Grand Central Terminal! What images those words conjure up: Gloria Swanson surrounded by photographers as she boards the sleekly streamlined "Twentieth Century Limited"; General Eisenhower emerging from the "North Shore Limited" to confide his political plans to a bouquet of microphones; the Pullmans of the "Commodore Vanderbilt" made up to carry Winston Churchill or F. Scott Fitzgerald into the heartland. Closer to home are the commuters of the twenties and thirties, coming in from Westport and Greenwich, all hats and chesterfields, looking like Esquire ads when Esquire ads were something to look at.
When, in February 1913, the curtain rose on Whitney Warren’s Beaux Arts beauty, it revealed a granite and limestone palazzo consciously designed as a stage set—an insistent proclamation to the throngs passing through it that they were not in Kansas anymore, that they had set foot in America’s premier metropolis. Great cities require great spaces to define the extent of their urbanity. If the Woolworth Building is the Cathedral of Commerce, then Grand Central is the Basilica of Transport. Its vast concourse, arching a breathtaking 150 feet, speaks of sacred space.
Grand Central has had its bad times. After 1947, the terminal’s traffic began to ebb before the airplane and automobile. In 1962, the 59-story Pan Am (now MetLife) Building rose just to the north, dwarfing Whitney Warren’s chateau-esque Grand Central Office Building (now the Helmsley Building), whose profile had been a delight of Park Avenue.
Grand Central’s current custodians, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and the Metro North Railroad, have begun an imaginative refurbishing, cleaning and illuminating the exterior, clearing away shops and advertising displays that cluttered the interior, and restoring the Waiting Room to its original, dazzling appearance. Now they propose to spend $113.8 million to complete the work. A plan by architects Beyer Blinder Belle calls for sweeping away the last of the helter-skelter interior construction, cleaning the terminal’s faux Caen limestone walls, and revitalizing the entire complex with new commercial spaces. One of the best proposals envisions a restaurant on the now almost inaccessible east balcony, to be reached by a new stairway.
The plan does stumble now and then. Take the decoration of the main concourse’s ceiling, depicting the constellations, complete with electrically lit stars. Due to water damage, in 1944 the mural was copied on fiberboard and attached to the ceiling. Now it is proposed to restore the copy. But the ceiling has always been one of the terminal’s weak points. With a vigorous revival of realistic painting now under way, why not have one of the new realists devise an entirely new decorative scheme, one that could retell the history of the New York Central or celebrate New York itself?
Similarly, while the idea of creating a new Lexington Avenue entrance is admirable, the flat, banal design, with unimaginative rectangular openings and an ugly, utilitarian canopy, manages to unite some of the worst elements of late 1950s office buildings. The entrance should at least whisperingly echo Warren’s exuberant 42nd Street facade, with its paired columns, its high arched openings, and its bold, clock-crowned cornice. The new entrance is to be topped by an undecorated clock. Why not commission a good representational sculptor to give both the new entrance and its clock some panache?
Yet how wonderful that Grand Central is on the brink of being grand again! Perhaps when one sits in the new east balcony restaurant, it will be possible to believe that the "Twentieth Century" has once more glided in: there will be Miss Swanson, on her way to check in at the old Ritz-Carlton, to quaff at the Stork Club, to punish the parquet at El Morocco. All those places have vanished; how lucky Grand Central has not.