vanderbilt family’s New York Central had a monopoly on Manhattan railroad traffic.  Their Hudson River and Harlem lines leapfrogged into the city across relatively narrow river crossings on the northern end of the island and terminated at Grand Central Station at 42nd Street and Park Avenue.   The Pennsylvania Railroad, on the other hand, which approached New York from the southwest, was blocked by the mighty Hudson River, almost a mile wide at the line’s Weehawken terminus.  After disembarking from the train, passengers were herded into ferries that landed them in the midst of Manhattan’s “Tenderloin” district, which the New York Herald described as “Least wholesome spot in town, where vice and greed full many a man brought down…The iron horse has sent your dives to join the other nightmares of the Tenderloin.”  Even worse, freight had to be offloaded from cars and manhandled onto barges and pushed across the river by tugs. Most of the brothels and saloons paid protection money that flowed directly into the pockets of Tammany Hall and the police department.

For Cassatt, head of the largest corporation on the face of the earth, this was unacceptable for his passengers and shippers.  Excavation of the railroad tunnels under the Hudson River started in February 1904, under the direction of engineers C.M. Jacobs and George Gibbs.  Several blocks of brownstones, saloons, and wooden boarding houses were dynamited to make way for the new railroad station.  Oddly enough, Cassatt and the Pennsy board skipped over Frank Furness — designer of Philadelphia’s Broad Street Station and the president’s own Rittenhouse Square mansion —  and selected the august New York firm of McKim, Mead & White, whose most notable Philadelphia commission was the Germantown Cricket Club.  Perhaps Cassatt wanted to win political and cultural favor with New Yorkers by using a New York firm.  Moreover, by the early 1900s Furness’s wild, polychromed style was out-of-date compared to McKim Mead & White’s restrained, academic classicism. Charles Follen McKim, the firm’s most academic and tightly-wound partner, drew up an enlarged adaptation of the Baths of Caracalla in Rome, built out  of solid pink granite and covering four square blocks of Manhattan.   The Pennsylvania Railroad declared that the designers of the station, “were at pains to embody two ideas.  To express in so far as was practicable, with the unusual condition of the tracks below the street surface and in spite of the absence of the conventional train shed, not only the exterior design of a great railway station in the generally accepted form, but also to give the building the character of a monumental gateway and entrance to a great metropolis.”

When New York’s Pennsylvania Station opened on September 8, 1910, it was heralded as the greatest railroad station in the world, “and the largest building in the world ever built at one time.”  Not only did trains arrive under the Hudson River from Philadelphia, but also from the recently-acquired Long Island Railroad.   The concourse, modeled on that of Paris’s Gare d’Orsay, was like the nave of a Gothic cathedral wrought of steel and glass rather than limestone.  And unlike Philadelphia’s Broad Street Station, trains did not have to pass over a hideous “Chinese Wall” viaduct. Rather, they ran silent and smokeless through tunnels, powered by electricity.

What Furness thought about his rival’s Pennsylvania Station is unknown.  What is certain is that by 1900, Furness had fallen upon hard times, and was struggling for commissions.   Thankfully, Cassatt did select Furness to design the 13-story Arcade Building at 15th and Market, cheek-by-jowl with his older (and increasingly soot-stained) Broad Street Station.

Broad Street Station, 15th and Filbert Streets, October 26, 1925.

Yet the project mastermind did not live to see his dream come true.  Cassatt died of heart failure 1906 at his home on Rittenhouse Square, one of several Pennsylvania Railroad presidents who dropped dead on the job due to stress and overwork.  A colleague eulogized Cassatt as “the only railroad statesman this country has ever produced.” The thousands of men slaving away in the tunnels battled mud, physical overexertion, and decompression sickness, otherwise known as “the bends.”  In addition, the residents of the area who did not lose their homes had to endure dangerous blasting; on November 19, 1904, Bridget Markey suffered severe lacerations to her face when a flying rock smashed through her window.  ”Families living near that spot said yesterday that their houses might be on the same layer of rock,” The New York Times reported, “for whenever a blast when off it shook their pictures off the wall and shook everybody up.”

Excavating the Pennsylvania Station tunnels, 1905.

Cassatt’s above-ground architectural legacy did not fare well after his death.  Broad Street Station and the Arcade Building came down in the 1950s, replaced by the bland office towers of Penn Center.  In 1961, amid much public protest, the ailing and bog-bound Pennsylvania Railroad ripped down their New York terminal and replaced it with an office tower and sports complex.  Finally, in 1972, the Episcopal Diocese of Pennsylvania, owners of Alexander Cassatt’s mansion on Rittenhouse Square, tore down the old brick structure and replaced it with a high-rise hotel. By that time, the Pennsylvania Railroad, which had merged with the New York Central in 1968, had collapsed into bankruptcy, never to emerge again.

Pennsylvania Station in 1911, a year after completion. The PRR boasted that although the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg, Russia was larger, their new station was the largest building ever erected at once. Source: Wikipedia Commons.

The statue of Alexander Cassatt that once graced Pennsylvania Station now resides, lonely and out-of-context, at the Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania in Lancaster County.  It bears the following inscription:

Alexander Johnson Cassatt, President of the Pennsylvania Railroad 1899-1906. Whose Foresight, Courage and Ability achieved the extension of the Pennsylvania Railroad into New York City.

Four of the pink granite eagles that once adorned the facade of Penn Station are now perched on the Market Street bridge over the Schuylkill River.  The rest of the station’s remains ended up in the swamps of the New Jersey Meadowlands.

Today, the name Cassatt is usually associated with Alexander’s sister Mary, the famed Impressionist painter.  Penn Station might be a distant memory, but for the 300,000 people who travel through the Hudson and East River tunnels every day, Alexander Cassatt’s legacy has stood the test of time.

Even if they do, to paraphrase historian Vincent Scully, come and go like rats rather than gods.

Portrait of Alexander Johnson Cassatt by his sister Mary. Source: allpaintings.org.

Sources:

“Alexander J. Cassatt,” The New York Times, June 18, 1899.

“Houses Set A-Tremble from a Heavy Blast,” The New York Times, November 19, 1904.

“New Pennsylvania Station is Opened,” The New York Times, August 29, 1910.

Jill Jonnes, Conquering Gotham, A Gilded Age Epic: The Construction of Penn Station and Its Tunnels (New York, NY: Viking Press, 2007), p.129, p.244.

Noble, Alfred (September 1910). “The New York Tunnel Extension of the Pennsylvania Railroad. The East River Division.” Transactions of the American Society of Civil Engineers 68. Paper No. 1152.

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2 Comments

  1. Jayfar
    Posted June 14, 2013 at 10:49 am | Permalink

    Minor correction: The 4 eagles are at the ends of the Market Street Bridge, not JFK Bvd Bridge. There is also one outside Madison Square Garden/Penn Station in NYC.

  2. Davis
    Posted January 29, 2014 at 5:46 pm | Permalink

    Nice piece, Steve.

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