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.
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.
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.
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
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)!
A weekly round-up of my favorite preservation related stories from around the web and in the news. Click on the title of each story to jump through to the original article/blog post.
In the wake of the Supreme Court’s historic decision this week, the NYT briefly profiles some of NYC’s gay landmarks. “… [S]ocial landmarks don’t make their significance readily apparent. A bit of context is often needed to appreciate the triumphs, disasters and dramas that have played out in these buildings. The Gay Pride Month 2013 guide (PDF) prepared by Christopher Brazee, Gale Harris and Jay Shockley of the Landmarks Preservation Commission is an engaging reminder that buildings can breathe with life to those who know something about them. ”
Six Reasons Why More Americans Should Care About Saving Old Homes – Preservation Journey
Six quick and dirty reasons why we should care about saving old homes.
What Happens To An Olympic City After The Olympics? – The Picture Show
Jon Pack and Gary Hustwit are documenting former Olympic cities. “We’re not for or against the Olympics,” says Hustwit. “We wanted to see how all of this development has been integrated into the cities — or not. And to look at the idea of planning … for the legacy of these facilities.” The slide show offers 16 new images, a sort of “where are they now,” of Olympic facilities. If you are interested in learning more about the impact of the Olympics on cities, check out this Bricks + Mortar series from earlier in the year.
“Out in Alaska’s Bering Sea, about 90 miles from Nome, sits a small, rocky island that used to be home to a couple of hundred Inupiat Eskimos. They lived in houses built on stilts, perched on rocky cliffs. Then, about 50 years ago, the threat of rock slides, the spread of tuberculosis and the loss of men to World War II forced residents to relocate to the mainland. King Island has been a ghost island ever since. Now, Anchorage poet Joan Naviyuk Kane has raised almost $50,000 through to bring a group of former King Islanders and their descendants, including herself, back for a visit. Kane has written two books of poetry, which both deal with issues of displacement and cultural identity, and is currently working on a novel based on the 1971 Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act.” Place and cultural identity are often wrapped up together and are common issues for preservationists.
Heritage Preservation Brings $1B to Utah Economy – Herald Extra
“Heritage and history are a billion-dollar business in Utah, according to a new study. Heritage tourism has brought more than $1 billion to Utah’s coffers, with $717 million in direct and indirect spending by visitors to heritage sites and special events; and another $350 million in invested taxpayer funds that stayed in Utah rather than being sent to Washington because of projects that used the Federal Rehabilitation Tax Credit.”