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Grand Central Terminal 1913

by Reed and Stem, Warren and Wetmore

Holden Caulfield slept here. He didn’t like it.

“It wasn’t too nice. Don’t ever try it. I mean it.” By 1951, when Catcher in the Rye was published, this assessment of Grand Central Terminal, at 42nd St and Park Avenue, was not fiction. The original grandeur of the terminal, built 35 years earlier to house Cornelius Vanderbilt’s New York Central Railroad, had begun to fade.

Grand Central Terminal opened in 1913. It replaced the 1900 Grand Central Station with its glass and steel train shed, which itself had replaced the 1871 Grand Central Depot. The creation of the terminal – from inception, to design, to construction – was beset by controversy.

The inception was tragic. At the turn of the century, steam trains entered the station, above ground, via today’s Park Avenue. They were noisy, dirty and dangerous. On January 8, 1902, a train wreck occurred in a smoke-filled tunnel that killed 15 and injured 38. Outraged, some New Yorkers sought to indict the railroad’s board of directors, others to ban all steam locomotives in Manhattan or nationalize the railroads. In response, William J. Wilgus, chief civil engineer for the railroad, proposed to excavate 60 feet into the bedrock to create subterranean tracks, enabling electric trains to run below Park Avenue and enter the terminal below grade.

The design was contentious. The first plan, envisioned by the firm of Reed & Stem, represented Wilgus’ engineering ideas well but was thought “insipid” by William K. Vanderbilt, grandson of Cornelius. He recruited the firm of Warren & Wetmore to apply Beaux Arts aesthetics to the project. The two firms fought each other every step of the way: Warren & Wetmore influenced the facade, with its three arches, supported by pairs of Doric columns, crowned ultimately by Jules A. Coutans’ sculptures of Mercury, Hercules and Minerva. But inside, Reed & Stem’s innovative ramp system prevailed. Today it still gracefully leads to the concourse and its famous ceiling mural of the zodiac by Paul Helleu.

The construction created a whole new set of contradictions. Once the electrified tracks were buried below street level, rights to the “air” above were leasable to developers. In 1975 those air rights created a crisis. The railroad sought to sell them after a state judge invalidated Grand Central’s landmark status, and a developer advanced plans to build a skyscraper above the terminal. With the city nearing bankruptcy and fearing lawsuits, Mayor Abe Beame declined to appeal the ruling. Enter the Municipal Arts Society. They staged a vigorous dissent that was joined by former First Lady, Jackie Kennedy Onassis. She wrote a famous letter that is credited with saving Grand Central. It read “Dear Mayor Beame…is it not cruel to let our city die by degrees, stripped of all her proud moments, until there is nothing left of all her history and beauty to inspire our children?” According to Kent Barwick, president emeritus of the Municipal Arts Society, she also wrote about “how President Kennedy loved Grand Central Terminal.”

That part may be fiction, but the truth is that the letter saved Grand Central – the mayor appealed, landmark status was reinstated and in 1989 the terminal was fully restored. But you still shouldn’t sleep there.

– Carol Cofone