Fast Tracks To the Past


Published in the New York Times: Sunday, December 30, 2001

In its glory days, the Yonkers train station was an elegant hub for prosperous commuters traveling along the Hudson River. Designed by the same architects who created Grand Central Terminal, the Beaux-Arts-style building was encrusted with decorative metal and woodwork, crowned with a partially copper roof and lighted by chandeliers.

When the station opened in 1911, Yonkers was already a prosperous city in its own right. Copper magnates, businessmen, entertainers and philanthropists were among those attracted to its palatial homes and thriving waterfront industries, as well as its proximity to Manhattan.

The large, ornate station was built to serve these people, as well as Yonkers' immigrant population. New York Central Railroad tycoons, who owned and operated the Hudson Line at the time, were determined to create the premier railroad of its time. They built the Yonkers station, with its stylish waiting rooms and covered platforms, to impress.

Time, though, has taken its toll on the riverfront structure. A casualty of the Northeast weather, wear and tear, and Yonkers' economic decline, restoring the station, which Metro-North Railroad has recently undertaken, requires far more than a good paint job.

''We are trying to bring it back to its original glory,'' said Mari Miceli, who as assistant director of facilities engineering for Metro-North, is overseeing the project.

That's where Lynn Drobbin and Wesley Moroz come in.

The pair, who work in Pelham and together make up Lynn Drobbin & Associates, have made a career of keeping the history of the area's public buildings alive. Part preservationists, part experts and part sleuths, Ms. Drobbin and Mr. Moroz have the job of identifying the finest architectural details of historic buildings and structures, and then finding ways to make sure they are retained or restored when the structures are renovated.

Ms. Drobbin and Mr. Moroz work primarily on transportation projects. Some, like the planned $26 million restoration of the Yonkers train station, are high profile. The station is the first piece of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority's and Metro-North's three-and-a-half year, $87.4 million project to rebuild nine Hudson Line stations, including four in Yonkers and five in the Bronx.

Other projects, however, stretch the imagination of those who are not transportation buffs, who may fail to see the historic or architectural value in pedestrian overpasses, viaducts, roadways and retaining walls throughout Westchester County.

But federal and state law require public agencies to make sure they aren't tampering with anything historically significant when they begin projects such as road reconstruction, repairing infrastructure or tearing down bridges. Ms. Drobbin and Mr. Moroz have to figure out how to do that. It may mean recreating the design of a window, finding an exact tile match or restoring waiting room benches.

Sometimes, Ms. Drobbin said, a structure may be deemed historic because the method or tools used in its construction may be significant. In other cases, the history of a structure is measured more by the role it played in county life or the influence it had on its surroundings and community.

The allure of train stations in Westchester County dates to the early 20th century and the golden age of railroads. Train travel was already such a part of New York area living that George M. Cohan wrote about the New Rochelle train station in his 1906 song ''Forty-Five Minutes from Broadway.'' The New York Central Railroad, which operated the lines that run through Westchester County, was owned by the wealthy Vanderbilt family.

The architectural firms Warren & Wetmore and Reed & Stem, which designed Grand Central Terminal for New York Central, designed the Yonkers and Poughkeepsie stations as well, which echo Grand Central's high ceilings and arched windows.

''Grand Central Terminal was designed to be the symbol of the greatest railroad of the 20th century,'' said Dan Brucker, a Metro-North spokesman. ''Suburban stations were some very close relatives, which replicated that symbol on a smaller scale.''

In the intervening years, and as car culture blossomed in America, many stations, including Yonkers, fell victim to neglect.

Now, however, train stations around Westchester County are getting new lives, not only serving their original purpose but housing other facilities as well.

The Mount Kisco, Valhalla, Hartsdale and Cold Springs stations all house successful restaurants. In Cold Springs, Depot Restaurant has recreated some of the romance of railroading by placing tables on the outdoor platform, allowing patrons to watch the trains roll past.

Neither Ms. Drobbin, 49, nor Mr. Moroz, 44, were particularly fascinated by train travel until their work led them to it.

Ms. Drobbin, whose interest in architecture was initially sparked during a summer college internship in New Orleans, spent the early part of her career working as a preservationist on a variety of projects. Mr. Moroz worked on a computer, which he used to draft architectural drawings.

The two, who were married but have since separated, started focusing on transportation about 12 years ago, when Ms. Drobbin started her own firm after four years as a historical and environmental specialist at NJ Transit.

Today, the company is in a historic Pelham building that was home to the Sanborn Map Company, which designed insurance maps of buildings that Ms. Drobbin and Mr. Moroz use in their work today.

''The railroads are scenic and romantic and have a sense of history,'' Ms. Drobbin said. ''They are so tied into how this country was built.''

Three years ago Ms. Drobbin and Mr. Moroz were charged with finding a way to modernize the Woodland Viaduct, a 1920's bridge on the historic Bronx River Parkway in White Plains that was strained by today's traffic, while maintaining its historical integrity. Because of its historic status, engineers were not permitted to knock it down. With Ms. Drobbin and Mr. Moroz's guidance, they found a way to reinforce the existing structure and improve the roadway while retaining the bridge's original appearance.

And then there are those gems that pique just about anyone's interest. Most notable has been Ms. Drobbin's and Mr. Moroz's work to preserve Coney Island's parachute jump, a 1939 World's Fair ride that is the only remaining element of Steeplechase Park, closed long ago. Long gone are the days when thrill-seekers would plunge with parachutes from atop the 250-foot steel tower. After years of neglect the structure was filled with roosting pigeons. Its future uncertain, Ms. Drobbin and Mr. Moroz dug into the parachute jump's past to discover how the original ride was constructed and how best to preserve it.

The idea of recapturing a bit of Coney Island's past was realized as work crews repaired, painted and stabilized the ride to make it a standing (but not functioning) keepsake next to the new Brooklyn Cyclones' KeySpan baseball stadium.

The demand for experts like Ms. Drobbin and Mr. Moroz has grown over the last 35 years, since the enactment of the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966, which was established after the demolition of the old Pennsylvania Station in Manhattan. The law requires agencies overseeing federally financed projects to preserve historically significant structures when feasible. States followed suit, passing their own regulations. New York State passed its historical preservation law in 1980.

Whether a project is governed by the federal or state law generally depends on who is financing it. Since many projects, including the railroad renovations, are financed by a mix of state and federal grants, the overseeing agencies are often required to meet both state and federal standards.

The Hartsdale train station posed a particular challenge for Ms. Drobbin and Mr. Moroz. Their task was to ensure that the building remained true to its past even though a Starbucks Coffee shop was moving into the property.

The building has been restored in such a way that it retained its character. The Starbucks, which opened in late 2000, sells not only lattes and mochaccinos but train tickets as well.

In Yonkers, city and railroad officials are banking on the renewed train station to be the centerpiece of a riverfront revival, which will also include a new library and park.

Not only will the improved train station have access to the adjacent river, but also officials hope the project draws private developers to build offices and renovate other buildings nearby.

In doing so, officials said, restoring the train station may help bring back life to an aging area -- and perhaps recapture some of its glory.

Photos: Restoration of the Yonkers train station is part of an $87.4 million project by Metro-North to rebuild nine Hudson Line stations. At left, a column on the building shows the logo of the New York Central Railroad, which owned and operated the Hudson Line. Far left, Wesley Moroz and Lynn Drobbin are preservationists who are heading the restoration effort. (Photographs by George M. Gutierrez for The New York Times)(pg. 1); Metro-North is trying to restore the Yonkers train station to its former grandeur. The Pelham firm Lynn Drobbin & Associates is handling the restoration. Below, a picture from a postcard of the station in the early 1900's. It was designed by the same people who designed Grand Central Terminal. Yonkers officials hope the renovated station will be the centerpiece of a riverfront revival. (George M. Gutierrez for The New York Times)(pg. 6)

A version of this article appeared in print on Sunday, December 30, 2001, on section 14WC page 1 of the New York edition.