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Plainview Resident David Morrison Identifies Penn Station Eagle

Local Rail Historian Identifies Centerpiece of ‘The Once and Future Pennsylvania Station’ Exhibit at New York Transit Museum Gallery Annex

Twenty-two marble eagle sculptures, sculpted by Adolph A. Weinman, once adorned the original 1910 Pennsylvania Station; currently, the whereabouts of three of those eagles are unknown. David Morrison of Plainview, rail historian and perhaps the world authority on the Penn Station Eagles, says he isn’t actively looking for them, but one thing’s for sure: if you happen to find one, he’s the man to call.

That’s what Margaret Flitsch of Poughkeepsie did when she began to wonder about the origins of the majestic eagle sculpture that had been in her family for 50 years. Her grandfather, Albert Fritsch (the family members’ names are one letter apart) a mechanic for the Pennsylvania Railroad, had taken the sculpture home when the station was remodeled in the 1960s, but the family had never known precisely where it came from–although Flitsch had her suspicions.

Via the Internet, Flitsch found out about Morrison, who has spent years studying both the Penn Eagles and their “cousins,” the cast-iron eagles that once adorned the original Grand Central Station (the subject of his booklet, The Cast Iron Eagles of Grand Central Station, (1998.)

When Morrison heard that the Flitsch family might have one of the (at that time) four missing eagle statues, he was not immediately convinced. “I’m thinking in my mind ‘sure, okay’–because I had been on wild goose chases many times,” said Morrison. However, once he saw the photos Flitsch provided, it was clear that the number of unaccounted for eagle statues out in the world had gone from four to three.

“I’ve been studying [them] for over 20 years–I just know those eagles,” he said. “It looks like a Weinman Eagle, it’s got all the features of a Weinman Eagle– so I recognized it…no doubt in my mind.”

Serendipitously, the New York Transit Museum at Grand Central Station was planning an exhibit about the original Pennsylvania Station right around the time that Flitsch and Morrison were making contact online. When Morrison let the museum know that one more of the mysterious missing eagles had been found, museum manager Rob Del Bagno realized they had found their centerpiece for the exhibition, “The Once and Future Pennsylvania Station.”

Of course, there was still the issue of getting the statue from Poughkeepsie to Manhattan intact–not an easy task when dealing with Weinman’s eagle statues and their rather delicate beaks. So Morrison volunteered to fetch the statue himself, an offer the transit museum gratefully accepted. Traveling upstate with his wife Diane, Morrison transported the 45-pound statue, wrapped in blankets, in his own car, to Grand Central Terminal, where he gingerly pushed it down three flights of stairs before it reached its destination.

Local commuters may be surprised to discover that it was a familiar fixture– the Penn Station Eagle on display in front of the Hicksville Long Island Railroad Station–that sparked his fascination with the regal statues. When Morrison started working for LIRR in 1973, like many commuters, he walked past the famous statue every day. “That’s where I really fell in love with the eagles and started studying the eagles,” said Morrison.

The Poughkeepsie discovery wasn’t the first time Morrison has been called out to identify an eagle statue; he’s been called to identify both the marble Penn Eagles and the cast iron Grand Central eagles several times over the years. However, perhaps the most impressive thing he’s done over the course of studying the sculptures was correcting the Smithsonian, a feat not many people can claim.

A plaque in front of the Smithsonian National Zoo once identified their Penn Station Eagle statue as “pink granite,” which Morrison believed was incorrect. He contacted curator Donald Curran from The Gregory Museum in Hicksville, and asked Curran to take a look and determine if the statue was granite or marble, as he had always thought. Curran confirmed that Morrison was right, and the historian informed the Smithsonian of their error, which they later rectified.

“Here’s the leading scientific and historical institution in the world, and they had misidentified the Penn Station Eagle, you know?” said Morrison.

The most recently discovered statue–treasured by the Flitsch family and finally identified by Morrison–can be seen on display at the The New York Transit Museum Gallery Annex through Oct. 31.