A Grand Century: 100 Years of Grand Central Terminal

The December 2011 opening of the Grand Central Terminal Apple store was another in a long line of developments that bolstered the station’s status after years of sooty neglect not only as a thriving, glimmering transportation hub, but also as a destination for people with no plans to board a train.

“It’s a fantastic place to manage, and it’s a great place for any kind of commercial activity,” said former Metropolitan Transportation Authority chairman and New York mayoral hopeful Joe Lhota. “Apple moved in and was another transformation that led to more and more people coming through.”

Apple arrived 35 years after the campaign to save Grand Central accelerated under the stewardship of Jacqueline Onassis. When the grand old Pennsylvania Station was demolished in 1963 to make way for today’s Penn Station, it jolted Ms. Onassis and others in New York’s incipient landmark preservation movement.

iPad kiosks and a genius bar attest to Grand Central’s general comeback and emergence as a retail destination. But its central function as a railroad station hasn’t budged over the course of 100 years that have seen the advent of commercial air travel and spiffy, modernized transit centers around the world.

To 42nd StreetGrand Central’s status since 1968 as a National Historic Landmark means that its famously handsome bones are safe from the wrecking ball. But the terminal’s continued relevance depends on its infrastructure and technology keeping pace with younger peers, and also on fending off developers—old foes who are even more attracted to the institution since its rebirth.

William Wilgus, the New York Central Railroad’s chief engineer, proposed today’s Grand Central in 1902 in a three-page letter to the railroad’s president, W.H. Newman. The station had been remodeled at great expense just a few years earlier, but Mr. Wilgus’s vision hinged on technological advancements of the day, specifically the replacement of steam trains with electric trains, which ran faster and emitted less smoke and fumes than their predecessors.

As Sam Roberts writes in his new book, Grand Central: How a Train Station Transformed America, the most transformative aspect of Mr. Wilgus’s plan was placing the tracks underground. A subterranean rail yard would eliminate the noxious, clamorous “Chinese Wall” that stretched north from the station entrance at 42nd Street to 56th Street between Madison and Lexington Avenues.

The old Grand Central Station was razed between 1903 and 1913, making way for Mr. Wilgus’s 12-story, 2.3-million-square-foot vision of Grand Central Terminal. When completed, it contained 32 miles of rails, 46 tracks and 30 platforms. The terminal cost $43 million ($1 billion in today’s dollars) to build; the whole project cost more than $2 billion in today’s dollars.

The opening of the new terminal to the public on February 2, 2013, was a civic event—more than 150,000 people visited in its first 16 hours. But Mr. Wilgus extolled the benefit to the corporate sphere from the start, saying the occasion “marked the opening of a remarkable opportunity for the accomplishment of a public good with considerations of private gain on behalf of the corporation involved.”

Subterranean tracks now efficiently brought suburban and regional commuters to a neighborhood ripe for development after the burying of the rail yard. But short- and long-distance rail travel ebbed after World War II, as commercial air travel soared and booming suburbs created a car culture encouraged by New York’s “master builder,” Robert Moses.

The original 1910 Beaux-Arts Penn Station—a worthy rival to Grand Central for half a century—was demolished in 1963 to make way for a more cost-effective structure (and today’s Madison Square Garden). That event galvanized preservationists, leading to the formation two years later of the Landmarks Preservation Commission. The commission granted Grand Central landmark status in 1967.

Ms. Onassis was Grand Central’s celebrity defender in the 1970s, while the city verged on bankruptcy and spiraled toward crime-ridden decay. In 1968, building owner Penn Central Railroad had unveiled contentious plans for a 55-story office tower atop the terminal, which led to a 1978 Supreme Court case, Penn Central Transportation Co. v. New York City. The court ruled against Penn Central in the seminal regulatory takings trial, writing that Grand Central’s regulated designation did not infringe upon its owners’ investment in the property.

“It’s probably the single biggest event in landmarks history,” said Vin Cipolla, president of the Municipal Art Society of New York. “It was a watershed in upholding the landmarks law. It supported the idea that preserving these extraordinary and iconic places in perpetuity mattered.”

Penn Central was bankrupt at the time of the trial and could not maintain the terminal after the decision. Grand Central fell into disrepair and disrepute, with a leaking roof, a two-inch layer of grime and sunlight obscured by billboards.

In 1983 the MTA took the reins, and the new Metro-North railroad replaced Conrail, which had lost its government subsidies. “Everyone was at a loss,” said Gabrielle Shubert, director of the New York Transit Museum. “In 1983, the building was a mess, service was a shambles, there was no adherence to safety codes—it was a disaster.”

Ms. Shubert recounted that Peter Stangl, former MTA chairman and Metro-North president, “said we could either turn Grand Central over to Amtrak or start a new railroad. So he started a new railroad! And he really turned it around.” One of Mr. Stangl’s first orders of business was fixing the roof, whose leaks would undo any improvements below. “Peter wanted to create not only a railroad, but a beautiful place,” Ms. Shubert said.

The bulk of Grand Central’s physical refurbishing ended in 1998. Metro-North had about twice as many riders last year—82.9 million—as it did in 1983. Nearly 750,000 people pass through the terminal each day; only 260,000 of them are rail commuters.

“We’ve developed the Grand Central brand,” said Randy Fleischer, senior director of business development, facilities and marketing at Metro-North. “We engage international tourists and customers who come through just for lunch.” The shopping push kicked off in 1990, when the MTA announced a $400 million plan to increase retail space by 43 percent to 150,000 square feet.

National tenants including Apple, Banana Republic, Kenneth Cole, Papyrus and Starbucks have blossomed in Grand Central as they have in booming shopping districts throughout the city. But representatives and advocates of the terminal don’t think that chains have compromised its integrity.

“We’re very selective about the retail tenant mix,” Mr. Fleischer said. Mr. Cipolla spoke of the need for a “curatorial involvement” in tenant selection. “You do want to have a lens and a set of values for a mix of uses that’s consistent with the environment. I’m not troubled at all by the curatorial hand in this. Frankly, not all retailers are created equal. The quality of goods and their aesthetics must meet extraordinarily high standards.“

Mr. Lhota also thinks the terminal has maintained lofty standards as a transportation and leisure nexus.

“Grand Central has become the model of what needs to happen to transportation hubs: it’s multipurpose and used as a central point for meeting folks. The retail component is very, very important.”

Shoppers, diners and tourists now outnumber rail commuters at Grand Central, but it remains a vital, contemporary transit hub. “The fabric of G.C.T. may be original, but the technology that runs trains and provides information is constantly upgraded,” Mr. Fleischer said. “We’ve been able to utilize this National Historic Landmark, but you’ll find great train service with a modern fleet and infrastructure.”

Grand Central’s admirers rank it well above the city’s younger transit hubs in terms of traffic, efficiency and—no surprise—aesthetics.

“More people go in and out of Grand Central each day than go in and out of LaGuardia each week,” Mr. Lhota said, and Grand Central’s daily visitors nearly outpace J.F.K.’s weekly passengers.

“And it’s almost breathtaking to compare it to Penn Station. I’m old enough to remember the Penn Station that was torn down. That was equally majestic.”

As maybe the only place New Yorkers actually like commuting through, Grand Central could have been content staying put. But rather than become a well-preserved fossil, the terminal is undergoing a historic growth spurt. The MTA’s East Side Access Project will bring Long Island Railroad trains into the terminal from Jamaica, Queens, across eight tracks nestled 140 feet below ground.

Around 160,000 L.I.R.R. riders will pass through the “caverns” daily once the $8.24 billion project—nearly four times the cost of building the entire complex in today’s dollars—wraps up in August of 2019, according to a source familiar with the development.

Few people who spoke about Grand Central voiced concerns that it might become a victim of its own success, that global retail behemoths like Apple and an influx of Long Island commuters could tip the scales of the terminal’s famed bustle toward congestion.

The recently proposed rezoning of Midtown East, which would allow building density to increase by up to 60 percent in the aging blocks around Grand Central, could also increase traffic wear and tear. (Thanks in part to the building bonanza the new terminal set off, the average Midtown East building is now over 70 years old.)

How can Grand Central evolve and expand as a commuter and visitor crossroads within its protected, magnificent shell? “That’s the beauty of G.C.T.,” Mr. Fleischer said. “It was built with such great capacity. We believe [East Side Access] will work. There will be a separate concourse and tracks, bored out of hollow stone. One reason Grand Central can support this is that it’s been able to adapt over the years.”

A look back at Grand Central’s history before and since 1913 supports the notion of endurance and adaptability despite a fixed bone structure. Ms. Shubert noted the evolution of the site from Grand Central Depot in 1871 to Grand Central Station in 1900 and, finally, Grand Central Terminal.

“That iteration has stood the test of time,” Ms. Shubert said. “I wouldn’t say it’s overcrowded. It might get that way after East Side Access. But it’s interesting to note that there were three Grand Centrals in three decades and this one has lasted a century.”

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