Beneath the soaring Beaux Arts arches and star-speckled ceiling of the main concourse, New York’s iconic Grand Central Terminal has welcomed and bid farewell to scores of travelers, as well as its fair share of controversy, for decades. Ten decades to be exact. Today, the National Historic Landmark kicks off a year-long centennial celebration, 100 years after opening its doors and tracks.
“It’s one of the world’s great buildings,” says Gabrielle Shubert, director of the New York Transit Museum. “It was, in its day, one of the most innovative train stations, with totally cutting-edge technology. Granted, we don’t have an interlocking machine anymore, we don’t use gigantic turbines to convert power anymore, but essentially, the way this building functions is the way it’s functioned for 100 years.”
Many of the station’s shops and restaurants will join in the occasion by returning to 1913 prices -- that means 5-cent cups of coffee, 10-cent shoe shines, and 19-cent slices of cheesecake -- while other celebratory activities will include live music, notable speakers like Caroline Kennedy, and free giveaways. Capping the festivities, the Transit Museum will open its latest exhibit, “Grand by Design,” chronicling the history of the terminal in Grand Central’s Vanderbilt Hall.
The history of today’s terminal dates back to 1869 when railroad tycoon Cornelius Vanderbilt bought 23 acres of land on New York’s 42nd Street, a location that, at the time, seemed removed enough from the city’s downtown to house the smoke- and ash-belching steam engines of the three rail lines the depot would service. As Manhattan grew northward, people grew increasingly concerned with the soot. When the steam caused a multi-fatality crash in 1902, the public had had enough.
A revolutionary new station, envisioned by New York Central’s chief engineer William Wilgus, electrified the trains, allowing them to run underground, and incorporated upper and lower level track systems. The design would also allow for 16 blocks of pristine Midtown real estate which could be leased, sold, or developed; the profits would pay for the whole project.
Architecture firm Reed and Stem joined forces with Whitney Warren of the Warren and Wetmore firm to design the new Beaux Arts terminal building. Completed in 1913 after 10 years of construction (which never suspended daily train service), the new Grand Central encompassed 69.8 acres, and featured mythological sculptures and a painted ceiling sketched by French artist Paul Cesar Helleu in the cavernous Vanderbilt Hall, all at a cost of $80 million.
The terminal housed art galleries, television and dance studios, and public meeting spaces where people gathered in times of crisis in the subsequent years. But by the 1950s and '60s, plans to demolish the terminal and replace it with an office tower or convert it to a bowling alley surfaced.
“Transportation changed,” says author Anthony W. Robins, whose new book, Grand Central Terminal: 100 Years of a New York Landmark, was released last month. “Before, most people and goods traveled by canal boat and there was a whole system of canals, but the trains changed that ... The same thing was happening with the trains. Once the airplanes came in for long distance and the cars for short distance it became harder and harder to maintain it.”
A Save Grand Central campaign, spearheaded in part by Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, eventually brought the issue to the Supreme Court in 1978. The case established that landmarking buildings for public use was constitutional, and the decision served as a model for preservation legislation across the country. Following the completion of a massive restoration and renovation in 1998, Grand Central again cemented its status as one of New York’s most beloved buildings.
“It inspires awe. I think it still works so well -- just the incredibly sensitive way that they have shined, buffed, and revisited how the public spaces are used,” says Anne Rieselbach, program director at The Architectural League of New York. “There’s also just a moment of jaw-dropping civic splendor. I think a lot about the spaces that glorify the everyday experience and this is one of those spaces.”
Rieselbach served as a jury member in selecting entries to A Sketchbook for Grand Central, a newly published collection of Grand Central renderings submitted by architects and designers.
In the book’s introduction, Shubert of the Transit Museum writes: “Whether it’s a play of light, an overlooked detail of ornamentation, a memory that colors your perception, or an undiscovered passageway, the building is indisputably alive.”
Other events to commemorate the terminal’s anniversary will continue throughout the year. In February, the Transit Museum will host its annual Valentine’s Day party at the terminal, an event that Shubert hopes will uncover stories of romantic meetings and partings that have occurred on Grand Central’s platforms. Moving into the future, Shubert says, the museum will exhibit images of the so-called East Side Access Project now being constructed that will provide a Long Island Railroad station about 18 stories underneath the terminal.
“The fact that Grand Central has gone from dirty, decrepit, dangerous, and threatened with demolition and being the subject of an intense legal battle,” Robins says, “that this building that was a disaster is now one of the great jewels of the city and has seen its first hundred years is wonderful.”