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Grand Central Terminal

Also known as Grand Central Railroad Terminal and Grand Central Station

The iconic Grand Central Terminal was the center of a pivotal U.S. Supreme Court case which affirmed that the regulatory control of historic structures was constitutional.

Location: 89 East 42nd Street, New York, NY  |  Google Maps
Neighborhood: Midtown Manhattan
People: Jules Alexis, Albert S. Bard, Marcel Breuer, Harmon Goldstone, Victor Gruen, Paul Cesar Helleu, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Whitney Warren, Robert C. Weinberg, William J. Wilgus, Robert Young
Organizations: Central Railroad, City Club, Citizens Union, Metropolitan Transportation Authority, Municipal Art Society, New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission
Above: Grand Central Terminal, 1941; Courtesy of the Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division

Grand Central Terminal was constructed from 1903 until 1913. The Beaux-Arts style train terminal at 42nd Street and Park Avenue was the result of a 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-shaped 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 Railroad.1 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, Minnesota.2 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 main concourse. The interior ceiling was painted by French artist, Paul Cesar Helleu, and depicts the night sky.3 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 world.4 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 underground.5 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.6 Grand Central Terminal was designated a New York City Landmark in 1967, and listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1976.

Grand Central Terminal was designated a New York City Landmark in 1967, and placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1976. In 1994, the firms of LaSalle Partners and Williams Jackson Ewing were chosen by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority to redevelop Grand Central Terminal. Grand Central continues to serve as a transportation hub that connects train, subway, vehicle, and pedestrian traffic.7

1954: New York Central Railroad proposes a plan to tear down Grand Central Station and construct an office tower in its place.

August 1960: Plans are announced to create the "Grand Central Bowl," a bowling alley to be constructed atop the station

1965: Penn Central Railroad Co. proposes plans to erect a multi-story building designed by Marcel Breuer above the station

1967: Grand Central Terminal is designated a New York City Landmark

1976: Grand Central Terminal is placed on the National Register of Historic Places

1978: The U. S. Supreme Court upholds the landmark status of Grand Central Terminal

1994: The firms of LaSalle Partners and Williams Jackson Ewing were chosen by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority to redevelop Grand Central Terminal

In 1954, Robert Young, chairman of New York Central Railroad, consulted with architect and real estate advisers as to how best to utilize the air space over Grand Central Terminal. Architects Webb and Knapp advised the construction of a five million square foot office building to be constructed as a single tower with 80 stories.8 Consequently, New York Central Railroad proposed a plan to tear down Grand Central Terminal 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, Citizens Union, and Municipal Art Society all sought to create an alternate plan.9 Additionally, the threatened demolition of Grand Central Terminal was one of the factors that motivated Albert S. Bard to draft the Bard Act (the enabling legislation to the New York Landmarks Law).10

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 addition would bring light and air conditioning to this section of the structure.11 Architects Harmon Goldstone and Victor Gruen, as well as Robert C. Weinberg, all opposed the addition of the bowling alley.12 The Board of Standards and Appeals denied the application for the "Grand Central Bowl," and thus thanks to zoning restrictions, it was never constructed.13

In 1965 Penn Central Railroad Co. proposed plans to erect a multi-story building designed by Marcel Breuer, above the station.14 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 Fifth Amendment rights. The Municipal Art Society, spearheaded by Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, launched a campaign to save Grand Central Terminal.15

The case was eventually brought before the U.S. 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 New York City 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 gain.16 Furthermore, under the "Police Power," the Landmarks Law benefited the public welfare by preserving historic buildings and their enduring historical legacy for generations to come.17

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. 
James Marston Fitch 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. 
Carolyn Pitts, “Grand Central Station. National Register of Historic Places Inventory – Nomination,” National Park Service 11 August 1976.
  4. 
Ibid.
  5. 
James Marston Fitch 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. Grand Central Terminal website
  7. “Grand Central Terminal: Grand Central Station,” A View on Cities 11 February 2016.
  8. “Robert Young’s Latest Idea: Erect ‘Biggest’ Office Building in the World at Grand Central,” The New York Times, 18 September 1954.
  9. Anthony C. Wood, Preserving New York: Winning the Right to Protect A City’s Landmarks (New York: Routledge, 2007), page 138.
  10. Ibid, page 139.
  11. Manager Keily, “Letter to the Editor,” The New York Times, 24 August 1960.
  12. 
Gordon S., Jr., “Terminal to get Bowling Alleys; Three Floor Center will be Built into Waiting Room of Grand Central,” The New York Times 4 August 1960.
  13. Anthony C. Wood, Preserving New York: Winning the Right to Protect A City’s Landmarks (New York: Routledge, 2007), page 265.
  14. Glenn Fowler, “Grand Central Tower Will Top Pan Am Building; 55- story Tower Will Rise 150 Higher Than Adjacent Pan Am Building.” The New York Times, 20 June 1968.
  15. “Celebrities Ride the Rails to Save Grand Central,” The New York Times 17 April 1978.
  16. PENN CENTRAL TRANSP. CO. v. NEW YORK CITY, 438 U.S. 104 (1978).
  17. Ibid.