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Civil Engineering Almanac

January marks the anniversary of the death of civil engineer, architect, and suffragist Nora Stanton Blatch Barney. She was born Nora Stanton Blatch on September 30, 1883, in Basingstoke, Hampshire, England, to William Blatch and Harriot Eaton Stanton. Her maternal grandmother was the American social activist and abolitionist Elizabeth Cady Stanton, a leading figure of the early women's rights movement. 

 Nora Blatch
 Nora Stanton Blatch

Nora Stanton Blatch studied Latin and mathematics at the Horace Mann School in New York, beginning in 1897, returning to England during the summers. In 1902, the family moved to the United States and Nora attended Cornell University as part of the first classes of women accepted to Cornell’s Sibley School of Engineering. She graduated in 1905 with a degree in civil engineering, and in the same year, she was accepted as a junior member of the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE). She worked as a drafter for the American Bridge Company and in 1906 she began work for the New York City Board of Water Supply as a “Topographical Draughtsman” at a salary of $1,200 per year. Also, following the examples set by her mother and grandmother, she became active in the growing women's suffrage movement.

In 1908, Nora Blatch married Lee De Forest, the inventor of the vacuum tube and a pioneer in television. During her courtship with De Forest, she quit her job and enrolled in Columbia University mathematics classes so she could better contribute to De Forest's work. She helped to manage some of the companies he had founded to promote his invention and the new technology of wireless radio. However, they were separated within a year due to both professional differences and personal discord. The couple argued frequently and, in early 1909, Blatch, although pregnant, moved out of their home.

Also in 1909, Nora began working as an engineer for the Radley Steel Construction Company. Late in 1911, the De Forests were divorced, after which she continued her civil engineering career, working for the New York Public Service Commission as an assistant engineer. In 1914, she became an architect and developer on Long Island. When she turned 32, the age limit to be a junior member of ASCE at the time, Nora was denied full membership in the Society, despite her technical and supervisory experience at bridge and hydraulic firms and in government. She sued ASCE for full membership in 1916, but lost her suit. No women joined the Society until 1927

Nora Stanton Blatch married marine architect Morgan Barney in 1919 and relocated to Greenwich a few years later. In 1934, she accepted a position as an engineering inspector in Connecticut and Rhode Island for the Public Works Administration. She is known to have designed dozens of residences on Long Island and in Greenwich, where she built her family’s house in 1935. Stanton was also involved in work for world peace and equal rights for women. In 1944, she wrote “World Peace Through a Peoples Parliament.” She worked as a real-estate developer and political activist until her death in Greenwich, Connecticut on January 18, 1971. Nora Stanton Blatch Barney is buried in Woodlawn Cemetery, in the Bronx, where her gravestone reads simply:

SEPT. 30, 1883 – JAN. 18, 1971

February celebrates the 100th anniversary of New York City’s Grand Central Terminal, which opened to the public on February 2, 1913. Constructed under challenging circumstances without interrupting existing train service, Grand Central Terminal was a triumph in engineering and the design of urban transportation hubs.

Shipping magnate Cornelius Vanderbilt’s Grand Central Depot opened in October 1871 on land bound by 42nd and 48th Streets, Lexington Avenue, and Madison Avenue and after significant renovation, it was reborn in 1900 as Grand Central Station. By the turn of the 20th century, public concern about steam locomotive safety was on the rise and noise and air pollution were chronic. A catastrophic train collision on January 8, 1902 in the smoke-filled Park Avenue Tunnel killed seventeen and injured thirty-eight, causing a public outcry and increasing demand for electric trains. One week later the railroad announced plans to improve the tunnel and expand Grand Central. By the end of the year, plans were in development, spearheaded by the New York Central’s chief engineer William J. Wilgus, to demolish Grand Central Station and create a new double level terminal for electric trains.

In February 1904, two architectural firms entered an agreement to act as The Associated Architects of Grand Central Terminal. And the next six years would be spent reconciling, amending, and revising the plans for the new Grand Central. Construction would last ten years. Yet, in spite of the upheaval, rail service continued uninterrupted. Initially, trains continued to use the old Grand Central, which was eventually razed in 1910.

Excavation was an enormous undertaking as the grade of the rail yard was lowered to an average depth of 30 feet below street level, resulting in the removal of 1.6 million cubic yards of rock and 1.2 million cubic yards of soil. Spoil material was transported up to 40 miles away and dumped into the Hudson River to widen the railroad’s right-of-way for the creation of a train yard at Croton-on-Hudson. Trains removing excavated material and delivering construction supplies had to be scheduled so as not to interfere with the 75,000 to 100,000 daily passengers.

 Grand Central Terminal
Grand Central Terminal

Grand Central Terminal produced annual revenue for the railroad and project financing by selling air rights above the station, serving as a model for the development of air rights above other railroad stations. The project served as the catalyst and anchor for a civic center within Manhattan as development above the rail yards restored the street grid and opened up 30 city blocks. It was the first project to use both horizontal and vertical transportation systems connecting adjacent buildings. Underground passageways were lined with shops and space for stores underneath the elevated roadway that encircled the station.

Grand Central Terminal was the first terminal station to use ramps on a great scale, largely eliminating staircases from its design. Entrances and exits were spaced apart so they would not interfere with each other during times of heavy crowding. The design included a then-innovative baggage handling facility that eliminated the conflicts experienced at other train stations where both passengers and baggage were loaded and unloaded at the same location on platforms, pioneering a system that is commonplace at modern rail and air transportation hubs.

Central Terminal officially opened to great fanfare at 12:01 am on Sunday, February 2, 1913, and more than 150,000 people visited the new terminal on its opening day. Although construction was not yet entirely complete, Grand Central Terminal had arrived and New York City would never be the same again. Grand Central Terminal is to be dedicated as an ASCE National Historic Civil Engineering Landmark in February 2013.