PY: You have written a generous historical document about an artifact that is “under the nose” of golfers at Brae Burn Country Club every day. How did the ruins of the Westchester Northern catch your attention?
VK: I’ve been associated with Brae Burn since 1983, which dovetailed with the first years of my affinity for golf. As a teenager, my apprehension of this stillborn railroad was entirely based on the arcane charm that the remnants inspired.
Many years removed from Brae Burn (in the late 1990s), I began to invest myself in the realm of golf course architecture with greater and greater zeal. As that knowledge grew, I became aware of how unique and singular (and little known) the incorporation of such historical features are in the practice of golf architecture. Today, newer courses are hoping for such an accident of history to bolster their singularity and their profile—one continually hears about how “cool” it is that a course is built on an old quarry, or uses older ruins as a visual moment—and I thought here, at Brae Burn, is a pretty audacious one that nobody knows about.
I returned to work at Brae Burn in 2008. I’d started a professional writing path by that time, and realized the club was coming up on its 50th anniversary (2014). So I lobbied for a commission to produce a “commemorative club history.” Part of my pitch was to gather some hard facts on the Westchester Northern and present them to the members informally. After two-plus years of rather tepid response, two members took up my cause and persuaded the Board of Governors to extend me a commission for an entire club history (Brae Burn Country Club – The First 50 Years). The Westchester Northern portion was the first I researched and drafted for their perusal. The research led me to many of the other discoveries I made in capturing the whole of the commemorative book.
PY: From the ruins of the Westchester Northern, you tie together so much of the wider world: the history of golf course planning, mass transportation, labor and economics. Did the process of researching the Westchester Northern prompt any further study in any of these areas?
VK: Indeed it has. In golf course architecture, I needed no further prompts. But the specific research encountered to lay out this tiny story led to several moments of epiphany. I-684 seems like such a fait accompli now, fifty years or so later. Yet my research for the Westchester Northern revealed quite a protracted, acrimonious public debate over its construction. It’s just one 28.2 mile highway in God knows how many million miles on the planet, but boy did those planners nail it.
PY: The tone of your piece is saturated with a sense of awe about the mystery of lives that would have been changed if the railroad had been completed, and the fate of those lives because it wasn’t completed. Can you talk about your personal experience when you are in the presence of these railroad ruins?
VK: This is a larger question for me than my experience of just these railroad ruins. I have an affinity for most public architecture (ruined, defunct or not) and the connection, for me, isn’t as much with the lives it influenced or served, as much as with the architects and designers who tried to plan how lives would experience or utilize it. That is such an enormous creative undertaking—whether it be a stadium, a highway, a church, a park, a school building, a cemetery—to try and formulate a human experience while accommodating a real human utility.
So my final Jeopardy answer is that I feel reverence when I am in the presence of these Westchester Northern ruins, reverence for grand public plans, reverence for Brae Burn course architect Frank Duane, who said the trestle stones between #15 and #17 reminded him of the “Appian Way” when he discovered them. It might take an Aesthetics book of 9,000 pages to explain it rationally, but I understood precisely what he meant—and that’s a great transference of human connection that lurks inside such structure. There is also a note of the bittersweet too, when the subject is forgotten, in tatters, and now anonymously decayed in some woods someplace.