Several weeks ago, I had the privilege of participating in a tour of Grand Central Terminal with Francis Marrone, the noted New York architectural historian. After perhaps a thousand trips in and out of the terminal wearing blinders, he pointed out the richness of details, large and small, and the remarkable and enduring mystery and myth of the building that transformed New York in 1913.The impact of this landmark architectural treasure was by no means certain when it opened since train travel was in its infancy nor were the changes created by the renovation anticipated. It has become a hub for the comings and goings of about 750,000 people a day.
Grand Central is a monumental place with hidden staircases, mysterious underground vaults, cavernous halls and even a secluded platform for arriving Presidents. There are 6 secret staircases, a gigantic 13 foot diameter clock with Tiffany glass that faces 42nd Street as well as limestone sculptures of Minerva, Hercules and Mercury. It is the world’s largest rail terminal with 43 platforms. The grand concourse is a half acre of Tennessee limestone and, if you take a moment to look up, the constellations are painted on the the vaulted ceiling guiding travelers as they have for centuries.
It took 10 years to construct the terminal after nearly 3 million cubic yards of earth and rock were excavated from the property. It sits on 48 acres with a perimiter road that circles it and underground passages that link to the building beyond. Reed & Stem, a St. Paul architectural firm, won the competition to design the building (having designed other stations for the New York Central railroad). The New York firm of Warren & Wetmore, with connections to the buildings’ owner, William Vanderbilt, managed to become the architects along side the St. Paul group. It was not a harmonious relationship but the result was an extraordinary design inside and out.
After a long downward slide the New York Central railroad was virtually bankrupt with no alternatives to generate revenue; the station turned into a media circus with billboards, Muzak and any other commercial potential exploited without regard for architectural integrity of the building. It was not until 1990 after years of legal wrangling that Grand Central became a “Landmark” , thanks to the efforts of Jackie Onassis and many other civic minded New Yorkers. Metro-North announced a $425 million dollar revitalization plan conceived by the architectural firm of Beyer Blinder Belle to transform the terminal into a destination. As it celebrates its 100th birthday, it looks fabulous.
I am writing about Grand Central for several reasons. It is architecturally outstanding, it has beautiful spatial quality, there are elegant details everywhere, I love the uncluttered walls, the soft palette, the American limestone and the romance of millions of people coming and going every day. It is an inspirational space. Don’t forget to have a look around the next time you pass through.
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