Railroads have always fascinated me. From the sounds of the distant frieght trains along the tressle bridge over the Mid Hudson in Poughkeepsie to the city frieghts moving from Bush Terminal in Brooklyn to unknown places.
This City Scapes post about Grand Central Station in New York City is in response to a request from Shelley Freydont.
Grand Central Station, built in 1913 is the largest train station in the world, yet it is more … much more than a railroad station to many New Yorkers. She is the central place to meet, through the 43rd Street exit to Lexington Avenue, up the triple wide marble staircase to Fifth Avenue, a ride on the escalator into the Pan Am building, or to the lower level dinning concourse …
Perchance to the famous Oyster Bar.
She is the life force that pumps into the veins and arteries, nourishing our economy, carrying commerce, mail, news, cargo and millions of passengers to feed the beasts of our urban jungle. Her tunnels blast into the sun to slice through two states and bank along the Hudson River, riding into the night to points north.
Her thousands of feet of rails and dozens of ramps, underground tunnels and wide passageways link to subways that travel to four of our five boroughs, and leave others at the base of Manhattan for the Staten Island Ferry to our fifth borough.
From the subways in Brooklyn or Manhattan, Grand Central is the place I traveled with my family and alone to both Westchester and Dutchess Counties for dozens of years.
My first memory of Grand Central Station is of a hot August morning. I was five and attached to my mother, as she switched her gloved hands to hold me and her camel-colored Samsonitte suitcase.
My father, tall strapping, his back military straight, his Fedora hat positioned perfectly over his salt and pepper waves, held three more pieces of mis-matched luggage; one in each hand, one under his arm.
The older of my brothers kept an even stride with our father, holding a giant blue leather suitcase, and two smaller cases, and always the middle one walking on their heels, doing double time to keep time with the two giants.
Historic references and this b/w photo were taken from TLC Grand:
The “Commodore” Creates Grand Central Depot:
Shipping magnate “Commodore” Cornelius Vanderbilt acquired the Hudson River Railroad in 1864. Soon after, Vanderbilt added the New York Central Railroad to his holdings and consolidated his position by creating a rail link between Spuyten Duyvil and Mott Haven, allowing Hudson River trains to arrive at a common East Side terminal. In 1869, Vanderbilt purchased property between 42nd and 48th Streets, Lexington and Madison Avenue for construction of a new train depot and rail yard. On this site would rise the first Grand Central.
Grand Central Depot, designed by architect John B. Snook, was built at a cost of $6.4 million and opened in October 1871. Virtually obsolete at the time it opened it served three distinct rail lines, the New York Central and Hudson River Railroad, New York and Harlem Railroad, and the New York, New Haven, and Hartford Railroad, each of which maintained its own waiting room, baggage facilities and ticketing operation at the station. Subsequent renovations and enlargements culminated in the 1898 expansion of the depot under architect Bradford Lee Gilbert and further interior renovation in 1900 directed by Samuel Huckel, Jr.
Grand Central Depot
The headhouse building containing passenger service areas and railroad offices was an “L” shape with a short leg running east-west on 42nd Street and a long leg running north-south on Vanderbilt Avenue. The train shed, north and east of the head house, had two innovations in U.S. practice: the platforms were elevated to the height of the cars, and the roof was a balloon shed with a clear span over all of the tracks. The Harlem, Hudson and New Haven trains were initially in side by side different stations, which created chaos in baggage transfer. The combined Grand Central Depot serviced all three railroads. (Reference and photo link)
There Once Was a Grand Central Station:
Reborn as “Grand Central Station,” the reconfigured depot’s most prominent feature was undoubtedly its enormous train shed. Constructed of glass and steel, the 100-foot wide by 650 foot long structure rivaled the Eiffel Tower and Crystal Palace for primacy as the most dramatic engineering achievement of the 19th century. The updated station also 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. In fact, one of these eagles was recently salvaged and will rise again above Grand Central Terminal’s new entrance at 43rd Street and Lexington Avenue.
Outside the station, the clock in front of the Grand Central facade facing 42nd Street contains the world’s largest example of Tiffany glass and is surrounded by sculptures carved by the John Donnelly Company of Minerva, Hermes and Mercury. For the terminal building French sculptor Jules-Felix Coutan created what was at the time of its unveiling (1914) considered to be the largest sculptural group in the world. It was 48 feet high, the clock in the center having a circumference of 13 feet.
When I first heard the news of Jacqueline Kennedy Onasis’ battle to preserve Grand Central, it had been quite some time since I used the railroad to travel. Delighted to remain in Brooklyn, I contented myself with bike wheels instead of train wheels. I also loved radio and kept the music and news on all hours of the day and night.
It was during one of those late night news programs I heard JKO’s mission to save the railroad station from falling victim to over zealous developers as so many beautiful historic buildings before her; notably the original Metropolitan Opera House.
In 1968, Penn Central unveiled plans for a tower designed by Marcel Breuer than the Pan Am Building to be built over Grand Central. The plans drew huge opposition, most prominently from Jacqueline Kennedy Onasis. She said:
“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? If they are not inspired by the past of our city, where will they find the strength to fight for her future? Americans care about their past, but for short term gain they ignore it and tear down everything that matters. Maybe… this is the time to take a stand, to reverse the tide, so that we won’t all end up in a uniform world of steel and glass boxes.”
Six months prior to the unveiling of the Breuer plans, however, the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission designated Grand Central a “landmark.” Penn Central was unable to secure permission from the Commission. The Court saved the terminal, holding that New York City’s Landmarks Preservation Act did not constitute a “taking” of Penn Central’s property under the Fifth Amendment and was a reasonable use of government land-use regulatory power. (Reference link)
Mrs. Onasis worked tirelessly for years to have Grand Central Statioin declared a historic site; thus protected and cherished for our grandchildren. Millions were raised for restoration during her life, and continued after she passed. Millions more to fund and construct the planned underground tunnel to connect Grand Central Station to Penn Station and thus to the rest of the country.
NYC-Architecture.com has one of the most detailed histories and complete set of original renderings and photographs available on the internet.
EXPLORING SOME OF HER SECRETS:
Take time to visit 433MM to Creativity , a blog site by Sean Leahy, and read a more precise history of some of the many secrets held within the cavernous expanse of the famous terminal.
Officially there are 7 secrets to Grand Central Terminal, some hidden in plain sight, some not so easily seen. What are the 7 secrets?
1. The clock on main concourse above the information booth – the clock faces are made from Opal and it is worth between 10 and 20 million dollars.
2. The grand staircases on the east and west ends of the concourse – the eastern staircase is a few inches shorter and newer than the western staircase.
3. The constellations on the ceiling are in the wrong perspective – as if looking down from the heavens, not up from Earth.
4. There is a hole in the ceiling – visible from the main floor.
5. There is a secret staircase, through a secret door in the middle of the concourse.
6. There is a “secret” super-sub-basement (the lowest space on the island) called the M42.
7. Franklin Roosevelt had a private platform built below the Waldorf Astoria. A boxcar still remains there from the Roosevelt era.
This new ceiling was obscured by decades of what was thought to be coal and deisel smoke. Spectroscopic examination revealed that it was mostly tar and nicotine from tobacco smoke. A single dark patch remains above the Michael Jordan Steakhouse, left by renovators to remind visitors of the grime that once covered the ceiling.
There are two peculiarities to this 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. (Reference)
Big Screen inspiration:
When Brian O. Selznick wrote “The Invention of Hugo Cabret,” a graphic novel about an orphan in 1930s Paris, he imagined the secret spaces of the Gare Montparnasse train station in Paris.
A private tour took Selznick to Grand Central’s deepest sub basement, its lost and found, along its catwalks and up into the clock tower. At each step along the way, the station gave up its secrets, which were eerily similar to the story of Hugo Cabret, a small boy who keeps the clocks running, steals to eat, and struggles to repair a lost automaton, his last connection to his dead father. (article found here)
Inside beats the heart of the city:
It would take at least two more posts to do the entire history of this magnificent edifice justice. Suffice to say that if you have the chance to travel to New York City, take the time to wander through this “grand” railroad station. If you live in New York, go see part of your history.
We owe a debt of graditude to the many who worked for so many years on each facet of this landmark and to those like Mrs. Onasis for preserving her for generations to come.
Her construction is a testament to a time honored tradition of hard work, vision, man power and the love of the craft of archittecture and design. She will continue to stand for all those who have passed through her and for those who have yet to know her.
Have you traveled to different places in the world and marveled at the amazing construction and design of other railroad stations?
Do you have suggestions for other places in New York City you would like to learn about?