Grand Central Terminal: New York, New York
When New York's Grand Central Terminal opened on February 2, 1913, The New York Times reported that it was "not only the greatest station in the United States, but the greatest station, of any type, in the world." Planning, design, and construction involved 10 years and $1 billion in today's dollars, but the effort resulted in not only a building with 30 platforms and 44 tracks, but also innovations that influenced decades of American planning, architecture, engineering, and culture.
Grand Central Terminal is located at 89 East 42nd Street, between Vanderbilt Avenue to the northwest and Lexington Avenue to the southeast.
Modeled on Roman imperial baths, the Beaux-Arts terminal used by 750,000 people a day or more than 21 million people each year, was designed by two teams of architects led by the firms of Reed and Stem and Warren and Wetmore. Inside the Grand Concourse — approximately three-fourths the size of a football field or 275 feet long by 120 feet wide by 125 feet high — is a glorious, vaulted plaster ceiling with hundreds of star constellations designed by French artist Paul Helleu. The terminal's 42nd Street facade includes three tall, arched windows beneath a simple roof line that is topped by a monumental sculptural group of Roman gods by Jules Coutan and the world's largest Tiffany-glass clock.
The genesis for Grand Central was a 1902 disaster involving two steam-powered trains that collided in the 58th Street tunnel and killed 15 people. The New York State Assembly subsequently banned the use of steam by locomotives between 42nd Street and the Harlem River, setting the stage for a revolutionary idea by New York Central and Hudson River Railroad chief engineer William J Wilgus: require engines serving the terminal to be powered by electricity not steam. This meant the expansive staging area required for steam-driven locomotives could be placed underground and designed to accommodate two levels of track. Wilgus also suggested using a larger portion of the air rights above the 48 acres occupied by the terminal and adjoining rail yard than previously considered, which helped finance construction.
The terminal's closest brush with total ruin came in 1968, four years after the nearby Pennsylvania Station was razed. A proposal was unveiled to replace the iconic terminal — designated a city landmark just six months earlier — with a skyscraper more than 800 feet tall. New York City's Landmarks Preservation Commission twice rejected the proposal, a decision terminal owner Penn Central contested all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court in Penn Central Transportation Co. v. New York City. A decade later the court justices upheld the city's landmarks law and set a national precedent for historic preservation.
Managed by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority's Metro North Railroad, the terminal is also a successful shopping center with separate food concourse, five exquisite restaurants and cocktail lounges, central market, and 68 specialty shops. A two-year, $200 million revitalization was finished in 1998 while Grand Central North, which provides access from 45th, 47th, and 48th Streets, opened in 1999. The latest expansion is the $8.24 billion East Side Access project — a bi-level, eight-track tunnel that will bring Long Island Rail Road Main and Port Washington trains to the terminal starting in 2019.
Defining Characteristics, Features
- Shipping magnate "Commodore" Cornelius Vanderbilt consolidated New York Central Railroad in the 1860s and 1870s; constructed first predecessor to terminal, Grand Central Depot, 1871
- Between 1899 and 1900 Depot expanded; reconstructed building named "Grand Central Station"
- Plan developed under chief engineer William J. Wilgus to demolish the reconstructed station and create a new double level terminal for electric trains (1902)
- St. Paul, Minnesota, firm of Reed and Stem selected (1903) to create overall design; the New York architectural firm, Warren and Wetmore, named Associated Architects (1904)
- Construction lasted 10 years, involved excavating 3 million cubic yards of rocks; 150,000 people visited the day Grand Central Terminal opened to public (12:01 a.m. Sunday, February 2, 1913)
- Busiest year to date was 1946 with 65 million passengers passing through the terminal
- The first great "stairless" station in the U.S., and is still the largest train station in the world by number of platforms — 44 with 67 tracks in the largest and deepest basement in New York City
- Decorative oak leaves and acorns can be seen throughout the terminal, including in the stairwells and above the track gates, evoking the well-known motto: "From the acorn grows the mighty oak"
- The Main Concourse's ceiling depicts the backwards Mediterranean sky with 2,500 stars, originally designed by French portrait artist Paul Cesar Helleu
- Other arches and vaulted ceilings in the Terminal were covered with fanciful Guastavino tile work.
- The four faced clock atop the Main Concourse Information Booth, made from brass with each of the four faces made from opalescent glass
- The Whispering Gallery, in front of the Oyster Bar on the lower level, allows visitors to stand in diagonal corners of the 50-feet wide chamber and whisper to one another as the sound carries across the arc of the domed ceiling
Preservation and Restoration
- Local Landmarks Preservation Commission designated the terminal a city landmark August 2, 1967
- New York Central and Pennsylvanian Railroads merged 1968 into Penn Central; terminal leased to developer UGP Properties, which proposed building a 55-story office tower above the terminal
- Landmarks Preservation Commission denies proposal to build skyscraper above terminal (1976); Penn Central files $8 million lawsuit against City of New York challenging commission's decision
- Added to National Register of Historic Places (1976)
- U.S. Supreme Court upholds landmark status of Grand Central Terminal (1978)
- Metropolitan Transportation Authority takes over terminal operations (1983); partners with LaSalle Partners and Williams Jackson Ewing, completing major revitalization and retail plan (1988)
- Named National Historical Civil Engineering Landmark by American Society of Civil Engineers (2012)