In November 2007 a reader of my Abandoned Stations page, Myron Levitsky, wrote me by email:
Do you know about the Botanical Garden station of the Third Avenue El that once existed? It was at the end of a spur that branched off north of the Fordham Road station on land that has now been cut off from the rest of the Botanical Garden and is a part of Fordham University. The head-house of the station was patterned after the glass greenhouse in the Botanical Garden. I have been wondering if any photos exist of the station. I have never seen one. Have you?
What? The head-house of the station was patterned after the glass greenhouse! No, I didn't know that. I was therefore sure I had never seen a picture of it. That would have stuck in my mind.
I've been intrigued by the history of the New York transit system for forty years, and I have to admit that by now it takes a lot to surprise me. But an elevated railway station in the form of a greenhouse? OK, that got me. I had to see a picture.
I knew exactly where the station once was. When I attended Fordham Prep (see Huge Hall) my friend Michael told me about it. We walked up to the edge of the campus near the Garden, and we could see the walkway that had led from the road to the station, although the station itself was gone.
Most of the Third Avenue El in the Bronx was still running at that time. If you rode north from Fordham Road station, it was pretty easy to see where the original route had once diverged to the right. Below, here's a great view from the front window of a train, June 6, 1954. It still looked pretty much like this when I saw it.
Photo by Frank Pfulher, © 2007. From www.nycsubway.org
I asked Mr Levitsky to tell what he remembered of it, and he wrote:
There was a path that ran down through the Botanical Gardens on a gentle incline from the still existing greenhouse to the station — the path ended in an open deck that looked over the New York Central tracks. Some years ago, I went up to the Botanical Gardens, looking for the path down to the station. It's still there, but it ends about 200 yards short of where the station used to be in a high metal fence and a wide paved road lined with parked cars on both sides. The other side of the road seems to be a part of the Fordham University campus. There appears to be nothing left of the Botanical Gardens station.
The station itself was a glass-enclosed pavilion about forty feet square, with a glass mansard roof and an ornamental clerestory on top. The entrance to the station was on the north side, off the deck. Inside, there was a change booth and a row of the old horizontal wooden turnstiles that made a very characteristic clunking noise every time a passenger went through. On a hot summer day, an aroma of tar and creosote hung over the whole scene — creosote from the train tracks and tar from the stuff the Botanical Gardens used to pave its paths.
I remember the turnstiles. They were in the el stations to the end. Here's a picture of one at the Fordham Road station, taken just after the line closed in 1973. You dropped a token into a box on the right side, which was gone by the time this photo was taken, and that released a mechanism that unlocked the turnstile. As you entered, the turnstile made a quarter turn and locked again with a big clunk.
From American Memory, Library of Congress
But back to the greenhouse station.
My friend Michael, a lifelong resident of the Bronx, was as interested as I was in finding a picture of it, and the search was on. Before long at all I got the first hit, a postcard being sold on Ebay. Michael bought it, and here it is. This is the "path that ran down through the Botanical Gardens on a gentle incline".
That's not the Botanical Garden greenhouse on the right: it's the station house! We've got the garden itself behind us, and we're looking across Southern Boulevard (much narrower than it is today) at the path leading to the station, which is partially visible in the far background.
Below is an enlargement of the station house, with a little digital processing to try to bring out detail. The postcard is grainy. It looks like there is a porch around the building, "a glass-enclosed pavilion about forty feet square, with a glass mansard roof and an ornamental clerestory on top".
Below is an enlargement of the left side, showing some details of the outer end of station. You can see one elevated car in the center, with more of the train obscured by shrubbery to the right. To the left is a one-story structure with windows ending in a two-story tower.
A bit of email talk on what we see there:
Me— What do you think of the white building to the left of the train? The buildings on Webster Ave seem to be in a haze, so this white building is closer, on the el. My guess is it's crew quarters, since this is a terminal, and the little 2-story portion is a control tower for the switches at the approach. The train seems to be immediately in front of the white building, indicating that it's between the tracks.
Michael— I think so. Woodlawn Road used to have something like it at the south end, I think, that's now gone ; and Broadway/VC Park has a structure built over the tracks that might replace something formerly at track level.
Joe Cunningham— You are absolutely correct — that building is identical to those constructed by the IRT/Manhattan Company for crew quarters, dispatcher's offices, material storerooms, etc. Similar structures were found throughout the system at East 180, 177 West Farms, Pelham Bay, Willetts Point, etc. They were a generic design adapted to various uses. The signal tower was, I believe, manual "Armstrong" type until the end, as was that at South Ferry. It would likely also have controlled the lead to the car elevator which would have been within the 500' range of mechanical or "pipe" thrown switches.
The Armstrong switch controls Joe described were thrown mechanically with no power assist. The switchman, in the tower, would engage his full body weight on a long floor-mounted lever to move the series of metal rods that ran inside protective pipes all the way to the tracks where they moved the switch points.
The photograph at right was taken by Bernard Linder on June 17, 1951 in the switch tower and proves that the Armstrong levers were still there five months before the terminal closed. From the Bulletin of the New York Division, Electric Railroaders' Association, for August 2009.
The car elevator Joe mentioned is something I'll come back to.
Michael found and bought another card a week later that gives us the reverse view. Now we can see that the path runs on a masonry structure leading to the garden. This is what we would have seen from the elevated station house or platform. The huge greenhouse in the Botanical Garden is of course still there today and is now known as the Enid Haupt Conservatory.
A map will clarify where this is. At the end of Third Avenue, at Fordham Road, the elevated railway continued into a private right of way along the east side of the New York Central Railroad which brought it to the Bronx Park terminal station at the Botanical Garden. The later extension of the el started from the junction north of Fordham Road that we already saw in a photograph, crossing over the New York Central and continuing over Webster Avenue.
From the "World's Fair Edition" (1939) of Geographia's Complete Street Guide to New York / Manhattan and the Bronx
Mr Levitsky described it this way:
The spur to the Botanical gardens separated itself from the main tracks of the Third Avenue El just north of the Fordham Road Station in a flat junction. The main line of the El made a sweeping curve to the left over the tracks of the New York Central Harlem Division, then went north to Williamsbridge where it made a right turn onto Gun Hill Road, crossing the New York Central tracks again and joined the Lexington Avenue subway that went up White Plains Road. The Botanical Gardens spur ran up along the east side of the New York Central tracks on an elevated structure, although there was no street under it , only a kind of scrub parkland that was probably a part of the Botanical Gardens [actually Fordham University —Joe B]. The station itself was a two track affair with an island platform between the two tracks and outside platforms, so that the trains could open their doors on both sides.
We found an aerial view on the web. It's on Digital Metro New York. The photograph came from the Bronx Chamber of Commerce, and it's a work print marked up to show how another print should be cropped for publication or presentation.
First, here's most of the view. North is to the right. The lower half of the image, below the blue line, is the Botanical Garden, with the huge conservatory on the left. In the upper half of the image, the Third Avenue El on Webster Avenue forms a strong left-right line, and in the space above can be seen Mount Saint Ursula (mentioned in Huge Hall) on the left and the Mosholu Parkway on the right.
Now here's an enlargement of a section on the left side. The dome of the station house shows as white. You can see the path we saw in the postcards, curving up from Southern Boulevard and then running straight over the masonry structure to the station. This view shows that besides the path to the Garden, there was also a footbridge over the New York Central tracks to Webster Avenue.
See the freight cars on the New York Central? Mr Levitsky recalled:
I used to annoy my father by making him wait while I looked for the trains along the tracks below, but since we usually went to the Botanical Gardens on Sunday, there was often a long wait between trains. There was a small freight yard on the other side of the NYC tracks about 8-10 tracks wide with a small interlocking tower at the north end of the yard — just south of the present Botanical Gardens station of Metro North — that controlled a set of crossovers and access to the yard. There was also an icehouse in the yard complex — I don't know if it made ice for refrigerator cars or for domestic use — at the time, most apartments did not have refrigerators and used iceboxes. All this is now gone.Michael added:
I remember the old pathway over to the site of the former station. It lasted until the Rose Hill apartment building was built in the 1980s. There had been garages, used by the Botanical Gardens, I think, under it.
At the end overlooking the railroad, it had wrought iron railings on the north and west side, but just a pipe railing on the south, where I assumed the el station was. Note that the passage to Webster is offset south of the passage to the park ; hence the original wrought iron at the end of the walk from the Gardens.
It looks as if the Gardens weren't fenced off from Southern Blvd at the time.
I also remember the small freight yard clearly. I think there was a stone cutting business there, that got loads on flat cars. You can still see traces of rusty rail in the weeds along side the Harlem Line there. Behind the boxcars on the left you can see what appears to the the structure for the overhead crane at the stonecutters that I remembered.
The first brick building east of Webster and south of the passage is the old NY Central substation, which is still standing.
Below is one more aerial view, a detail of a large image of Fordham University made in about 1930.
You can see the domed station, and the walkways to the Garden (right) and Webster Avenue (left). Below it, we can see the island platform between two tracks, with trains on both tracks, and a third track on the left with no platform. The junction with the Webster Avenue extension is near the bottom.
The white rectangle just below the station platform is the site of the car elevator.
Next time: Botanical Garden II / The Secret of the Lower Level.