Terminal's centennial to get the Grand treatment
Published 5:35 pm, Tuesday, August 2, 2011
The success of the New York Central Railroad experienced in the early 20th century also brought growing tension with New York City residents stuck in its midst, said Frank Prial, an architect who has been involved in the revitalization of Grand Central Terminal since the mid-1990s.
The original Grand Central Station had become choked with coal smoke and was too small for the daily traffic, while steam locomotives raced noisily above ground on Fourth Avenue belching the smoke into the open air, Prial said.
Fatal pedestrian accidents also helped stoke animosity toward Cornelius Vanderbilt, the steamboat magnate who owned the railroad, Prial said.
"Even after an expansion that had doubled the size of Grand Central Station, it was already obsolete," said Prial, an architect at Beyer, Blinder & Belle who is also serving as primary designer on the ongoing East Side Access Project to expand Grand Central Terminal. "The city had already banned locomotives south of 42nd Street and the trains scared horses and caused accidents."
A train collision in the Park Avenue Tunnel in 1902 that killed 17 people spurred William J. Wilgus, the railroad's chief engineer, to create the concept for Grand Central Terminal, a two-level underground rail station that would operate electric trains out of public sight.
Equally novel was Wilgus' proposal to Vanderbilt to sell real estate leases for the city blocks over the platforms and tracks running out of the station to pay the astronomical cost of building tunnels and electrifying the railroad, Prial said.
The sale of the leases was the first use by a railroad of so-called "air-rights," which would generate both enormous profit for the railroad and transform New York City in the process, Prial said.
"Wilgus realized you could put the trains underground and a roof up above and all that room north of the station could become developable lots," Prial said.
More InformationIsn't it Grand? • Grand Central Terminal was built for $80 million between 1903 and 1913, and opened Feb. 2, 1913 after 10 years of planning and construction. • After opening its doors at midnight on Feb. 2, 1913, more than 150,000 people visited the building by the next evening. • The current terminal has a total of 67 tracks, 41 on the lower level, and 26 on the upper placed along 44 platforms. When the ongoing East Side Access Project is completed to provide access for Long Island Railroad trains, there will be 75 tracks. • Grand Central Terminal's 80,000 square foot Main Concourse is constructed in the Beaux Arts architectural style, a school of architecture which incorporates aspects and forms of ancient Roman and Greek architecture and ornamentation. • The Main Concourse's ceiling is covered with a mural designed based on a painting by the French painter Paul Helleu, painted in gold leaf on cerulean blue oil and portrays the Mediterranean sky with October-to-March zodiac and 2,500 stars. • More than 750,000 people pass through Grand Central Terminal each weekday.
"Cornelius Vanderbilt also understood when he chose the station's location that there was only one direction to grow on the island. It was a case of the mountain eventually coming to Muhammed and the city coming to meet and eventually envelope the station."
This summer, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority has begun planning the centennial of Grand Central Terminal in 2013 with an exhibit on the history of the station, and is now seeking artifacts from collectors for display, officials said.
The exhibit is expected to open Feb. 1, 2013, and fill the 12,000-square-foot main waiting room known as Vanderbilt Hall.
In the previous century the terminal, which is admired for the Beaux Arts architecture, spurred the development of mid-town Manhattan giving rise to the landmarks like the Met-Life Building north of the terminal, the United Nations and the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel nearby.
Artifacts are being sought for the exhibit from rail buffs, collectors, historians, retired railroad employees and their survivors, to fill the room, said Gabrielle Shubert, director of the New York Transit Museum.
"The Transit Museum recognizes that many artifacts once were railroad property, but by saving railroad property as memorabilia, many private collectors are actually stewards of history," Shubert said. "We are hoping collectors will loan or donate their treasures to the Transit Museum so that we can share the history of this great building with all New Yorkers."
Today the terminal serves more than 750,000 people traveling on Metro-North railroad each day, and the railroad has spent tens of millions over the past two decades to recapture the terminal's original glory as well as make other changes to modernize it, said Prial, who helped supervise those projects.
In the mid-1990s, Metro-North reorganized entrance passageways to boost the amount of retail space and improve navigation through the terminal for pedestrians.
"The primary goal was to prepare what had been a 19th-century building for the 21st century," Prial said. "All those corridors could be opened up into grand boulevards with shops and new stores."
The decline in long distance rail travel due to the popularity of automobiles and more accessible air travel eventually forced the New York Central Railroad to merge with the Pennsylvania Central Railroad in the late 1960s.
In 1968, a developer who leased Grand Central Terminal was denied permission by the city's Landmark Commission to demolish part of the terminal to make way for a 55-story skyscraper, rekindling interest in the building's historic status.
In 1976, the building was named a national historic landmark by the National Register of Historic Places, an effort that was spearheaded in part by Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis along with other prominent city residents.
"Everytime I walk through there I say thank God for Jackie helping to save it because it is beautiful," said Tom Finn, a 65-year-old Stamford resident who worked as an engineer with Metro-North Railroad from 1983 to 2006.
Finn, who began his career in 1968 with the former New Haven Railroad said from the 1960s and 1980s, Grand Central Terminal's general atmosphere was of urban decay, with much of the facility falling into neglect.
"The lower level was nothing but a scary place to be and there was nothing down there," Finn said. "Now I bring my grandchildren there to show them how wonderful Grand Central Terminal is all the time."
Carey Stumm, an archivist for the New York Transit Museum, said that over the years as New York Central, Penn Central, and New Haven and Hartford railroads merged or went bankrupt, many of their archived materials and historically significant objects associated with the operators at the terminal were discarded or given to other institutions.
Metro-North Railroad, the sole rail operator in the terminal today, was established in 1983 out of the remnants of a bankrupted passenger division of Conrail which itself had been knitted together from pieces of the New York Central, Penn Central, and New Haven railroads.
"There wasn't a lot of consideration about whether some stuff would be of historical value," Stumm said of the previous decades. "Also, some of the institutions which held collections also have gone bankrupt and dispersed their collections to private owners."
Among the items sought for the exhibit are still photos and film footage from the terminal, as well as train tickets, and timetables from former railroad operators, and menus and matchbooks from restaurants and businesses formerly located in the terminal, Stumm said.
"We're expecting that some people who have the stuff in their attic will be willing to share their personal collections with us," Stumm said. "We're happy to have loans but would also like them to consider donations of materials to the transit museum ... It's going to be a huge exhibit."
Stumm said historians are especially eager to find additional newspaper accounts and other materials associated with the terminal's opening at midnight Feb. 2, 1913, including a brochure that was reportedly distributed to visitors to the building.
The museum has retained some materials from over the decades including old signs, gate curtains that were displayed on platforms to show the destinations of trains, timetables, maps, as well as some dining car menus, matchbooks, and odds and ends from the defunct railroad operators, Stumm said.
They are also seeking to borrow any paintings that had hung in Grand Central Terminal's art galleries that were open from 1922 to 1958, Stumm said.
"The art galleries were there for a long time," Stumm said.
People should send a digital photo of potential donations, and a brief description of the object to Stumm at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Museum curators will review and respond to all offers of donations and loans, with accepted loaned items to be returned and donors to be credited in the exhibition.
Prial said that the celebrated Beaux Arts features of the terminal would never have existed if not for the maneuvers of architect Whitney Warren, who convinced Vanderbilt the original design concept for an office building on top of the terminal lacked grandeur and taste.
Warren, who studied architecture at the renowned Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris, was asked by Vanderbilt to work with the original architects Charles Reed and Allen Stem, who had won the initial competition to design the terminal to revamp the building design, Prial said.
"The architects for the most part from the Ecole des Beaux Arts went to college and Whitney Warren was on the top of that crowd," Prial said. "They got a lot of their work socializing with captains and masters of the Industrial Revolution."
Prial said the final design of the terminal retained the best aspects of both Warren's Beaux Arts features such as the Doric columns of the façade, and Reed and Stem's initial concept which included the lower level ramps which allow pedestrians to move quickly to street level, Prial said.
"But it was the friction between the two firms that brought out the best in the final product with Warren designing the shell and Reed & Stem designing the hole in the doughnut."