Last Friday, I had the occasion to take a 5:30 a.m.train out of Grand Central Station. Usually I approach the station from below by climbing the stairs with the other passengers from the Times Square shuttle. But since it was so early, I indulged in a car service, and the driver let me out at the entrance to the Met Life Building where the lobby connects to an escalator going down to the concourse.
The commuters had not yet begun arriving at that early hour and without the distraction of a hurrying crowd and because of my elevated perspective, I saw the concourse with new eyes. Slowly descending into the huge, glorious interior, I had plenty of time to really take it in: the massive stone pillars, the 60-foot arched windows, the polished marble floor, the brass and marble information booth, the iconic clock with its four faces made of opal, the richly ornamented ticket booths, the gold-plated chandeliers, and of course the vaulted star-studded ceiling of cerulean blue with its golden tracery of the constellations. I was simply awestruck by the beauty of this building.
And to think we could have lost it!
In 1913 the new Beaux Arts terminal building opened on the site of its predecessor. Underground electrified tracks replaced the open tracks that had blighted Park Avenue where the trains powered by steam engines had approached the old station, and the beautifully designed terminal building became a source of pride for New Yorkers. The construction of the new terminal had taken ten years. The romantic era of travel by train ensued, and Grand Central Station became the terminus for an increasing number of departures and arrivals to and from the West.
However, times change,and after World War II, long distance travel by train declined as travel by automobile and plane became possible and popular. The terminal building became less important as a transportation hub.
In 1967, Grand Central Terminal was designated a landmarked site. But it was showing its age.
In 1968, Penn Central, the owner of the building, by then in dire financial straits, arranged with a British firm to construct a 55-story office building above and across the south portion of the terminal, which would have effectively obliterated it. The Landmarks Preservation Commission refused permission for this destructive plan, and the railroad sued the City of New York, claiming that refusal of permission to build the tower constituted a “taking of their property without just compensation,” which is prohibited by the 5th and 14th Amendment to the United States Constitution. The parties then entered into a long process of litigation, during which time, in 1975, the State Supreme Court of New York decided in favor of Penn Central and revoked the landmark status of Grand Central.
At that point, Jackie Kennedy joined the Municipal Art Society in their campaign to save Grand Central, becoming the public face of the effort, working tirelessly with MAS. In countless rallies she spoke movingly of the need to protect our historical heritage. “If we don’t care about the past, we cannot hope for the future,” she said. “Maybe this is the time to take a stand,to reverse the tide so that we don’t all end up in a uniform world of steel and glass boxes.”
The matter was finally concluded in 1978 when the Supreme Court of the United States in a 6-3 decision affirmed the constitutionality of landmarking legislation. Thanks to the wonders of the digital age, you can actually hear the attorneys arguing before the Supreme Court and Chief Justice William Brennan announcing the opinion.
It was a victory not only for Grand Central and New York City but for the nation as a whole, for the regulatory power of local governments to protect their historic sites was now assured.
In 1994, Metro North Railroad took over the Terminal and commissioned the firm of Beyer, Blinder and Belle to undertake a restoration of the building. By then, the terminal served commuter passengers only, and was in a forlorn state of disrepair. It was dark and dirty, covered with decades of grime, and everywhere obtrusive advertising billboards obscured architectural detail. But the building was still there and the restoration, which took twelve years, finally proved the wisdom of saving this unique landmark.
Today Grand Central Terminal serves as a perfect example of how an historic structure can be restored, incorporating the efficiencies and comforts of the modern age and at the same time maintaining the essence and beauty of the irreplaceable original.
The Municipal Art Society offers tours of the Terminal Building every Wednesday.