Grand Central Station turns 100
In his new book, writer Anthony W. Robins discusses the legendary station's architecture, how New York almost lost this masterpiece, and what the future holds for Grand Central.
You may have never been there. But your mind's eye almost certainly has a vision of Grand Central Terminal's gigantic main concourse, bustling with a fantastic stream of commuters, tourists, and employees.
But there's more to New York City's epic train station than a very big room. A century after its construction in its current form, much of the wonder of Grand Central remains far underground, an epic maze of tracks and loops, pumps and pipes, fans and lights, workers and computers.
Historian and preservationist Anthony W. Robins has spent decades exploring the glory of Grand Central. In conjunction with the New York Transit Museum, he celebrates the train station in an exquisite new coffee-table book titled Grand Central Terminal: 100 Years of a New York Landmark.
In an interview, Robins talks about the grandeur of Grand Central, its place in the architecture of 1913, and its brush with disaster.
Q: Commuters often have just one thing on their minds: Getting somewhere. But it's almost impossible to hurry through Grand Central without appreciating where you are. Why is that?
A: When you walk into the Grand Central and the ceiling is 150 feet over your head, 15 stories, you can't not notice it. You walk into the space, and it's overwhelming.
Call it spiritual or psychological, it opens up something inside you to be in a space like that. Even if you're not interested in architectural detail, the sense of grandeur that just comes from the space is hard to miss.
Q: What sort of statement does Grand Central make?
It says that this is a very important train station in a very important part of New York City.
Many architects of that time had a particular mindset. They'd made the Grand Tour in Europe, visiting Italy and France. They wanted to understand the architecture of the empires of the past so they could bring back that knowledge and create the monuments of the new American empire.
So we have the US Custom House, the New York City Public Library, and Grand Central Terminal – enormous and overwhelming buildings dripping in classical detail.
This all says New York is a capital just like Rome and Paris. That's the kind of monumentality that they were looking for.
Q: While it's monumental, Grand Central isn't a skyscraper. Why doesn't it try to push into the clouds?
The original plan included a skyscraper, and one plan called for an enormous tower that would have been the tallest building in the world. What we got was a very grand, low-scale building.
What it has is a grand sense of scale. Your eyes go right to Grand Central because of the way it's designed. It's a short building, but its sense of scale is so vast that it gets all the attention. Even though it's surrounded by skyscrapers, it's such a commanding presence that it doesn't matter.
Q: Amid Manhattan's glass and gloss, Grand Central seems like a throwback to another time. Was it considered modern in its own day?
A: In 1913, it was the height of good taste.
They weren't trying to make it look like an old building. They would have thought it to be a very modern and up-to-date Parisian creation. That's where American architecture was at the time: Architects learned they were passing on traditions that went back to the Renaissance.
Q: What sort of world did Grand Central enter when it was built?
A: This is a moment when transportation was being radically transformed by electricity. Its introduction made it possible to move trains and train yards underground and create 16 blocks of prime New York City real estate around Grand Central.
We forget is that it's so much more than just a train station. As big as Grand Central is above ground, it's so much bigger below ground.
Q: What does the future hold for Grand Central?
A: It's never looked better. The restoration has been spectacularly successful, and the terminal is expanding with the East Side Expansion Project. As of 2018 or 2019, a separate line will leave Long Island, go under the East River, and end in Grand Central. This is all being build underground in the bedrock, an entire new train station being built underneath Grand Central.
Q: Looking back, we could have lost Grand Central, correct?
I started working at the New York City Landmarks Commission in 1979, just a few months after a Supreme Court decision about Grand Central that was a huge moment in the world of preservation. It finally put preservation on solid ground. It's legal, it's constitutional, it's OK.
Q: By comparison, New York City's other train terminal – Penn Station, where people catch Amtrak trains – is crowded, soulless and decrepit.
A: Vincent Scully, a professor from Yale, once had this to say about [the two incarnations of] Penn Station: "One entered the city like a god. One scuttles in now like a rat."
Q: How does Grand Central's revival reflect the city's as a whole?
A: Forty years ago, in the 1970s, the city was a disaster. It was teetering on bankruptcy, anyone with a choice was fleeing the city. It was becoming a place of poverty, crime, and despair.
The difference between now and then is extraordinary.
A lot of it has to do with preserving places like Grand Central and making them part of the city, buildings with identity and panache. These are now the buildings that everyone wants to be around because they tell you that you're in New York.
And it shows why a train station matters and why public architecture is important.
Randy Dotinga is a Monitor contributor.