As Grand Central Terminal marks its 150th anniversary this year, its magnificent design harks back to an era of railway prestige and uplifting public architecture. Railway magnate Cornelius Vanderbilt opened the original Grand Central in 1871. Passengers outgrew the station almost immediately as rail travel flourished in the late nineteenth century, and its successor was also razed within a generation to make way for the Grand Central we know today.
In response to the Kaufman Electrification Act and other city ordinances, railway companies electrified all railroads in New York City during the early 1900s. The shift from steam power to electricity enabled railway companies to pave over railyards and lease land surrounding the stations above. The paving of Grand Central’s railyard allowed for the extension of Park Avenue from 50th Street to 54th Street and the construction of Grand Central’s current iteration, completed in 1913.
Grand Central displays a uniquely New York style of Beaux Arts architecture marked by innovative features including Guastavino tiling and an elevated terrace. The celestial mural on the ceiling of the station’s main hall represents a beauty and aspiration uncommon in today’s public architecture and suggests that the station is a world of its own.
Grand Central helped define railways as the main arteries of transportation to and from New York. The product of competition between railway companies that vied during the early twentieth century to build splendid temples of transport in the cities they served, it represented economic growth. With the integration of the elevated train and subway, Grand Central became a nerve center of urban movement.
The station soon acquired a glamorous reputation due in part to the New York Central Railroad’s flagship train, the Twentieth Century Limited, which was renowned for its onboard luxury and could convey passengers to Chicago in just 12 hours. A long scarlet carpet on the platform guided passengers to their carriages—originating the red-carpet concept. Billed as “The Most Famous Train in the World,” it frequently transported the wealthy and influential.
Grand Central’s prestige grew with the 1928 construction of the Waldorf Astoria, which adjoined the station. The hotel’s downtown location had closed the year before, and developers considered relocating it to the gentrifying Grand Central area to be a prime opportunity. The Waldorf featured a secret railway platform that allowed VIPs to bypass Grand Central and enter the hotel covertly (it helped that the wealthy and important tended to have private railroad cars). The track has more recently been part of security exit plans for presidents visiting the UN.
The Waldorf-Astoria’s construction was an engineering feat. As David Freeland writes in American Hotel, “In order to make space for the Waldorf-Astoria, the New York Central offered to move the entire plant, at its own expense, to a substation, 250 feet long and 60 feet wide, that had been carved out of bedrock four stories below the Graybar Building on Forty-Third Street. The operation [was] described by an engineering observer as ‘one of the most intricate and difficult pieces of work ever undertaken in this city.’”
Grand Central’s eminence declined, however, as transportation evolved. With the advent of commercial air travel, airports replaced railway stations as places of elegance and anticipation. By the 1970s, railway stations had become dreary sites most travelers hoped to avoid.
At least Grand Central survived—unlike the old Penn Station, which also helped distinguish New York as a great railway destination, and London’s old Euston Station. Both impressive examples of classical architecture, Penn and Euston stations were two of many beautiful railway palaces torn down during the mid-1900s. Today, most travelers associate Grand Central with commuter frustration—fighting their way onto a creaking Metro North train—and not the excitement of cross-country adventure, but the station endures as an emblem of the magnificence that once defined public architecture.
Public officials today claim that they want to beautify public spaces, but new construction raises doubts. Many have noted the “hostile architecture” of Penn’s Moynihan Train Hall, which opened on January 1 and provides seating only to ticketed passengers. The dearth of seating discourages loitering, yes, but few things are more depressing than seeing adults sitting on the floor.
Not since the Works Progress Administration have public facilities been built with an eye toward imparting meaning. Today, the message that public structures send is usually confined to: Why are you here and how soon are you leaving? Tile signs in subway stations for Gents and Ladies, still in place over doors long welded shut, grimly remind us that transport hubs were once friendlier places.
Glamor and ease may never return to rail travel, but Grand Central Station remains an encouragement to those of us who hold out hope. Here’s to the next 150 years.
Photo by Ian.CuiYi/Getty Images