Called by many a cathedral for commuters, Grand Central Terminal turns 100 today with great fanfare. You can read in-depth retrospectives about the structure in almost every New York-based newspaper. And here is a list of events that the station has planned for its birthday. The Times has done quite a few lead-up pieces to the special day, but today's is clearly a favorite: A direct link to the multiple-page spread they printed on the day of the station's opening. It is worth a look.
Grand Central Terminal, a station that processes roughly the state population of Alaska (750,000) on a daily basis was described by Daniel Brucker as "a kind of temple, a monument to all that is great and fabulous in rail transportation, the type God would've built if had the money." Brucker went on to tell NPR's Morning Edition, "We're not going through someone else's mansion, through someone else's monument. It's ours. It's meant for the everyday commuter, and it's a celebration of it." Grand Central was also ranked the 6th most visited attraction in the world according to a 2011 survey done by Travel & Leisure.
The Vanderbuilts, who owned the Central Railroad, actually had a Grand Central Depot that stood on the very same spot. The original structure was actually designed to look more like a European train shed. And the glass ceiling had to be built high enough so to accommodate the steam locomotives. But after a tragic crash on Park Avenue in 1902 due to steam obstruction, the state wanted all steam trains out of Manhattan by 1908. Luckily electricity was just coming into play and the Central Railroad planned on harnessing it for their new trains and yes, their new terminal.
Of course we would be remiss to make comparisons to Grand Central's sister station, Pennsylvania Station. Like Penn, GCT was hemorrhaging money in the 1960's when most of it's long-distance rail service was folding under financial crisis. It too was slated for demolition with similar plans to replace it with a skyscraper. But many New Yorkers still up in arms about the demolition of Penn Station organized again under the banner of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. On the matter she said:
Is it not cruel to let our city die by degrees, stripped of all her proud monuments, until there will be nothing left of all her history and beauty to inspire our children? If they are not inspired by the past of our city, where will they find the strength to fight for her future? Americans care about their past, but for short term gain they ignore it and tear down everything that matters. Maybe… this is the time to take a stand, to reverse the tide, so that we won't all end up in a uniform world of steel and glass boxes.
Six month prior to Penn Central revealing the plans for GCT's demolition, the station was already protected under the New York City Landmark's Preservation Commission. The battle between the railroad and the Commission went straight to US Supreme Court where the Court saved the station. It was the first time the Supreme Court ever ruled on historic preservation of any kind.
Thankfully, the terminal was saved, but lack of funds left in it sad shape throughout most of the 1970's and 80's. It wasn't until 1994 when the Metro-North railroad signed a 280-year lease in the terminal that there was a plan in effect for the Grand Central's restoration. In the process of scrubbing the station clean, the Metro-North literally drained a quarry in Tennessee of it's marble to match the original used at the turn of the century.
It is not hard to appreciate the result. Today's Grand Central is a gorgeous and spry 100. Whenever an out-of-towner asks me what to see in New York, my first suggestion is always, go to Grand Central and stand out on one of the balconies; you'll never be quite the same.