At Fulton St., checking in on the Corbin Building


A station arises at Fulton St. (Photo by Peter from Ink Lake)

Now that the MTA has a plan, a timeline and money for the Fulton St. Transit Center, the news from Lower Manhattan has slowed to a trickle. We no longer hear monthly promises of impending plans or status updates featuring more cost overruns or a delayed timeline. As Capital Construction projects go, this one is moving along smoothly right now.

As work crews continue to build atop some of Manhattan’s oldest areas and amidst landmarked buildings, the stories coming out of the Fulton St. area have taken on a different, more in-depth tone. Take, for instance, the latest from Downtown Express’ Julie Shapiro. She highlights the work at the Corbin Building, an 1889 building that abuts the new transit center.

For years, the city has neglected this beautiful building. Just twenty feet wide, it extends 160 feet down John St. and at eight stories, was one of the tallest buildings in Lower Manhattan when it opened 111 years ago. Its ties to transit extend back to its origins as it was named for Austin Corbin, the man responsible for uniting all of the Long Island-based rail lines under the LIRR umbrella.

Before Sept. 11, the building had fallen into a state of disrepair. Time had taken a toll on Francis Kimble’s intricate designs, and after Sept. 11, the building had to undergo extensive repairs. When the MTA announced initial plans for the Fulton St. Transit Center, the Corbin Building was to be demolished. After a public outcry over that plan in 2003, the MTA decided to rethink the future of the Corbin Building and asked architects to incorporate it into updated plans for the hub.

Shapiro picks up the story:

While the M.T.A. was initially against saving the building, the project team now could not be more enthusiastic about the historical details they are uncovering. “This is once in a lifetime for us,” said Uday Durg, program executive for the M.T.A., as he and [Capital Construction president Michael] Horodniceanu gave Downtown Express a tour this week. “This is not the kind of building you see every day. For an engineer, this is the highlight for us — for our whole career.”

…The belowground levels of the building are a hive of activity, as the M.T.A. builds a new foundation of steel and concrete to ensure that the building remains safe. “The foundation left quite a lot to be desired,” Horodniceanu said. “It was great for the time it was built, but not for today.”

The building’s brick supports originally went down only 20 feet below street level, and the building started sinking as the M.T.A. worked on the adjacent Fulton Transit Center. M.T.A. crews are digging down another 35 feet to underpin the building, a painstaking process that should be complete in August.

Then the preservation work will begin: The ornate reddish-brown facade will be cleaned; the intricately decorated grand staircase will be restored; and hidden historical gems, like the original boiler, will be displayed. The building will also get a new roof, new windows and a storefront restored to look just like it did in 1917.

Eventually, these historical elements of the Corbin Building will be incorporated into straphangers’ every-day rides. An escalator will take riders from the depths up Fulton St. past original arches and building boilers. Eventually commercial retailers and maybe even a museum will return to the Corbin Building.

For too many years, New York City has been willing to pile modernism on top of history. A walk around Lower Manhattan reveals little of the 400-year legacy of the Dutch colony and early New York. In the Bronx, even the original Yankee Stadium is being deconstructed. By at the corner of John St. and Broadway, the Corbin Building will remain, incorporated into a 21st Century transit center and serving as a nod to the city’s sometimes-forgotten past.

Categories : Fulton Street

18 Responses to “At Fulton St., checking in on the Corbin Building”

  1. Russell Warshay says:

    While Austin Corbin deserves credit for his work with railroads, it should also be mentioned that he was rabidly anti-Semitic.

    • Joby says:

      Abraham Lincoln saved the Union and freed the slaves. He was also bigoted against persons of African descent. So please, no man is perfect, and unless Mr Corbin has blood on his hands, let’s not make this about judging the beliefs of 19th century people by 21st century values. Let’s keep our discussions about transit and making our city a better place.

      • Jerrold says:

        There is no reason to “sugar-coat” history.
        For instance, just because Richard Wagner wrote great music, historians make no secret of his passionate, irrational hatred for the Jews. Human “imperfection” is a lame excuse for religious or racial bigotry.

      • Russell Warshay says:

        Lincoln was a white supremacist. His views also transformed over time, and most people view Lincoln as having redeemed himself.

        Corbin, on the other hand, never altered his views. He may not have “blood on his hands,” hut he did condone the extermination of Jews.

    • Alon Levy says:

      Was he? I’ve only read that Parsons was anti-Semitic, as the rest of the elite was at the time, to the point of routing the first subway to avoid connecting the Upper East Side with the Lower East Side. I’ve heard nothing of Corbin.

      • Russell Warshay says:

        From this Jewish Press article, with emphasis added by me:

        “We pledge ourselves to spare no effort to remand [the Jews] to the condition that they were in the Middle Ages, or to exterminate them utterly,” Corbin and his supporters proclaimed.

        • Alon Levy says:

          Meh. At the time Corbin wrote, nobody wanted to exterminate the Jews. Even the Nazis only settled on the final solution in 1942, and before the Nazis the anti-Semites wanted Jews back in their place, i.e. the same condition as in the Middle Ages. It’s overall the same attitude as that of the segregationists. When you strip that mined quote, the article portrays Corbin as yet another anti-Semitic member of the WASP upper class, nothing special.

          Then the article decides that naming a street is an act of deification, and promptly opposes naming anything after anyone who was anti-Semitic (i.e. most important people of that era). It reminds me a lot of the black nationalist opposition to naming anything after anyone who owned slaves – for example, a couple of people wrote several tens of pages’ worth of history explaining why Yale shouldn’t be naming things after Calhoun. For some people, symbolism matters more than substance. It’s the same people that ban Wagner in Israel, for example.

          • Jerrold says:

            If somebody hates the hell out of you, but does not actually want to exterminate you, isn’t THAT bad enough?

            By the way, playing Wagner is not illegal in Israel, it’s just almost never done.

            • Alon Levy says:

              It’s not illegal to play him privately, but the Philharmonic never plays him (and whenever someone suggests they do, outrage ensues), and the stores don’t carry his music.

              And yes, if someone hates me it’s bad enough. I’m just saying that if that were your standard for naming monuments, you’d have to change most street and building names, and a couple of the Presidents on the currency (Washington was a rich slaveowner, Jackson a genocidal warmonger). Let’s just say that I don’t find the city’s naming buildings after Corbin any more offensive than Columbia’s naming its main library after Butler, who instituted quotas on the number of Jews to be admitted to the university.

              • Nathanael says:

                Andrew Jackson was especially monstrous; as long as there are monuments to him, there’s really no point in removing hardly anyone else’s name from anything. :-/

          • Russell Warshay says:

            I wouldn’t categorize Corbin “as yet another anti-Semitic member of the WASP upper class, nothing special.” He went out of the way to actually found the American Society for the Suppression of the Jews. He was very proactive in his anti-Semitism.

            • Alon Levy says:

              Right. And Calhoun was proactive in defending slavery, and Jackson was proactive in killing Native Americans. Somehow they still get things named after them.

    • EJ says:

      Seems to me that’s a separate issue from whether or not the building is preserved. It’s beautiful and historic, regardless of whose name was slapped on it.

      • Russell Warshay says:

        Well, I do agree that the building is beautiful and should be preserved. However, as long as his name is on it, I believe that people should have a more complete view about Austin Corbin.

  2. Christopher says:

    This is an excellent example of why historic preservation is good for workers. Building new buildings cost less, because the workers are cheap. Just brought into to build something rabidly and standardized. Cogs in the machine, so to speak. The cost of preservation projects trends a lot more toward cost of labor. Labor is specialized and skilled. The next time some poor neighborhood wants a cheapo big box store so it can bring in “jobs” remember that not only are the hourly jobs at the eventual stores of low quality — but so are the labor jobs in building the thing. Preservation means more skilled, manual jobs in New York. And as someone that thinks skilled manual jobs aren’t something we entirely want to eliminate as a human race, I think this is a good thing.

  3. John says:

    I can’t waiting visiting this building – if I remember it!

  4. Edward says:

    One of my favorite buildings downtown–glad the MTA saved it and will restore it to its 1917 appearance–way cool! Sometimes, the MTA actually does something right.

  5. Jerrold says:

    You mean 121-year-old building, right?
    111 years would be 1899.

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