For many, it may be hard to grasp that where Grand Central Terminal stands today we could have had massive office towers and no magnificent train station. But it’s important to never forget. In the 1950s and 1960s on separate occasions, developers and Penn Central Railroad launched plans that would have destroyed Grand Central. Ultimately, however, after many people – prominently among them, leading architects and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis – organized to oppose such plans, and the New York Landmarks Preservation Commission pursued legal battles about its landmarking powers, those who sought to save Grand Central Terminal won. What has this meant to New York City?
Consider that before the threats occurred to Grand Central, another campaign to save a historic and stunning civic structure, Pennsylvania Station, had failed. The then-declining Pennsylvania Railroad began to demolish the station in 1963, a destruction that took three years. After that tragic loss, the City of New York established the Landmarks Preservation Commission. Today, when you walk around the current Pennsylvania Station and nearby blocks, you find an area lacking soul and a train station that feels like a poorly planned, crowded suburban mall where people happen to catch trains. At Grand Central, the opposite has occurred.
This coming week, Grand Central turns 100 years old. The terminal opened on Feb. 2, 1913. Tomorrow, Feb. 1, MTA Metro-North Railroad, which operates Grand Central Terminal, and other entities are throwing a huge 100th birthday party, and they will follow up with events and exhibits in 2013.
Today, Grand Central is a vital link through which some 700,000 people travel each day on trains and subways – somehow, in the station’s efficiently and elegantly planned waiting rooms and concourse, not bumping into each other. Moreover, it’s one of the world’s most-visited and loved tourist destinations as well as a place that New Yorkers continue to thoroughly enjoy and prize.
That we have the beauty, function, and rich experience of Grand Central today is not only a testament to those who fought for it and continue to build on and maintain its heritage, but to the genius of its original architects. The architectural firm of Reed & Stern did the overall planning, while Warren & Wetmore designed and executed the spectacular Beaux Arts style and details. Credit the MTA Metro-North Railroad, too, for undertaking a major makeover and restoration in the 1990s to rehabilitate a long-decaying terminal.
To appreciate why Grand Central’s survival matters, let’s adapt a premise from the movie It’s a Wonderful Life. What if Grand Central Terminal had not been saved – if this splendid historic building had been, in effect, killed by demolishing all or a significant part of it? Think about the difference it would make to New York City and the world if Grand Central hadn’t survived and wasn’t here anymore. How many grandparents would have missed out on showing their grandkids the Sky Ceiling in the Main Concourse? How many folks would never have experienced the “Whispering Gallery”? How about the woman who savored some slices of Tuscan salami made with fennel before heading back to her Midwest home? What different experiences would commuters departing and arriving on Metro-North trains have had all of these years – almost certainly not having that expansive, welcoming concourse before dashing out onto the city’s hectic streets? [Read more →]