Cornelius Vanderbilt by Ernst Plassmann, Grand Central Terminal

This essay is adapted from Chapter 25 of Outdoor Monuments of Manhattan: A Historical Guide. I’ve kept cross-references to other chapters in the book, all of which will eventually be updated and posted on this site. Click on “Outdoor Monuments of Manhattan book” in the Obsessions cloud at lower right to see which are already here.

Ernst Plassmann, Cornelius Vanderbilt, 1869. In front of Grand Central Terminal at the level of the Park Avenue Viaduct. Photo copyright © 2018 Dianne L. Durante

  • Sculptor: Ernst Plassmann.
  • Dedicated: 1869.
  • Medium and size: Bronze (8.5 feet), granite pedestal (approximately 9 feet).
  • Location: South facade of Grand Central Terminal, at the level of the Park Avenue viaduct. Pedestrians can enter the Hyatt Hotel (42nd Street just east of Grand Central), go up the stairs on the left to the reception level, go up the escalator to the left of Concierge’s desk, then go through the revolving doors (ahead and to your right as you come off the escalator) to the sidewalk by the Park Avenue viaduct. Turn left on the sidewalk (toward 42nd Street), and follow the sidewalk around to the south side of Grand Central. The sidewalk ends almost across from the Vanderbilt statue. Subway: 4, 5, 6 to Grand Central – 42nd Street.

About the sculpture

Upright and alert, Vanderbilt surveys his domain: a wealthy, powerful, alert man whose presence you can’t fail to notice. Well, you couldn’t were he not placed where few pedestrians venture. Rightly proud of having worked his way up from poverty, he wears a bulky double-breasted coat with fur lapels and cuffs. As compared to the conventional business attire of Rea and Dodge (Chapters 20, 24), the coat suggests that he’s a hands-on manager, not content to run his business from behind a desk.

Like Ericsson, Farragut and Rea (Chapters 2, 19, 20), Vanderbilt’s upright posture speaks of confidence. The gesture of his left hand suggests he’s in the middle of an action – perhaps giving an order. For more on this gesture, see Columbus (Chapter 36).

Like Rea in his Penn Station niche, Vanderbilt was designed for an architectural setting, and meant to be seen only from the front. When dedicated in 1869, the sculpture was the centerpiece of a 150-foot-long, 31-foot-high pediment on Vanderbilt’s Hudson River Railroad Freight Depot, just south of Canal Street. (The history of the Hudson Rail Road Freight Depot and the line running north from it are intimately connected with the High Line and with Robert Moses’s West Side Improvement project [the Henry Hudson Parkway and expansion of Riverside Park]: see here and here.)

Plassmann’s Vanderbilt in its original location atop the Hudson River Railroad Freight Depot (1869- ca. 1910?)

Bronze reliefs to either side showed sailboats, steamboats and railroads: the transportation industries in which Vanderbilt made his millions.

Vanderbilt and bas reliefs on pediment of Hudson River Railroad Freight Depot, 1869 or later. Image: Wikipedia.

The fact that the sculpture appeared atop the third story of the Depot explains the relatively simple pose, the lack of small gestures and props and even the bulky coat. To be viewed at that distance, the sculpture needed something of the monumental simplicity of the Statue of Liberty (Chapter 1).

After the demolition of the Hudson River Railroad Freight Depot, Vanderbilt was eventually moved to the facade of the Grand Central Terminal, where you’re unfortunately likely to see him only as you rocket past on the Park Avenue Viaduct. Instructions for reaching the sidewalk opposite him are at the beginning of this post.

About the subject

Cornelius Vanderbilt (1794-1877), an uneducated farm boy, was worth about $100 million when he died – probably the wealthiest man in America. He earned his first million on the water, ferrying passengers by sailboat as a teenager, then switching to steam. So safe and efficient was the service Vanderbilt provided that a series of rivals either sold out to him or paid him to operate elsewhere. By age 45 (1841), the “Commodore” owned or had an interest in more steamboats than anyone else in the country.

Meanwhile, after Peter Cooper designed the first American-made steam locomotive in 1830 (Chapter 10), the railroad industry boomed. Small wonder: the trip by rail from Buffalo to Albany took a mere thirty hours, while the trip by the twenty-year-old Erie Canal (Chapter 48) took ten days. With the advent of railroads the cost of shipping – and hence the cost of goods – plummeted. Privately financed and privately built railroads spread across the country.

Vanderbilt, in his sixties, astonished contemporaries by selling his prosperous steamboat line and applying his formidable energy to the acquisition of railroads. By 1857 he was a director of one New York railroad line. By the early 1860s, he owned a controlling interest in the only two railroads that ran into Manhattan.

Why only two? Because in the 1830s, New York politicians decreed who could build lines into Manhattan, how far south steam locomotives could run (at first to Canal Street, later only to 42nd), and whether existing lines could merge. Such political control was often employed as a weapon by Vanderbilt’s enemies, although seldom with success.

On lines he controlled, Vanderbilt improved service and equipment by doubling tracks (for passengers and freight) and by upgrading rolling stock and bridges. Curmudgeonly Horace Greeley of the New York Tribune (Chapter 7), a regular commuter on Vanderbilt’s Harlem Railroad, commented in 1867 that

We lived on this road when it was poor and feebly managed – with rotten cars and wheezy old engines that could not make schedule time; and the improvement since realized is gratifying. It is understood that the road now pays, and, if so, we are glad of it.

Under Vanderbilt’s leadership, railroads linked New York to Albany in the 1850s and to Chicago by the early 1870s. So efficiently did he run his railroads that even in the depression of the 1870s, they paid dividends of six to eight percent. Soon Vanderbilt was known as “The Railroad King” as well as “Commodore.” Grand Central Depot, completed at Forty-Second Street in 1871 as the New York terminal of Vanderbilt’s railroads, was one of the largest enclosed spaces in the world. Within a few years, it became too small for its volume of traffic. (See Commerce, Chapter 26.)

New York Times eulogized Vanderbilt:

What he bought he bought to keep, to build up, and to make more productive. … It required skill, patience, and that mental quality which we call forethought, to conduct successfully such vast concerns as those which employed Vanderbilt’s energies. Every movement of his will was perceptible in the fleets which covered the waters, or in the network of rails which enmeshed the land. By him, therefore, the movements of population, the currents of trade and travel, and the requirements of commerce, must have been clearly seen and understood. It was his business, in a large way, to anticipate and meet all these requirements and changes. He did this so well that he is now set down as a highly successful man. (1/5/1877)

Often reviled as a “robber baron,” Vanderbilt was in fact a trader who offered high-quality services to a public eager to buy them.

More

  • Ernst Plassmann (1823-1877), a native of Sondern, Westphalia, trained in Germany and Paris. Manhattan has his Vanderbilt, 1869, and Benjamin Franklin, ca. 1872 (Park Row at Nassau Street).
  • Highly recommended: The First Tycoon, T.J. Stiles’s biography of Vanderbilt, which uses much newly discovered archival material.
  • More on Vanderbilt on ForgottenDelights.com: here and here.
  • Outdoor Monuments has been “translated” into a fabulous app that you can enjoy on your phone or tablet for the images and music – even if you’re not in New York. The Guides Who Know Monuments of Manhattan videoguide is available for iPhone users (free Preview; complete app) and Android users (free previewcomplete app). The supplementary page on ForgottenDelights.com is here.
  • Want wonderful art delivered weekly to your inbox? Members of my free Sunday Recommendations list (email DuranteDianne@gmail.com) receive three art-related suggestions every week: check out my favorites from last year’s recommendations. For more goodies, check out my Patreon page.

About Dianne L. Durante

I constantly seek out art that's inspiring, thought-provoking, skillfully executed, and/or beautiful so I can share it (in jargon-free language) with others who need and enjoy such art, but don't have time to search for it themselves. As an independent scholar, writer, and lecturer, I focus on art history and history, with forays into food, history, politics, and publishing. My most recent projects are three volumes on Alexander Hamilton, From Portraits to Puddles, Central Park: The Early Years, Innovators in Sculpture (a survey of 5,000 years of art in 2 hours), and videoguide apps by Guides Who Know. Click on the Books & Essays tab for a list of all books. For upcoming projects, see my Patreon page.

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