An Enduring Symbol of New York City – Grand Central Terminal

by Rosemarie John on December 27, 2011

What so grand about the Grand Central Terminal? Everything! From its history and architecture to its gourmet restaurants and its latest addition of the 5th Apple Store in New York city, its an architectural and technological marvel built almost a century ago. With 750,000 people passing through the terminal every day, it is interesting to note how it was once meant to be demolished.

Historical Timeline

Before the emergence of the Grand Central Terminal, what stood as a way of commute for three distinct steam locomotive rail lines was the Grand Central Depot that opened in 1871. Designed by architect John B. Snook and built at a cost of $6.4 million, the New York Central and Hudson River Railroad, New York and Harlem Railroad, and the New York, New Haven, and Hartford Railroad ran through it while maintaining their own waiting room, baggage facilities and ticketing operation at the station.

Several renovations later, it was reborn as Grand Central Station. The updated station featured a “classical” façade, a unified 16,000 square foot waiting room and distinctive ornamentation, including monumental cast-iron eagles with wingspans of 13-feet. However with the decline of the steam locomotives and a horrific railroad accident in 1902, the New York Central and Hudson River Railroad announced plans to improve and expand Grand Central and also exchanging noxious, loud and dangerous steam locomotives for sleek electric trains.

The solution, costing $80 million in project budget (roughly $2 billion in today’s terms) was aimed to demolish the existing station and create a new double level terminal for electric trains, the Grand Central Terminal was thus constructed from 1903 to 1913. Designed by the architectural firms of Reed and Stem and Warren and Wetmore, excavation was an enormous undertaking as the grade of the rail yard was lowered to an average depth of 30 feet below street level.

Yet, in spite of massive works, rail service continued uninterrupted.  Initially, trains continued to use the old Grand Central, which was eventually razed in 1910. However, a temporary station in the Grand Central Palace at Lexington Avenue and 43rd Street was used until 1912. The genius behind Grand Central Terminal’s innovations, including its electrification, internal ramp system, and circumferential drives, was New York Central’s chief engineer William Wilgus.

At 12:01 am on Sunday, February 2, 1913 New York City would never be the same again. Grand Central Terminal opened its doors and was  the epicentre of Midtown Manhattan with a “Grand Central District” of office buildings and hotels built around it, connected by underground tunnels. Skyscrapers simultaneously sprang up and old warehouses gave way to the 56-story Chanin Building, the 54-story Lincoln Building and the 77-story Chrysler Building.

In 1947, over 65 million people, the equivalent of 40% of the population of the United States travelled the rails via Grand Central Terminal. With the emergence of automobiles and jets in the 1950s, revenues from long-distance rail travel were plummeting and the Railroad commissioned plans to demolish Grand Central Terminal and replace it with a 6 million square foot office tower in 1954.

Standing Proud

Saved from the wrecking ball, the Landmarks Preservation Commission designated Grand Central Terminal as a landmark, subject to the protection of law in 1967 while  the National Register of Historic Places named Grand Central Terminal as a National Historic Landmark in 1976 ensuring the Terminal’s safety for many years to come.

Over time, the building was crumbling with a leaking roof, chipping stonework and rusting structural steel. A systematic program of repairs and improvements took place in 1983 and further revitalization took place in 1988 and 1990. In 1996 through 1998, a master restoration plan began with the construction and cleaning of the Main Concourse Sky Ceiling.  As restoration and renovation continued, the project generated more than 2,000 construction and construction related jobs throughout New York State.

The Beaux Arts interior of the Main Concourse is 275 ft (84 m) long, 120 ft (37 m) wide and 125 ft (38 m) high. The arch windows are 60 feet high at each end. The floors are paved with Tennessee marble, and the walls are covered with a warm buff coloured stone with wainscots and trimmings of cream-coloured Botticino marble. Ticket booths are located in the Concourse with a celestial ceiling to boast.

The original ceiling, conceived in 1912 by Paul Cesar Helleu was eventually replaced in the late 1930s to correct falling plaster. Arching over the 80,000 square-foot Main Concourse, this extraordinary painting portrays the Mediterranean sky with October-to-March zodiac and 2,500 stars. The 60 largest stars mark the constellations and are illuminated with fibre optics.

Painted in gold leaf on cerulean blue oil by artist Giovanni Smeraldi, there are two peculiarities to this astronomical ceiling – the sky is backwards, and the stars are slightly displaced. One explanation is that the constellations are backwards because the ceiling is based on a medieval manuscript that visualized the sky as it would look to God from outside the celestial sphere. Most people however, simply think that the image was reversed by accident. The ceiling’s awkwardness is left to the imagination of visitors today.

There are beautiful melon-shaped chandeliers on both sides of the Main Concourse and several more in Vanderbilt Hall. They were always thought to have been bronze but they had been covered with dirt for many years. The chandeliers were taken down and cleaned.

Remarkably, with just one cleaning the glistening gold was revealed. Note the bare light bulbs. In 1913 electricity was new and not widely used by normal households, so the New York Central Railroad wanted to give the sense of grandeur, luxury, and opulence to its train terminal, and did this by showing off the nickel and gold- plated chandeliers with electric light bulbs.

Completely restored back to it’s 1913 splendour, Grand Central has become a Midtown destination for five exquisite restaurants and cocktail lounges, 20 casual international eateries in the lower level Dining Concourse, gourmet foods from the Grand Central Market and the 50 unique speciality shops throughout the concourses, all in to addition to transportation.

The restoration of Grand Central Terminal even saw two majestic cast-iron eagles from the old station find its home above the entrance at 43rd and Lexington Avenue and the corner of 42nd Street and Vanderbilt Avenue. The terminal is one of the most important rail facilities in the world and how it evolved into the lasting mega-structure it is today is simply remarkable.

A Little Bit of Fun

Visiting the Grand Central Terminal is a lot of fun whether for admiration, dining or to catch a train, make sure to stop at the Whispering Gallery. Located at the end of both Oyster Bar Ramps when heading down to the Lower Level, its one of the bigger attractions in the Terminal and offers a phonic treat. Get two volunteers and put them in opposite corners facing the walls. A person can whisper into one of its corners and be distinctly heard diagonally across the gallery on the other side.

Exploring the terminal can be done on your own or by joining the Official Grand Central Terminal Audio Tour presented by MTA Metro-North Railroad. Grand Central Terminal is open to the public daily from 5:30am until 2:00am. Shops are open from 8am to 9pm though some retail schedules vary.

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{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Visiting Wanderer December 29, 2011 at 4:59 pm

Great article Rosemarie! I really enjoyed reading the history of Grand Central. Sure don’t build things like that anymore. 🙂

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Rosemarie John December 29, 2011 at 8:40 pm

Thank you Nathan! I explored it through a walk through guide which was part of my night tour. I would have liked to explored it longer but there was a limited time frame for everybody to get back onto the bus. Woul have liked to have had dinner there 🙂

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Miriam January 10, 2012 at 1:54 pm

What a lovely article. I always enjoy reading about the history of a place – sets it into context. Central Station is also a great testimony to the changes of New York over time – as you highlight, from its grand beginnings, it was pretty run down by the 1980’s (and, I am told, not a place to hang out), and now is a prime sight on every tourists calendar!
I did not know about the whispering gallery – am sure to check it out next time. Sounds like it is similar to the famous (albeit somewhat older ;)) whispering gallery in St. Paul’s Cathedral, London.

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Rosemarie John January 10, 2012 at 2:18 pm

Thank you Miriam! I love learning about the history of a place I visit! Our guide was pretty informative and even though we only spent about 30 minutes there, we were able to see and soak in a lot! I had fun trying out The whispering gallery! Will definitely check out the one at St. Paul’s when I visit London 🙂

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