New York, New York – Grand Central Terminal

[ Article News Letters ] [ Photographic report ]
Published the 2nd of September 2006

Before Grand Central Terminal

Grand Central Terminal

Decline and rescue of Grand Central Terminal

Revival of Grand Central Terminal


Before Grand Central Terminal
1830’s, before New York and the Great Lakes were linked by steamboat through the Erie Canal.

1863, Cornelius Vanderbilt acquired control of the New York and Harlem Railroad. The city government approved the extension of the line from 42nd Street to the Battery.

9th October 1871, although the urban center was downtown, starting in 1869, Grand Central Depot is opened between East 42nd and 45th Streets. Cornelius Vanderbilt knew the growth of the city would be towards the north and he arrived at convince the city to close 4th Avenue at the 42nd Street, a decision that made it in the focus of the perspective, of the street.
The railroad station is designed by architect John B. Snook (1815-1901) and engineer Isaac C. Buckhout. The New York & Hudson, the New York & Harlem and the New York & New Harlem shared the station; each had separate waiting room, baggage and ticketing facilities. On the front façade, three towers represented the three lines. The station was built with red brick masonry, classical fenestration and ornamental ironwork painted white to appear as marble. The train-sheds were spectacular feats of engineering, inspired from the St Pancras Station in London. For the architectural historian Carroll L. V. Meeks, the railroad station was “one of the first American stations capable of standing comparison with the first European ones.

1871 - Views of Grand Central Depot
1898 and 1900 - Views of Grand Central Station

1898, Grand Central Depot started the first phase of renovations and became Grand Central Station. Three upper stories were added with a Mansard roof and all the façade remodelled and classicized in French Renaissance style by the architect Bradford Gilbert.

1899, during the second phase, Samuel Huckle Jr as project architect, and William J. Wilgus as chief engineer of New York Central renovated the ground floor passenger areas and the track system. The individual waiting rooms, built for the different companies, were combined into one great hall measuring 100 feet wide by 200 feet long with 50 foot high vault ceiling.

8th January 1902, collision in the Fourth Avenue Tunnel due to smoke and steam killed 17 passengers and injured 38 others. By the end of the century, a combination of the steam, smoke and cinder started to cause problems at the station.

December 1902, Wilgus proposed a plan for 57 tracks, all electric with a double level terminal.

Grand Central Terminal
10th January 1903, four architectural firms participated in an architectural competition: D.H. Burnham & Company from Chicago, McKim, Mead & White from New York, Samuel Huckle Jr from Philadelphia and Reed & Stem from St Paul, Minnesota. During the competition, there were two important influences to the project:

- The Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris with Richard_Morris_Hunt who became the leader of the architectural profession in the United States. This group included most of the actors of the competition for Grand Central Terminal: Daniel Burnham, Charles Follen McKim, Stanford White, Henry Hobson Richardson, Thomas Hastings, Louis Sullivan, Augustus Saint-Gaudens, Henry Ogden Avery and Whitney Warren.
- The connexion between Beaux Arts style and city planning.

19th March 1903, Wilgus presented the plan to the president, which he had collaborated with Reed and Stem. The project combined radical ideas: elevated railway around the Terminal with sloping ramps and full electrification of the trains and stations operations.

17th June 1903, Wilgus’ and Reed and Stem’s project is approved.

8th January 1904, the firm of Warren & Wetmore was added to the team. The two firms created the Associated Architects of Grand Central Terminal with Charles Reed as the Chief Executive.

1908, the Grand Central Depot shed-train is demolished. In parallel, a temporary station is built on Lexington Avenue side. In 1910, the original station is demolished.

1912, the 23-story tower by Warren & Wetmore to rise over the Main Concourse was abandoned.

1st February 1913, Grand Central Terminal is officially opened.

Grand Central Terminal is a pure building of Beaux Arts Style. Whitney Warren, one of the architects, explained: “The motive of its façade is an attempt to offer a tribute to the glory of commerce as exemplified by that institution. The architectural composition consists of the three great portals crowned by a sculptural group, whole to stand as a monument to the glory of commerce as typified by Mercury, supported by physical and mental energy, Hercules and Minerva.” – Scientific American, December 1912. Inside, the space is a demonstration of huge scale through a simplicity of mass, line and color. The most memorable room in the Terminal was called the Express Concourse, for the express trains, which departed from no fewer than ten portals along its North wall. Now called the Main Concourse, it is a big space of 275 feet long, 120 feet wide and 125 feet high. High cast iron windows were painted to represent exterior patinated bronze, the cornice ringed in electric in arrays of bare frosted lightbulbs and bulging round gilt chandeliers over its ramps and balconies. The ceiling is a vault with an astrological painting. The building has a steel frame throughout. The exterior is clad or infilled with Indiana limestone and Stony Creek granite.

On the plan, the main difficulty was to combine the three separate stations onto two levels:

- On the West side of the upper level, the incoming tracks were built with passengers facilities including baggage handling, cab driveways, passages leading directly to subways, adjoining buildings and street, and spaces to receive and greet arriving long-distance passengers.
- In the center and East side of the upper level, the area for the departing passengers with facilities: ticketing, checking, track information and stores.
- On the inferior level, the third station for the suburb traffic with own ticketing, waiting and information facilities.
The scheme included an intelligent system of pedestrian ramps from the platforms up to the street. To simplify the track of the train, two loop tracks served each level.

Just after is consctuction - Views of the Façade from 42th Street, of the Main Concourse, of the Waiting Room and of the Campbell's apartment
Decline and rescue of Grand Central Terminal
After the Second World War, long distance train travel declined, replaced by automobile and airline travel. After a record of 252,251 daily passengers passed through the Terminal on the 3rd of July 1947, the decline of Grand Central Terminal began.

In the 1950’s, the Grand Central Terminal’s survival began. The movement to save the Terminal was a turning point in the America History of preservation. During this time, many projects were designed to replace it as those of the architects Pey and Breuer. The two projects of the latter created a building on the top of the railroad station, preserving and restoring the Main concourse without the interior.

At the same time in 1960, the Pennsylvania Railroad planed to demolish Penn Station. Three years later, in August 1963, the demolition began despite petition and demonstration attempts to save it.

1954 - Pey's Project // 1958 - Emery Roth & Sons' Project // 1968 - Breuer's Projects I & II

26th August 1969, the Breuer’s projects (I and II) were denied by the Landmarks Preservation Commission. The judgement was put into appeal and dated back to the Supreme Court.

26th April 1978, the Supreme Court forbade constructing an office tower on the top of the Terminal. The building was saved from being demolished.

Revival of Grand Central Terminal
1988, the Beyer Blinder Belle Consortium with 14 professional firms (restoration, design and engineering skills) is selected to create the master plan.

1990, the Kodak sign is dismantled and the hidden great glazed window wall reappeared. Later, MTA announced the ambitious $ 425 millions master plan for the completion of the restoration of the building scheduled for 1992-1996.

1992, two historic structure report volumes (building’s origins, history, change time and existing conditions) is published; more than 18,000 documents (drawings, photography …) is rediscovered in the plan room of the station.

1994, Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) Board entered into agreement with GCT Venture Inc. to develop a program for the revitalization of the Terminal

The challenge was to restore Grand Central Terminal and to fuse the three previous separate traffics (long distance incoming, long distance outgoing and suburban traffic) in one, a regional traffic. The different space needed to articulate without modifying all the systems of traffic. “In order to bring the building back to its original glory we would have to combine the architect’s vision with the needs for the twenty-first century.” For that, three objectives were followed:

- Renewal and update of railroad operations facilities and related service;
- Architectural restoration and rehabilitation;
- Revitalization of retail, office and commercial space-use throughout the Terminal.

The immense project had been planed. The most important restorations were:

- Vanderbilt hall, previous waiting room situated on the South
One of the most important parts of the restoration was the cleaning of the artificial Caen stone wall which is a perfect imitation of limestone. After different tests, the option was to use liquated ammoniated latex rubber painted into the wall. After one day, the mixture was peeled from the wall.
The option was taken to transform the waiting room into a setting suitable for a series of commercial and cultural events. A selection of benches was moved to the Concourse level.

- Main concourse
At the beginning of the 1990’s, test-cleaning of the sky ceiling in the southeast corner were done. The original 1913 version had been covered in 1944 after work penetration in the 1930’s.
The analyses showed that the original painting was severely deteriorated. The decision at the time was to conserve and restorate the painting from the 1940’s. The restoration used the solution developed previously. The ornamental plaster cleaning was a simple process: vacuuming the grime, cleaning with soap-and-water solution and repainting. At the end, the main stars were illuminated by fiber optic.
The re-creation of East stair structurally begun in 1911 but never finished was an important debate with the Landmarks Preservation Commission. It has been possible to justify the re-creation with the discovery of an original drawing by Warren & Wetmore showing a plan view of the stair designed for the East Balcony. This rebuilding was to complete the original design essential for the actual functioning of the station. Previously, the first floor was used for the baggage facilities. The solution oriented to a staircase designed as closely as possible the existing one.
After different research, the first color of the windows has been recovered: a light olive green.

- Restoration of the Oyster Bar ramps
Originally, it was a high space of 90 feet high with five chandeliers. In 1927, the volume was dropped by a low roof which confined the passage way. The restoration demolished the modern roof to give this passage is original volume.
The wall on the upper passage way which was made originally to create a visual barrier between the different passengers (long distance on the top floor and suburban on the low floor) was been replaced by a balustrade to give a better understanding and vision of the traffic.

- The Campbell apartment-restaurant
In the 1920’s, John W. Campbell’s, president of the Credit Clearing House and a major New York Central stockholder, had his own office/apartment in the Terminal, on the Southwest Corner. This space was done in eclectic styles, mixing medieval, Romanesque and Renaissance Revival.
The apartment had been deteriorated by the different uses. Its last function was a police office. All the walls and roofs were hidden. The restoration consisted to come back to the original volume.
A new opportunity has been offered to this amazing space to be accessible to the public converting it in a nice bar with a minimum of interventions.

During the restoration of Grand Central Terminal, the approach has been guide by the use, always actual, of the railroad station. The preservation of its function has been decisive in the different options and respectful of the patrimony importance of the building. Apart from the pure conservation and restoration, it has been necessary to rethink the building for its primary function, those a modern railroad station with all the incidences it could have. The business aspect since the beginning of the process allowed for the providing of the future of the railroad. None of the patrimony and economic objectives have been distorted, and that is why the restoration of Grand Central Terminal have been a success and is an example to follow.