A pink lawn flamingo might have done for anyone else in the 1960s, but Albert Fritsch had something much, much better on his lawn in Freeport, N.Y.: an eagle head from Pennsylvania Station — that civic masterwork by McKim, Mead & White whose destruction ranks in landmark annals with the sack of Rome.
Now, Mr. Fritsch was no vandal. He was a mechanic on the Pennsylvania Railroad at the time of the station’s demolition. And he saved this exceptionally handsome sculptural fragment from almost certain destruction.
“He was just about to get on a train when he noticed the eagle head in the rubble,” his granddaughter, Margaret Flitsch, recalled. “He asked the superintendent, ‘Can I take this?’ The man said: ‘Knock yourself out. It’s going to the landfill in Jersey anyway.’ ”
So home it came, swaddled in newspapers. And it has remained in the family’s hands ever since, even as the family changed its name ever so slightly, from Fritsch to Flitsch. That story is too good to withhold, even though it has nothing to do with the bird head on the lawn:
Albert’s daughter Margaret Fritsch attended Hunter College in the 1950s. She found herself in a chemistry class in which one Richard Flitsch was also enrolled. Since lab partners were assigned alphabetically, they wound up together. Evidently, the chemistry did not end when the lab did. They married and she became, for official purposes, Margaret Fritsch Flitsch. Their daughter, also Margaret Flitsch, invites us to imagine the consternation among bureaucrats when she is asked her mother’s maiden name.
Anyway, back to the eagle. After Mr. Fritsch died in 1992, the eagle migrated to his daughter’s house in Poughkeepsie. And Margaret Flitsch, the granddaughter, would wonder about the sculpture whenever she visited from Wellesley, Mass., where she teaches phys ed in public school. So she did what we all do when we’re curious. She Googled.
All roads led to David D. Morrison of Plainview, N.Y., a railroad historian who may know more about the eagles of Pennsylvania Station and Grand Central Terminal than anyone else on earth. (Your attention is invited to “New York City Station Eagles.”) It is a rare scholar who could map the location of every known eagle salvaged from these buildings. Mr. Morrison is such a scholar.
The cornice sculptures at Penn Station were the work of Adolph A. Weinman. Mr. Morrison knew that all 14 of the freestanding eagles had been salvaged whole and could be accounted for. It seems that even the barbarians who tore the building down recognized the eagles’ aesthetic — or at least patriotic — value.
What went missing, Mr, Morrison also knew, were four of the eight smaller eagles that flanked the allegorical sculptures “Day” and “Night.” The Pennsylvania Railroad unceremoniously dumped at least some of these sculptural groupings, along with many other exquisite architectural elements, in the Meadowlands, where they were photographed years later by Eddie Hausner of The New York Times. The “Day” and “Night” eagles would probably have been of less interest to salvagers than their freestanding counterparts since they were not entirely modeled, missing a section of wing at the juncture with the allegorical figures. That may explain why the head that Mr. Fritsch found was severed cleanly away as a souvenir, though it doesn’t account for its presence in a rubble pile.
Meanwhile, playing e-detective, Ms. Flitsch “friended” Mr. Morrison, then ferreted out his address. On Easter, she remembered to take along a digital camera when she visited her mother. She snapped a few pictures and sent them on to Mr. Morrison, asking him if family legend aligned with fact.
After he compared photos of the Fritsch/Flitsch eagle with photos of the original Weinman sculptures, Mr. Morrison’s verdict was most encouraging. “They certainly look to me to be birds from the same flock,” he said. He alerted the New York Transit Museum, which may include the head as an extra added attraction in its current exhibition, “The Once and Future Pennsylvania Station.” The paradox requires no further comment: should the eagle return temporarily to Manhattan after a half-century absence, it will be at Grand Central Terminal.
Ms. Flitsch is not exactly sure what she and her mother and her aunt will finally do with the head. For the time being, she said, “It’s exciting to me that it can be shared.”
And that sentiment puts her family squarely in a great tradition of the citizen salvagers of Pennsylvania Station (“A Quest for Fragments of the Past; Calling Penn Station’s Scattered Remains Back Home,” Aug. 16, 1998). Thirteen years ago, when the never-ending Penn Station redevelopment story was a bit younger, the state corporation charged with the project put out a call for remnants to incorporate into the planned reconstruction.
At the time, Alexandros E. Washburn, the president of the Pennsylvania Station Redevelopment Corporation, said: “People — not governments or corporations or institutions — have been keeping the memory of Penn Station alive for 35 years. We’ve found threads from the fabric of Penn Station stretching across the country.”
Now it looks as if Poughkeepsie can be added to this honorable atlas.