The Newtown Pentacle

Altissima quaeque flumina minimo sono labi

incalculable profusion

with 3 comments

- photo by Mitch Waxman

The dizzying display of industrial and architectural might on display above distracts the eye from the subject of this post. Empire State, Chrysler, the entire shield wall of Manhattan… even that sapphire Megalith which distinguishes modern Long Island City is screaming for attention. At its base is a white building which is a former printing plant, later an Eagle Electric factory, which has been converted over to luxury condominiums known as the Arris Lofts. At the bottom of the shot is Skillman Avenue and the north side of the Sunnyside Yard with a train transiting along the tracks. In the midst of all this manifest wealth and ambition, it is easy to overlook Thomson Avenue The lower right hand corner of the shot depicts a viaduct structure which allows trains to pass beneath a vehicular roadway which it carries.

An enormous concrete and steel bridge, 500 feet long and 100 feet wide, and it is hidden in plain sight.

That’s Thomson Avenue.

from 1877’s “Long Island and where to go!!: A descriptive work compiled for the Long R.R. Co.“, courtesy google books:

Long Island City is the concentrating point upon the East river, of all the main avenues of travel from the back districts of Long Island to the city of New York. The great arteries of travel leading from New York are Thomson avenue, macadamized, 100 feet wide, leading directly to Newtown, Jamaica and the middle and southern roads on Long Island, and Jackson avenue, also 100 feet wide, and leading directly to Flushing, Whitestone and the northerly roads.

Long Island City is also the concentrating point upon the East river, of the railway system of Long Island.

The railways, upon reaching the city, pass under the main avenues of travel and traffic, and not upon or across their surface.

- photo by Mitch Waxman

To begin with, lets start with the end. Thomson disappears into the modern street grid when it is rudely interrupted by Queens Boulevard. This is the actual slam bang intersection where the “automobile city” of the 20th century meets the “locomotive city” of the 19th. Thomson avenue is centered on the other side of this tripartite intersection, where it meets Queens Boulevard and Van Dam Street.

The “Great Machine” slithers past Thomson, and hurtles eastward along the more modern thoroughfare.

from wikipedia:

Queens Boulevard was built in the early 20th century to connect the new Queensboro Bridge to central Queens, thereby offering an easy outlet from Manhattan. It was created by linking and expanding already-existing streets, such as Thomson Avenue and Hoffman Boulevard, stubs of which still exist. It was widened along with the digging of the IND Queens Boulevard Line subway tunnels in the 1920s and 1930s, and in 1941, the city proposed converting it into a freeway, as was done with the Van Wyck Expressway, but with the onset of World War II, the plan was never completed.

- photo by Mitch Waxman

Thomson adjoins Jackson Avenue on the other side of its run, where their junction forms the so called “Court Square”, which is where the Megalith squats squamously. There used to be a hospital where the colossus now stands.

from wikipedia

One Court Square, also known as the Citigroup Building, is a 50-story (209.1 meters or 686 feet) office tower in Long Island City, Queens just outside of Manhattan in New York City. It was completed in 1990 by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill LLP for Citigroup. The tower is tallest in New York City outside Manhattan, and the tallest building on Long Island. WNYZ-LP, also known as Pulse87.7 broadcasts from the top of this building.

- photo by Mitch Waxman

Overwhelming and out of character with its surroundings, the Megalith is the tallest structure on Long Island, and 53rd highest building in New York City- if you’re impressed by that sort of thing.

from nytimes.com

The building, designed by Raul de Armas of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, is handsome, even somewhat refined; its pale blue-green glass and transparent windows are obviously intended to reduce the impact of the vast tower on Long Island City, and to a considerable extent they succeed. This building would be a lot more overpowering still if it had been sheathed in reflective glass, or garnished with ornament from top to bottom. And the shape – a tower with stepped-back corners that rises straight up for most of its height, with small setbacks at the very top to create a hint of a pyramid where the building meets the sky – helps a bit more in reducing the apparent bulk.

- photo by Mitch Waxman

Across the street from the Megalith is why they call it Court Square, the Long Island City Courthouse. Famously, this is where master criminal Willie Sutton was supposedly asked “Why do you rob banks?” and the master criminal supposedly replied “Because that’s where the money is”. According to Sutton, an urban legend. Funnily enough, the Megalith houses some of the offices of Citigroup, one of the world’s largest banks.

They don’t keep money here, though.

from nyc.gov

The Long Island City Courthouse is located near the corner of Thomson Avenue and Court Square.

In 1870, before the 1898 consolidation with New York City, the Queens county seat moved from Jamaica to the newly-formed township of Long Island City, which was near all of the train lines. Long Island City was made up of the towns of Astoria and Newtown. Abram Ditmars, the first mayor, had the streets surveyed and paved, brought in a pure water supply and established equitable tax assessments and a regular police force.

The Long Island City Courthouse was built between 1872 and 1876, with delays, scandals and cost overruns. At two-and-a-half stories, built of brick and granite in the French Second Empire style, it became one of the most important buildings in Queens. It was designed by Massachusetts architect George Hathorne. (Hathorne designed Walker Hall at Amherst College, the largest building on campus when it was built in 1870. That building was rebuilt after a fire in 1882 and was torn down 80 years later in 1962.)

The Long Island City Courthouse was gutted by a fire in 1904 and Peter M. Coco was selected to redesign it. A prominent Long Island City architect who trained at the Cooper Institute, Coco designed churches, residences and commercial buildings in the area. Using the foundations and original walls, he added two stories and stripped the building of its then-outmoded ornament, transforming it into a neoclassical style courthouse. He added projected paired Ionic columns to each side of the entrance, which support small balconies. Each has a small helmeted head between the scrolls at the top of the column. The two-story-high entrance is arched, with two dates in the spandrels: ‘1874’ and ‘1908.

- photo by Mitch Waxman

Moving in an easterly direction from Court Square, Thomson finds another connection to the automobile city, as one of the off ramps for the upper level of the Blackwell’s IslandQueensboroEd Koch… Bridge, allowing tens of thousands of vehicles to vomit onto Thomson’s parabola every day.

The change in grade is quite noticeable to the inveterate pedestrian, it should be mentioned.

from “Bulletin, Volumes 9-10 By Building Trades Employers’ Association“, courtesy google books

The rapid progress being made in the grading of Sunnyside yard in Long Island City, the future great terminal of the Pennsylvania Railroad system in New York, and the rapid construction of the eight massive viaducts to provide for the highway and railroad crossings, insure the completion of that section of the great undertaking early next fall.

The most massive of the overhead highway crossings is the Thomson Ave. steel viaduct, 100 feet in width and 500 feet in length, passing over the network of tracks of the Long Island and Pennsylvania Railroads at a height of 30 feet. The Queensboro Bridge extension viaduct, crossing diagonally to the street system of Long Island City, but at right angles to the railroad, is 80 feet in width, and has massive steel girders. The Thomson Ave. crossing, which will be completed next month, and the bridge extension will provide for the traffic over the main arteries of travel, extending through the borough from north to south.

- photo by Mitch Waxman

Scuttling around on the side streets which dead end off of Northern Blvd., like Dutch Kills or Queens or Purves streets, one can gain an appreciation for the height of the Thomson Avenue Viaduct. These roadway artifacts used to proceed through what is now the rail yard, and the historical record is full of lawsuits brought against the Pennsylvania Rail Road or Long Island Railroad companies for damages based on the grade situation.

These law suits detail and define the complicated questions of who owns what around and above the yards.

from 1913’s “2 years transportation progress, Volume 140“, courtesy google books

“perpetual easement or easements for the rights to continue and maintain the said viaducts or bridges over the following streets or avenues as nowlaid out or proposed: and will thereby grant to the city a perpetual easement or easements sufficient for the use and control by the city of the said viaducts and bridges for the purpose of police regulation and other control contemplated by the city ordinances for the care of streets or highways, excepting and reserving, however, to the said companies the right to construct and maintain, at its or their own expense, such connections between the said viaducts or bridges, or any of them, and the property of the said companies, as shall not interfere with the use of the said viaduets or bridges for street purposes.”

Then are specified several viaducts, and as to the one over Thomson avenue it is said:

“The said viaduct or bridge over the proposed Sunnyside Yard on the line of Thomson avenue, hereinbefore in paragraph 1C, set forth, including the right to the city to increase, at its own expense and without interfering with the operation of the said Sunnyside Yard, the width of said viaduct to beone hundred feet”

The intention of the companies was to enlarge the terminal laterally by acquiring from! the city title to the land in the closed streets wherever necessary, and by acquiring the lands abutting thereon from private owners. To do this it was necessary to close the streets across the right of way as broadened, so that the companies could have the fee and possession thereof for railroad purposes. But in some instances, and among them at Thomson avenue, in the place of the portion of the street closed and agreed to be sold a viaduct over the yard was provided and built, and it was necessarily so high over the tracks that the grade of the avenue at either end was necessarily raised to meet it. In other words, over the space where the avenue was obliterated and its bed agreed to be sold a bridge was built, and the abandoned portion made a part of the terminal facilities.

- photo by Mitch Waxman

The Sunnyside Yard tends to insulate Long Island City from the rest of western Queens, forcing its residents and businesses to pass through narrow or crowded choke points when leaving or entering the locale. The landward passages along the East River are defined by the Queensboro, while the southern ridge that overlooks the yard leads to Sunnyside. The other viaducts which cross the yards- Hunters Point Avenue, Thomson Avenue, Queens Blvd. are all orientated in a mostly easterly direction, while the the 35th street or Honeywell Bridge, and the 39th street or Harold Avenue bridge at Steinway Street offer rare and spread out pinchpoints of north south egress across the facility.

The businesses which set up shop around Sunnyside Yard in the early 20th century didn’t much care, they were part of the locomotive city.

Pictured above, one might observe the traffic barrier and pedestrian shed which manifests itself at roughly the 50% mark on the Thomson Avenue viaduct.

from 1913’s “Greater New York: bulletin of the Merchants’ Association of New York, Volume 2” courtesy google books

After luncheon, which was held in the cosy quarters of the Queens Chamber of Commerce on the Bridge Plaza, Long Island City, the party were taken on an automobile drive of about fifty miles, covering the principal points of Industrial interest in Queens.

Great Industries Established

The first stop was made on Diagonal Street which crosses the Long Island Railroad yards. From this point it is possible to see all the features of the industrial development in that part of Queens, especially the development of the Degnon Terminal Company and the new factory of the Loose-Wiles Biscuit Company.

The party then proceeded along Thompson Avenue to Newtown Creek, passing some of the largest factories in Queens, and also the most important industries in New York City, such as the Nichols Copper Company, the General Chemical Company, the National Enameling and Stamping Company, the General Vehicle Company, which is just erecting a large new building, and the Brunswick-Balke-Collender Company.

- photo by Mitch Waxman (note: for the entire post on this burning Amtrak train, click here)

The tracks which Thomson Avenue forms a bridge over are used by Long Island Railroad, Amtrak, and New Jersey Transit (which stores some of its extra daytime capacity in Sunnyside Yards between rush hours). The shot above, which was originally presented in the post Sinister Exultation, depicts an Amtrak engine having a bit of immolation trouble. The section of the yard between Hunters Point and Thomson is (or at least used to be) referred to as “Yard A”.

- photo by Mitch Waxman

From Skillman Avenue, the structure of the Thomson Avenue viaduct is visible as it’s begins to roughly slouch back to the grade level of the surrounding streets. The Sunnyside Yard allows locomotive access to the New York Connecting Railroad, which connects Long Island to the rest of the continent via the Hell Gate Bridge. Sunnyside Yard continues all the way to Woodside, and sits on an astounding 8,500 feet footprint which consumes 192 acres and offers an unbelievable 25.7 miles of track. Historical records discuss the gargantuan task of reclaiming this swampy land for use as a rail yard, as seen in the snippet below.

from 1910’s “New York tunnel extension, the Pennsylvania railroad: description of the work and facilities, Volume 2“, courtesy google books

Originally, a swamp of 40 acres extended from the present location of Honeywell Street and Jackson Avenue to Thomson Avenue, and comprised a portion of the required Yard area; the remaining 168 acres within that area was rolling ground from 10 to 70 ft. above the swamp. Upon this high ground there were 246 buildings of all kinds, and these were purchased and torn down or removed. A view of the swamp in the early stages of the work is shown by Fig. 1, Plate XLV. A vegetable growth, of the nature of peat, from 1 to 4 ft. in thickness, formed the surface of the swamp, except in the bed of Dutch Kills Creek; beneath this there was a layer of mud, and in the bed of the stream a blue-black clay of the consistency of putty. As this muck and clay would move under the pressure of the filling over it, and produce waves of considerable height, it was specified in the contract that a blanket of earth about 4 ft. thick should be first placed over this part of the Yard area, in order to prevent this wave formation. This proved efficacious, except in one or two places, where, owing to unusual depth of filling, the wave formation broke through this covering and rose to such a height as to require excavation of the peat, muck, and mud, in order to secure proper track foundations. In the bed of Meadow Street, where the embankment was very high, the crest of one of the mud waves rose to an elevation of 28 ft. above the swamp.

- photo by Mitch Waxman

The naming of Thomson avenue has always been a bit of a mystery for your humble narrator. Skillman, for instance, was named for a farmer that supported the British during the American Revolution whose lands were confiscated by the victorious rebels (much like DeLancey over in Manhattan). Apparently, there were one or two LIRR and or Pennsylvania RR executives named Thompson- and certain older documents refer to this road as “Thompson Avenue” but this is a common typographic error which favors the more widespread surname.

There was a Thomson that was an important member of the Queens Chamber of Commerce during the 1920’s but the street dates back to the beginnings of Long Island City and must be named for someone earlier.

from nycroads.com

HISTORY OF QUEENS BOULEVARD: Originally called Hoffman Boulevard, Queens Boulevard dates back to the early years of the twentieth century, when the road was constructed as a connecting route between the new Queensboro (59th Street) Bridge and central Queens. In 1913, a trolley line was constructed from 59th Street in Manhattan east along the new boulevard.

During the 1920′s and 1930′s, New York City began a program to widen Queens Boulevard. The project, which was conducted in conjunction with the building of the IND Queens Boulevard subway line, widened the boulevard to 12 lanes in some locations, and required a right-of-way of up to 200 feet. Once completed, local and express traffic flows were provided separate carriageways.

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3 Responses

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  1. Big mistake that the Megalith doesn’t have an observation deck for the general public. I took some photos from an upper floor window through the courtesy of an employee. Quite a view there.

    georgetheatheist

    September 21, 2011 at 5:53 pm

  2. “the city proposed converting it into a freeway, as was done with the Van Wyck Expressway, but with the onset of World War II, the plan was never completed.”

    To stray off topic here, I think the author of that Wikipedia article meant to say the Horace Harding Expressway not the Van Wyck. The Van Wyck was built for the 1964-65 New York World’s fair part of it following the old 1939-40 World’s Fair IND line (offshoot of the E line along Queens Blvd) which stopped at the lake amusement area. Wikipedia articles can be off sometimes.

    Cav

    September 21, 2011 at 10:44 pm

  3. […] a discussion of another of the bridges which cross these titan rail yards, click here for the posting “incaculable profusion”, examining the Thomson Avenue Viaduct to the […]


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