November 25, 2001 *NEW YORK TIMES
The Metro-North Tracks: A Look Down at the Rail Tunnels Below Park Ave.
By CHRISTOPHER GRAY
NEXT Sunday, the Christmas lights will shine on Park Avenue, as they have every year since 1945. The lighting ceremonies will feature a carol service at 91st Street and Park, and with the wide boulevard closed, it will be one of the rare times that New Yorkers walk on the central malls that cover the Metro-North railroad tracks below.
Because the ceremony will take place after dark, it may be possible to look down through the large grates and see the spectacular engineering of the tunnels. A daytime wanderer may ponder a series of inscrutable inscriptions on the flagstones surrounding the grates flagstones that are gradually being removed by the railroad.
Down through the grates at 89th and 90th Streets, a walker on the malls can see part of one of the oldest public-works projects in New York, a nearly three-mile-long tunnel from 42nd to 97th Street created in various stages in the 19th and the early decades of the 20th century.
The original New York and Harlem Railroad first ended at 90th Street in 1834, until a tunnel was cut in the East 90's under what is now called Carnegie Hill three years later. Most of the rest of the track, from 42nd to 90th Street, ran in an open cut, with occasional bridges to allow cross-street traffic.
The first Grand Central Terminal was finished in 1871, increasing traffic so much that area property owners persuaded the railroad to cover the tracks.
In a large-scale project north of 56th Street between 1873 and 1875, the engineer Isaac C. Buckhout designed beam tunnels in which iron beams span the tracks directly above the rail traffic for areas where the land was low. Where the land was high enough, conventional masonry arch tunnels were built.
The tracks south of 56th Street were covered over as part of the construction of the new Grand Central Terminal, completed in 1913.
At Carnegie Hill and at Lenox Hill, in the East 70's, a passer-by can peer down to giant arches of contrasting red brick and gray fieldstone spanning a double track, floodlit by Metro-North tunnel lighting.
Riding in the front car of Metro-North commuter trains is another way to see the tunnels, but from the surface the contrast between brute engineering and the refined apartment houses of Park Avenue is particularly striking.
The area covering the tracks was landscaped as medians. They were 40 feet wide, and after several years they sprouted near- forests of bushy greenery where the soil was deep enough. But in the 1920's New York City cut down the malls to accommodate more automobiles. The line of parked cars along each curb is the tradeoff for what had been one of the greenest avenues in the city.
Designed by a Department of Parks landscape architect, Julius Burgevin, the new, narrower, 24-foot-wide malls were trim and flat. Most of them had large square grates at each end for ventilation.
Christmas trees were put up occasionally on the Park Avenue malls in the 1930's. But in 1945 the Park Avenue Association put up 29 trees as "a memorial to those who died, a welcome to the living," the association said in the magazine Park Avenue Social Review.
The initial lighting ceremony, with caroling, was at St. Bartholomew's Church, at 50th Street. In later years the lighting took place in various locations, including the Seventh Regiment Armory at 67th Street, but it eventually landed permanently at the Brick Presbyterian Church, at 91st Street.
On the malls between between 86th and 90th Streets there still exists a peculiarity that is hard to explain and is gradually disappearing. Many flagstones surrounding the grates bear hand-cut inscriptions, about 30 in all. Some may simply be graffiti.
BUT others, in uniform lettering, appear to relate to some kind of numbering system: on the north side of 89th Street one can find "Hno21 HWS" and "No 11." On the south side of 90th Street there's "Hno8." The inscriptions are spread among 125 stones on the four blocks, which contain the only remaining openings on which the flagstones have not been replaced by wood.
The simple stones seem too modest to warrant the signature of masons who cut them and too uniform to require setting marks to direct their placement. The carving on the stones appears to be from the 19th century, but early photographs do not definitely show stones matching these. The stones might have been salvaged from other railroad operations, but requests for information posted on several railroad Web sites did not bring a response from anyone who saw any rail significance in the markings.
Any volunteer cryptographer who wants a first-hand view of the stones should not wait too long. Marjorie Anders, a spokeswoman for Metro-North, said that railroad personnel do not recognize any pattern in the inscriptions and that the railroad was gradually replacing the few remaining stones. *