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InTransition Magazine : Transportation Planning, Practice & Progress

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Turning Back the Clock (Tower) on Century-Old Ferry Terminal

Shuttered for 45 Years, Historic Hoboken Facility Is Restored for Modern Commuter Vessels

By Karl Vilacoba

On an idyllic summer Thursday, a swarm of helicopters circle over Hoboken, N.J.’s famous waterfront view of Lower Manhattan. President Obama is in town to tour the Freedom Tower project with New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and several other dignitaries. For security purposes, PATH train service is shut down to the World Trade Center station, eliminating one of the most vital links between New Jersey and the city. The commuter aggravations have upstaged the visit itself in the headlines.

On days like these, it helps to have travel options. Fortunately for Hoboken, there’s a new one—new, as in over 100 years old.

Hoboken ferry terminal

Julian Olivas

A ferry rider’s view of the station at night. The iconic Erie Lackawanna sign’s red neon

tubes were replaced with energy-efficient LEDs, while the ferry slip arches were

accentuated with soft white lighting. To rebuild the clock tower, which was demolished

in the 1950s for safety, architects had to rely on historical photos, as the original plans

no longer existed.

In December, the city’s historic terminal opened its original ferry slips to commuter vessels for the first time in 45 years. An opening ceremony celebrated the culmination of a $120 million NJ Transit and Port Authority of New York and New Jersey project that involved major structural repairs and modernization work while staying true to the building’s historic character.

“It’s a presence on the waterfront again,” STV Incorporated Vice President Bruce Jabbonsky said, admiring the building’s Manhattan-facing façade from a nearby park. STV led a team of over a dozen firms, each commissioned to handle specialties ranging historical documentation to lighting design to foundations engineering.

At the moment, the building’s ornate copper siding has Jabbonsky’s attention. New brown pieces were installed to replace older sections that eroded and fell into the Hudson River. Over time, the new pieces will oxidize to match the Statue of Liberty green color (known as “verdigris”) of the remaining original plates, he said.

Opened in 1907, Hoboken’s multimodal terminal is a monument to the golden age of American railroads. When a predecessor station burned down in 1905, the Delaware, Lackawanna and Western Railroad set out to replace it with one stronger and more impressive than before. The building’s copper siding and terracotta walls were not only designed to make the building look grand, but to make it more resilient to fire. The Beaux-Arts style facility was designed by noted railroad architect Kenneth Murchison, while its waiting room still features stained glass by Louis Comfort Tiffany.

ferry arrival

Eduard Huber

Missing sections of the building’s copper skin were replaced. Efforts were made to

preserve as much of the original material (seen in green) as possible.

However, the ferry operation’s heyday was short-lived. By the 1930s, the expansion of commuter transportation options, notably the rise of the auto and the construction of the Holland and Lincoln Tunnels, led to a sharp decline in ferry ridership. Service to the terminal ended in 1967 and it was closed off to the public.

The ensuing decades were not kind to the facility. Water-borne microorganisms ate away at the wooden pilings holding the building above the river. The building’s clock tower deteriorated and was demolished for safety reasons in the 1950s (a scaffold-like metal communications tower was later erected in its place).

Project manager Jason Womack, of NJ Transit’s Capital Planning and Programs Department, recalled the state of the ferry concourse area before the rehabilitation began. “You could almost see through the holes in the floor and walk into the river. That’s how deteriorated it was,” he said.

However, Womack said it was clear the site had great value—not just for transit operations but for the image of Hoboken and the agency. “It was always just calling to be repaired,” he said. The call would soon be answered.

A New Need

By the late 1990s, Hoboken had evolved from the gritty industrial town where Frank Sinatra was born to a bedroom community for young professionals with well-paying Manhattan jobs. Although the station’s ferry slips hadn’t accommodated a ship in many of these newcomers’ lifetimes, the facility’s commuter rail and bus services thrived.
The collapse of a nearby pier in Hoboken, caused by the same organisms feasting on the ferry terminal’s pilings, brought a greater sense of urgency to the building’s condition, Womack said. So did another event beyond anyone’s control.

ferry commuters


Morning commuters board vessels bound for Manhattan from the historic

Hoboken Terminal.

“It was really after 9/11, when the PATH [to the World Trade Center station] was down for two years, that ferry service became very important again,” Jabbonsky said. Although ridership has slowed from those days, the incident highlighted the important role ferries played in serving as a backup when other trans-Hudson travel modes fail. In that period, a temporary ferry facility operating just south of the building thrived, he said.

“That was fine,” a daily ferry commuter on his way from Ridgewood, N.J. to his job on Wall Street said of the temporary facility. “This one is beautiful.”

NJ Transit was committed to saving the building, and after a short period of deliberations, decided it would go the whole way and restore the vintage ferry operation, Womack said. The agency entered into an agreement with the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey to start the project in 2003. The State Historic Preservation Office was closely consulted throughout the process to ensure the project met its guidelines.

The rehabilitation was handled in three phases, generally moving in order from the structural to the aesthetic. Phase I started in 2004 with the replacement of the building’s crumbling waterfront north wall and repairs to its substructure and superstructure. Phase II, concluded in 2008, saw five of the building’s original six ferry slips reconstructed; the remaining one was left as is for historical reference.

At this time, work began to retrofit the old “Team Concourse”—so named for the teams of horse-drawn carriages that once boarded ferries from the lower level. Back then, riders boarded the era’s much taller bi-level ships from gangways on the second floor. The lower concourse floors were raised three feet to make the facility more resistant to flooding. Today, this is the main area where riders can purchase tickets and board the boats.

ferry slip

Eduard Huber

One of the terminal’s five restored ferry slips. A sixth was left as is for historical


Meanwhile, work on the terminal’s appearance continued to bring it back to life. Fiber optic specialists relit the iconic red neon Erie Lackawanna sign at the top of the building using energy-efficient LED strips. The ferry slip arches and other details on the waterfront marquee were traced with soft white lights. The copper skin was replaced on the east and south facades, with efforts made to preserve as much of the original fabric as possible. (In a move that builds on the project, NJ Transit’s Board of Directors approved $4.1 million in July to redo the building’s land-facing north-west wall.)

The consultant team examined archival photos in an effort to replicate the historic clock tower’s features, as the blueprints for the original structure no longer existed, according to Jabbonsky. The 230-foot-tall structure, with its 12-foot diameter clocks and 4-foot-high letters spelling “LACKAWANNA” on each side, is the project’s most recognizable feature to viewers on land in Hoboken.

Phase III concentrated on the final steps necessary to prepare the century-old facility for modern ferry operations. Materials like steel, glass, concrete and dark hardwoods were used to recreate the industrial atmosphere Murchison’s design once evoked.

A metal mural along the concourse wall mirrors scenes in the terminal from throughout the ages. Green silhouettes of passengers in period dress are perforated by fiber optic lights illustrating the skyline, ferries and the terminal’s façade. Like the facility itself, the artwork represents a blend of the old and the new.

“It still has that feel of industrial Hoboken,” Womack said. “It still has that raw finish. Not everything has been repaired. It’s always a fine-tuning of the original fabric and the new fabric, and merging it together so you have a complete look, but you’re fixing what’s relevant.”

Karl Vilacoba is the managing editor of InTransition.

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