Jersey City History

John Oakman

Architect of the Hudson & Manhattan Railroad Powerhouse

John OakmanJohn Oakman, Architect of Hudson & Manhattan Railroad Powerhouse (1899 photo courtesy of Williams College Archives)

The turn-of-the-20th century architectural firm of Robins & Oakman was a four-year (1905-1909) partnership between W. Powell Robins and John S. Oakman. While it is hoped that further research will reveal biographical information about Robins himself, the focus falls upon John Oakman, who was the actual designer of the H&MRR Powerhouse superstructure.

This is what is known about John Oakman:

He was born in Pittsfield, Massachusetts on August 5, 1878. He attended Williams College, in Williamstown, Massachusetts, where he was a member of Delta Psi, the Gargoyle Society, and leader of an undefeated boxing team. After graduating with an A. B degree in 1899, Oakman immediately entered the highly prestigious Ecole des Beaux Arts, in Paris, France, where he received his Architecte Diplome in 1904. Shortly after leaving Paris, Oakman was hired by the New York City architectural firm of Carrere & Hastings, which was busy designing, among many other architectural landmarks, the New York City Public Library. In 1905, Oakman left the firm to begin an architectural partnership with Robins.

The President of the Hudson & Manhattan Railroad Company was a former engineer and banker named Walter G. Oakman, a close friend of the H&M RR's visionary founder, William G. McAdoo. Walter Oakman, a middle-aged man, was probably the uncle of the twenty-seven year old John Oakman. Whatever the family connection, the new rapid transit company hired Robins & Oakman, of 27 East 22nd Street, as exclusive company architects in 1907 (although another, more established firm, Clinton & Russell, was commissioned to design the massive Hudson Terminal complex).

Powerhouse Exhibition CatalogueExhibition Catalogue, H&M RR Powerhouse, Architectural League of New York, 1907

Robins & Oakman designed the H&M RR's elegant subway terminals, including the ornamental 33rd Street Station (demolished) and the marquee-clad Christopher Street Station (still standing). In addition, the firm also designed a brick railcar elevator in Hoboken, which lifted and lowered trolley cars to the tracks below (it somehow still stands near the Erie Lackawanna Terminal). Specifically, John Oakman designed the Christopher Street Station and sub-station, as well as the colossal Powerhouse, both of which he proudly listed on his resume.

Robins & Oakman did not only design structures for the H&MRR during its years of practice. Luxurious residences were also commisssioned by the Wesson family, of Smith & Wesson gunmakers, including a brick mansion on 79th Street, in Manhattan, and a country estate, in Springfield, Massachusetts. Williams College, Oakman's cherished alma matter, also hired the firm to design and redesign several campus structures.

In 1907, while the Powerhouse was nearing completion, Robins & Oakman were featured in an annual exhibition held by the Architectural League of New York, at the American Fine Arts Society, 215 West 57th Street. Records reveal that the firm exhibited original drawings of both the Powerhouse and the aforementioned country estate.

For unknown reasons, Robins & Oakman abruptly ceased their lucrative partnership in 1909. However, unlike W. Powell Robins, John Oakman did not disappear from the architecture scene, despite marrying the magnificent Margaret Curzon Marquand Hale (aunt of the American writer, John P. Marquand, and related, by her first marriage, to the American cleric/writer, Edward Everett Hale) and adopting her six children as his own in 1910.

Powerhouse Exhibition CatalogueExhibition Catalogue, Architectural League of New York, 1907

Archives show that John Oakman did indeed begin a long solo career. Some of his commissions included a stunning brownstone at 11 Gramercy Park West, not far from his former offices; the Knickerbocker Hospital, New York City (still standing in the historic Manhattanville section of Harlem); the Nurses' Home of the Knickerbocker Hospital, New York City; the Protestant Episcopal Orphan's Home, New York City; and a Medieval-style mansion (whereabouts unknown) featured as an advertisement in Architecture, October, 1924.

John Oakman left his new family behind to serve in the American Ambulance Service, in France, from 1914 to 1915. In 1917 he became Captain of the Army Corps of Engineers.

Oakman retired from architecture in 1940. On December 18, 1963, shortly after the Hudson & Manhattan Railroad Company crumbled under bankruptcy, Oakman died at the age of 85, his architectural accomplishments virtually forgotten (neo-classical monuments at this time were being erased with a frightening urgency--witness the demolition of McKim, Mead & White's astounding Pennsylvania Station, as well as Clinton & Russell's Hudson Terminal complex, among others). Oakman's obituary in the New York Times was brief:

John Oakman, a New York architect, died here (Anniston, Alabama) today in Stringfellow Hospital following a stroke. He was 85 years old. Mr. Oakman headed his own architectural concern for many years, specializing in designing homes. He retired in 1940 and had lived here for the last eight years.

Ongoing research hopes to answer several questions about John Oakman, a world-class architect who left his masterful mark upon Jersey City's landscape:

  1. How much did John Oakman, as a hired Carrere & Hastings architect, contribute to the New York Public Library's design?
  2. Who was W. Powell Robins and why did Oakman become his partner? What caused them to break up the firm?
  3. Did Robins & Oakman design many more buildings within/outside the area, particularly industrial structures on the same scale of the Powerhouse?
  4. What was John Oakman's precise relation to Walter G. Oakman?
  5. How many buildings did Oakman design between 1909 and 1940?
  6. What were Oakman's military actions during WWI, and did he apply his architectural skills while on duty?
  7. How did he feel about the Powerhouse's closure at the beginning of the Great Depression?
  8. Are descendants residing within the area?


Historical Sources

  1. Gray, Christopher. "Streetscapes: The Hudson Tubes Powerhouse: A Majestic, Aging Giant." The New York Times: November 18, 1990.
  2. The New York Times: "Hugh Hazelton, Retired Engineer, Ex-Englewood Official, Stricken In Florida," January 29, 1940; "Lewis B. Stillwell, Engineer, Is Dead; Consultant On Electrification of Many Projects for 38 Years, Including Holland Tunnel; Designed Niagara Plant," January 20, 1941; "John Oakman," December 23, 1963.
  3. Williams College Archives, Williams College, Williamstown, Massachusetts. (www.williams.edu)

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