The Gilded Age had come to an end, and the Progressive Era was shifting into full gear when Grand Central Terminal was being shaped in the minds of architects and industrialists.
As its predecessor Grand Central Station — built upon a 23-acre plot of land owned by Cornelius Vanderbilt — was demolished, the design plans for Grand Central Terminal were being worked out, and an important decision needed to be made: what material could be used for the facade that would stand the test of time?
In late 1905, 15 stones were set down in Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx by the New York Central Railroad — an effort to see how the samples would fare in the open air before choosing which would be used for the new Grand Central Terminal. And to this day they remain, a sort of Stonehenge right in the Bronx: Cortlandthenge (as some have called it).
"The New York Central Railroad placed the stones at this location for a weathering experiment in November 1905," Megan Moriarty, press officer for NYC Parks, told Gothamist. "Back then, the area was a right-of-way of the Railroad's Putnam Branch, which served passenger trains from 1870 to 1958 and freight trains to 1980.”
The railroad and the two architecture firms charged with designing the new Beaux-Arts building — Reed & Stern and Warren & Wetmore — wanted to “assess the effects of a New York winter on the samples of granite, limestone, and marble," she said.
The building was already under construction at this time, though most of the work was underground at this point. Construction on the facade wouldn’t start until 1910, giving the samples in the Bronx plenty of time to get through a few NYC winters.
The stone had come in from all over the country, and it was likely the first time such large samples had been sent for a project.
In a piece written by Francis Morrone for the Municipal Art Society, the author points to the Real Estate Record and Builders’ Guide from November 1905, which reads, "Mr. [William H.] Masterson, of Norcross Brothers, stated that he believed this was the first time samples had ever been submitted in this way, the usual custom being to send a small piece of stone ... never in his experience had samples been kept in the open and exposed to the elements for any period."
The freight charges for the weighty samples — coming in from Indiana, Vermont, Maine, Connecticut, and Massachusetts — were covered by the New York Central Railroad. One of the pieces, a Milford pink granite from Massachusetts, had already been chosen for the nearby Pennsylvania Station, which would open in 1910.
The Real Estate Record and Builders’ Guide noted that when they were installed, the samples were kept on grass plots, fenced in on each side, and each had the names of the firm on the back of it.
In the end, Morrone wrote, two kinds of stone were selected for Grand Central Terminal’s facade: “Indiana limestone in the upper portion, and Stony Creek granite, from Connecticut, at the shopfront level." (Indiana limestone was the predominant material used throughout the City Beautiful movement.)
The old rail line where the stones were placed is now the Putnam Greenway in Van Cortlandt Park, and you’ll find them on what is now called the John Kieran Nature Trail. There are 13 that remain (it’s unclear what happened to two missing samples), and they’ve been more of a hidden secret than a lauded historic monument over all this time.
But in recent years they came to the attention of the Municipal Art Society (MAS) as a possibility for their Adopt-A-Monument program, run by Phyllis Cohen since it was established in the 1980s.
"At the time, in 1987, there was very little funding for monuments," Cohen, who is also the director of public art at MAS, told Gothamist. "Things were pretty bad and graffiti was covering most of the monuments. So when we started this, we picked 20, from all the five boroughs, a lot were in orphan parks, and we began a campaign to raise money for them."
The goal, Cohen said, was to restore these pieces of history and then maintain them, because that's how monuments — which she calls "a runoff of our collective memories and our history" — survive.
And this was an era of making sure the city's monuments did survive — the biggest restoration at the time was the Statue of Liberty (organized by the Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation in 1984). This became a prototype for other restoration projects citywide, and MAS wanted to make sure lesser-known artifacts, in all of the boroughs, got the same treatment.
They began with 20 monuments and expanded from there. Eventually, Cohen said, a member of the Municipal Art Society who was connected to Van Cortlandt Park asked them if they would consider the Grand Central Stones as a possibility for the program.
"These stones are not actually what you call works of art," Cohen said, "but they had a great connection to the Municipal Arts Society which, with Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and Kent Barwick [former head of the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission], fought to save Grand Central. So we had a connection."
The stones "were just marred with graffiti," when they first looked at them, according to Cohen. "The pillars stayed there for all those years, they were hit repeatedly by graffiti, some of the caps that were on them ... the tops had fallen off and they were below them on the ground."
In 2017, MAS hired conservator Steve Tatti to evaluate their condition, and run some tests on cleaning them. At this point, there was the added challenge of layers of gray paint that the Parks Department used to cover up the graffiti, which just made the restoration more difficult.
"The Parks Department's first response to these things is to paint over it, and that's the worst thing you can do because those layers of paint build up and build up," Cohen said. "Then there's more graffiti, and you know, you don't see the natural stone."
Some power washing and a solid treatment plan helped save the stone pillars, along with ongoing maintenance (they still get hit with graffiti to this day).
Cohen said that MAS is hoping that by next year they can hold a training program with the Van Cortlandt Park staff to instruct them on how to remove the graffiti when more pops up.
As for the original 1905 plan to test how the materials would hold up in the elements, Cohen said that now, 117 years later, each of them have stood the test of time.
"The stone is remarkably resistant," she said.