Stay Informed! Join our mailing list:

Grand Central Terminal

Location

New York, NY
United States

Grand Central Terminal exterior, ca. 1916. Courtesy of the Frances Loeb Library, Graduate School of Design, Harvard University.

Sometimes listed as Grand Central Station, Grand Central.

Description

The Grand Central Railroad Terminal was constructed from 1903 until 1913. The Beaux-Arts style train terminal at 42nd Street and Park Avenue was the result of design competition. Prior to the competition, there were various incarnations of railroad depots in its place as early as the 1830s. The Grand Central Depot, designed by John B. Snook, was built as an L-shape building in 1869 to house the New York and Harlem Railroad, the New Haven and Hartford Railroad, and the Hudson River and New York Central Railroad1. By 1898, the building was insufficient for meeting the growing needs of transportation networks. This led William J. Wilgus, the chief railroad engineer, to propose tearing down the depot and constructing a new station in its place. The competition for its design was held in 1903 and won by the architecture firm Reed and Stem of St. Paul, Minnesota2. They proposed a 22-story neo-Renaissance building equipped with ramps leading to the platforms. Whitney Warren, of the Warren and Wetmore architecture firm, proposed revisions to the original Reed and Stem plan. Warren and Wetmore were then commissioned to work in collaboration with Reed and Stem in 1904. Under Wetmore’s influence, the building was constructed in a French Beaux-Arts fashion, featuring a monumental and grandiose main concourse. The interior ceiling was painted by French artist, Paul Cesar Helleu, and depicts the night sky3. The main façade features a sculptural group by Jules Alexis, showing the mythological figures Mercury, Minerva and Hercules. At the time of its construction, it was considered the largest group of sculptures in the world4. William J. Wilgus acted as the chief engineer of the Grand Central Terminal and developed a bi-level station, since the new electric trains could be housed underground5. This functioned to free up air rights for property development above the street. The proposed upper stories of the station were originally put on hold but were never built. By February 2, 1913, the station had officially opened. The construction of Grand Central lasted 10 years and cost 80 million dollars6. Grand Central Terminal was designated a New York City Landmark in 1967, and listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1976.

Designation Status

NYC Landmark Designation

Current Status

In 1994, the firms of LaSalle Partners and Williams Jackson Ewing were chosen by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority to redevelop the Grand Central Terminal. Grand Central Station continues to serve as a transportation hub that connects train, metro, car and pedestrian traffic7.

Key Dates in Preservation Activity

September 1954 - Plans to replace Grand Central Terminal are announced.1954 - New York Central Railroad proposes a plan to tear down Grand Central Station and construct construct a skyscraper (to function as office space) in its place.August 1960 - The plans are announced to create the "Grand Central Bowl," a bowling alley to be constructed atop of the station.

Preservation Campaigns

  • Fight to Save Grand Central

    In 1954, Robert Young, chairman of Central Railroad, consulted with architect and real estate advisers as to how best to utilize the air space over Grand Central Station. Architects Webb and Knapp advised the construction of a 5 million square foot office building to be constructed as a single tower with 80 stories1. Consequently, New York Central Railroad proposed a plan to tear down Grand Central Station and construct a skyscraper (to function as office space) in its place.

    New York organizations with an interest in preservation rallied to stop the demolition. The City Club, Citizen's Union and Municipal Art Society all sought to create an alternate plan2. Additionally, the threatened demolition of Grand Central Station was one of the factors that motivated Albert S. Bard to draft the Bard Act (the enabling legislation to the New York Landmarks Law)3.

    Battle Against the Bowling Alley

    In August of 1960, a plan was proposed to utilize the 58 feet of unused air space above the floor of Grand Central Terminal’s waiting room, in order to create a three-floor bowling alley. The first eleven feet would continue to be used as a waiting room. Proponents argued that this addendum would bring light and air conditioning to this section of the structure4. Architects Harmon Goldstone, and Victor Gruen, as well as Robert C. Weinberg all opposed the addition of a bowling alley in Grand Central Station5. The Board of Standards and Appeals denied the application for the "Grand Central Bowl," and thus thanks to zoning restrictions, it was never constructed6.

    Penn Central Vs. New York City Supreme Court Case

    In 1965 Penn Central Railroad Co. proposed plans to erect a multi-story building designed by Marcel Breuer, above the station7. Since Grand Central Terminal was a landmarked building and subject to regulatory control by the city, the proposal was turned downed by the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission.The Penn Central Railroad Co. sued the city of New York, citing that the New York City Landmarks law resulted in a "taking" of property without just compensation therefore violating their 5th amendment rights.

    The Municipal Art Society, spearheaded by Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, launched a campaign to save Grand Central Terminal8.The case was eventually brought before the Supreme Court in 1978. The Supreme Court case established the constitutionality of landmarking buildings for the benefit of the public. Due to massive urban renewal projects taking place across the nation, all cities were facing the demolition of their historic buildings. In a pivotal decision, the Supreme Court ruled that the landmarks law did not result in a taking of property since the terminal still continued to function as a train station, and Penn Central Railroad Co. had the opportunity to transfer property air rights for economic gain9. Furthermore, under the "Police Power", the landmarks law benefited the public welfare by preserving historic buildings and their enduring historical legacy for generations to come10.

    This decision further strengthened the New York City Landmarks Law affirming that regulatory control of historic structures was constitutional. The Supreme Court's decision reflected the zeitgeist of the time in which protecting the aesthetic and historic integrity of buildings in American cities was for the public good. Ultimately, the Supreme Court's decision reverberated nationwide and served as a paragon for preservation legislation in other American cities.

     

    1"Robert Young’s Latest Idea: Erect 'Biggest' Office Building in the World at Grand Central," New York Times; September 18, 1954.

    2Anthony C. Wood. Preserving New York: Winning the Right to Protect A City's Landmarks. (New York: Routledge, 2007). Page 138.

    3Ibid., 139.

    4T. Keily, Manager, "Letter to the Editor," New York Times; August 24, 1960.

    5White., Jr., Gordon S. "Terminal to get Bowling Alleys; Three Floor Center will be Built into Waiting Room of Grand Central," New York Times; August 4, 1960.

    6Anthony C. Wood. Preserving New York: Winning the Right to Protect A City's Landmarks. (New York: Routledge, 2007). Page 265.

    7Fowler, Glenn. "Grand Central Tower Will Top Pan Am Building; 55- story Tower Will Rise 150 Higher Than Adjacent Pan Am Building." New York Times;June 20, 1968.

    8"Celebrities Ride the Rails to Save Grand Central." New York Times;April 17, 1978.

    9 PENN CENTRAL TRANSP. CO. v. NEW YORK CITY, 438 U.S. 104 (1978).

    10 Ibid.

Archives, Personal files, and Ephemera

Penn Central Transportation Company records, 1796-1986, bulk (1835-1974). New York Public LibraryRoom 328Fifth Avenue and 42nd StreetNew York, NY 10018-2788(212) 930-0801Warren & WetmoreDrawings & ArchivesAvery Architectural & Fine Arts LibraryColumbia University1172 Amsterdam AvenueNew York, NY 10027(212)854-4410avery-drawings@libraries.cul.columbia.edu

  • 1. Fitch, James Marston and Diane Waite. Grand Central Terminal and Rockefeller Center: A Historical-Critical Estimate of Significance New York State Parks and Recreation Department: Division for Historic Preservation, 1974.
  • 2. Ibid.
  • 3. Pitts, Carolyn. Grand Central Station. National Register of Historic Places Inventory - Nomination. National Park Service. August 11, 1976.
  • 4. Ibid.
  • 5. Fitch, James Marston and Diane Waite. Grand Central Terminal and Rockefeller Center: A Historical-Critical Estimate of Significance New York State Parks and Recreation Department: Division for Historic Preservation, 1974.
  • 6. http://www.grandcentralterminal.com/info/grandcentralterminal.cfm
  • 7. http://www.aviewoncities.com/nyc/grandcentralterminal.htm