Throwback Thursday: How We Got to the "End of the Line"

A view of the southern terminus of the High Line at the intersection of Gansevoort and Washington Streets, in 2011. The photo is part of the forthcoming book by High Line designers James Corner Field Operations and Diller Scofidio + Renfro. Photo by Diane Cook and Len Jenshel/National Geographic Creative

If you walk to the High Line's southernmost terminus at the intersections of Gansevoort and Washington Streets, you'll notice that the park ends at a dramatic overlook. While you might assume that this is the natural "end of the line," it wasn't always so. Once upon a time, when the High Line was first built, the railway was a full mile longer.

As a little bit of a history lesson: the construction of the High Line – then called the "West Side Viaduct" – was at the heart of an enormous public works project in the late 1920s and early 1930s called the West Side Improvement Project, which aimed to support the transportation of fresh food and goods in and out of the city. The project is also to thank for creating a tunnel system that took freight trains underground in Riverside Park, creating an additional 32 acres of open space there and removing the nasty byproducts of freight traffic – namely noise and smoke – from the park. The High Line was complete and operational by 1934, and the tunnel in Riverside Park (now dubbed the "Freedom Tunnel" by current rail user Amtrak) was complete in 1937. In its entirety, the West Side Improvement Project eliminated 105 dangerous street-level crossings that had plagued pedestrians since the mid-1800s and brought a new era of commerce for the burgeoning industry of Manhattan's West Side.

When the High Line was completed in 1934, the freight rail line ran all the way down to St. John's Park Terminal at Spring Street. The High Line was a shining example of the technology of the day: the railway connected directly to neighboring buildings along the way, allowing the easy transfer of refrigerated food products, baked goods, mail, and more to and from train cars. A few buildings, including Bell Laboratories (now the Westbeth Artists Housing), an R&D facility for new technologies, were retro-fitted to make room for trains to pass through the center of the buildings themselves. At the southern end, St. John's Park Terminal – not to be confused with an older train terminal in the same area and sharing the same name – was built especially for the new High Line. The new terminal occupied three blocks, and at 3-stories-tall and 730,000 total square feet, it could accommodate 150 train cars and 127 trucks at once.

This is what the railway looked like shortly after its opening in 1934:

This view looks northwest from somewhere near Charles Street. The Bell Laboratories building is seen in the upper right hand corner, with the visible tunnel for freight trains carved out of the middle. Even further in the distance, the Manhattan Refrigerating Company building is also visible. Photographer unknown.

This 1934 view, looking south from near West 13th Street, shows the Manhattan Refrigerating Company building, now the West Coast Apartment complex. The tracks south of the building were demolished in the early 1990s. Photographer unknown.

So how did we get the southern terminus of the High Line we see today?

As interstate trucking eclipsed freight shipping, the High Line declined in use. In the 1960s, the southernmost portion between Bank and Clarkson Streets was demolished. The last train ran along the High Line in 1980 carrying a carload of frozen turkeys. What was at first supposed to be a single year lapse in service became indefinite and the railway was abandoned. In the early 1990s, another section, between Gansevoort and Bank Streets was demolished as well.

This is what the southernmost terminus of the High Line looked like in November 2005. Photo by Gene Daly.

Thanks to Peter Obletz's early efforts to save the High Line in the 1980s and to the founding of Friends of the High Line in 1999, the remaining mile and a half of railway did not suffer a similar fate of demolition. While the legal, political, and financial hurdles were real, Friends of the High Line pushed ahead in exploring the possibilities for the High Line as a public space through an ideas competition and then a design competition.

Friends of the High Line and the City of New York carefully considered 52 proposals during the design competition, eventually selecting a team comprising landscape architecture firm James Corner Field Operations, architecture firm Diller Scofidio + Renfro, planting designer Piet Oudolf, and experts in horticulture, engineering, security, maintenance, public art, and other disciplines. The selected team stood out from the very beginning; Friends of the High Line Co-Founder Josh David remembers Liz Diller, the principal of Diller Scofidio + Renfro, using the word illicit. "This team loved the High Line's dark and mysterious quality, which I was also drawn to," says Josh.

In 2005, CSX, the company that had taken over ownership of the railway, and the City of New York entered into a Trail Use Agreement for the High Line, and CSX donated the High Line south of West 30th Street to the City. This officially paved the way to open the High Line as public space, and ground was broken in 2006 to begin construction on the first two sections of the park, between Gansevoort and West 30 th Streets. As part of the transformation, this once-jagged cut into the structure was made into the stunning Tiffany and Co. Foundation Overlook that doesn't leave signs of the unfortunate fate of the High Line to the south.

The intersection today – a lot has changed!

The Standard hotel (right) bridges the High Line at West 13th Street, and the new Whitney Museum (left) has attracted new art lovers to the neighborhood. In the middle – and mostly hidden by the High Line itself – is Friends of the High Line's new headquarters building. This building opened in 2014 and now allows direct access to the park for our maintenance and operations staff. Photo by Rowa Lee.

Want to learn more about the High Line's history and its transformation into a public park? Read all about it and see renderings and archival photos in High Line designers James Corner Field Operations and Diller Scofidio + Renfro's forthcoming book, The High Line.

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