The Secret Library High Above Grand Central
A small, undigitized collection, the Williamson Library gives insight into the earliest days of New York’s High Line.By Jennifer Krichels, Superscript October 11, 2013
Sitting largely unnoticed in a secluded spot above the Apple Store, the Williamson Library is a private research collection housed inside Grand Central Terminal. Facing the main concourse, the library was founded by Frederick Ely Williamson, the president of the once-mighty New York Central Railroad (NYCR) in the 1930s and 1940s. The library can be visited only by appointment. Once the appointment is made you have to meet the sole librarian in spy-like fashion at the concourse’s clock; from there you will be led through the station’s rafters to two anonymous gunmetal gray doors, beyond which lies an archive of more than 3,000 railroad-related books, periodicals, and objects.
Frederick Ely Williamson, founder of the library and president of the New York Central Railroad from 1935–1944. Photo courtesy of Fortune magazine via iridetheharlemline.com
The Williamson’s holdings have never been translated into digital form. Some, like the original red carpet for the NYCR’s Twentieth Century Limited express passenger train, never can be. Others that have been crucial to the city’s development, like the bulk of historical records on New York Central’s West Side Improvement—what we today call the High Line—have languished here for decades.
One of the jewels of the library’s High Line holdings is a collection of advertisements projecting the elevated railroad’s development as the birth of a new West Side, of rail living comfortably alongside the automobile. The car will not kill the train, the ads collectively say, an irony that puts into perspective the High Line’s later transformation.
The High Line we know today has taught us that technological obsolescence is not necessarily a terminal fate—and in fact it can inspire transformative ideas. The same can be said of the Williamson Library and its yet-to-be-digitized collections. Though often forgotten high above Grand Central’s hustle, it stands as a reminder that each era can build upon the previous one with great success.