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Winter 1992
City Journal Winter 1992.
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Grand Central: The Peace of Great Space
Nicholas King
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A legendary New York experience is to walk down the steps of Grand Central Station when the sunlight is streaming in through the great gridded windows to illuminate one of the most majestic enclosed spaces anywhere.

Grand Central Station, now almost eighty years old, embodies a dedication to urban dignity, to aesthetic vigor, and to engineering genius rare in any age and unknown today. In addition it is the landmark of landmarks, the cause célèbre of a Supreme Court decision that upheld the city’s policy of preserving historic architecture.

But in a post-railroad age, the problem of holding the stones and bones of Grand Central Terminal together, of finding a rewarding use for this beautiful urban monument that now confronts us, is not a simple one. Saving Grand Central is as much a question of function as it is of money. Money alone could save its architecture, but it would be saving little more than a museum to preserve the memory of the railroad train. To save Grand Central in all its glory, as the bustling center of America’s greatest metropolis, requires more than mere money; it requires imagination and initiative.

Grand Central still has, of course, plenty of function. Five hundred suburban trains filled with tens of thousands of passengers pull in and out of the station every day. It is an important subway crossroads, and it is also in the path of a great number of pedestrians who, crossing the busiest hub of midtown Manhattan, are physically obliged to pass through its vaulted spaces if they want the quickest passage from east west to if not from north to south. Finally, the grandeur of Grand Central Station attracts tourists and shoppers and all those who thrive on bustle.

The New York Central Railroad built Grand Central in 1913-in an age when rail travel and freight hauling were still increasing, and railroads were the megacorporations of the age, controlling banks, real estate, utilities, and, of course, hotels. Trains ran from Grand Central to points all over the Northeast and Midwest, the most popular destination being Chicago. Now no long-distance trains roar through Grand Central, traveling instead to the less convenient and much-diminished Pennsylvania Station.

The building of the terminal was a ten-year epic. Beaux-Arts architect Whitney Warren is generally credited with the design, although of course it was a product of several hands, including those of William Wilgus and Charles Reed. It was also a feat of engineering, with 48 platforms and 123 tracks on two levels, making it not only the biggest but also the most sophisticated railroad station in the world.

The concourse itself was 470 feet long and 160 feet wide—exactly the dimensions we admire today—and the vaults rise 125 feet, the whole forming a man-made canyon lit by natural daylight pouring through huge gridded windows east and west and rounded clerestories north and south.

The front of the building faces south (in those days toward the heart of the city), and its facade is perhaps New York’s single most sumptuous piece of architecture. It resembles a triumphal arch, with three great Roman windows surmounted by a curved pediment and frieze, crowned by a colossal group of classical statues dominated by Mercury-divine messenger and god of commerce—whose outstretched arms and raised caduceus epitomize the pride and power of New York in 1913.

It is not surprising to learn that when the terminal was at last completed and its doors were thrown open on a February midnight, a mob of three thousand was waiting to rush in.

With the passing of the long-distance trains, and the passing, too, of the economic and political power of the railroads, Grand Central, like the country’s other great terminals, is a monument with no foundation,, an orphan,” says Kent Barwick of the Municipal Art Society, which was instrumental in saving the station in the Seventies. It has to be preserved, he explains, in bits and pieces. For example, commuters are not going to be particularly interested in a huge urban monument. They want the functionalism of a suburban station; they want a destination to dash through—although planners hope that upgraded retail attractions will waylay them.

Such retail upgrading would include good restaurants, a movie theater, a cultural space, and so on, and could triple the terminal’s present income. Or so Metro-North, which has launched an impressive restoration and renovation program estimated to cost $400 million in public and private funds, clearly believes. The restoration, dedicated to painstakingly repairing the building’s infrastructure and redoing the vast painted ceiling, is technically separate from the more controversial renovation of the building.

That plan calls for a rethinking of Grand Central’s functions, both present and potential. The intention, say the planners of Metro-North, is to make the terminal into a civic center” that would be “a destination in its own right.” This calls for certain structural and cosmetic changes designed to increase commercial revenue, which have inspired fears that Metro-North wants to transform Grand Central into a mere mall.

What is the precise danger of a mall? How close are the planners to making the terminal into an enlarged version of Union Station in Washington, D.C.? Not close at all, is the brisk answer of John Belle, the Metro-North project’s chief architect and planning spokesman. To begin with, Grand Central is in the middle of a city and serves all kinds of purposes besides those of a railroad station. It is true that half a million people move through the terminal daily, and these people can “rightfully” be offered services other than boarding and getting off trains. He envisions a galleria-style entrance leading from Lexington Avenue, both on the concourse level and underground, lined with shops and perhaps a movie theater and restaurants.

He also envisages a second monumental staircase on the east side of the concourse, matching that descending from Vanderbilt Avenue. More controversially, he wants to dig two large, square holes, fifty feet on a side, in the concourse floor, east and west. These indoor oculi, as it were, are intended to stimulate “breathing” between the lower and upper levels and to create a visual connection between the floors.

This proposal has drawn fire as a self-conscious frill; Grand Central needs no further decorative statements of this kind. Similar objections have been raised to the Lexington Avenue arcade, although that can be better defended from a revenue viewpoint. Another proposed change, the opening up of the vaulted ramp to the Oyster Bar, now blocked by ticket windows, has won general approval.

Restoring and then renovating Grand Central is estimated to take ten years, but no one really knows how long it will take or how much of it can be done at any one time. For example, many design decisions must wait on the restoration of the fabric of the present building, whose stone and marble, bronze and tile are eighty years old and have taken tremendous wear, whether from air pollution or from shoe leather. What is wrong with the marvelous blue-and-gold zodiac ceiling and how it can be restored is a tale in itself.

Although there may be objections to the plan’s details, there is no doubt that, in essence, Metro-North is right: If the crowds will not come to the trains that are no more, then they must come for some other purpose.

Luckily, the terminal remains stubbornly in the way of almost everyone who wants to cross midtown. It may be that its permanent role as the thriving crossroads of Manhattan will save it.

There is another half-forgotten but critical aspect to all plans for the future use of Grand Central, which is the question of who owns it, and especially the air over it. The air rights still belong to the nominal owner, the Penn Central Railroad; Metro-North operates under a lease good until 2032. Any improvements theoretically must be approved by Penn Central, which could, when the lease is up, increase the rent on the basis of the improvements.

But the air rights are more important, since they represent the only in-the-hand financial assets to which Penn Central can lay claim. When the Supreme Court upheld the terminal’s landmark status, Penn Central sought to transfer the air rights to other property. It thought it had found the solution in a 72-story tower on Madison Avenue and 47th Street, but that was ruled out because of “human density” in the neighborhood. Proposals to use the air rights for other buildings may be forthcoming, but the state of the commercial real estate market will slow them down.

One may ask whether these great projects, now scheduled to take ten years, will ever be completed, except for a few bits and pieces. It is possible that the space will be saved but the building will be different, like the cathedrals of the Middle Ages, which started one way and ended up looking quite different.

For in the end, we must speak of Grand Central Terminal poetically. It is not a cathedral, and so it has not got God to justify it. But it does have a spiritual dimension, a dimension of beauty for which its supporters fight. They may justify preserving the station for the sake of the city’s quality of life, or make a case for it out of urban logic, but its spiritual beauty is what they mean. It is about as religious as most people nowadays seem able to get.

After all, the Parthenon—apart from its practical uses—was in its day a destination in itself. It still is.

 

 


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