There’s no place like Grand Central. The sheer scale and elegance of the main concourse transforms the daily commute into a complex choreography as commuters and tourists negotiate through the hallways, overheard conversations turn into mysterious plots of other people’s dramas, and what can be mundane becomes a unique experience. Grand Central has seen a steady tide of humanity for the past 100 years, becoming a beloved New York landmark.
The first Grand Station Station on 42nd Street was Grand Central Depot, a beautiful but almost immediately obsolete building that was shared by the Harlem, New Haven, and Vanderbilt’s New York Central Railroads. Its glass topped train yard, seen below, was based on St. Pancras in London and was the largest train station in the States at the time. Yet each railroad had its individual waiting rooms and tracks making it “ill-arranged, dark and repelling”. (For more of this fantastically in-depth complaint of the old station in the New York Times, click here and here.)
What was even worse than the interior was the jumble of tracks and belching of steam engines that rumbled down Fourth Avenue from Harlem. The streets from 42nd to 59th were intersected by train tracks which meant that merely crossing the street was so dangerous that for a while, Fourth Avenue was called “Death Avenue. (Read the fabulous 1913 article about the opening of the station.) This was more or less fine when the surrounding areas were still relatively rural, but as the population of New York increased and respectable classes moved farther uptown, it made the area less than desirable. Thankfully, a shift in technology came at just the right time. In 1900 trains were switching to electric power, which eliminated the unsightly steam, the omnipresent cinders, and noise. By 1903 steam engines were banned in the city, and with new tunnels effectively hiding all hints of the railroads, Fourth (or Death) Avenue completed its transformation into Park Avenue.
In 1903, as the plans for Penn Station were nearing completion, it was clear that a new Grand Central needed to be built if New York Central Railroad wanted to remain relevant. So the heads of New York Central had a contest for the new station that reads almost like a Who’s Who of Gilded Age architecture – even McKim, Mead and White submitted a proposal: Stanford White’s fanciful concept of a 60-story building topped by a tower of steam 300 feet tall and illuminated red at night.
But it was St. Louis architectural firm Reed & Stern that eventually got the commission. The New York firm of Warren & Wetmore became consulting architects mostly due to Whitney Warren being the cousin of William Vanderbilt. However tumultuous the relationship between the architects may have been, the resulting building was a perfect marriage of their ideals. Reed & Stern were responsible for the effortless blending of engineering and design, but it was Warren who elevated the building into art with Beaux-Arts details.
The construction of Grand Central was one of the biggest projects at that point in the history of Manhattan. 10 years passed; $65 million was spent; and 3.2 million cubic yards of earth and rock were removed. “The daily detritus, coupled with debris from the demolition of the old station, amounted to 1,000 cubic yards and filled nearly 300 railway dump cars…At peak periods, 10,000 workers were assigned to the site and work progressed around the clock.” (New York Times) The scope of the project is astounding: Grand Central was built on 70 acres with 31.8 miles of tracks and 30 platforms totally eclipsing its nearest competitor, Penn Station, which was built on 23 acres and boasted 16 miles of tracks and 11 platforms. Grand Central opened to the public on February 2, 1913 and New York has never been the same.
The New York Times reported that in its first day 150,000 people visited Grand Central and were immediately in awe. Some of the more incredible features that have since fallen the wayside, such as women-only shoe polishing rooms safe from men catching a glimpse of ankle, and of course a separate hair parlor just in case the commute made her curls limp. What is really amazing is that for a mere 25 cents a woman could hire a private dressing room complete with a maid to make sure she would be ready for any social function. Men were not left out of these kinds of perks. They had private barber shops which offered shaves by a team of barbers who could speak up to 30 languages. A man could also rent a valet to make sure he was flawlessly fashionable. And if tragedy were to strike either sex, the station doctor would be there within moments to treat them. It was the epitome of luxury.
For the next 50 years Grand Central was the epicenter of New York. Everyone passed through the terminal. However, the decline of train travel affected Grand Central as much as it did the less fortunate Penn Station. During World War II the once grand skylights were painted over. By the 1950s, decades of nicotine tar coated the once blue constellation-adorned ceiling, and the east balcony had been covered with a giant Kodak advertisement. During the 1970s and 1980s it became the center of one of largest homeless populations in New York.
In 1963, Pennsylvania Station was demolished (read our previous blog about its destruction here) and by 1975 it looked like Grand Central would be next on the chopping block. But thanks to the recently created Landmark Preservation Board and supporters like Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, it was spared from becoming an office building.
Starting in 1993, Grand Central underwent a badly needed restoration and has now returned to its previous glory. Sunlight is again streaming in, the constellations twinkle on the ceiling, and the mere act of traveling is once again elegant.
Click here for more images of Grand Central from the Museum’s collection.