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A Magazine of Ideas

Congratulations! You Have Arrived at the Greatest City on Earth

Friday, February 8, 2013

I have never failed to be moved by Grand Central’s incomparable (and irreplaceable) architectural grandeur.

One hundred years ago this week, the largest railroad station in the world officially opened for business after 10 years of construction. Today, Grand Central Terminal serves upward of 500,000 people a day and is, without doubt, the most famous railroad station on the planet.

It has been the setting for history. Winston Churchill spoke there shortly after Pearl Harbor. Six thousand people once turned out to see a former president of the New York Stock Exchange, convicted of embezzlement, board a train headed to Sing Sing Prison. Countless movies (“North by Northwest” and “Superman” are two of the most famous) have been shot there.

And it all began with a disaster. In January 1902, an engineer, blinded by the smoke from coal-burning locomotives in the tunnel under Park Avenue, slammed into a train ahead of him and 15 people died. The state decreed that steam-powered locomotives would be banned from Manhattan no later than July 1, 1908, and so the New York Central Railroad had to do something.

While many in the railroad’s management saw only a great expense, the chief engineer, William Wilgus, thought large and saw a great commercial opportunity.

When the original Grand Central was built in 1871, 42nd Street was not far from the developed city’s northern edge. The vast train yard to the north of the station was largely unseen. But the city had continued to roar up Manhattan Island, and the train yard — which extended from Madison Avenue to Lexington, and from 44th Street to 50th — blighted what had become Midtown. Further, the station was now far too small, handling three times the number of people as it had three decades earlier.

This was a breathtakingly new concept in urban planning, one that has been utilized around the world ever since.

As long as steam engines were used, however, the rail yard had to remain open, filling the neighborhood with its smoke, noise, and ugliness. But once the trains were electrified, the rail yard could be closed and built over. The value of the neighboring real estate, much of it already owned by the New York Central, would soar. So Wilgus proposed that the station be greatly enlarged and the tracks lowered 30 feet below grade, with two levels — one for suburban trains and the other for long distance.

It was an immense project, involving the removal of 2.8 million cubic yards of rock and dirt (fortunately there was a railroad handy to haul away the spoil). Wilgus also wanted to integrate the new station with the city’s local transportation network, having Park Avenue swing around the building, while the subways, just then being built, would be accessible from inside the station. This was a breathtakingly new concept in urban planning, one that has been utilized around the world ever since.

The biggest problem, of course, was that while the old station was being demolished, the tracks lowered and roofed over, and the new station built, the trains would have to continue to run and 100,000 people needed to pass through the vast construction site every business day. The contemporaneous Panama Canal was being built in a jungle. Grand Central had to be built at the very heart of the biggest city in the Western Hemisphere while that heart continued to beat.

The architectural firms of Reed and Stem and Warren and Wetmore were hired to design the new terminal. (Grand Central is a terminal not a station — although it is very often called one — because trains begin or end their runs there, so Grand Central is always at the end or beginning of the line.)

The architects created a masterpiece. While Grand Central is in the then-dominant style for major buildings — Beaux Arts — it is remarkably innovative and forward looking. The great glass windows that soar on the eastern and western ends of the main concourse connect parts of the upper office floors with walkways. Even today, tourists are sometimes startled to see people seemingly floating on air as they cross the windows several stories up. The lights between the dentils of the cornice that surrounds the room below the barrel-vaulted roof were the very first use of lights for architecturally decorative purposes rather than illumination.

Grand Central had to be built at the very heart of the biggest city in the Western Hemisphere while that heart continued to beat.

The sky-blue ceiling of the main concourse has 2,500 stars painted on it, each in its correct astronomical place (except that the whole star map is backward, for reasons that remain mysterious to this day). The 59 brightest stars, however, are not painted — they are electric lights that shine at the proper relative magnitudes.

The Beaux-Arts style went deeply out of fashion after World War I, and the declining fortunes of the American railroad industry led to deferred maintenance and the commercialization of the main concourse. By the 1960s it was shabby, its once sky-blue ceiling darkened by cigarette smoke from countless millions of waiting passengers, its skylights painted over from World War II. There were proposals to demolish the building and build a skyscraper above it (a project that would have saved the facade but little else).

Fortunately, New Yorkers like Jacqueline Kennedy and Brendan Gill of The New Yorker magazine fought to save the building. Beautifully restored to its original condition in the 1990s by its current owner, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, it is now a mecca not only for travelers but also for customers in what has become a very upscale shopping mall.

As a life-long New Yorker, I have passed through the main concourse literally thousands of times. I have never failed to be moved by its incomparable (and irreplaceable) architectural grandeur. As wide as a city block, the room soars higher than a 12-story building, and its volume exceeds that of 1,000 typical New York apartments. It practically shouts, “Congratulations! You have arrived in the greatest city on Earth.”

And who could argue with such a space?

John Steele Gordon has written several books on business and financial history, the latest of which is the revised edition of Hamilton's Blessing: The Extraordinary Life and Times of Our National Debt.

FURTHER READING: Gordon also writes “The Personal Income Tax at 100,” “Voyager I at the Heliopause,” “The Politically Correct Calendar,” and “Debt and the Constitution.” Michael M. Rosen discusses “The Real Problem With High-Speed Rail.” Daniel Hanson says “End the Amtrak Experiment.”

Image Credit: Viad G /