A Review of Sam Robert’s Grand Central: How a Terminal Transformed America

Winston Churchill once said, “We shape our buildings, and afterwards our buildings shape us.”  Where and how we build something tells a story of time and place, but how the building is used and its effect on people and development tells another story. Such is the case with New York City’s iconic Grand Central Station, which is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year.  In the book Grand Central: How a Terminal Transformed America,  popular historian Sam Roberts recounts the amalgam of events and powerful people that shaped the station and how the station has effected New York City, the United States and the millions of travelers who have crisscrossed the vast terminal over the last century. Making this station come alive through the story of the people who built it, use(d) it, and saved it from the wrecking ball is what Roberts excels at in this celebratory volume.

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Post Card via VOA News

Grand Central Station solved a problem. A depot existed on the site decades before the Grand Central we now know. Built by Cornelius Vanderbilt, the ruthless industrialist and railroad tycoon, it was envisioned as a single station for all three of his railroads in a central location.  He chose not the city’s center but the bucolic outskirts  predicting that the city’s growth and the station’s capacity for development would make it central in time. It had a messy open train yard that made the streets surrounding the station incredibly dangerous and its train tunnels were equally as hazardous.  They were filled with smoke, cinders and heat, created by the steam-powered locomotives, conditions which precipitated a catastrophic crash in 1902. The accident galvanized the public.  When politicians and lawmakers began clamoring for change, the station was redesigned.

The redesign was revolutionary. An innovative two-level station for incoming and outgoing trains made it the largest train station by number of tracks and platforms in the world. The trains were all electric which eliminated hazardous tunnel conditions. It was also the first train station to be all electric, which was advertised by leaving hundreds of light bulbs uncovered throughout the structure. Outside the station, viaducts safely sped motorists around the terminal, which would have otherwise obstructed traffic. And the dangerous open train yard was decked over, creating some of the most valuable real estate in the world, Park Avenue.  Decking over the train yard and leasing the property above also created one of modern real estate’s  most important  principals – air rights. William J. Wilgus the engineer who was responsible for the station’s  design and construction coined the term “taking wealth from the air” and used the idea to help finance the station. Though Wilgus has been largely forgotten by history, Roberts argues that it was his innovative ideas that made Grand Central so spectacular, profitable, and influential.

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Image via BFH Studios

Grand Central Station contributed to a geographical and cultural shift in New York City  and the US, according to Roberts. When the station opened, the New York Times complained it was too far uptown to be central, but eventually development around the station created mid-town Manhattan (just as Vanderbilt predicted). It fostered the nation’s westward expansion and growth via the railroad. It also changed the American family; reliable trains allowed families to move to leafy suburbs, while bread-winners traveled to and from the city to work each day.  In fact, the word commuter didn’t exist before Grand Central Station.  An employee noticed a lot of people were taking the train twice a day, five days a week and decided that instead of charging these folks full fare, the station would commute it – the same way a prisoner’s sentence can be commuted – as a part of a marketing scheme!

Grand Central was the subject of an unprecedented Supreme Court decision and multimillion dollar restoration effort. Predictably, my favorite chapter of the book centered around the station’s preservation!  Roberts did not disappoint. He laid out the facts surrounding its preservation and renovation in delightfully positive terms. By the 1960s, Grand Central was in decline.  Faced with mounting financial woes, Penn Central proposed a large office tower to be built over the designated historic landmark. (Ironically, it was Wilgus’ brilliance that almost doomed the station.  He’d planned for the world’s tallest building atop the terminal and though the plans were abandoned, the structural supports were built.)  The proposal drew an enormous amount of opposition, most notably from Jacquelyn Kennedy Onassis.  The preservation battle eventually found its way to the Supreme Court, which upheld a city’s legal right to preserve a privately-owned historic landmark for the first time EVER.  The legal precedent set in the case is essential to preservation today!   The preservation triumph was followed up by a mid-1990s restoration effort that cost $800 million and took 12 years to complete.

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This small dark rectangle on the ceiling of the main Grand Central concourse is the sole remaining evidence of the color that used to cover the entire ceiling. Thought to be the collected diesel smoke from decades of trains, or smog, or steel rail filings, it turned out on forensic examination that the dark color was actually accumulated tar and nicotine from decades of cigarette smoke. Image via CNET

Grand Central: How a Terminal Transformed America is POPULAR history, not an academic work.  If you are looking for a definitive text or critical analysis of the station’s history, this is not the book for you. On the other hand, if you are a railroad aficionado, a history buff, a lover of old buildings, or just a lover of Grand Central Station then this is the ticket.  It is informative, but also light and fun.  And it’s chock full of interesting facts and trivia (so much so that it sometimes feels like a list of amazing but somewhat disjointed tidbits and anecdotes). Throughout the book, Roberts’ tone is conversational – little wonder given that he is a veteran journalist. He has worked as the New York Times‘ urban affairs correspondent, as deputy editor of the Times‘ Week in Review section, urban affairs columnist, et cetera. Thanks to his tone, journalist style, and skillful story-telling Grand Central is entertaining, easy to read and accomplishes Roberts’ goal to share the story of the station and its success on its 100th anniversary.

Though not exhaustive, Roberts’ history is inspiring and brings the station to life in a new way. His narrative is laced with anecdotes about the people who shaped the station from inception to preservation and the people whose lives were subsequently shaped by the palatial Beaux Arts beauty.  These stories bring heart to the 35,000 square feet of marble, shops, waiting rooms, restaurants, etc. that make up the station.  This book also celebrates pioneering efforts in engineering, architecture, urban planning and preservation, which created and reshaped Grand Central Station. It pays due credit to a building that re-shaped NYC, the United States and made such an indelible imprint in US pop culture.  Again, this is not a definitive work, but if you are looking for a celebration of this remarkable piece of architecture and history, this is it. Churchill, ever eloquent, could not have been more right.

Grand Central Publishing/$30

Oyster

The Oyster Bar is the station’s longest tenant. It opened in 1913. Its distinctive vaulted ceiling was designed and constructed by Guastavino. Image via Dividing Moments

Check back at Bricks + Mortar later in the week for some Fun Facts about Grand Central! Who knows, maybe it will help you win pub trivia!

 

A special thanks to Kevin Henry for letting me borrow his copy of Grand Central (and for letting me hold it hostage for so long)!

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2 comments

  1. Pingback: A Few Fun Facts from Sam Roberts’ Grand Central | Bricks + Mortar
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