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Grand by Design: A History of Grand Central Terminal

New Yorkers in the early 1900s saw their city as the new cultural and commercial capital, deserving a majestic landmark. The vibrant City Beautiful movement, meanwhile, promoted architectural excellence. Grand Central satisfied both desires, invigorating midtown Manhattan, transforming regional transportation, and shaping the city we know today.

Presented and curated by New York Transit Museum, this history page will introduce you to all the key stages in Grand Central’s rise to the thriving NYC landmark it is today. To take an in-depth dive, we suggest visiting the Grand By Design history site full of stories, photographs, and videos.

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Grand by Design

RAILROADS REMAKE NEW YORK

Trade and banking energized New York in the early 1800s, drawing new businesses and people. Growth fueled prosperity, and prosperity fueled more growth.

Railroads were a vital part of this dynamic cycle—both a response to and catalyst for the city’s expansion. Freight and passenger lines blossomed, and in the 1830s New York City’s first railroad line connected Prince Street to the Harlem River, accelerating the city’s expansion northward from Lower Manhattan. 

GRAND CENTRAL DEPOT

Railroads brought people, profits…and pollution. Residents complained, and in 1854 the city banned soot-belching steam engines below 42nd Street, keeping them far from New York’s populated heart. Trains arriving from the north unhitched their engines at 42nd and towed passenger cars the last few miles downtown by horse. Despite these restrictions, the Hudson, New Haven, and Harlem Railroads were eager to expand. To coordinate their services (and save money) they agreed to share a new transit hub. With 42nd Street the southern limit for steam engines, it was the logical station location. Grand Central Depot opened in 1871. Three towers represented the three participating railroads. Thirty years later, a new Annex doubled the Depot’s size, but double wasn’t enough–rail traffic had already quadrupled.      

MEET THE VANDERBILTS

“You have undertaken to cheat me,” Cornelius Vanderbilt wrote to a former associate in 1853. “I won’t sue you… I’ll ruin you.” Vanderbilt, America’s first great tycoon, was no stranger to power. Launching a ferryboat service to Staten Island at age 16, he swiftly built a vast shipping business on the Hudson River, Atlantic Coast, and beyond—including steamships to San Francisco during the 1849 Gold Rush—earning himself the nickname “Commodore.” In the 1850s, Vanderbilt recognized the inefficiency of the fledgling railroad industry, a hodgepodge of competing companies. Shifting his sights from ships to trains, he bought up stock in local railroads, ultimately combining them into a vast transportation network and a powerful family empire that transformed New York’s infrastructure and reshaped the region. 

Grand Central Depot

“People who come to New York should enter a palace on the end of their ride, and not a shed.”

Real Estate Record and Guide, June 5, 1869

A GRAND DESIGN

New York City and its railroads weren’t shy. They were eager to proclaim their magnificence with a splendid monument—a fitting gateway to the nation’s exuberant financial, commercial, and cultural capital. Yet Grand Central Terminal was more than just a pretty façade. Behind its lofty arches and elegant marble is a marvel of practical design and innovative engineering. The station not only looked like no other, it functioned like no other, merging elegance with efficiency.

WHO NEEDS A NEW STATION?

Though splendid in its day, the original Grand Central Depot of 1871 had become a 19th century relic struggling to meet the demands of a 20th century city.Its 30-year-old rail tunnels couldn’t handle the steadily increasing traffic. The building lacked modern conveniences and signaling technology, as well as the infrastructure for electric rail lines. And having been designed for three independent railroad companies—with three separate waiting rooms—the terminal was badly outdated, crowded, and inefficient.On top of that, the old station no longer reflected its surroundings. In 1870, 42nd Street was still a relative backwater. By 1910, it was the vibrant heart of a dynamic, ambitious, and swiftly growing New York City.

THE WINNER IS…

How to find an architect? Design competitions for major projects were commonplace in the early 1900s, and the railroad launched one in 1903. Four firms entered: McKim Mead & White, Samuel Huckel, Jr., Reed & Stem, and Daniel Burnham. Reed & Stem won. Its innovative scheme featured pedestrian ramps inside, and a ramp-like roadway outside that wrapped around the building to connect the northern and southern halves of Park Avenue. Were these innovations enough to make Grand Central truly grand? The railroad wasn’t sure. So it hired another architecture firm, Warren & Wetmore, which proposed a monumental façade of three triumphal arches. The two chosen firms collaborated as “Associated Architects.” It was a stormy partnership, but the final design combined the best ideas of both. 

A DELIGHT FOR THE EYE

One of the splendors of Grand Central is that its vast, majestic spaces reveal extraordinary attention to the smallest design detail. The architects brought in Parisian artist Sylvain Saliéres to craft bronze and stone carvings, including ornamental inscriptions, decorative flourishes, and sculpted oak leaves and acorns (symbols of the Vanderbilt family.) Playful carved acorns festoon the Main Waiting Room’s chandeliers. The architects specified Tennessee marble for the floors, Botticino marble for wall trim, and imitation Caen stone for the walls. The Oyster Bar’s vaulted ceilings are adorned with a herringbone pattern of Guastavino tiles—like those at City Hall station and the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. On the exterior imposing sculptures of Mercury, Hercules, and Minerva top the 42nd Street façade. 

 

“The enormous building now being constructed…is one of those wonders of mechanical design and ingenuity well worthy of attention…”

Real Estate Record and Guide, Nov. 5, 1870

GOING PLACES!

New York is famed as the city that never sleeps. It’s also the city that never sits still. Tourists, commuters, business visitors—New York is a boisterous ballet of coming and going. Grand Central helps keep it moving. Originally, long distance travel was the centerpiece of Grand Central. A post-war decline in intercity trains triggered the terminal’s bumpy—yet ultimately successful—transformation into a regional commuter hub.

TRAVELING IN STYLE

Every afternoon, a red carpet unrolled to greet passengers boarding the magnificent 20th Century Limited to Chicago, the glittering gem of the New York Central Railroad from 1902 to 1967.Train travel in the early 1900s wasn’t just a way to get somewhere. It was an event. Red Caps inside the terminal carried your luggage, dining cars aboard the train served sumptuous meals, and the long distance trains departing from Grand Central’s upper level took passengers across the country in comfort and style. In the 1950s, travelers increasingly took to the air and the highways. Luxury trains declined. After the New York Central and Pennsylvania Railroads merged in 1968, the remaining long-distance routes gradually migrated from Grand Central to Penn Station. 

 

MAKING MIDTOWN INTO MID TOWN

Midtown used to be uptown. When Grand Central Depot opened in 1871, 42nd Street was relatively remote, an undeveloped tract north of the city’s heart of commerce, Lower Manhattan. By 1900 the city had expanded to reach this neighborhood, and the station couldn’t handle the growing crush of travelers. The Grand Central Terminal we know today, unveiled in 1913, reflected the neighborhood’s growth. It also accelerated the neighborhood’s growth, attracting more development…which in turn increased the station’s role.

THERE GROWS THE NEIGHBORHOOD!

Grand Central is more than a train station. It’s the heart of a remarkable urban campus, a sprawling complex of shops, office towers, hotels, and swank apartments built above the tracks and tunnels. A warren of pipes, passageways, and ducts links Grand Central to many buildings in what came to be called “Terminal City,” providing them with heat from its steam plant and power from its electrical substation. 

TERMINAL CITY

Entrepreneurs have always sold real estate. But the New York Central pioneered the idea of selling “unreal” estate, the empty space above its property. William Wilgus, the railroad’s chief engineer, realized that burying the train tracks underground created an unprecedented opportunity. The area over the tracks could be leased to developers—the first-ever reference to “air rights.” This innovation helped pay for Grand Central and had a profound impact on the neighborhood, creating new building lots in the midst of a crowded business district. It also meant that instead of being circled by a bleak buffer of rail yards, as were most urban stations, Grand Central would be surrounded by expensive offices, hotels, restaurants, shops, and fashionable homes—all with convenient access to transportation. 

BUILDING BOOM. BUILDING BREAK. BUILDING BOOM.

Grand Central inspired a whirlwind of construction through the 1920s, from the Graybar Building to splendid hotels like the Biltmore and Park Lane. Development took a break during the Depression. But that wasn’t the end of the story—just the end of the first act. After World War II, renewed prosperity and pent-up demand reinvigorated growth. Between 1952 and 1979, towering glass and steel skyscrapers replaced more than 15 of Terminal City’s Beaux-Arts buildings.

“Eventually, in place of an unsightly railroad yard of the customary type, there will be the orderly succession of city streets, with their full complement of buildings…which must help to stimulate trade and industry throughout the terminal vicinity.”

Real Estate Record and Builders’ Guide, July 13, 1913

“The evolution of the modern electric railway terminal…represented by the double deck track arrangement of the new Grand Central, was an event of first rate importance in its bearing on the expansion of cities.”

Real Estate Record and Builders’ Guide, July 13, 1913

 

NEW YORK’S TOWN SQUARE

New york’s Train stations are all about travel, but Grand Central doesn’t just help you reach your destination. It is a destination. Grand Central is a unique urban space: majestic yet approachable, decorative yet functional. For a century, New Yorkers have used Grand Central as their town commons, a beloved gathering place for shared experiences, distinctive displays, and important events—a home for broadcast studios, rallies, art exhibits, and tightrope walkers.

INSPIRING CREATIVITY

Grand Central Terminal is a work of art. It also became a place to display, inspire, and create other works of art. The terminal was home to the Grand Central Art Galleries from 1922 to 1958, and for a time housed the Grand Central School of Art on the seventh floor. Grand Central also has hosted creative performances, ranging from Philippe Petit’s 1987 high wire walk to art installations including Dan Flavin (1976), Red Grooms (1993), Liza Lou (1999), Takashi Murikami (2001), Rudolf Stingel (2004), Dara Friedman (2008) and in honor of Grand Central’s Centennial in 2013, Improv Everywhere’s Grand Central Lights and Nick Cave’s HEARD-NY.

A BULLY PULPIT

Want to reach a broad audience? Want to attract attention? Come to Grand Central. CBS Television broadcast live from studios at the terminal in the 1950s, and the network’s master control room was here until 1964. A generation later, StoryCorps—which records oral histories by ordinary people and preserves them at the Library of Congress—was born at a booth in Grand Central.

PLAYTIME

You expect to hear the chug of locomotives at a train station. But what about the ping of tennis balls? The whirr of jump ropes? The muffled thud of boxing gloves? All have echoed here. People pass through Grand Central heading to work…but also come here to play. The terminal has hosted boxing and Double Dutch tournaments, break dancing, and more. Its tennis club—recently refurbished— first opened in 1965.

“One of the surprises to the management is the…[number] of people who do not use trains but still pass in and out of the terminal.”

Railway Review, February 5, 1921

DECLINE & RENEWAL

In 2013 we celebrated Grand Central’s Centennial, but we could easily have been mourning its loss. After World War II, waning long-distance rail travel sparked questions about the station’s future. Many felt it had outlived its usefulness. Later, in the 1960s and 1970s, rising crime and declining budgets took a toll on the building. Supporters rallied around Grand Central. They fought for landmark protection and raised public awareness, which helped the MTA raise money. Today, loving restoration has revitalized the Terminal.

THREATS

Tear it down. That was the New York Central’s recommendation in 1954. Suffering financial woes, the railroad proposed demolishing Grand Central and replacing it with a flamboyant 80-story tower by architect I.M. Pei. Ultimately, the railroad spared the station, choosing instead to build a skyscraper in place of its offices north of the terminal. Work began in 1960 on the 59-story Pan Am (now MetLife) Building. But Even though Grand Central didn’t fall victim to the wrecking ball, it did fall victim to age, budget cuts, and neglect—as did much of New York’s infrastructure. Vandalism increased in the 1960s and 1970s. Repairs were delayed. Decades of grime covered the once-beautiful ceiling, and passengers shared waiting rooms with a swelling number of homeless men and women.

INTERVENTION

Pennsylvania Station, one of the city’s architectural gems, was demolished in 1963. That loss galvanized a broad-based movement to save Grand Central from a similar fate. But preservationists faced stiff opposition. There were many proposals for replacing or changing Grand Central, including a design by architect Marcel Breuer for a 55-story tower atop the terminal. The railroad, joined by eager developers, tussled with the new Landmarks Preservation Commission and challenged the landmarks law in court. To counter them, former first lady Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and architect Philip Johnson founded the Committee to Save Grand Central Station in 1975.In 1978, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld Grand Central’s landmark status. The building was saved from destruction, but not from neglect.   

“Europe has its cathedrals, and we have Grand Central Station. Europe wouldn’t put a tower on a cathedral.”

Phillip Johnson, The New York Times, January 31, 1975

RESTORATION AND REBIRTH

The Landmarks Preservation Commission protected Grand Central from demolition, but the dilapidated terminal was still ailing. Restoring its former glory required an owner that recognized the station’s beauty and potential, craftsmen able to renovate its battered décor, and strong public support. It also required money. In 1982, Metro-North took over the terminal—now primarily a commuter hub—and launched a four-year, $12 million repair program that stopped further deterioration but didn’t erase decades of decay. In 1990, Metro-North announced ambitious plans to restore the station’s structural, architectural, and decorative glory. Peter E. Stangl, Metro-North’s first president and later Chairman of the MTA, led these efforts. Metro-North’s vision went far beyond simply refurbishing the building. Its master plan reimagined Grand Central as a vibrant shopping and dining destination, reclaiming its role as New York’s town square.

“Is it not cruel to let our city die by degrees, stripped of all her proud monuments, until there will be nothing left of all her history and beauty to inspire our children…?”

Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis
Writing to Mayor Abe Beame
1975

THE NEXT 100 YEARS

The struggle to save and restore Grand Central preserved an icon of New York’s past. In coming decades, the challenge will be ensuring that Grand Central serves New York’s future. The terminal must remain an uplifting, glorious public space, but it also must meet the region’s evolving transportation needs. Current work to expand Grand Central by opening it to commuters from Long Island is an exciting first step in launching its second 100 years.

FROM EAST…TO EAST

You live on Long Island, which is east of Manhattan. You work on Manhattan’s East Side. Yet your commute takes you across town and leaves you on the West Side. What’s wrong with this picture? East Side access will bring Long Island Rail Road (LIRR) trains to Grand Central, enabling an estimated 162,000 LIRR commuters who work on the East Side to avoid trekking from the West Side by bus, subway, taxi, or on foot. The expanded service—which has been on the drawing board since the late 1960s—also will establish connections between the LIRR and Metro-North lines, as well as linking Grand Central to the JFK Airport via the AirTrain through Jamaica Station in Queens.

DIG IT!

Step outside Grand Central. Look around. You’ll notice a building or two. Maybe some cars. The neighborhood is among the most densely packed in the world, with streets, skyscrapers, people, and traffic above ground and a labyrinth of cables, sewers, steam pipes, and of course train tracks below. Bringing the Long Island Rail Road to this crowded urban thicket is challenging. Seven Eight miles of new underground track will link Grand Central to the LIRR facilities in Harold Interlocking in Queens Long Island City via the existing 63rd Street tunnel. Excavating the new connections requires different equipment on either side of the river: soft-ground boring machines for the sand and gravel in Queens, hard-rock machines to slice through solid rock in Manhattan.

TOMORROW’S TERMINAL

The new Long Island Rail terminal—Manhattan’s first major terminal in more than 90 years—will be underground: 140 feet below Park Avenue, between 44th and 48th Streets. In the lower terminal, steel and glass will create a sleek, modern feel. As passengers rise toward the 350,000 passenger concourse and street level, however, visual references to Grand Central’s Beaux-Arts style will create a smooth transition to the century-old landmark above. The East Side Access project will provide eight new miles of track to connect Long Island Rail Road to Grand Central Terminal. Transportation efficiency meets energy efficiency! Green design at the new LIRR concourse and terminal will combine maximum comfort with minimal power and water use. Explore how it is being constructed beneath Grand Central Terminal and exactly how tunnel boring machines operate.

NEW YORK TRANSIT MUSEUM

The New York Transit Museum, one of the city’s leading cultural institutions, is the largest museum in the United States devoted to urban public transportation history, and one of the premier institutions of its kind in the world. The Museum explores the development of the greater New York metropolitan region through the presentation of exhibitions, tours, educational programs, and workshops delving into the cultural, social, and technological history of public transportation.

“Grand By Design” was originally on display in Vanderbilt Hall February 1 to March 15, 2013 to commemorate the Centennial of Grand Central Terminal. The exhibition was also displayed at the Riverfront Library in Yonkers, New York January 11 to March 17, 2014.

© 2014−2017 New York Transit Museum

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