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Elegance Reborn

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They once crisscrossed the country more regularly than commercial jets do today. They were the ultimate in luxury, privacy and speed. Then, like the names long coupled to them—DuPont, Astor, Rockefeller, Vanderbilt and Woolworth—they became symbols of a rich past. But many of them survived, and thanks to scores of well-heeled Americans with a passion for splendor and comfort, private railcars are once again on track. This is not a hobby for the uninformed or the miserly. Small fortunes are spent to restore and service these rolling suites. (Amtrak charges $1 to $2.60 per mile to haul a private car. A roundtrip from New York to Los Angeles might run as much as $9,000 but can still be a bargain compared to maintaining a corporate jet.) Spare parts are often scarce and can’t be bought at the local hardware store. (Buffs often come to each other’s rescue.) But owners tend to rhapsodize when they talk of their cars’ history and the intricate restorations. The railcars of today, like those of yesterday, serve as moving conference rooms as well as places of entertainment for their owners.

Rodney Basich, a founder of the eight-year-old, 336-member American Association of Private Railroad Car Owners, describes his hobby as a “quiet pastime.” But, he adds, “The people who have railroad cars tend to think big, act independently and not let anything get in their way.”

They also find, as Mrs. August Belmont declared long ago, that “a private car is not an acquired taste. One takes to it immediately.”

Sitting on the observation platform of the Survivor, Atlanta restaurateur Dante Stephensen likens the feeling to being the king of a tiny country all his own. The 103-ton fiefdom is Stephensen’s year-round home—and the fulfillment of a childhood fantasy. He found the car in 1981 in Nashville after a six-year search but won’t disclose how much he paid for it in its then dilapidated state. It was built in 1926 by the Pullman Co. at an estimated $350,000 for Jessie Woolworth Donahue, whose niece, dime-store heiress Barbara Hutton, was courted on it by Cary Grant. Exchanging his 12-room house for the 800 square feet of living space in the car, Stephensen, who is divorced, has meticulously restored the car’s six rooms and painted the exterior the same silver, navy and white with gold trim as the famous Orient Express. The dining room, which “seats eight comfortably—10 with a sense of humor,” has a stained-glass ceiling. The tiny bath (far left) has walls and a tub of gray Italian marble and the original fixtures. The Survivor makes eight or nine trips a year with an extra car for servants quarters. Even when his railcar is only standing still (it usually can be found on a wooded Southern Railway siding), Stephensen finds the illusion of grand travel “very restful.”

“It’s not a poor man’s hobby—but neither is keeping yachts, horses or mistresses,” says Ross E. Rowland Jr., 44, head of American Coal Enterprises, a locomotive design and development company. He bought the 57-year-old Independence in 1968 for $17,000. Annual basic maintenance runs $25,000 plus salaries for a mechanic, chef, waiter and a $75-a-day parking tab when the car is at Union Station in Washington, D.C. In 1981 Rowland spent $250,000 dollars to refurbish the car and to replace its plumbing and electrical systems. The Independence now boasts 12 stereo speakers, a color TV and VCR, a player piano and a freezer that holds two weeks’ worth of meat. The series of original oil paintings (detail, left) was commissioned by Rowland to depict various uses of coal. Not counting its stint as part of the Bicentennial Freedom Train, the opulent car has logged about 50,000 miles annually on business and family excursions. Rowland, an Amtrak board member, recently paid $130,000 for two parlor cars which will join the Independence and serve as a D.C. office for his New Jersey-based company.

The Erie 400, built in 1923 for banking tycoon J.P. Morgan, is a mobile museum of railroad artifacts that attorney John Hankins Jr. of Huntington, W. Va. proudly calls “an eye-catcher.” It is clear from the car’s mahogany and walnut paneling, brass chandeliers and Oriental carpets that Hankins, 43, won’t decorate the car with anything that isn’t of “railroad origin.” He has spent more than 10 years locating, acquiring and restoring period furnishings and originals used by Morgan, including much of the monogrammed silver (above). He has also gathered a collection of railroad linen tablecloths and original Pullman china, crystal and silverware. The luxuriously appointed car was featured in the BBC series Nancy Astor, but Hankins and his wife Mitzie use it mainly to entertain friends on “dinner runs,” serving nine-course meals in the 14-foot-long dining room. Hankins takes his five children on vacations in the car and remembers that, when he was young, “all of our travels were by railroad, not a private car but on my father’s railroad passes.” Both his grandfather and father worked for the Chesapeake & Ohio Railway, as a construction engineer and as a land purchaser respectively. Hankins bemoans the fact that such travel is no longer popular in this country. He maintains that the cars are more trouble-free when they are moving. “When they are stationary strange things happen to them.” Perhaps for that reason Hankins recently began leasing the Erie 400 to business executives for $1,000 a day plus a 50-cents-a-mile maintenance fee. Hankins says a car like the Erie 400 would probably cost about half-a-million dollars today—”if you could find one. If you had to build one, there’s no telling what it would cost.” For railcar buffs, though, no price is too high for these romantic and sumptuous reminders of a bygone era.